By Ralph Kinney Bennett : BIO| 31 Mar 2006
We used no mattress on our hands,
No cage upon our face;
We stood right up and caught the ball
With courage and with grace.
-- George Ellard
That piece of doggerel was written by one of the men who organized what is thought to be the first professional baseball club, the Cincinnati Redstockings, back in the late 1860s. It expresses a certain contempt for the impedimenta of defensive baseball, namely the glove and the catcher's mask.
It is true that, particularly in the case of gloves, baseball technology had to overcome a good deal of "real-men-don't..." prejudice. But, indeed, it was a member of that Redstockings team, its renowned catcher, Doug Allison, who is recorded as the first man to wear a glove in a baseball game. In 1869 he prevailed upon a saddle maker to fashion for him a crude, lightly padded glove with which to receive pitches.
Even though Allison was as close as one could come to a "star" in those days and the '69 Redstockings completed a 57-game season undefeated, his glove idea did not catch on.
But a few years later, in 1875, a St. Louis player, Charles Waite, entered a game in Boston wearing a flesh colored leather "driving glove" on his catching hand. It was similar to -- if not in fact -- one of those gloves then used to better grip the reins while driving a buggy. Waite was "mercilessly jeered" not just by the crowd and the opposing players, but by his own teammates.
One player on the Boston team did not join in the jeers. His name was A.G. Spalding. He was not just Boston's finest pitcher. He was their only pitcher. And as he recalled later, "for several years I had pitched in every game played by the Boston team, and had developed severe bruises on the inside of my left hand" from catching either hit balls or the balls returned to him by his fielders.
Spalding was very interested in Waite's glove and made a point of questioning him in detail. "He confessed that he was a bit ashamed to wear it, but had it on to save his hand." Waite had chosen the flesh color in hopes it would be "as inconspicuous as possible." But it was to no avail. He was singled out as a sissy.
Such is the lonely fate of pioneers. Spalding himself (yes, he's the one who founded the sporting goods company of the same name) went through another season of severe hand pain rather than endure ridicule from fellow ballplayers. "It was not until 1877 that I overcame my scruples against joining the 'kid-glove aristocracy' by donning a glove."
Spalding decided to be up front about it and chose black leather. "I found that the glove, thin as it was, helped considerably, and inserted one pad after another until a good deal of relief was afforded. If anyone wore a padded glove before this date I do not know it."
Spalding's reputation by then was such as to pretty much preclude any ridicule, so the glove thing began to catch on. By the late 1870s a lot of players were taking to the field wearing two gloves. They looked something like today's golfing or biking gloves – the fingers and thumb cut off at the end back to the first joint. Most of these leather gloves had a modest amount of padding, usually a little wad of cotton or bulk wool, sewn into the palms.
Some of these early gloves were actually winter gloves adapted for baseball use. Players laughingly referred to them as mittens and then "mitts." Sadly, the term "baseball mitt," still common in my younger days, has pretty much faded from use.
It wasn't just practicality that spurred glove use. Men's age-old love of accoutrements -- the badges of their professions, their hobbies and their sports -- came into play. Ballplayers had little to display as tools of their trade, other than their bats and various ridiculous looking short-billed caps. So the glove became a kind of symbol as well as an implement.
In the 1880s, rules were changed to permit pitchers to throw the ball overhand (!!!) and the game became faster, at least in a ballistic sense. Gloves proliferated, particularly among catchers. They were still mainly for protection rather than enhancing the ability to catch the ball.
It was the great early catcher Buck Ewing, in the late '80s, who sparked the first significant technological advance in gloves. Ewing, of the New York Giants, was one of the premier players of the 19th century. The first player to hit 10 home runs in a single season, the first catcher ever elected to the Hall of Fame (in 1939) and a man fabled for his ability to throw men out at second without rising from his crouch.
He captained the Giants to their first world championships in 1888 and 1889. And he was the first catcher to use the soon-to-be familiar, heavily padded "pillow" style catcher's mitt.
It was probably inevitable that the catcher's mitt would lead the way in the evolution of ball gloves. What other glove (and hand) gets more use and takes more of a beating in the game? Take a look at an old catcher's left hand some time. A season-long study of 39 minor league players, done in 2001 by researchers from Wake Forest University's Baptist Medical Center, suggests that even today's state-of-the-art catcher's mitts do not offer enough protection to prevent long-term injury to the hand.
The nine catchers in the study were followed through 162 games during which they caught as many as 150 game pitches (many at over 90 miles per hour) in addition to another 150 warm-up and practice pitches every game day.
Researchers found that most of the pitches impacted on the palm and base of the index finger of the catching hand. Seven out of the nine catchers had enlarged index fingers (hypertrophy) on their catching hand. None of the other ballplayers studied exhibited this enlargement.
The catchers also showed symptoms of nerve damage and abnormal blood flow in their catching hands, even though most of them used additional protective padding in their glove hands. So Buck Ewing and his successors could certainly be pardoned their "pillows."
One of the most curious aspects of the evolution of baseball gloves is how slo-o-o-wly they developed. This is largely because of what I call vestigial technology. A lot of time was wasted in the conquest of the air by men trying to make their machines look like birds. It took automakers a while to realize that the motor car was not a wagon or a carriage but a new and unique form of ground transportation. By the same token, it was not until the late 1950s and early 1960s that baseball glove makers finally realized that what they were making was not a glove but a special instrument for catching or trapping a very fast-moving small sphere.
Perhaps the first indication of a slowly emerging prescience in glove technology was in 1912, when Rawlings Sporting Goods Co. introduced the odd looking "Sure Catch" glove. It was essentially a big hunk of leather with finger channels sewn to it. Even Rawlings admits that it "looked better suited for a duck's foot than a man's hand," and it is often referred to as a "duck-web" glove. But in experienced hands it was pretty good at trapping balls and it started some people thinking "outside the glove."
By then the ubiquitous pillow catcher's mitts had begun to show up with a strip of leather stitched across the gap between the thumb and the fingers. But most gloves from the 1920s and '30s were just big fat thick-fingered gloves, still prisoners of vestigial technology.
An exception from the late '20s – early '30s, was the spectacular Dazzy Vance glove (see it and other early gloves at www.sportsartifacts.com/vintage) which had a huge opening at the back for ventilation and rawhide lacing to keep the fingers from separating when catching a line drive. It wasn't until the early '40s that lacing fingers across the top for better "pocket control" became more common.
In 1925, a St. Louis pitcher named Bill Doak asked Rawlings if they could put a sort of "webbing" of crossed leather thongs between a glove's thumb and index finger. The resulting Bill Doak glove, the first with a natural "pocket" to snare the ball, was a popular mainstay of the Rawlings line for the next 28 years and widely imitated.
In the mid-50s the breakout in glove technology began. The first big innovation was hinging. A player today would be stunned to try fielding with a vintage glove, even one well broken in. They seem bulky and unmanageable compared to hinged models. Major league gloves today, some costing $300 or more, are handmade marvels of design and technology with their long supple fingers, deep, ingeniously constructed webs and custom feel. It takes more than a week for a skilled craftsman to finish one of these gloves.
Some purists and collectors fret about the durability of modern gloves, fearing that because the cowhides used to make gloves (a Rawlings top-line glove will use most of one whole hide) are from feedlot cows, which get little exercise, the leather may be softer but not as durable. One manufacturer, Nokona, makes gloves from Buffalo hide, which is said to be tougher yet lighter than steerhide. Another maker, Easton, is experimenting with combining leather and Kevlar (used in bullet-proof vests) in a new ultra-light weight glove line.
There's no doubt that the old gloves, many of them made of horsehide, are durable. They have become collectors items, especially the ones stamped with the endorsement names of famous early players. But the most prized old gloves are "game used" gloves of famous players. When one of Lou Gehrig's well-used gloves came up for auction a few years ago, Actress-Director Penny Marshall paid $387,000 for it.
When you're at the ball park this spring, pay attention to the gloves. Notice how sophisticated they look; how unique a tool they have become compared to the gloves of yore. They are a long way from the old Wilson that was my first glove -- the one I oiled religiously and kept with a baseball tied into its pocket when I slept with it beside my pillow; the one I strapped onto my belt (Remember how they used to have that little brass button on the back strap?) when I hitchhiked into town just in case we "got up a game" that day.
That old glove is long, long gone, along with some of my taste for baseball. But I still kinda' miss it.
Ralph Kinney Bennett is a TCS contributing editor.