Saturday, May 5, 2012

Baseball Gloves

Disclaimer -- This is not an entirely original work.  I put this together for my sons, so I wrote some of it, copied some, received some as comments from others and heavily edited other parts.

Maybe yours was a Willie Mays, or a Robin Roberts, or a Jackie Robinson. Maybe you slept with it smashed between your mattress and box spring or on the table next to your bed. You lovingly stroked its hide, oiled it with neatsfoot, cleaned it with saddle soap. Hanging from your handlebars, you took it with you everywhere you went.

Probably you still have it. Maybe it’s out in the garage, on the shelf next to the socket wrenches or in a box in the attic with some old books. Maybe, if you’re lucky, your Dad’s glove is there with it.

And you go there sometimes, late at night, when the wife and kids are asleep. When the house is silent and cold. You go there, pick yours up, brush the dust off and slide it on. You punch the pocket with a tight fist, run through your pitcher’s motion, scoop up a few grounders and drift way back to catch one on the warning track. You hold it close to your face, smelling the leather, oil and dust.  The memories well up around you, so thick that you have to brush them away. You remember – the smell of the grass and the hot dogs, the crack of the bat. You feel the coarse wool of your baggy Little League uniform. You watch as the ball drifts high towards you in the outfield, taste the dust kicked up from your spikes as you run, you hear the thunk as you reach out and snag the ball with your faithful mitt. You see your Dad standing at the fence by the dugout, smiling, still wearing his work clothes.

Then you put it back on the shelf, or next to the books and return to bed. Your wife wakes and asks, “Where were you?”

“Bathroom,” you reply.

But that night, you dream of striking out the side, making that backhand stab in the hole at short, nailing the runner by a step. You run one down in the gap. You leap over the wall to pull back a homerun. You play ball.

A baseball glove can do that. It can take you back. Gloves are as eternal as the game. Balls come apart at the seams, disappear in the weeds and roll down sewer drains. Bats crack, splinter and break. Hats and spikes wear out, get lost or outgrown. But gloves last a lifetime. They become part of your life, a part of your soul.

What is it about baseball that’s so fundamental to our lives?

Maybe it’s the rhythm of the ball, the apology for a bad throw, the forgiveness for a hole in the mitt, the speed and accuracy of a hard smack, the thrill of a homerun … the constant drama of achievement and failure —the cheer for the great catch or a pillow filled with tears after losing the game for your team. Perhaps it’s simply spending time with a child or the child in all of us.

Or, maybe it’s a bit of all these things ... It is the legacy of our years growing up as Americans. And it’s also the legacy of American heroes. There is something uniquely American about the game and the team spirit it invokes.

There are countless stories, slices of life about playing ball. Some are our own stories and some are about legendary players. So many of our stories connect back to our glove.

Partly equipment and partly attire, unlike any other piece of equipment, you wear a glove, it’s an extension of your personality.  No other sporting goods equipment has the same sentimental and personal value as a baseball glove. It’s why you held onto your old glove. It just feels right. It’s the glove you made that great catch with. The glove you used to play catch with your Dad in the backyard. The glove you took to your first big league game. Or, maybe it’s the glove that your Dad, or maybe your Granddad, played sandlot ball with in his old neighborhood — the glove that was passed down to you.

How many of us still have our first glove? Even though we may have replaced it with a newer one, that old mitt is probably still tucked away in a closet or sitting on a shelf. That glove somehow embodies your legacy — a reminder of your past. Embedded in that worn piece of leather is every great catch, every grounder that skipped between your legs, and memories of the teammates you shared the wins and the losses with. Maybe it’s a reminder of the time you made that legendary catch and you were hero for a day. Your glove went everywhere with you — to the dinner table and to bed each night. It was a physical extension of your body — eternally connected.

For a parent, the most vivid memory may be the first time you showed your son or daughter how to catch and your child actually caught it. It’s the way you felt about your Mom or Dad taking the time and having the patience to coach and encourage you when you were ready to quit.

Perhaps the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company said it best. In the mid-60’s something like this was printed on their glove and mitt boxes:

What Is A Baseball Glove?
A baseball glove is a beginning and an ending: a boy’s first sure step towards manhood; a man’s final lingering hold on youth; it is promise ... and memory.

A baseball glove is the dusty badge of belonging, the tanned and oiled mortar of team and camaraderie; in its creases and scuffs lodge sunburned afternoons freckled with thrills, the excited hum of competition, cheers that burst like skyrockets.

A baseball glove is a thousand-and-one names and moments strung like white and crimson banners in the vast stadium of memory.

A baseball glove is the leather of adventure, worthy successor to the cowboy’s holster, the trooper’s saddle and the buckskin laces of the frontier scout; it is combat, heroics and victory ... a place to smack a fist or snuff a rally.

Above all, a baseball glove is the union of father and son, boy and friends, man and men, the man and the boy; it is union beyond time, language, creed or color.

Glove History

In 2000, six million baseball gloves, manufactured by 17 different companies, were sold in the United States. It takes 10 days to construct a glove, but a Rawlings spokesperson says the process can be condensed to an hour if a prominent major-leaguer is in a bind. Rawlings gloves are used by more than 50 percent of big-league players, including such All-Stars as Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles and Ken Griffey Jr. of the Cincinnati Reds. Even Texas Ranger Alex Rodriguez, the highest-paid player in baseball, uses a Rawlings glove. It’s Rawlings that sponsors the annual Rawlings Gold Glove Award, which has been presented to players for fielding excellence since 1957.

Rawlings is also one of only two major glove manufacturers still producing gloves in the United States. At its Ava, Missouri plant, gloves take shape from 16 to 20 pieces of cowhide and six to nine ft. of rawhide lacing. The hides are graded into four classifications prior to being cut cookie-cutter style into the various glove parts. The palm is cut from the dense hide that runs along the steer’s backbone. The back of the glove is from the flank. From the softer, stretched belly comes the lining. And the web is made from smaller cuts of each. The shell is sewn inside out and turned. But prior to inserting the lining, the shell is laid off on a hot metal “hand” to form its shape. The lace holes are then punched, the eyelets added and the straps and logos sewn on. Then the glove is laced by hand.

First base mitts get plastic parts in the thumb and toe sections. The parts are inserted between the two-piece pad and held in position with the thumb and toe lacing. The padding in catcher’s mitts consists of five pieces that are assembled to form the pocket. The padding is wrapped with nylon cord to retain its shape under the constant pounding of major-league fastballs.

But gloves haven’t always been so meticulously made, or even in favor. In fact, just after the Civil War, in baseball’s infancy, the prevailing sentiment among macho players was: Real men don’t wear gloves. When Doug Allison, a catcher for the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the nation’s first professional team, asked a saddlemaker to develop a mitt for him in 1869, he was considered a wimp. In 1875, Charles Waite of St. Louis received the same ridicule when he took the field wearing a thin, flesh-colored glove similar to the ones gentlemen wore while driving buggies.

As baseball gained popularity and hitters began to hit hard, however, more and more players sought the protection of a glove while in the field. The first ones resembled golf gloves. The fingers and thumb were snipped off at the first joint and a small amount of padding was inserted into the palm area. The term “mitt” came into vogue because many early players created their gloves from an old pair of winter mittens. By the end of the 1870s, gloves were common. In the mid-1880s, Buck Ewing, a catcher for the New York Giants, became the first to use a pillow-type catcher’s mitt.

Today, high-end gloves used by the pros can cost up to $300. Early gloves, made of cowhide, horsehide or Indian-tanned buckskin, sold for about $2.50. Horsehide continued to be used until the 1930s when cowhide became more prevalent.

The largest improvement ever in glove design happened in 1920, when Bill Doak, a journeyman pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, approached Rawlings with an idea for a web laced between the first finger and thumb. He said it would create a natural pocket. The Bill Doak model revolutionized glove design, and it stayed in the Rawlings catalog until 1953. Its web became a standard throughout the industry.

Another important innovation was the binding together of the individual fingers, which began sometime during the 30’s. Some unknown person decided to punch holes through the ends of each finger and lace a strip of rawhide through the holes, allowing the fingers to support each other. Many players preferred the older style, which were referred to as “split-finger” gloves, but by the mid 50’s virtually all gloves had the fingers laced together.

1941 saw another innovation, this time in first baseman’s mitts. Rawlings credited the design to Hank Greenberg, Hall of Fame first baseman with the Tigers. Rawlings made this model mitt for all manufacturers, including Wilson, MacGregor and Spalding, and claimed that Greenberg advised them on the design.

With the revolutionary design, Greenberg changed the art of fielding for first basemen. Greenberg was able to easily make one handed catches. So effective was Greenberg’s fielding that the league put special specifications for the mitt — it could not exceed 12” in length. For a time the mitt was quite controversial.

In fact the federal government cited Rawlings with an antitrust action for their monopoly on the manufacturer of first baseman’s mitts.

Rawlings made this model from the Second World War until approximately the late 50’s when the design was replaced by larger, more contemporary designs. The mitt is best known as the Claw and or the Trapper. It was simply the state of the art — the best mitt of its time.

Another controversial glove design was the rolled lacing web. Some claimed that the rolled style extended the web from a half inch to inch over what the standard web offered, hence making the reach for the glove, especially the outfielder and third baseman, a little greater. And some players, it’s alleged, may have pulled the web out even further.
In about 1949 or 1950 the style was banned.  Some thought Joe DiMaggio influenced officials to implement the new rule banning the rolled lacing style. In one of the most famous images in baseball history, during the 1947 World Series the usually taciturn DiMaggio shook his head and kicked at the dirt in frustration after the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Al Gionfriddo, using a rolled lace glove, made an amazing catch near the 415 foot mark in left-center field.

Supposedly DiMaggio believed that the diminutive Gionfriddo would not have made the catch with an ordinary style web. Ironically, DiMaggio occasionally used this style himself and one of his rolled lace gloves is now property of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Manufacturers were not sorry to see the style banned, as it was time-consuming and tedious to make.
Because there is a 17-year limit on glove patents, there are only a few basic web styles, shared by all manufacturers. Middle infielders favor open webs like the Pro Style I-Web on Alex Rodriguez’s Rawlings or the H-Web on the Wilson glove used by New York Met Rey Ordonez. But some infielders like the laced-in sixth finger of the Rawlings Trap-Eze webbing. Also called the Trap T-Web by Mizuno and the Pro-Laced T-Web by Wilson, this web design evolved in the 1960s, but was reintroduced by Rawlings in 1978 and eventually became a favorite of All-Star shortstop Ozzie Smith.

“Six fingers are better than five,” Smith once told a newspaper about the glove.

Pitchers prefer solid webs, like the Wilson Dual Hinge and the Rawlings Basket Web, because it hides their throwing hand as they adjust their grip on the ball. But the Basket Web, a woven solid pattern, which was under patent to Rawlings until 1983, is popular with players at every position, even middle infielders. Ryne Sandberg, a second baseman for the Chicago Cubs from 1982 to 1994, used the basket design.

“I just felt I could really get in there and find the ball,” he once said about the design.

Outfielders are also partial to the closed web design. Outfield gloves tend to have longer fingers and longer finger stalls (the leather that divides the fingers). This allows the player to wear the glove out on his fingertips for maximum reach. But the length of baseball gloves is limited. Major League Baseball rules state that a player’s glove cannot be longer than 12” measured from the heel to the tip of the index finger. Still, most manufacturers make a 13” long glove, which is used by most major-league outfielders, including All-Star Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants.

“I use a 13” Wilson,” says Bonds. “I need a long glove with strong fingers that enables me to grab fly balls I might have to dive or go over the fence for.”

Second basemen use the smallest gloves, which are 11” or 11.5” long. Shortstops’ gloves run 11.5” to 11.75” and third basemen usually use gloves that are 12” long. The reasons are simple. The smaller the glove, the lighter the glove. Second basemen and shortstops need quick hands in order to make most plays. Third basemen, on the other hand, stand closer to home plate, so they usually deal with harder-hit balls. They need the longer glove to snag hits down the line, and the added protection it offers while manning the hot corner.

Most players sign with a glove manufacturer during their years in the minor leagues, and some stay with that company throughout their major-league careers. But many switch companies, especially if the price is right. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, once loyal to Zett, now throws heat wearing a Rawlings. Roger Clemens won three Cy Young awards — one using a Wilson, one using a Zett, and one with a Cooper. Star players usually sign to a two- or three-year contract for gloves and cash, typically worth more than $100,000. Pitchers, however, are the most sought after by the glove manufacturers because the logos on the backs of their gloves get prime TV exposure.

With these contracts come custom-made gloves. San Diego Padres star Tony Gwynn has tan lightning bolts sewn on the finger backs of his black Rawlings, and Mark McGwire, more known for his thundering home runs than his fielding prowess, likes his gloves to be black with a tan palm section and one tan bar in the web.

Like Bill Doak, many modern players have influenced glove design. In 1998, four-time Cy Young award-winning pitcher Greg Maddux of the Atlanta Braves asked Wilson to design a glove that would conceal his protruding index finger, which he felt was tipping off batters to his pitches. Wilson developed the Pro Sleeve, a leather sheath sewn to the glove’s back. The Pro Sleeve is now found on many Wilson glove models.

Hall of Fame second baseman and broadcaster Joe Morgan is given credit for the progressively thinner glove heels of the past 30 years. Morgan, who also started a trend toward smaller infield gloves, recognized that heel padding was unnecessary and he removed layers of it from his gloves. More recently, because of input from players, manufacturers have been making the thumbs of gloves thinner by using thinner plastic stays — 1.5mm compared to 2mm before.

And they’re using far softer leather, which has all but eliminated the need to break in a glove. It once took weeks or even months to properly soften a new glove. Break-in methods ranged from the organic to the downright violent. Some guys soaked the glove in a bucket of water. Others coated it with neatsfoot or olive oil. Some swore by saddle soap, vaseline or shaving cream, while others threw it in the clothes dryer or asked their Dad to run over it with the car. But today, like blue jeans, gloves are soft from the start. Only a few games of catch are needed for a modern glove to start taking shape.

So find your old glove. Stand in the cold garage fielding imaginary ground balls. Take it to a big league game.  Play catch with your son or grandson. Smell your youth in its scarred skin. Remember your Dad, standing at the fence.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this great article. It's definitely describing me although it's usually when I'm working on a project in the garage that I go over to my gloves and try them on a few times.