Today’s post is written by archivist David Pfeiffer
Yes, spring is here. Major League Baseball’s opening day is Monday, April 6. Finally. It has been a long cold winter. As Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby once said “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” In light of this, let’s talk about some baseball records at the National Archives.
In the records of the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO, Record Group 241) there are several invention patents relating to baseball, such as the patents for the baseball bat, glove, catcher’s mask, and the baseball itself. John A. Hillerich of Louisville, Kentucky, applied for and received many patents for the baseball bat. Hillerich was the owner of J. F. Hillerich and Sons, later to become Hillerich & Bradsby Company, manufacturer of the famous Louisville Slugger bats. One application, dated October 31, 1902 (Patent #716,541) for improvements in baseball bats involved the hardening of the surface of the bat. The purpose of this application was to promote the batter’s ability to drive the ball for more distance, to preserve the body of the bat from chipping and splintering easily and finally to improve the finish and appearance of the bat. This invention was patented on December 23, 1902.
Another of Hillerich’s patent applications, dated June 8, 1904, declared as its objective to decrease the hitting of foul balls by the batter and to increase the number of fair balls hit (Patent #771,247, patented on October 4, 1904). Hillerich proposed modifying the hitting surface of the bat with regular indentations.
Other famous names appear in invention patents. George A. Rawlings, owner of a well-known sporting goods store in St. Louis and later manufacturer of a line of sporting goods, invented improvements in the baseball glove. In an application, patented on September 8, 1885 (Patent #325,968), Rawlings proposed the use of padding in the fingers, thumb, and the palm of the gloves for the “prevention of the bruising of the hands when catching the ball.” The felt/rubber combination in the padding provided for increased flexibility and thus improved protection from bruising.
Benjamin F. Shibe, one of the original owners of the Philadelphia Athletics and the person after which Shibe Park in Philadelphia was named, patented on February 27, 1883, an improvement to the baseball itself (Patent #272,984). By carefully combining the ingredients of yarn, India-rubber, and cement, Shibe claimed that his invention would better maintain the spherical shape of the ball even after repeated hits by baseball bats. Part of the improvements involved the tighter winding of the yarn and integrating the yarn in the cement to maintain the integrity of the sphere.
An improvement to the catcher’s mask was patented by Alexander K. Schaap, of Richmond, Virginia, on October 23, 1883 (Patent #287,331). Because catchers had difficulty removing their masks when a foul ball above the plate was hit, Schaap added a hinge to the upper part of the mask.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre baseball-related inventions was the invention of the “baseball catcher” by James E. Bennett (Patent #755,209), patented on March 22, 1904. This contraption basically replaced the catcher’s mitt with a wire cage placed on the catcher’s chest. The object of the invention was to protect the catcher’s hands so that the hands would not come in contact with the ball until it was time to throw it back to the pitcher.
The invention was a rectangular open-wire frame body reinforced by slotted walls of wood. The impact of the ball on the catcher’s chest is protected by springs on the rear wall of the device. After the ball has passed through the open front end, it closes automatically. At the bottom of the device is an opening where the ball passes into a pocket where it is retrieved by the catcher. The device also includes a wire mesh on the top to protect the catcher’s face. The patent drawings do an excellent job of illustrating this device.
All 89,000+ linear feet of the Patent Case Files that are in the custody of the National Archives are now at the Lenexa, Kansas, records storage facility. The records transfer from the National Archives in College Park, MD (Archives II) began in 2007 and was completed in 2012. The National Archives in Kansas City does the reference on these records. With the PTO now transferring the files from the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, MD directly to Lenexa, there are over three million case files at that facility, dating from 1836 to after 1968.
A good place to start research in these records is Google Patents online. Google Patents will give you the patent drawings, specifications, and possibly claims.