Thirty years ago this month, an odd sight began appearing in National League ballparks. It was the sight of the league's best player -- a player whose potent bat and massive physical presence already struck fear into the opposition -- looking even more intimidating than usual.
"He wanted to play again right away, so I knew I had to come up with something fast," recalls Tony Bartirome, who was the Pirates' trainer at the time. "If he'd had his way, he would have missed only four games."
Parker ultimately sat out a little over two weeks. But when he returned to action on July 16, something was different -- like, very different.
That photo is from Parker's first game back, when he pinch hit in the 11th inning while wearing a hockey goalie's mask. He was intentionally walked, leading to a macabre spectacle on the bases. The "Friday the 13th" movies didn't yet exist in 1978, but Parker was already perfecting the art of masked menace. It marked the beginning of a bizarre chapter in uniform history, a summerlong series of creative headgear experiments that had opposing teams asking, "Who was that masked man?"
Forget the eye black and a deadly stare ... the goalie mask is the most intimidating thing you can bring to the plate.
"We were real creative with it," says Parker, who divides his time these days between speaking engagements, autograph sessions and selling fried chicken. "We painted one side yellow, one side black. I'd put it on and then put my helmet on over it. The first time I wore it in batting practice, I was hitting balls in the second tier, third tier, so I used it in that first game. But I found it kind of prevented me from seeing some of the pitches, because of the way it was constructed, so we had to try something else."
"Something else," meant abandoning the hockey-based design and going in a football direction -- a convenient option, since the Pirates shared Three Rivers Stadium with the Steelers, whose equipment manager, Tony Parisi, was happy to help.
Parisi, now retired but still living in the Pittsburgh area, remembers the unusual request. "I told them we could put a football facemask on there," he says. "But it was a little tricky, because of the way a baseball helmet is structured. If you drill the holes crooked, any impact would crack the helmet."
His first solution was a two-bar faceguard (a Riddell 220, also known as the BD-9, for those keeping score at home), which was still common in the NFL at the time. But Parker didn't like it. "It was positioned too high," he says. "It was up in my eyes and affected my vision. I wanted something a little lower and wider."
Parker turned in the hockey mask for more of a Lando Calrissian undercover look.
So Parker appears to have been the first player to wear such a contraption in a big league game, although nobody seems to have grasped the historic implications at the time. "I didn't think nothing of it," says Parisi. "Now, of course, I wish I'd saved some of this stuff."
It's not clear if the Pirates got permission from the league office for Parker's assorted face masks, although everyone seems to agree that the umpires never objected. But that's not to say everyone was in love with Parker's new headgear. At 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, he was already a fearsome presence on the base paths, and at least one middle infielder wasn't thrilled about him having the additional advantage of facial armor.
"I thought I could get hurt at second base if that thing hit my knee or hit me some other place," recalls Joe Morgan, who played second base for the Reds at the time. "When we played them [in mid-August] and he got on base, I made a point of telling the umpires that I didn't want him wearing that mask sliding into second base, because Dave always came in very hard. I was never afraid of that, but if he hit me with that helmet, I thought it could hurt me. I told 'em that if I got hurt, I was gonna sue 'em all. I'd already had my knees hurt in a clean play, and I didn't want to get hurt by some makeshift thing."
So at Morgan's request, Parker traded in his mask-equipped helmet for a regular helmet after reaching base on a walk on Aug. 15. Then he took his lead off first -- loitering with intent, you might call it.
"It just so happened that the next batter hit a ball to the shortstop, Dave Concepcion, which is just what I was hoping would happen, because Morgan had to cover second for the double play," says Parker. He pauses, laughs, and adds, "Well, of course I tried to kill him, because of the complaining. He jumped up and started yelling, 'Did you see that? He tried to kill me, he tried to kill me!'"
Other players had issues with the facemask too. The following April, when Parker was still wearing the helmet/mask rig, he won a game by knocking the ball out of Expos catcher Gary Carter's glove at home plate. "Afterward," reported Sports Illustrated, "Parker claimed Carter had tried to hurt him by pouncing on him, shin guards first. Carter, who said he was merely trying to control the relay throw, injudiciously replied, 'Tell Parker to take off his helmet, and I'll ram the ball down his throat.'"
Parker -- who emphasizes that he "played the game hard but would never try to hurt someone" -- stopped wearing the mask early in the 1979 season. But other players soon followed his example and wore extra protection while recovering from facial injuries: Gary Roenicke in 1979, Ellis Valentine in 1980, and a steady trickle of others over the years, including Terry Steinbach, Charlie Hayes (who later wore a different design), David Justice, Kevin Seitzer, Terrence Long (here's a side view) and former collegiate star and Yankees farmhand Tony Roth (additional views here and here). In addition, many of today's high school baseball and softball players wear face guards on their helmets. Little Leaguers, too. So Parker's MVP season wasn't just a milestone for him -- it started a whole new branch on the baseball equipment tree.
Parker's career, incidentally, featured several other uni-notable details. During the late '70s, he wore white tape on his fingers ("To get a better feel for the bat," he says) and shoes ("It gave me a little more support, plus it looked cool"). When he wore batting gloves, they usually had has uni number inscribed in huge numerals, and in 1980 he added his nickname, "Cobra." And as noted in Uni Watch's recent survey of All-Star Game uniform oddities, the 1977 ASG found Parker wearing a Padres helmet and then a Reds helmet ("Mine must have gotten lost or stolen, I don't remember").
Other players have done similar things, of course. But thanks to that one pinch-hitting appearance 30 years ago, Parker is the only ballplayer ever to have worn an old-school goalie mask, a distinction he's likely to keep.
Three decades years later, former Pirates manager Chuck Tanner still remembers that day. "Nobody had ever done anything like that," he recalls. "So when he went up to the plate that first time with that hockey mask, people were buzzing in the stands and the guys on the other bench all stood up to get a better view. But I didn't care what he wore, as long as I could put him in the lineup."
(Extra-special thanks to Dan Hart, Sally O'Leary, Dave Arrigo, Dave Lockett, Jere Smith, and Rick Pearson, whose research contributions and logistical assistance made this column possible.)
Uni Watch's recent All-Star Game column prompted lots of good feedback. Without further ado:
• First, regarding the question of who was the first player to wear white shoes in the Midsummer Classic, several readers cited the Reds players of the early '70s. Due to the team's conservative dress code, they were required to wear plain black shoes during the regular season (no stripes, no maker's marks), so they apparently rebelled by wearing white spikes during the All-Star appearances. No photos yet, though.
• In addition, reader Mathew Dames says Bobby Bonds was one of several players wearing white spikes in the 1973 ASG. And Jim Joseph says, "All three of the Phillies who played in the 1974 All-Star Game wore white spikes, and then again at least in the first home series after the game. I know because I was at the first Sunday game they played after that All-Star Game (vs. the Pirates at the Vet), and I vividly remember Schmidt, Bowa, and Cash all wearing white shoes that day. That's the kind of thing you notice when you're eight years old and attending your second baseball game."
• You may recall that Uni Watch had been unable to find an explanation for Pete Rose wearing his BP jersey in the 1979 ASG. Here's one possibility, as submitted by reader Mike McGill: "I saw an interview with Rose at the time, and he said he took [pregame] practice in his game jersey and since it was soaked from the workout, he threw it in the dryer before the game. He said it was all wrinkled when he pulled it out, so he chose to wear the batting practice jersey instead of a wrinkled game jersey." The only problem with this account is that there are lots of pregame photos of Rose from the '79 ASG, and they all show him wearing his BP jersey. In fact, everyone else appears to have worked out in game jerseys, but not Rose. So the laundry story doesn't jibe.
• Great little story from Scott McConnell, who writes: "In the 2002 All-Star Game at Miller Park (the infamous tie game), Robin Yount and Ozzie Smith were named honorary captains, to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1982 World Series. They were given '82 throwback uniforms to wear. But Yount complained that the stripes on his throwback weren't accurate, so he elected to wear his regular Brewers uniform (he was a Brewers coach at the time). And since the throwback powder blue uni intended for Yount wasn't being used, Robin Ventura wore it during batting practice."
• And speaking of the 2002 ASG, check out this shot of Tony Batista from that game. See anything amiss? Neither did Uni Watch, until Joe Hickey pointed out the black piping on the placket, which the Orioles' road uniforms didn't have in 2002. Weird.
• And in case you missed it, there was also a Uni Watch moment in this year's All-Star Game. For details, look here.
And finally, on another matter, thanks to the hundreds of you who've submitted logo and uniform designs for the NBA's Oklahoma City franchise. If you haven't sent in your design yet, the deadline is tomorrow, so get crackin'. Winners will be announced in Uni Watch's next column.
Paul Lukas, like all Mets fans in 1978, was proud of how John Stearns blocked the plate against Dave Parker (especially since we didn't have much else to be proud of in those days). His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, his answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and his Page 2 archive is here. Want to learn about his Uni Watch membership program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.