By Marty Appel
During his playing career of 1897-1915, most baseball people and fans thought Roger Bresnahan was a native of Ireland, and his nickname – The Duke of Tralee – spoke to that.
It was a golden age for the Irish in baseball, and he would have been the only one who was truly born there. Alas, while his parents came from County Kerry, Roger was born in Toledo, Ohio.
He was happy with the myth though, because he enjoyed the nickname, and felt it honored his parents. But there was no question about Bresnahan’s most lasting impact on the game. As one of the innovators of the modern shin guard, his mark on baseball remains evident almost 100 years after his retirement.
In the 19th and the early part of the 20th centuries, catchers would protect themselves from errant pitches and foul tips by stuffing various forms of protection into their heavy wool socks – sometimes, nothing more than a double layer of socks. The use of an outer protection seemed quite “cricket like” at a time when baseball was distancing itself from its British relation, and adopting such a cricket-looking device would only bring forth ridicule and jeering.
Still, foul tips hurt. And if opposing players laughed when a catcher doubled over in pain, that was one comedic part of the game that could be attended to.
British goalkeepers had been using shin guards since 1874, when a club player named Samuel Widdowson first donned them. Still, Americans resisted, even with the capability to design and implement a pair. Some in the game claimed they were dangerous to sliding runners and should be banned.
By 1907, Bresnahan had attained enough stature in the National League where he could take the big step with minimum ridicule. He had attained stardom as catcher for Joe McGinnity and Christy Mathewson and as a key member of the mighty New York Giants lineup. And so that year he wore outer guards for the first time – and baseball has never looked back. His bold introduction of the leather innovation, fastened with straps and hooks, was imbedded into the way we know the game. He also helped suggest improvements to the mask, and even an early introduction of a cap liner when at bat, which did not prove popular.
Bresnahan had started his pro career as a pitcher, with little notoriety or success. With the birth of the American League in 1901, he signed with the Baltimore Orioles, managed by John McGraw. By July 1902, he, McGraw, McGinnity, and others left the Orioles and went to the National League’s New York Giants. (The Orioles limped to the end of the season, folded, and had their place in the league taken the following year by the franchise that would be the New York Yankees.)
With Bresnahan catching, the Giants finished first in 1904 and 1905, and won the World Series in ’05 with Roger catching three Mathewson shutouts and a fourth by McGinnity.
In 1909, McGraw arranged for Roger to take his shin guards to St. Louis (as a player-manager). He finished his career with the Cubs in similar fashion (1913-1915) before retiring.
The Duke of Tralee died in 1944 and was part of the 1945 Hall of Fame induction class. A pair of his shin guards is now part of the Hall of Fame’s collection, further immortalizing his contributions to the National Pastime.