John Nelson’s photograph of a baseball game includes a catcher with face mask in the left foreground. NSHS RG3542:PH:097-12
The catcher’s mask in baseball was invented by Frederick W. Thayer, a Harvard baseball player, who once played the game in Omaha. He modified a fencing mask which enabled the catcher to move closer to home base and receive the ball without fear of being struck in the face. Thayer received a patent for his invention early in 1878. Later in the year, A. G. Spalding and Brothers Company, the leading American sporting goods dealer, began selling the Thayer Catcher’s Mask for $3. In 1883 Thayer sued Spalding for patent infringement, and Spalding was ultimately forced to pay royalties.
The Omaha Daily Bee on April 6, 1886, noted Thayer’s recent patent victory and recalled his baseball days in Omaha: “Old ball players in Omaha and lovers of the sport, who have watched the game for the last seven years, will remember the first professional nine organized in this city in the fall of 1879. . . . In two of the most important games played the nine was reinforced by a clerk from the B & M headquarters, Fred Thayer, whose brilliant fielding and tremendous batting elicited tumultuous applause from the audience. Thayer was the famous captain of the Harvard university nine of ’76 and ’77, and is now brought into prominence through being the winner of a heavy patent suit, involving the invention of the catchers’ masks.
“The Globe of Boston, tells the story as follows: No catcher thinks of playing behind the bat now without having his head encased in a mask. . . . Comparatively few people who are interested in the national game to-day, know that professionals owe this necessary implement of warfare to an amateur. It was conceived in the ingenious brain of a Harvard college student, who was one of the best players in his day, and probably as good a captain as the University nine ever had.
“In the winter of ’76 and ’77 the candidates for the Harvard nine were practicing as usual in the old round gymnasium, and Captain Fred Thayer was training them. Harold Ernst, the greatest pitcher the Harvard nine ever had until Nichols made his debut, was to do the pitching, and Jim Tyng was expected to catch him. Although straight arm pitching was still in vogue, Ernst had a remarkable swift delivery, and after awhile Tyng informed Captain Thayer that he would not catch such pitching unless he could have some contrivance to protect his face. . . . Various experiments were tried, and finally he [Thayer] completed a rude but satisfactory protection for Tyng’s phvsiognomy.”
This first catcher’s mask was “a cumbersome affair and resembled a fencing mask. . . . Before the mask came into use there was many a broken nose among the catchers, but now  the only injury is a slight cut from an occasional broken wire.”