Observations From Cooperstown--Don't Call Him Four Eyes
by Bruce Markusen
Yankee reliever Edwar Ramirez doesn’t look the part of a major leaguer. He’s listed as six feet, three inches tall and 160 pounds, but appears more like 140 pounds with lead weights attached to his ankles. In some ways, he looks like a Latino version of Kent Tekulve, who was often confused with scarecrows during his hey day in the 1970s. And then there are those funky looking glasses that Ramirez wears. Or are they goggles, something like what Chris Sabo used to wear with the Reds? Perhaps we should call them "gloggles."
Ramirez is only the latest in a long line of players to bring eyeglasses and other forms of optical wear to the forefront. The tradition dates all the way back to the professional game’s roots some two centuries ago. The first major leaguer to wear glasses during a major league game was 19th century workhorse Will "Woop-La" White, who completed 394 out of 401 starts in his career. (I wonder what his pitch counts were like.) In 1877, White wore a pair of eyeglasses for the Boston Red Sox Stockings, who were then a National League franchise. After White finished donning the spectacles for Boston, no other major leaguer would sport glasses for another 38 years. In 1915, pitcher Lee "Specs" Meadows cracked the 20th century glasses barrier with the Cardinals. Like White, Meadows was a very good pitcher, a winner of 188 games over a 15-year career.
Up until 1921, only pitchers dared wear glasses during games. That changed when George "Specs" Toporcer became the first position player to make the transition. A singles-hitting middle infielder who played for the Cardinals, Toporcer wore glasses for the balance of his eight-year career in St. Louis.
Still, there remained a stigma to wearing glasses on the field. A number of players opted for poorer eyesight rather than hear taunts from fans and opposition players. Several standout players chose to become exceptions to that rule and grudgingly sported glasses in the 1930s and 1940s, including a trio of Hall of Famers. Charles "Chick" Hafey, another Cardinal notable, agreed to wear glasses after being beaned by a stray pitch; he should have worn them much earlier because of chronic sinus problems that resulted in five surgical procedures, all of which affected his vision. In 1931, Hafey’s use of glasses helped him win the National League batting championship. (According to Jonathan Light’s minutely detailed Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, he actually wore three different pairs of glasses, since his eyesight kept changing on a day-to-day basis.) Nine years later, New York Giants outfielder Mel Ott began wearing glasses in June, after never having used them previously in game action. The glasses certainly didn’t hurt Ott, who finished second in the National League in on-base percentage. And Paul Waner reportedly donned specs during the war years, though some sources claim that he only used the visual aids off the field and not between the lines for the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers.
While it had become fairly accepted practice for position players to wear glasses, catchers remained the final holdout until the summer of 1952. That’s when St. Louis Browns catcher Clint "Scrap Iron" Courtney started the practice at the major league level, a daring maneuver considering that he had to wear glasses under his catcher’s mask, in close proximity to foul tips. Yet, it wasn’t a surprise coming from Courtney, who loved to fight and feared almost nothing.
Horn-rimmed glasses became popular in the late 1960s, as a number of players showed a preference for unusually thick frames. Among those to take on the librarian’s look were massive Orioles right-hander Gene Brabender, controversial Tigers ace Denny McLain, Cardinals catcher Dave Ricketts, and Tigers reliever Tom Timmermann. These non-athletic, awkward-looking glasses would soon give way to the wire-frame look, with the exception of Timmermann, who maintained his horn-rims for the rest of his career.
Another trendsetter arrived in 1971, when the Braves’ Darrell Evans reportedly became the first major leaguer to replace eyeglasses with contact lenses. A number of other players followed suit, including Giants slugger Dave "Kong" Kingman, who struggled repeatedly with his contacts, especially on blustery days at Candlestick Park. Given the consistent wind at Candlestick, that occurred at just about every home game that Kingman and the Giants played in San Francisco.
By the end of the 1970s, the wearing of glasses and contact lenses had become commonplace—so much so that they practically ceased to bring attention to themselves. Even Darrell Porter’s oversized glasses, which might have been taken from Harry Caray’s bathroom cabinet, failed to create much of a stir at the time. According to Jon Light, one out of every five major leaguers wore glasses and a total of roughly 50 players used contact lenses by the end of the decade. There was no longer a stigma to wearing glasses, simply a necessary obsession with having the best possible eyesight in a sport that demands the ultimate hand-eye coordination. (Even umpires received official approval to wear glasses during games, as part of the 1974 collective bargaining agreement between the arbiters and major league owners.)
An unusual "streak" involving glasses also started in the 1970s. White Sox slugger and column favorite Dick Allen began an unusual stretch for friends of the four-eyed. Allen captured the American League’s MVP Award in 1972, marking the start of a three-year span in which the award belonged exclusively to gentlemen wearing glasses. Oakland’s Reggie Jackson followed Allen by winning the MVP in 1973 and Jeff Burroughs, then with the Rangers, made it a full-blown trend with his MVP Award in 1974.
In the expansion era, some players have taken eyewear the next step by wearing darkly tinted sunglasses during games. Some fans of the Phillies might remember right-hander Lowell Palmer, an otherwise obscure pitcher who always seemed to be wearing the darkest of shades at every turn. Palmer even wore the sunglasses when being photographed for his Topps baseball cards in the early 1970s.
Over the years, several notable Yankees have worn eyewear during games, including Jackson, who was once prompted by George Steinbrenner to have his eyesight checked. (Not surprisingly, Reggie didn’t appreciate the request.) Horace Clarke, the loveable "Hoss," wore large wire-framed spectacles during his Yankee days. Roy White wore glasses for much of his early career in New York before presumably switching to contacts in his later years. Two pitchers, Rudy May and Ron Davis, continued the trend in the late seventies and early 1980s. Then came Ron Kittle for a brief spell in the late eighties. Eric Plunk, part of the "haul" in the Rickey Henderson swap, wore a particularly large and clumsy-looking set of glasses. More recently, Bernie Williams has worn glasses, before having his vision corrected with LASIK surgery. All of these former Yankees have now given way to the current day glasses gaggle of Ramirez, Kyle Farnsworth, and Derek Jeter (but only in car commercials). When Phil Hughes returns to the big league roster, he’ll also don glasses as part of his effort to better see the catcher’s signals.
Our study of spectacles brings us to a final crucial question: who wore the thickest glasses in major league history? While there’s no scientific answer to that query, a good guess might involve former Yankees, Angels, and Washington Senators flamethrower Ryne Duren. The intimidating reliever featured a pair of dense Coke-bottle glasses—reminiscent of the ones that Jerry Seinfeld wore in his efforts to fool the sometimes-gullible Lloyd Braun—which corrected his horrendous 20/200 vision. Given his fastball’s high rate of speed and his overall lack of control, Duren’s habit of squinting through his lenses only added to an opponent’s desire to tread lightly in the batter’s box when facing the unpredictable right-hander.