Rawlings Sporting Goods Co. Inc. has been in baseball's major leagues for many years. But when it comes to batting helmets, the company just got called up to the big leagues this spring, thanks to its purchase of ABC Helmet Co., a 51-year-old company founded by baseball innovator Branch Rickey.
Rawlings is bringing the helmet molding work back to the United States from Mexico, said Stephen O'Hara, chief executive officer of the St. Louis-based sports equipment giant.
Rawlings has supplied gloves and bats to ballplayers for years. Since 1977, Rawlings has been the exclusive supplier of balls to major league baseball.
But not helmets. Although Rawlings is the dominant helmet supplier to college baseball, it was shut out from major league baseball by tiny ABC Helmet of Flower Mound, Texas.
On April 30, Rawlings announced it was buying ABC Helmet. Terms were not disclosed.
``Our acquisition of ABC allows Rawlings to increase the breadth of our 30-year relationship with major league baseball,'' O'Hara said.
In recent years, ABC had been outsourcing the helmet molding to Mexico, said O'Hara. But he said Rawlings was moving the pro-ball helmet molds to its factory west of St. Louis, in Washington, Mo., where the company has six injection molding machines.
Rawlings officials did not provide technical details. O'Hara said the company has used ABS and polycarbonate to make the helmets.
Rawlings has extended ABC Helmet's exclusive supplier contract with Major League Baseball Properties through 2008, together with Rawlings' contract to use the logos for all 30 teams on retail batting helmets. Rawlings also bought ABC's inventory.
But Rawlings did not just grab a high-profile market of star athletes. It bought a piece of sports history started by Rickey, a baseball legend.
For decades, the batting helmet has protected the noggins of anyone who ever stood in the batter's box as a pitcher bears down hard - from the majors to Little League to girls' fast-pitch softball. This year, a Salomon Torres fastball, high and tight, struck Sammy Sosa so hard it broke his batting helmet. Sosa walked away. ``The helmet saved me,'' he said after the game.
Coincidentally, the Sosa beaning happened in Pittsburgh, where the modern baseball helmet was popularized.
New York Giants catcher Roger Bresnahan was the first major leaguer to wear a helmet, way back in 1905, and a Brooklyn player used headgear during the 1939 and 1940 seasons, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. But until the 1950s nearly all players still faced the pitcher with just their soft ball caps.
Remarkably, only one major league player ever has been killed by a bean ball. In 1920, Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians died in surgery the day after getting hit by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays.
Branch Rickey remembered that tragedy. He also knew of at least five minor leaguers who have been killed by pitched balls. Even if a hitter recovered, he never approached home plate the same way again, Rickey said.
As general manager and co-owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey is best known for signing the first black major leaguer of the modern era, Jackie Robinson, in 1946.
His place in the history of the batting helmet came later, after he moved to Pittsburgh in 1951 to serve as general manager of the Pirates. He worked with inventor Ralph Davia and designer Ed Crick on developing a hard, molded shell with a visor and protective padding inside.
Selling shares to family and friends, Rickey formed American Baseball Cap Inc. (later renamed ABC) in his small office at Forbes Field. In 1952, hitters in the Pirates big leagues and farm teams began wearing Rickey's ``caps.'' Rickey ordered Pirate batters to use helmets the following season.
At first, Molded Fiber Glass Inc. of Ashtabula, Ohio, compression molded the ``bean-ball bonnets'' from glass-fiber-reinforced polyester. Even though everyone in the Pirates system wore the helmet, it was slow to catch on with other teams. Some players thought it was a sissy invention. But then Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson began wearing helmets. As a rookie, Reese had been seriously beaned. In 1954, Reese and Robinson visited Joe Adcock of the Milwaukee Braves, who was resting in the hospital after a beaning. He credited his shattered helmet with saving his life.
Finally in 1955, National League President Warren Giles ordered all players to wear protective headgear. The American League followed the next year.
American Baseball Cap continued to innovate. In the early 1960s, new helmet models featured earflaps for added protection.
The company rolled out a Little League version. In 1964, the company introduced an injection molded helmet.
ABC President Robert Wolfe, who is Branch Rickey's grandson, joined Rawlings' management team after the deal was completed.
Rawlings is a subsidiary of K2 Inc., a publicly traded sporting goods company that also makes fishing poles under the Shakespeare brand, K2 bikes, snowboards, skies, inline skates and products for water sports.
K2 said the ABC deal would not have any material effect on sales or earnings in 2003.
But now, for the first time, helmets made by Rawlings will have a big effect on major leaguers that face fastballs, fired like a rocket, all summer long.