After 17 MLB seasons with five different teams, the one unique thing that John Olerud will be remembered for in 25 years is wearing a helmet at first base. He won a 1993 batting title and contributed to some of the best teams of his time. But the helmet always took away from Olerud’s identity as a player.
First, let’s get to why the ubiquitous helmet always sat on John’s head in the field.
In his senior season at Washington State, Olerud suffered from a brain aneurysm during a workout with the team. Doctors immediately drilled into his head to remove it. The life-threatening condition settled after the procedure.
But the question of baseball remained. The lefty certainly had his sights on the big leagues, coming off a .464 average with 23 home runs in his senior season. Since the aneurysm happened in January, he got cleared to finish out his senior year at Wash State. All this info comes from this Seattle article.
Olerud legitimately came from high school to the Major Leagues, jumping on with Toronto at the right time. Better, there was hardly any adjustment period. In his rookie year, the 21-year-old batted .265 in 111 games.
His breakthrough season came in Toronto’s magical 1993 season. As late as August, Olerud batted with a .400 average. That’s when everyone started paying attention and jumping to cover his story. This Chicago Tribune spot, obviously reactionary to his potent numbers, exemplify the hype around the first baseman.
He always wore the helmet – making fun of himself for wearing it, but knowing that after invasive brain surgery it was a necessity.
The helmet took on an identity of its own. Early in 2000, there was a funny story reported by ESPN and Sports Illustrated where Rickey Henderson mistook Olerud for himself. The tale got straightened out and revealed as lighthearted fun. Here are a few other versions of the tale.
His career nearly ended at Washington State, where his father also played baseball. But in 2007, his numbers for the Cougars earned him a spot in the College Baseball Hall of Fame. The award for the best two-way player is now named after Olerud, who also finished 24-4 on the mound at WSU.
The only break Olerud ever took from the east coast was back in his native Seattle. At first base, he finished .302/.401/.472 for the 116-win Mariners.