These seven patents showcase some of the strangest inventions in baseball history
For decades, pitchers were required by rule to throw underhand. Until 1864, fly balls could legally be caught off one bounce. It took a long, long time for baseball to become the game we know and love -- years and years full of trial and error and all manner of detours.
And that's every bit as true of the equipment used on the field. Once upon a time, everything was open to negotiation -- from gloves to bats to the baseballs themselves. While that negotiation eventually led to the game we watch today, it also produced a whole lot of very weird ideas. And so, in honor of the brave innovators who sought to #disrupt the big leagues in all sorts of ridiculous ways, we present seven of the very weirdest baseball-related patents ever.
(And if you'd like to play along yourself, feel free to poke around the U.S. Patent Office's database.)
"Baseball cap with interchangeable logos" (Richard C. Soegel, 1996)
Everybody has their favorite team -- the one you grew up with, the one that you'll be loyal to forever. But what if your heart is big enough for two teams? What if your favorite team has been eliminated, and you want to devote yourself to another cause for the rest of the season? Well, then this hat is for you:
The idea is simple: Per Soegel's patent application, it's "a baseball cap configured to permit different logos to be interchangeably positioned on the cap." The logos themselves are outfitted with a hook fastener to allow for easy removal and application -- if you'd like your Yankee cap to suddenly morph into a Rangers cap, just take one logo off and swap another on.
"Base-ball catcher" (James Bennett, 1904)
Catcher has always been a rough occupation, but it was even more brutal in baseball's early years. Catchers initially wore no real equipment at all: They were conceived as glorified backstops, standing far away from the batter and simply concentrating on preventing each pitch from rolling away.
But as the game evolved and more and more pitchers began throwing overhand (and as the National League instituted a rule change mandating that third strikes must be caught on the fly) catchers crept closer and closer to home plate. By 1901, the NL had ruled that "catcher must stand within the lines of his position whenever the pitcher delivers the ball and within ten feet of the home base."
Still, catching equipment hadn't caught up to the new demands of the position. Which is where James Bennett comes in:
In 1904, Bennett thought he had the solution for all of the catcher's problems. He'd devised a wire cage, worn on the chest in lieu of a glove, which would catch each pitch and protect the catcher's hands until he had to throw the ball back to the pitcher.
As you can see from the diagram above, it was quite the contraption: The cage was reinforced on all sides with wood, and springs at the back protected the catcher's chest from the blow of each pitch. Once the ball passed through the open front end, it closed automatically, and an opening at the bottom of the cage would drop the ball into the catcher's hands.
"Base-ball base" (John C. O'Neill, 1875)
First-base umpires have a pretty tough job. They have to keep their eye on both the foot of a fast-moving runner and small white ball being whipped around the infield, and sometimes their margin for error is razor thin.
Which is why umpiring clinics have long taught prospective umps to make calls using their ears rather than their eyes -- listening to determine whether the sound of foot hitting bag beats the sound of ball hitting glove. And it's also why, back in 1875, John C. O'Neill came up with a new idea for a baseball base: Put a bell inside of it.
The moment the base was touched by a runner, the bell would sound, providing clear evidence to help the umpire make his call. As O'Neill explained: "In place of the bell mechanism, a sounding whistle, electrical connection, or any other suitable enunciating device may be employed, which indicates clearly and positively, without chance of error, the exact moment when the base is touched by the runner, so as to form a very useful and reliable device for base-ball players."
Who needs video replay?
"Ball bat" (Emile Kinst, 1890)
Unlike a lot of aspects of the game, the baseball bat has remained relatively unchanged since the 19th century. There have been tweaks over the years, of course -- sporting goods giant and one-time big leaguer Al Spalding once devised a "mushroom bat," whose heavy knob better balanced weight throughout the bat -- but even then, the broader idea remained the same.
And then there was this bad boy, dreamt up by Chicago inventor Emile Kinst in 1890:
Why the giant curve? To put greater spin on batted balls, as Kinst explained: "The object of my invention is to provide a ball-bat which shall produce a rotary or spinning motion of the ball in its flight to a higher degree than is possible with any present known form of ball-bat, and thus to make it more difficult to catch the ball."
Remember: Back in 1890, baseball gloves still weren't universally accepted, so a ball spinning more quickly would be far more difficult for fielders to corral. Alas, Kinst's idea never caught on -- but some were put into production.
"Playing ball" (Thomas W. Casey, 1943)
There's not much context to add here. In 1939, Thomas Casey applied for a patent for his new baseball, believing that it would be a big hit with young kids. In 1943, his patent was granted, and the world was blessed with the following:
Sadly, the face did not have a name, but we're confident that it will live on in your nightmares all the same.
"Electric base-ball register" (John M. Humphreys, 1903)
Most baseball patents are simply oddities, little detours lost to history. John Humphreys' idea, though, was straight out of a sci-fi novel. Just look at it:
Humphreys, like O'Neill before him, wanted to come up with a way to remove what he viewed as the game's "great defect -- to wit, that of undecided events and close decisions by the umpire as to base-hits, runs and putouts, so that by mere partiality the umpire is often enabled to practically decide the game."
Rather than anything so primitive as a bell in a base, though, he had a much grander idea: an entire electric signal system. His invention would include a series of circuits set up across the infield that would send electric currents whenever a fielder had caught a ball or retired a baserunner. There was some serious engineering involved:
Unsurprisingly, Humphreys' system was a bit too convoluted to ever gain widespread popularity -- it involved fielders standing on a pair of metal plates near each base, for starters. But hey, we have knuckleball-tossing robots now, so who knows what's possible.
"Base-ball umpire's tally" (Robert Robyn, 1888)
These days, count indicators are ubiquitous on the diamond. It can be hard to count the hundreds of balls and strikes during the course of a game, as even the very best players will tell you.
In the late 19th century, though, they were a relatively novel idea -- early baseball was primarily an offensive and defensive exhibition, after all, with the pitcher mainly focused on allowing the ball to be put in play. (Until 1887, batters were even allowed to dictate the strike zone.)
But with the advent of sidearmed and then overhand pitching and a regular, fixed strike zone, umpires needed a way to keep track of the count -- and Robert Robyn's device did just that:
It was a simple construction: Two wires, one that ran the length of the umpire's hand and one that wrapped around one of his fingers. On the long wire were several tiles, which could be slid back and forth to mark balls and strikes.