When Jacques Plante, the former goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens, used the first practical goalie mask during a game he was considered a coward. He had previously been using one during practice. But when he took a game-time puck to the face, enough was enough. Plante refused, after getting stitched up, to go back on the ice without his mask. And being that hockey teams didn’t carry backup goalies in those days his coach had to allow it. Just like the baseball glove, which was also considered to be cowardly in its infancy, the goalie mask would go on to become a staple in hockey and many fewer teeth were lost. But one can only wonder if Plante ever had his creation in mind for a different sport, like, say, baseball.
Dave Parker: The Masked Man
From 1975 to 1979 there was no better ballplayer than Dave Parker. During that span, he hit .308 or better, averaged 23 home runs, 98 RBIs, 95 runs scored, and 17 stolen bases a season. He also led the NL in batting twice with a .338 average in ’77 and a .334 average in ’78. Not only was Parker unmatched at the plate he was also just as formidable in the field. He earned three gold gloves from ’77-’79. But for all of his accomplishments, one of the things he is remembered for is wearing a goalie mask during a game. So what was the greatest player of the late ’70s doing wearing a mask that made him look like Jason Voorhees?
June 30, 1978
The Pittsburgh Pirates were hosting the New York Mets for the second game of a three-game series. The Mets had had a lousy start to the year and the Pirates were fighting to break .500, which was a disappointing start for one of the better teams of the late ’70s. Going into the top of the ninth, the Pirates had a 3-2 lead. But the Mets had a four-run rally putting them ahead 6-3. The Pirates weren’t a team to lay down die. They answered with two of their own in the bottom of the ninth on a Parker triple to left. Parker was on third, representing the game-tying run, with one down and left fielder, Bill Robinson coming to the plate.
Robinson wasn’t necessarily considered a power hitter. But he did have pretty good pop and managed to get the ball in the air to right-center field. Although the question was, was it hit deep enough? Parker, who had good speed, tagged, and right fielder, Joel Youngblood threw a dart to Mets catcher, John Stearns. Pirates manager, Chuck Tanner‘s description of what happened next was that it “was like the Pennsylvania Railroad colliding with the B&O.” Parker came in head first and slammed into Stearns, who had played football in college. Stearns was knocked on his back but held onto the ball. Parker was called out and the game was over on a 9-2 double play.
I Got a Broken Face, Uh-uh, Uh-uh
Following the game, Parker needed stitches over his left eye. And the next day his eye was so swollen that he could barely see out of it. It turned out that Parker had fractured his left cheekbone. But regardless of the injury, he still wanted to play, telling his manager that he was the “toughest man in the world, I can see, so I can play.” But no matter how much he pleaded, the Pirates weren’t about to risk further injury to their best player. Parker was put on the IL until he was reactivated on July 16.
When he returned to the field for the first time since his injury he showed up wearing an odd accessory. And what was this bizarre retrofit? Well, a goalie mask of course. What better way to protect one’s face from hard objects than the tools of the netminder whose job it is to literally put their face in front of a hard object. Alas, the mask was not to stay, because Parker had a hard time seeing pitches while at the plate. Luckily there was a better-suited option from another sport, a football facemask attached to a baseball helmet.
And while it took a little time to get used to the mask (he started his return to the lineup with an 0-24 slump), Parker would go on to win the NL MVP in 1978. And while the goalie mask started out as cowardly in hockey, there was surely nobody that called Dave Parker cowardly for introducing it to baseball, even though it didn’t stick.
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