Men have long shunned protective gear
Albert G. Spalding was a fine specimen of a man: 6-foot-1 with dark hair and a thick mustache. He was also a heck of a pitcher: 47 wins, 12 losses for the Chicago White Stockings in 1876.
That’s a lot of games. Most teams only had one pitcher. Unsurprisingly, Spalding’s hands were beat up with “severe bruises.”
So Spalding noticed that Boston first baseman, Charles C. Waite, wore something on his hand — a leather glove that matched his skin tone because he was “ashamed to wear it” and hoped fans wouldn’t notice. Men were aghast at the idea of protective equipment. In his 1911 book on baseball, Spalding notes the first catcher’s mask was ridiculed as “babyish” and “cowardly.”
Spurning personal protective equipment didn’t begin with COVID-19. When you look at the history of PPE, the current uproar over wearing cotton face masks is simple to understand: It’s a guy thing.
Men take risks. A 2012 National Institutes of Health study found that while toleration of risk has no affect on whether women working on farms wore PPE when spreading dangerous pesticides, it does affect whether men do. Men are prone to underestimate the hazard of any activity and to exaggerate the bother of safety measures, such as seat belts.
Masks are indeed a bother. Most protective devices are. They diminish the pleasure of an activity: motorcycle helmets and condoms, for instance. Women have an easier time trading comfort for safety: About 60% of women wear motorcycle helmets while barely half of male riders do.
Training helps. Men readily wear ear protection on gun ranges. Nobody mocks a shooter for earmuffs. Maybe it’s a naming issue. If only government officials dubbed masks “Razor Slim Compact Face Protectors,” available in “Punisher Black,” men wouldn’t be so skittish about wearing them. If only masks cost $200 and were sold in the Orvis catalog, men would line up.
Rules help. Flip through the 25 pages of the Chicago Police Department’s Uniform and Appearance Standards, the word
“MANDATORY” in all caps boldface appears just once. Not in telling officers how to cut their hair, but in requiring soft body armor, an echo of the decades when police unions fought bulletproof vests as expensive and uncomfortable.
In reality, PPE can be a boon to performance. Until 50 years ago, hockey goalies did not wear masks. Coaches forbade it, worried it would interfere with ability to see. Not until Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacque Plante, his face split open by a slap shot minutes into the first period on Nov. 1, 1959, returned to the ice after being stitched up wearing a mask. He refused to play otherwise. It helped that the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup that year. Goalies realized, once they didn’t have to worry about being maimed, they could drop to their knees and do a better job.
The media also helps. After Sports Illustrated ran its 1970 cover of Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigilaro, his left eye socket shattered by a pitch, suddenly batting helmets didn’t seem quite so wimpy.
The struggle continues. A man as broken as Donald Trump shrugs off science and opposed masks, nursing his fragile masculinity, even though it condemned his followers to death. When he finally broke down and wore a mask, months late, he had to first assemble a tableau of generals behind him, as backup. On cue, his enablers let out a cheer.
“I don’t wear face masks, but POTUS is the only man who can pull it off and still look intensely masculine,” fawned Republican congressional candidate K.W. Miller of Florida.
Nauseating. I don’t mean to indict all men. Many men are confident enough of their masculinity that they can do what a situation calls for — dance, nurture children, wear a mask.
A.G. Spalding wore a glove, and was relieved to find no one mocked him — out of respect, he believed.
“I had been playing so long and become so well known that the innovation seemed rather to evoke sympathy than hilarity,” he wrote.
Safety also is good for business. In 1876, with his brother Walter, Spalding opened America’s first sporting goods store, at 118 W. Randolph St., selling “all kinds of baseball goods.” Spalding gloves are sold today. Masks might also be a commonplace item someday. Better get used to them.
President Donald Trump refused to wear a mask for months when doing so would have saved American lives, Neil Steinberg writes. When he finally broke down, on July 11, he assembled a team of generals to stand behind him.
For the first century the game was played, baseball players didn’t routinely wear batting helmets. This 1970 Sports Illustrated cover of Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigilaro helped change that.