Back in the day, Major League catchers used to wear a backwards helmet with a separate mask strapped to it.
The beginning of the end of those masks was September 13, 1996 in Toronto, when Charlie O’Brien introduced the hockey goalie-style catcher’s mask.
Remember that guy?
Charlie O’Brien was born May 1, 1960 in Tulsa, OK. He was originally drafted in 1978 out of Bishop Kelley (Tulsa) High School by the Rangers in the 14th round, then again out of Wichita State in the 21st round in 1981 by the Mariners (that same year his college teammate Joe Carter was taken in the 1st round by the Cubs). Finally, O’Brien signed after being selected by the A’s in the 5th round in 1982, following a dynamic .359/.399/.659 season with 25 HR and 116 RBI in 87 games.
O’Brien worked his way through the minors, reaching Triple-A Tacoma in 1984 and earning a 16-game trial with the Oakland A’s in June 1985. He caught the final inning of a 10-1 loss on June 2 in his MLB debut in Baltimore, and eventually collected his first MLB hit – a double off the Tigers’ Frank Tanana – on August 22, his first career start. With a couple of young catchers in Mickey Tettleton & Terry Steinbach blocking his path to the Majors, O’Brien was shipped from Oakland to Milwaukee in March 1986. He played well over the next two years in El Paso and Denver in the Brewers system, and he received another 10-game stint in the Majors in May 1987. O’Brien started 1988 back in Denver, but in June he was called up to the big club for good.
He served as backup catcher from Milwaukee to Queens (he was traded to the Mets in August 1990) to Atlanta (where he won a World Series in 1995) and Toronto, developing a reputation as a solid catcher. For his career, he threw out 37% of attempted base stealers, which is comfortably above the league average of 31%. He caught 13 pitchers who won Cy Young awards at some point, including a string of four in a row – Greg Maddux (1994-95), Pat Hentgen (1996) and Roger Clemens (1997).
Then there was that day in 1996 where he revolutionized catching, introducing the modern style of catcher’s mask. He got the idea for the mask while watching hockey, likely thinking about all the foul tips he took off the mask, wondering how to find a safer alternative. He worked with a few manufacturers and Major League Baseball to make the dream a reality.
In December 1997, O’Brien arrived in Chicago as a free agent signing by the White Sox. He collected three hits in the 1998 season opener, becoming the first White Sox catcher with three hits on opening day since Brian Downing in 1977. He only appeared in 57 games with the White Sox before a July 30 trade to the Angels, but he was with the Sox long enough to provide an important Chicago historical footnote. On June 6, 1998, O’Brien became the first White Sox player to hit a regular season home run at Wrigley Field. It came in the 6th inning off Kevin Tapani, and the two-run blast scored Magglio Ordoñez and gave the White Sox a 5-4 lead which they couldn’t hang onto, as they went on to lose 7-6.
In total, O’Brien played 800 games spread out over 15 seasons for eight teams. He hit .221 with 56 home runs in his career (and an additional homer in the 1995 NLCS), but his calling card was his solid defense, as well as being an innovator. His final MLB game was June 21, 2000 for the Expos in Montreal.
After his playing career, O’Brien (who wore No. 22 for most of his career) went on to own the Catch 22 Ranch in Northeastern Oklahoma, where he raises cattle and deer. Charlie and his ranch has been featured on the Pursuit Channel’s TV show “Deer Thugs.” An avid outdoorsman and hunter, he went on to form a company Charlie O’ Products, which sells hunting products. He also wrote a book The Cy Young Catcher along with co-author Doug Wedge, which chronicles his days in the Major Leagues.