MLB Umpire Head Injury: Mask vs. Helmet Debate and the Value of Tradition

Gil Imber@RefereeOrganistAnalyst IIJune 24, 2012

Mask or helmet? For many umpires, a risky choice.
Mask or helmet? For many umpires, a risky choice.Rob Carr/Getty Images

Umpires, we have a dangerous concussion epidemic on our hands—heads.

Earlier this week, MLB umpire Chad Fairchild took a 95-mile-per-hour sinker from Rockies pitcher Jeremy Guthrie to the center of his protective face mask, suffering a concussion that resulted in his withdrawal from the weekend's Rockies-Phillies series.

Like most players and other officials, Fairchild toughed it out after his seventh-inning head-shot, sticking around for the remainder of Colorado's walk-off loss to Philly. 

After the game, manager Jim Tracy admitted that sophomore catcher Wilin Rosario had been crossed up: "He was looking for one pitch and another one showed up." The corresponding missed catch resulted in the direct shot to Fairchild's mask and a stern lecture from crew chief Tom Hallion, who instructed Rosario, "You've got to catch that ball."

With no glove and standard officiating practice requiring plate umpires to remain in position for the duration of each pitch, umpires are utterly defenseless and at the mercy of the catcher, pitcher and even batter. Whether by accident or on purpose, the risk of umpire injury behind home plate is real and, many times, scary.

On Friday, Jerry Layne took a broken bat to the side of the head while working the plate at Great American Ball Park, resulting in his immediate removal from the contest and his absence for the remainder of the Twins-Reds series. As the sheared barrel careened into the side of Layne's face mask and head, it became painfully clear that full-head coverage may have afforded a degree of protection for that side-shot.

Enter the traditional mask vs. hockey-style helmet debate.

A row of traditional umpire masks at the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring.
A row of traditional umpire masks at the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring.Al Bello/Getty Images

The traditional umpires' mask is a lightweight piece of equipment that fits over the top of a shortened bill of the cap and may be tightened so as to snugly fit around the umpire's face. The traditional mask came into use in the early 1900s and the general design has remained fairly constant ever since—the mask still encloses the umpire's face, but not the sides of the head.

The hockey-style helmet or mask (HSM) is a more recent technological advancement, though as this 2005 editorial points out, an umpire wearing an HSM stands out on a ballfield and not necessarily in a positive way.

There is a certain stigma attached to defying tradition for new-age technology—look no further than the instant replay debate—and there are arguments to be made for both keeping and ditching the traditional face mask for the HSM.

According to David Halstead, technical director for the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, the best thing an umpire can do to protect against concussion and traumatic head injury is to wear a hockey-style helmet as opposed to a traditional mask:

For impacts to the face, the hockey-style mask is significantly superior to the traditional catcher’s headgear combination. The NOCSAE standard includes impact from the ball and from the bat. Traditional masks meet the ball standard, but aren’t as safe with the bat impact. For umpires to be the safest, they should buy a black catcher’s hockey-style mask because it will have been certified by NOCSAE.

This bat vs. ball standard difference may be unique to a wood-bat league, such as MLB, where it previously manifested in June of 2008.

During the June 25 Rockies-Royals game, plate umpire Brian O'Nora—who wears a traditional mask—was struck on the side of his head by a broken bat, opening up a significant gash. Had O'Nora been wearing the HSM, the helmet likely would have prevented the bat from directly contacting the arbiter's cap-protected scalp.

At Dodger Stadium in 2008, umpire Kerwin Danley was knocked unconscious and transported off the field by ambulance after taking a 96-mile-per-hour fastball to the jaw, the Brad Penny offering traveling directly into Danley's face after barely grazing catcher Russell Martin's glove. At the time, Danley wore a traditional face mask.

After his Dodger Stadium injury, umpire Kerwin Danley switched from the traditional mask to the hockey-style covering.
After his Dodger Stadium injury, umpire Kerwin Danley switched from the traditional mask to the hockey-style covering.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

When he returned to baseball, Danley was donning an HSM.

Nonetheless and no matter how advanced the equipment, no helmet nor mask can fully prevent concussion or other head trauma.

In 2009, Danley was once again struck in the head, this time by two points of Hank Blalock's broken bat. After falling to the ground and partially due to his history of head injury, Danley was again placed on a stretcher and driven off the field and to a local hospital.  

That same season, umpire Ed Hickox suffered a concussion while wearing a hockey-style helmet during an Indians' 22-4 blowout win at Yankee Stadium.

Hickox, who already won a $775,000 award from Wilson Sporting Goods for damages suffered from his use of an allegedly defective face mask, filed another lawsuit against Wilson for manufacturing a faulty helmet that "cracked into pieces on impact and didn't protect an umpire in the way it was reportedly designed to do."

At present, conflicting reports—scientific and anecdotal alike—have alternately favored both styles of headgear, though USA Today previously concluded, "Not enough data is available to show if the hockey-style masks some umps wear are better than traditional masks."

Medical consultant for MLB umpires Stephen Erickson, MD, explained the concept of a concussion-proof helmet: "It would stick out about three feet on all sides."

The only thing for certain in the mask vs. HSM debate is that helmets offer a layer of protection across the entire head, whereas traditional masks cover just the jaw, face and anterior scalp.

Both devices offer some degree of protection from projectiles striking the front of an umpire's head, but only the HSM offers a degree of protection from lateral, aerial or posterior assaults.

When it comes to the issue of how to distribute up to 2,400 pounds of fastball force, the argument becomes quite significant.

For many umpires, the decision is all about baseball tradition.
For many umpires, the decision is all about baseball tradition.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

For umpires, the decision to don the face mask or HSM comes down to ancestral comfort vs. comprehensive security, tradition and familiarity vs. protection against the freak, one-in-1,000 accident.

According to an Umpire Ejection Fantasy League survey, over three times as many professional and amateur umpire respondents indicated they wear traditional masks as opposed to HSMs.

Interestingly enough, of the non-umpires who responded to the survey, nearly 60 percent indicated that if they decided to learn the craft, they would choose an HSM over a traditional mask.

For umpires who grew up learning and using the smaller face mask, the habit is all too strong to break. After all, what are the chances of a one-in-1,000 event happening to you? 

Yet as crew chief Dana DeMuth declared after Danley's one-in-1,000 broken-bat injury in 2009, "That's why he has the [HSM] helmet he has. That gives him the extra protection. That's a very good helmet to have, it's just very uncomfortable. But when you've got a delicate head and you've had head injuries before, it's one of the best things to have." 

Gil Imber is Bleacher Report's Rules Featured Columnist and owner of Close Call Sports, a website dedicated to the objective and fair analysis of close or controversial calls in sports.