Throughout the rich history of America’s Pastime, various elements have wrested public attention and resultantly, made just about every young boy aspire to one day don a uniform and deliver those tape-measure clouts made famous by Ruth, Williams, Mantle or whatever star to whom they had access in an age of limited media exposure. Simultaneously climbing the ranks during the late-1950s, one such hopeful and a legend-to-be crossed paths during an endeavor that brings this divine collectible up for auction. This Pittsburgh Pirates batting helmet was worn by Roberto Clemente during the late-1950s and, through happenstance and fate, remains a well-preserved survivor from the dawn of both protective equipment and the brilliant career of its heroic user.
The black plastic shell features a yellow “P” logo painted to the front center. Leather-covered foam rubber padding lines the interior circumference, while a foam rubber cell and the remains of a vintage “American Baseball Cap” decal are adhered atop the crown’s interior (the decal’s size designator reads “7,” though the remaining numeric fraction is no longer visible). The item shows heavy wear with a small chip on the edge of the bill, as well as scuff marks throughout and a vintage black marker notation of Clemente's since-retired number "21" on the interior crown pad. Additionally, a patent date appears on the decal and dates the helmet’s manufacture to sometime between 1955 and 1957.
The heirloom’s lineage unfolds as only a baseball-related tale could. On the heels of the Pirates first winning season since 1948, the club reported to Fort Myers, Florida for the 1959 spring training session and Grapefruit League exhibition season. Clemente, for one, did not embrace losing. After the club endured its fourth successive last-place showing in Clemente’s debut season (1955), strides (albeit tiny ones) were made as the club improved to seventh place in 1956, seventh again in 1957 and all the way to second in 1958.
Enter Rich Sojka.
The son of a former Pirates batboy, 21-year-old Sojka was inked to a minor league contract with the club’s Grand Forks, North Dakota Chiefs Class C North League affiliate in October, 1958. His hopes aloft after signing with a club that was to produce stars such as Willie Stargell, Donn Clendenon and Gene Michael, Sojka reported to Fort Myers in 1959 as a non-roster invitee. Waiting his turn one day to take his cuts against a pitching machine set for deliveries of over 100 mph, Sojka watched as a frustrated Clemente did not fare well against the mechanical hurler and tossed his batting helmet in disgust. Sojka immediately retrieved it, was also overmatched in the batting cage, and held onto that helmet for more than 50 years. While it’s not often that an afternoon of futile swings translates to securing a piece of baseball history, this Hall of Fame relic began as a mere “brush with greatness” and remains a definitive physical remainder more than half-a-century later.
Accompanying is a letter of provenance signed by Sojka, as well as a copy of an article in the October 10, 1958 Blytheville Courier News, detailing Sojka’s signing. This item has a reserve (estimated value: $5,000-$10,000)
As for the patent number printed on the manufacturer's decal ("2,698,434"), the United States Patent database reveals that January 4, 1955 was the date on which the patent was granted for this type of helmet. This corroborates the accompanying letter of provenance, the key factor being the patent date prior to the 1959 date referenced. It is likely that the helmet was crafted in 1956 or 1957. It's use characteristics are consistent with the aforementioned timeline. Incidentally, although league rules did not require batting helmets at this time, only the Pirates mandated their players to wear batting helmets beginning in 1953.