Baseball 'Glove Affairs'

Book Traces History, Tradition of the Sport's Favorite Equipment

Listen: <b>Web Extra:</b> Hear an extended interview with 'Glove Affairs' author Noah Liberman.

Listen: <b>Web Extra:</b> Hear New York Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams talk about his first glove.

Listen: <b>Web Extra:</b> Hear veteran ballplayer Eddie Joost reminisce about his first glove, the Rawlings 'Bill Doak.'

Travis Lee.

hide captionTravis Lee, first baseman for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, uses the same model glove that his father gave him when he was a young boy. Lee still has that first glove, and all the other gloves he's used.

Jeffrey Katz, NPR News
Brook Fordyce.

hide captionBrook Fordyce, catcher for the Baltimore Orioles, is very particular about who uses his glove once the season starts. Not even his wife and kids are allowed to play with it. Once the glove molds to his hand, he wants to make sure it keeps its shape.

Jeffrey Katz, NPR News
Marlon Anderson.

hide captionMarlon Anderson, second baseman for the Devil Rays, is devoted to the popular Wilson A2000. He first started using the model when he was 14. One of the things he likes about it is that it's soft and molds to the shape of his hand very quickly.

Jeffrey Katz, NPR News
Scattered gloves.

hide captionSome gloves belonging to members of the Devil Rays are scattered at Baltimore's Camden Yards during batting practice before a game. In the early days of baseball, players would leave their gloves on the field in case their opponents needed one.

Jeffrey Katz, NPR News
'Glove Affairs' book cover.

hide captionGlove Affairs: The Romance, History, and Tradition of the Baseball Glove by Noah Liberman

This book is available for purchase online. Your purchase helps support NPR.
Travis Lee demonstrates the 'Vulcan grip.'

Lee demonstrates the "Vulcan grip", a special way he puts his fingers into his glove. A first basemen's glove is particularly long, to help him cover more ground as he stretches for throws.
Credit: Jeffrey Katz, NPR News


audio icon Hear Lee explain his unique 'Vulcan grip.'

Baseball players and their gloves are inseparable. Outfielders carry lifelong memories of how their first gloves smelled and felt. Catchers swear by their favorite model of mitt. They might try other kinds, but they're just not the same, they say.

"I've used this since I was 6, 7, 8 years old so you do feel like it's part of you," Travis Lee, first baseman for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, says of his Mizono.

Noah Liberman knows the feeling well. Liberman, the author of Glove Affairs: The Romance, History, and Tradition of the Baseball Glove, had his Wilson glove for 25 years and lost it a few years ago. He went looking for a replacement, but couldn't find one he liked as much. "I realized how beautiful gloves are to anybody who's played the game," he tells NPR's Bob Edwards on Morning Edition. Basketballs and bowling balls are replaceable, "but gloves aren't," Liberman says.

"When something's working for you, when you're comfortable with it and you know that your livelihood depends on it, you're hesitant to change," Liberman explains.

It may seem that gloves have been around as long as baseball itself, but they haven't. Liberman says the first player who probably used one was Doug Allison, a catcher for the Cincinnati Red Stockings. In 1870, Allison was nursing an injured left hand after a long stretch behind the plate. "He had to have some protection and he put on a couple of thin, half-fingered buckskin gloves," Liberman says. "He went out to catch and he caught hell from everybody because in those days baseball players just didn't wear gloves. It was a manly game and that was unheard of. But by 1896, everybody was wearing gloves."

Below is an excerpt from Liberman's book, Glove Affairs:

Book Excerpt

"Fred Pfeffer is playing second base without gloves. He lost his glove in Philadelphia and was rather glad to be rid of it, as he considers gloves more of a hindrance than a help to infielders."— from Sporting Life of June 17, 1893

The baseball glove began its life in shame.

In the early days of professional baseball, a defensive wizard wasn't a gloveman, because real men didn't wear gloves. No one did. Pro ball in the last third of the 19th century was a he-man affair, and part of the deal was you put up with the pain and disfigurement from catching that small, hard ball. But when you'd caught eight games in nine days, as Doug Allison had, and you'd injured your left hand several times already that season handling the "swift" pitches (as they were described) of Cincinnati Red Stockings pitchers, you put comfort over valor.

The Cincinnati Commercial reported on June 28, 1870: "Allison caught to-day in a pair of buckskin mittens, to protect his hands." This dry note was tucked into a story on the team's game against the Washington Nationals, and it buried the news, as a reporter would say. For the first time on record, a major leaguer had worn a glove in a game. He was razzed by opposing players and fans. No mention is found of any other player wearing a glove for another five years.

When Allison donned his mittens, baseball was already America's game. It had firm rules and paid professionals, and some of its traditions stretched back at least a century. Historians peg the beginning of "modern" baseball to 1845, when Alexander Cartwright and the amateur New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club issued a set of rules much like today's. Actually, the word base-ball was first used back in 1762. But historians show a funny aversion to considering those earlier diamond games baseball. They're put off by rules that allowed the defense to "plug" or "soak" a runner with a thrown ball for an out or that allowed players to run clockwise. Baseball's bible, Total Baseball, begins its "Famous Firsts" section with Cartwright's rule book in 1845, ignoring the more vital firsts (such as balls, strikes, and bases) that came well before and implying that a clerical event marked the beginning of the game we now play. That's an arbitrary way to make sense of a long evolution.

Whatever their take on modern baseball, in more expansive moods, those same historians say ballgames began in Egypt three millennia ago. Then they trace an evolution through Middle Eastern fertility rites and European churchyard festivals, right down to Allison's Red Stockings, the first professional baseball team.

The historical questions are diverting, but this is for certain: all those games had balls to catch. By the 1300s, they had bases to run to. But never, until Allison, is there firm evidence that they had gloves.

Although the papers are silent on gloves in the major leagues after Allison's transgression, sporting goods catalogs began offering them to the public as early as 1872, and the authoritative annual DeWitt's Guide of 1872 reads: "The catcher will find it advantageous when facing swift pitching to wear tough leather gloves, with the fingers cut off near the joint, as they will prevent him having his hands split and puffed up."

But bare-handedness was so ingrained in the ethos of the game that when an exception was made for catchers, like Allison, it was made for no one else for five years. Charlie Waitt was a soft-hitting outfielder for the St. Louis Brown Stockings in 1875, his first of four journeyman seasons. That year he played a few games at first base. Evidently he discovered that dead-ball-era pegs from a shortstop stung a lot more than dead-ball-era pop flies. So one day he sidled out to the bag with a thin, half-fingered, unpadded glove on. It was flesh-colored, because he hoped no one would notice. But everyone did, and he caught hell.

No first baseman wore a glove for another two years because of the stigma. Finally Chicago great Albert Spalding, who was moving to first base from pitcher in 1877, made gloves for first basemen stick when he slipped on a pair of black ones and, he later wrote, evoked sympathy rather than hilarity. Like Waitt, he was moving to first from another position with fewer hard shots to field — in fact, outfielders and pitchers were the last to convert to gloves, several years later. But Spalding also had fame on his side and the profit motive: soon he was scheming to sell those very gloves in his sporting goods store for between $1 and $2.50.

(Not coincidentally, the catcher's mask was first used in a pro game in 1877 as well. It had been invented in 1873, and its first known use in organized ball was by Harvard student James Tyng in 1875, the very same year as Waitt's short experiment.)

Events have a way of obscuring the past, and so it is with Spalding's glove milestone. Despite him and the success of the sporting goods company that still bears his name, the official glove of Major League Baseball is the Wilson — it's never been a Spalding. The semiofficial Gold Glove award was Rawlings' idea in 1957, not Spalding's. In fact, Rawlings even owned Spalding for a short time in the late fifties and made gloves for Spalding in the sixties. Spalding was the game's official ball for a long while, that is until Rawlings took over in 1977. So Spalding's association with the game now is only historical and evolutionary. It does make the official ball of the National Basketball Association, but if you're a baseball fan, do you really care?

So if we believe him, Spalding cleared the way, and major leaguers at all positions began to accept the idea of saving their manly but sore hands. Most infielders had jumped on board in a few years, and outfielders and pitchers joined them several years later. To picture the gloves they wore, think of today's driving gloves — thin leather, open back, half fingers — one on each hand. Two-handed was always the way to catch baseballs, and gloves weren't nearly big or soft enough yet to encourage one-handed grabs. But the slow evolution had begun.

This excerpt printed with the permission of Triumph Books/ www.triumphbooks.com

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