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Lot # 1196 (of 1560)   < Previous Lot | Next Lot >

Circa 1880 Deacon White Catcher's Mask - First Professional Catcher To Ever Wear a Mask

Starting Bid - $5,000, Sold For - $9,400

This historically important catcher's mask was worn by Deacon White during the 1880s and originates directly from White's great-grandson, Roger Watkins, who has provided a one-page signed letter attesting to its provenance. Any and all nineteenth century game-used equipment is exceedingly rare, let alone examples that can be attributed to a specific player. What makes this particular piece even more significant is the fact that not only was White the first professional catcher to use a mask, but he also improved on its design. Ideally, the mask is accompanied by a circa 1920s newspaper clipping in which White recalls, first hand, how he was introduced to the new invention. In part:

One day during the season of 1875 at Boston, the papers announced that "The man with the iron mask would play a game of baseball for Harvard." Harry Wright asked me to go out with him and see the demonstration. A fellow named Fred Thayer, third baseman for Harvard, had made a big cage, much like a bird's cage, out of heavy iron wire. This the Harvard catcher, Jim Tyng, wore during the game. "What do you think of it?" Harry asked me. Well I told him such a mask hindered a catcher's work but I believe one could be made which would prove satisfactory. "Make one the way you think it should be made" he ordered. So I went to an iron worker in Boston and had him make me a mask out of steel wire. It fit over my face only, with padding around it, and was held on with elastic bands. This I used in catching Spalding for two seasons after that, and it came in handy when I went up behind the plate to catch my brother in 1878.

While we cannot state with certainty that the offered "spider-style" mask is the one referenced by White in the article, it may very well be and it is without question certainly one of the earliest examples in existence. Consisting of a network of strong metal wires, the mask features five separate pieces of leather padding, each affixed to the framework by its original metal fasteners. Three pieces of padding display additional reinforcement by means of vintage metal wire. No form of head strap is present. The mask displays heavy wear throughout, including numerous cracks and tears to each of the leather pads, but with no breaks to the framework. According to Watkins, this mask was found together with many other baseball items belonging to his grandfather: My great grandfather, James "Deacon" White, was a professional baseball player in the 19th century, playing for several teams in the 1860s-80s including the Cleveland Forest Citys, Boston Red Stockings, and Detroit Wolverines. Before she died, my grandmother, Grace White, brought a box full of Deacon's things to our house. We put the box in a closet where it remained unopened for many years. This spider style catcher's mask originates directly from Deacon White's personal collection.

Watkins eventually sold this mask, as well as all of Deacon White's personal possessions (consisting of numerous photos, letters, awards, equipment, and other baseball-related materials) at public auction in 2006, where it realized a final sale price of $15,500. It was purchased at that auction by our consignor and has been in his possession since that time. The level of use and provenance make it a virtual certainty that this mask was worn by White during his career. Although its exact years of use are unknown, it is also a virtual certainly that it dates prior to 1884, for it was in that year that White gave up his catching duties and moved to third base. Although he also saw action at a few other positions, there are no records of him appearing as a catcher in any official league games after 1884. He retired in 1890 at the age of forty-three. Considering that White stopped catching in 1884 and that the catcher's mask did not become popular until the 1880s, these facts all alone define this mask as one of the earliest known examples. The fact that a catcher's mask was an expensive and durable piece of equipment that was not often replaced suggests that this mask was probably used for many years, and may have even been the only mask used by White during his entire career. This mask is also one of only a few pieces of nineteenth-century baseball equipment that can be definitively attributed to a specific player. The fact that that player is Deacon White, the man who introduced the "iron mask" to professional baseball and was the first professional to ever wear a catcher's mask, makes this one of the most important of all nineteenth-century baseball equipment artifacts in existence.

Deacon White was one of the game's top players during the early years of professional baseball. Considered the finest bare-handed catcher of his day, he began his career as a member of Cleveland's entry in the National Association in 1871. In 1873 he joined Harry Wright's Boston Red Stockings, where he was known as one of baseball's "Big Four" along with Al Spalding, Ross Barnes, and Cal McVey. White led Boston to three consecutive pennants before joining Chicago in the newly formed National League. He later played with Cincinnati (where he formed a battery with his brother Will), Buffalo, Detroit, and Pittsburgh of the National League, and Buffalo (of which he was part owner) of the Players League. It was during his tenure with Buffalo (which later became Detroit) that White teamed with Dan Brouthers, Hardy Richardson, and Jack Rowe to make up baseball's second "Big Four." White led the American Association in batting with a .366 average in 1875. Two years later, in 1877, his .387 mark was tops in the National League. He also led the National League in RBI in both 1876 (60) and 1877 (49). White retired after the 1890 season with a .303 lifetime average. In addition to his individual achievements, White is also remembered for his innovations with regard to the catching position. White was not only the first professional catcher to wear a mask, but also the first to wear a glove and the first to stand directly behind the batter with no one on base. Given all of his many contributions to the game, it would not be surprising if he is someday elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, an honor which, in our opinion, seems to be long overdue. Reserve $5,000. Estimate (open). SOLD FOR $9,400

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