My Fair Leather Friend
A Rawlings Designer Restores
One Man's Childhood Mitt
By STEFAN FATSIS
March 28, 2008; Page W4
"I'll tell you what," Bob Clevenhagen said. "It's sure broken in perfect."
I smiled hard. Mr. Clevenhagen is a baseball-glove legend, only the third person in the 121-year history of Rawlings Sporting Goods to hold the esteemed title of "Glove Designer." For the past three decades, he has designed, constructed and repaired gloves for scores of major-league stars. Now he studied my own beloved glove. "Yours looks like, well, look in the Hall of Fame," he said. "Same color, same shape, same faded-out look. It's just a nice-looking glove."
Rawlings glove designer Bob Clevenhagen
Since a Cincinnati Red Stockings catcher named Doug Allison donned a pair of buckskin mittens in 1870, no piece of baseball equipment has been more personal than the glove, a fact that applies equally to pros and regular Joes. I bought mine in the spring of 1977, before I turned 14. I wanted a Rawlings, because that's what big-leaguers wore.
My choice, the XPG6 model, was expensive. I remember the price as $90, though old Rawlings catalogs put it at $70. It was stamped with the company's famous trademarks: HEART OF THE HIDE, "DEEP WELL" POCKET, EDGE-U-CATED HEEL. It was autographed by Willie Stargell of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who threw left-handed and played first base. I threw right-handed and played second base. I loved the anomaly.
I broke in the XPG6 with baseballs, string, the underside of my mattress and ceaseless play. It carried me through my last two years of organized baseball, intramural softball championships, adult leagues, thousands of grounders and fly balls. As I got older -- knee surgeries, work, family -- it lay dormant. But I always kept it within sight.
On the far side of 40, I decided to research my glove's history. I wanted to validate my opinion of it as something not just "broken in perfect" but empirically flawless, from its shape to its feel to its smell: leather, dirt, grass, saliva, sun, spring, childhood, summer, hope, ability, achievement, memory, joy, love.
My glove, I learned, was manufactured in 1976 in Willow Springs, Mo. It is made of tanned steer hide, specifically Code 5 Horween-X Catcher's Mitt Glove Leather from the Horween Leather Co. in Chicago. The exterior leather is 0.075 inch thick and cut from a durable two-foot stretch along the steer's backbone, the heart of the hide. The separate interior, a glove within the glove known as the lining, is 0.050 inch thick and hails from the softer belly. The web comes from the butt, the toughest part of the hide. Rawlings doesn't have a slogan for that.
The XPG6 and its progenitors were Rawlings's first fully functional modern gloves, created in response to Wilson Sporting Goods' A2000, which revolutionized baseball when it was introduced in 1957. The A2000 had a larger web, a broader pocket, a hinged heel and flatter fingers and thumb than the puffy models of the time. As Noah Liberman explains in his book "Glove Affairs," the A2000 recognized that a glove should reflect "how a hand moves to catch a ball, not how it looks when you stare at it."
Rawlings began making XPG prototypes -- the initials stood for "experimental glove" -- for big-league players in 1958. Thanks to its Mickey Mantle autograph, the XPG6 was an instant hit when it was introduced in 1962. Mantle's name remained for a decade. Willie Stargell's signature was inserted in 1975 and shifted to a first-baseman's glove in 1977, after which the XPG6 model name was soon retired.
The glove was designed by Rollie Latina, Rawlings's second Glove Designer after his father, Harry, who joined the company in 1922. The model's U-shaped heel, deep pocket and understated padding made it easy to manipulate and versatile. Tom Seaver, Hank Aaron and Mike Schmidt wore it on the pitcher's mound, in the outfield and at third base, respectively. Dennis Esken, a collector and historian of vintage gloves, says that while the A2000 is no longer a usable glove, the XPG6 "has been synonymous with baseball for 50 years."
To gauge its contemporary appeal, I tracked down Houston Astros pitcher Russ Springer, the only major leaguer wearing a direct descendant of the XPG6, the Pro 6XBC. Mr. Springer's 13-year-old "gamer" -- the glove players reserve for use in games -- was broken in flatter and had a few small design differences, but our gloves were otherwise identical, and equally aged. "That's personality," he said approvingly.
Across the locker room, center fielder Craig Biggio, a four-time Gold Glove award winner, studied my glove. "It's got a story to it," he said, holding my floppy, frayed and desiccated gem. Send it to Mr. Clevenhagen, he advised. "He'll fix it up for you."
In 1977, when Mr. Clevenhagen joined Rawlings, a work force of 200 in Willow Springs made about 170,000 gloves, including about 15,000 XPG6s. But Rawlings and other manufacturers shifted production to Asia, and the factory closed in 1982. Today, Mr. Clevenhagen, 63, runs a four-person operation in Washington, Mo., making gloves for a couple dozen major leaguers and a custom catalog.
I was reluctant to let even a Glove Designer alter my XPG6. But when Mr. Clevenhagen described a process akin to an archeologist restoring the Parthenon, I agreed. He would replace the glove's interior lining with the same tough Horween leather as in the original. He would replace the laces and the trim around the wrist and fingers, and install fresh wool-blend padding under the three middle fingers. The exterior would remain unchanged.
The XPG6 that arrived a few weeks later was my glove, but it wasn't. It stayed open of its own accord, rather than flopping shut on release, the thumb kissing the pinkie. The spot on the exterior where I rested my index finger no longer pancaked to the lining. I slid my hand in. The XPG6 was snug and stiff. The insides were a bright, burnt sienna. Two red Rawlings patches shimmered garishly. I could never play enough to return the XPG6 to its old state. I felt as if I'd committed an unpardonable betrayal.
Slowly, though, I began to accept that what made the XPG6 special was its artistry and its history, which remained unchanged. In fact, the glove's shape and form were truer, stronger and more confident. Propped upright, resting on its wrist strap, the XPG6 reminded me of the Gold Glove trophy itself. The contrast of new and old was beautiful: I. M. Pei's glass pyramid at the Louvre.
In the box containing my rehabbed glove, Mr. Clevenhagen returned the decayed core of the XPG6. I peeked beneath the index-finger slot. The leather was smooth, dark, unblemished, my glove in 1977. Still with me today, still perfect.