Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review and Comparison of Umpire Mask Pads

In 1880 a rule change required the ball to be caught by the catcher before it hit the ground. Prior to this change, catchers stood far behind the batter and caught the ball after it hit the ground. The rule change forced both catcher and umpire up to the plate. Consequently, both umpires and catchers sought protection from fouled balls.

Umpires and catchers have shared similar equipment since the early days of baseball. The first catcher's mask was designed in 1876 by Fred Thayer for the Harvard Nine and offered by Spalding in its 1878 catalog. Writer, historian and statistician Bill James reports that the first umpire to wear a mask was Dick Higham in the early 1880’s. Higham was fired by the National League in 1882 for colluding with gamblers, the only known case of a dishonest umpire.

While many modifications and improvements to Thayer's "rat trap" design have been made over the past 135 years, the basic design has not changed: a wire cage, harness, and leather padding for comfort and protection.

The effectiveness of a mask amounts to absorbing or deflecting the energy of a baseball. Deflection is accomplished from the design of the cage and by wearing the mask loosely (so the ball's energy moves the mask). Absorption is achieved by the cage and the mask pads. While a cage that bends or dents will absorb energy, the mask pads are generally your last, best shot at protecting your noggin.

Mask pads come in several different coverings: doe skin, cow skin, vinyl, man-made leather, cloth, etc. The size and shape of the pads can vary as well, from thick pads, to wrap around pads, etc. The foam filler is generally the same, although some manufacturers are experimenting with new high tech foams. For instance, Team Wendy has recently introduced a new umpire pad using Zorbium that claims to attenuate impact forces better than ordinary foam. TZoombang, tells me that it may be possible to use Zoombang (a high-tech polymer) in mask pads. We should see better foam production in umpire mask pads in the near future.

In the meantime, it is important to change out your mask pads yearly. At least this is the advice from Mark A. Letendre, Major League Baseball's Director of Umpire Medical Services:
I recommend mask pads be changed out every year. The ozone that we live in does effect foam padding over time I recommend twice a year pad change out for some of our MLB umpires because there gear is often put away moist and shipped in travel trunks without a lot of ambient air to dry. Over time the efficacy of the pad material does deteriorate.

I would suggest that mask pads dry out before use again, which may necessitate a "change out" set of mask pads throughout a busy amateur umpires season.
Jacquie Rooney, Product Manager at Wilson Sporting Goods, concurs with this advice:
Any foam that is used in padding will degrade over time. The foam may soften or harden depending on chemical makeup. Depending on the conditions in which the pads are stored and how much they’ve been used (humidity and heat tend to speed up the aging process), we recommend replacement every 1-2 years.
Interestingly, the need to change foam pads every year may not apply to the new high tech foams. Team Wendy's Don Tecco says that unlike regular foam, Zorbium will not lose its protective qualities over time, but that umpires are encouraged to change out their Zorbium pads at the beginning of the season for hygiene reasons.

My original intent with this article was to compare the protective qualities of the various umpire pads. The more I thought about this testing, the more complex it became and I quickly recognized that proper testing required instruments that are beyond my budget or scientific expertise. As with testing of mask materials and designs, I hope to have a comprehensive test for the mask pads done at a university biomechanics lab at some future date.

In the meantime, I have I have eleven mask pads that are the subject of this comparison:

First row from top to bottom:
MacGregor doe skin (purchase)
Diamond 50/50 replacement pads (purchase)
Champro cloth from CM-58 (purchase)

Second row from top to bottom:
Wilson wrap around doe skin A3815 (donated by Jim Kirk at Ump-Attire)
Rawlings doe skin (purchase)
Diamond cloth from iX3 DFM-UMP (donated by Diamond)

Third row from top to bottom:
Wilson A3819 from titanium mask (purchase)
Wilson black leather from A3077 low profile mask (purchase)
Team Wendy Umps (donated by Team Wendy)

Fourth row top to bottom:
All-Star cloth from FM2000UMP (donated by All_Star)
Wilson A3009x leather (purchase)

I placed each of these pads into a Diamond iX3 DFM-UMP for photographing.

MacGregor Doe Skin (MCBDSPAD)
The MacGregor doe skin pads (MCBDSPAD) are not only the cheapest leather pads I have found, they are also one of my favorites! The MacGregor pads are made of very soft doe skin. They are a little on the thick side from the cage to the face, but narrow on the surface. The result is an extremely comfortable and good-looking padding system. However, this thick padding results in a heavy 9.5 ounces.

MacGregor is not exactly a sexy name. In fact, when I was a kid, MacGregor was on the same level as Dunlop baseballs that you could get one or two good hits before they were dented. These MacGregor pads come with a garish rubber logo sewn onto the chin strap. Five minutes with a thread ripper took care of that problem, but left some stitching holes that can be seen upon close inspection.

The Velcro straps are tan, which is a noticeably different color than the pads. While I really like the color of the pads, I really hate the color of the Velcro straps.

The MacGregor doe skin pads (MCBDSPAD) can be purchased from for $21.59. The pads were delivered quickly with good communication and reasonable shipping.

Diamond 50/50 Replacement Pads
I purchased Diamond 50/50 leather replacement pads three years ago to replace the uncomfortable Diamond standard padding. They are made of a vinyl exterior and lined with a leather suede material. The suede is soft and comfortable.

Unfortunately, the suede material breaks down quickly. The pads in the photos are actually my second set that year. While inexpensive, they are also cheap. These pads weigh a remarkable 2.5 ounces.

The Diamond 50/50 Replacement Pads are available at for $14.99.

Champro Mask Pad
The Champro cloth pads came standard with the Champro CM-59 Magnesium Umpire Mask. The Champro CM-59 magnesium mask is the lightest on the market and has somewhat of a cult following with umpire gear junkies (yes, we really do exist - just ask out wives).

The lightest mask on the market couldn't make such a claim without apposite pads to keep the weight down. These Champro pads weigh a mere 4 ounces.

The umpires I know who have purchased the CM-59 have swapped out the manufacturer's padding. However, the standard pads are actually quite comfortable. Unlike the Diamond iX3's standard pads, the Champro padding does not grab facial stubble. Made of vinyl on the outside and Dri-Gear moisture wicking material on the inside, these pads are soft and comfortable. If I had to choose a cloth pad for my mask, this would be it.

Champro replacement pads can be purchased through for $13.19 (minimum purchase two).

Wilson wrap around doe skin (a3815)
Jim Kirk from tells me that the Wilson a3815 is the most-purchased replacement mask pad from his company. I'll say this: the a3815 photographs well.

Just like a stunning woman on an internet dating site, photographs of the a3815 do not tell the whole story. The color of these pads is very yellow, and one umpire described the look as "wearing a big diaper on your face." I think that's about the right description.

Made of doe skin the a3815 replacement pads are made in a wrap around design. "A what?" A wrap around pad has extra material that hangs over and "wraps around" the bars of the face mask. The idea is that this adds an extra layer of protection between the bars and your face.

Wilson's a3815 pads are soft, comfortable, and surprisingly light at 7 ounces. The Wilson a3815 doe skin replacement mask pads can be purchased through for $39.99.

Rawlings Leather Replacement Pads (DOEP)
The Rawlings replacement mask pads are very substantial. At 9.5 ounces the DOEP is tied with the MacGregor pads as heaviest in this comparison.

Made of doe skin, these pads are soft, but are bulky inside the mask. They are also stiffer than most of the pads compared in this article. The result was an uncomfortable feel. The construction, however, is very clean.

The color of the DOEP is more tan than yellow and is much more appealing than the Wilson wrap around color.

The Rawlings DOEP doe skin replacement mask pads can be purchased directly from Rawlings for $29.75

Diamond DFM-UMP Pads
The Diamond iX3 DFM-UMP was named 2010 Midwest Ump UMPY Award Winner in the face mask category. It is therefore ironic that the standard mask pads shipped with the iX3 should be so terrible.

First, the good news: the standard pads weigh 2.5 ounces, making them tied for the lightest pads in this comparison.

Now the bad news. The iX3 standard pads may be light, but the Quick-Dry material grips your face stubble just like my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Shevron, used to grab my earlobe when I was bad - strong and unyielding. The pads will irritate your chin after just a few innings of work.

The Diamond DFM-UMP replacement pads can be purchased for $17.99 through

Wilson a3819 Replacement Mask Pads
These pads came off of a Wilson a3007 titanium mask and are sold as Wilson a3819 pads. Made of a tan leather interior and a man-made leather exterior, these pads are soft and comfortable. I personally prefer the PE man-made leather exterior as it will not absorb moisture like leather and cause an embarrassing sweat stain on the outside of the pads.

The a3819 is a wrap around design, much like the a3815, above. The a3819 also weighs 7 ounces. However, the a3819 is a little larger than its cousin and rides up higher on the cheek and lower around the forehead. Unlike the Rawlings DOEP, the padding does not feel bulky or claustrophobic. As a side note, Jacquie Rooney from Wilson tells me that Wilson pads and masks are designed to be interchangeable.

Wilson a3819 Replacement Mask Pads are available through for $24.99

Wilson a3077 Mask Pads
These pads came off of a Wilson a3077 low profile face mask. They are black leather wrap around pads and weigh 7.5 ounces. However, the leather is, well, different. Another umpire thought it was pig skin, but I cannot confirm this. When I tested the a3077 low profile mask, the leather pads felt slick and uncomfortable.

The a3077 are sold exclusively with the low profile Chrome Moliben face mask. Sold by MLB Umpire Joe West on his website for $58.00

Team Wendy Umps
I recently reviewed the new Zorbium filled Team Wendy Umps, which can be read here. While I applaud Team Wendy's efforts in bringing Zorbium, a high tech foam filler, to the umpire world, I am less impressed by the construction of the Umps.

Don Tecco tells me that while the Zorbium can be covered with leather, an anti-microbial, moisture wicking fabric was chosen for comfort and hygiene. While the Team Wendy pads covering is soft and comfortable, many of us prefer leather. Perhaps one day soon it will be offered to us.

The Team Wendy Umps weigh 5 ounces and are sold exclusively through Honig's for $39.95.

All-Star FM2000UMP LUC Pads
Originally I included the mask pads from the FM2000UMP in this comparison. After further reflection, it is simply not fair to critique a pad that is made exclusively for a specific cage. The FM2000UMP is shaped so that more of the forehead pad comes in contact with the umpire's forehead. I have not seen this pad offered as a separate replacement pad.

The FM2000UMP uses “Lightweight UltraCool” (LUC) pads. These pads are machine washable and treated with AEGIS Microbe Shield. The AEGIS Microbe Shield is an antimicrobial and is odorless, colorless, non-leaching, long-lasting and effective against fungi, bacteria and algae. It does not dissipate and retains its full antimicrobial strength for the life of the surface to which it is applied. The UltraCool fabric is a perforated breathable mesh which covers All-Star's exclusive vented energy absorbing foam. This foam was originally developed for the All-Star titanium mask to absorb ball impact forces.

The perforated mesh fabric could be a problem if the mask is dropped (yes, I know it is a sin. Say 6 "Infield Fly Rules" and you are absolved). I also don't care for the perforation on the outside of the pad and would prefer a man-made outer. The LUC pads weigh a slight 3.5 ounces.

Wilson a3009x Replacement Pads
The Wilson a3009x dual tone leather pads are my personal favorites. The interior of these pads is made from doe skin and the outer from man-made leather. That means that they clean easy on the outside and do not show sweat stains.

The a3009x is a wrap around pad, but it is smaller than the other wrap around pads and lighter at only 5 ounces. I have used the a3009x with my Champro CM-59 magnesium mask and with the Diamond iX3 DFM-UMP, and the pads perform terrific. As with all leather pads, after a time the leather will wear down without proper care and cleaning. was selling the a3009 pads for $24.99, but stopped advertising them. As of last fall Jim Kirk had a limited number of these pads available, although I have not checked with him recently.

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