The End of an Ear-a

When Gary Gaetti of the Red Sox announced his retirement last month, it wasn't exactly earthshaking news. Gaetti's numbers had been in steep decline for several years, and he'd been hitless in Boston's first 10 games. But Uni Watch took special note, because Gaetti's retirement ended more than just his career—it also closed the book on a little-noted uniform element: the earflapless batting helmet.

Earflap helmets have been mandatory in the majors since 1983, but rule book section 1.16(c) provides a grandfather exemption for players whose careers predate the edict. Not all players who qualify for the exemption have chosen to invoke it, however (Rickey Henderson and Harold Baines, for example, have always opted to wear the flap), and as of last season Gaetti and Tim Raines were the last two flapless holdouts. The flapless helmet's prospects looked dim in late March, when Raines retired and Gaetti was in danger of being released by the Sox. But the journeyman infielder ultimately won a spot on Boston's opening-day roster, thereby extending the flapless lookinto the new millennium, if only, as it turned out, for a few weeks.

Earflap helmets first appeared in youth baseball leagues in the early '60s, but pro players were slow to embrace the style. Earl Batty of the Twins created a makeshift flap by attaching a metal plate to the side of his batting helmet in 1963, but the first big leaguer to wear a true earflap was Tony Gonzales of the 1964 Phillies, who wanted some extra protection after having been hit by a pitch. The flap slowly gained popularity over the ensuing years, and by the '70s it had become commonplace.

While Gaetti was the last player to go flapless at the plate, flapless helmets can still be found elsewhere on the diamond: Seattle's John Olerud wears one in the field, and catchers wear them backward. Such ancillary applications notwithstanding, however, Gaetti's retirement brings the flapless era to a close. Uni Watch hereby moves that his last helmet be sent to Cooperstown.

 
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