The other day I saw that Major League Baseball plans to experiment with a special helmet for pitchers. This is in response to the very rare event of a batted ball hitting the pitcher in the head. The pictures of this thing suggest it is a weird contraption to have sitting on your head. Anyone who has worn a football or motorcycle helmet knows they are not very natural. This thing looks ridiculous in addition to probably being uncomfortable
I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think cricket bowlers wear a helmet. It seems to me that cricket bowlers would be more likely to take a ball off the head than baseball pitchers, but I’m not an expert on cricket. I’m just thinking that the Brits are way over the top with “elfin safety” compared to Americans so if they have not mandated helmets, there must be no risk. As I said, I could be wrong about cricket.
Thinking about it, the number of pitchers that get hit by batted balls is surprisingly small. I can recall a few ugly incidents, over many years of watching sports. If you do the math, there are about 80,000 balls hit by a batter that end up in play every season. In a given year, maybe one or two Major League pitchers get hit hard enough to be a concern. There are some years when it never happens so maybe the odds are 1-in-100,000.
As a point of comparison, there is a 1-in-700,000 chance of being struck by lightning on any given day. The odds of being struck in your lifetime is 1-in-3,000. No one, as far as I know, has been killed by a come backer in professional baseball. I’m sure it has happened somewhere in pickup games or youth leagues. The point being is that you should have a greater fear of lightning, if you are a baseball player.
In my youth playing sports, helmets for batters had been around for a while, but they were crude compared to today. As a catcher, I never wore a helmet, even though they were available, until I was in high school. They became mandatory at some point. They also improved the design around that time so it was not as big of a hassle. Even so, I caught a lot of baseball games and never took a hit to the head.
The fetish for safety is one of those strange things about the modern age that is hard for me to pin down. It’s irrational to make pitchers wear a helmet when they are at no real risk. At the same time, the people arguing for these things make the point that it does not cost anything to be careful in these cases. That’s not really true, but I can see why they think it is true. That and no one wants to see a ball player get seriously injured.
Still, there is something driving this that says something about modern mass media democracies. For the bulk of the 20th century, safety items for sports were rare. Everyone just assumed the risk and did not think much of it. Look at old hockey video and you see guys skating around without helmets, face guards or mouth protection. Goalies did not wear a helmet.
It was not just bat and ball sports. Look at the history of F1. There was a great documentary on the safety issues in the early days of Formula 1 a few years ago. Even if you don’t like car racing, it is a very interesting piece. The near total disregard for the safety of the drivers was just something everyone accepted for a long time. In fact, the danger was part of the appeal for fans.
In the case of F1, safety was forced on the sport by drivers. Guys getting killed every week simply became too much for even the bravest men. That’s an exception. In all other sports, safety is forced on the players. No ball players want to wear those goofy looking pitcher’s caps. Hockey players scrap the face guard as soon as the hit the professional ranks. Boxers would die in the ring if allowed.
Steve Pinker has documented the decline of human violence and the safety revolution probably fits in there somewhere. Violence declines as the respect for human life increases. The revolution in medicine that has extended healthy lives in the West probably means a corresponding spike in the respect for human life. When you’re lucky to make it past 30, blood sports don’t sound so bad. When you live to 80, taking care of yourself makes a lot of sense.
It’s not just sports either. Safety is a whole industry now. Walk around anywhere work is being done and you see all sorts of safety measures in place. Most of these are just in my lifetime. I’ll grant that much of it is driven by government meddling, but a fair bit is driven by a genuine concern for the safety of people in their daily lives. There’s no real push-back from employers and in many cases, the employers sponsor these measures.
There’s a limit to all of this. Safety has become something close to an obsession in the last half century. It’s not a bad thing, but the point of diminishing returns may be upon us, maybe behind us. If we’re down to making ball players wear strange head gear it means we have run out of serious safety concerns. That means the cost-benefit ratios will be turning the wrong way, if they have not already done so.