Building a Better Catcher's Mitt

Major League baseball catchers have to field pitches flying at 90 mph or more, often catching several hundred fastballs a day. A team of medical researchers has concluded that despite improvements in catcher's mitt technology, players' hands still suffer serious damage to nerves and blood vessels. Is it possible to develop a baseball glove that will offer better protection? Nell Boyce reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Part of the fun of a baseball game is that many stadiums use a radar gun to track pitches for the scoreboard; 85 miles an hour, 90, 92. But as you admire the strength of a pitcher's arm, think for a moment about the catcher's hand. Here's NPR's science reporter Nell Boyce.

(Soundbite of music; crowd noise)

Group of People: (In unison) Charge!

NELL BOYCE reporting:

It's the top of the ninth inning here at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC, and I'm watching the Washington Nationals' catcher. His name is Gary Bennett, and he's been crouched down behind home plate for most of the game, getting whacked in the hands again and again with balls flying at extraordinary speeds.

Mr. GARY BENNETT (Catcher, Washington Nationals): As catchers, your hands get pretty beat up. You get used to it, unfortunately.

BOYCE: Gary Bennett examines his hands in the locker room after the game. They look OK, but the index finger seems a little swollen.

Mr. BENNETT: That's obviously where the ball pounds all the time. And that one is numb a lot and it doesn't get very good circulation. It's a little thicker than the rest of your fingers just from, you know, the constant pounding of the ball.

BOYCE: This weekend, there's a new study of catchers' injuries in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. One of the researchers is Andrew Koman, an orthopedic surgeon at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

Dr. ANDREW KOMAN (Wake Forest University): One of our chief residents was a college and semipro catcher. So in one of our conferences, we were talking about the potential damage from a baseball and repetitive trauma, and we came up with the idea of actually looking at semipro baseball players.

BOYCE: The doctors ran medical tests on three dozen players from the local minor leagues. They found that catchers were far more likely than other positions to have numbness, swelling or blood flow problems in their hands.

Dr. KOMAN: I'm hopeful that now that this has been pointed out that the glove manufacturers will make whatever adjustments are practical to better protect the players.

BOYCE: There appears to be little research on what kinds of changes would help. One glove company we contacted didn't want to comment, citing liability issues. But baseball gloves have evolved over the years. Joe Phillips puts out a newsletter called The Glove Collector. He says baseball players initially played with bare hands. The first catchers who tried gloves got ridiculed for being unmanly.

Mr. JOE PHILLIPS (The Glove Collector): Back in the 18--you know, '60s, 1870s, anybody showed up with a glove, they'd hoot them off the field.

BOYCE: At first, the gloves were regular hand gloves with makeshift padding like grass, cotton or even a steak.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah, a piece of raw meat. And they'd kind of pad it and it'd stay cool and would protect the catcher's hand. Sure.

BOYCE: Eventually, mitts got built with more padding so they looked like round pillows with a deep pocket in the middle. But all that bulk made it hard to control the ball, so in the 1960s, catchers started wearing slimmer mitts that fold like a claw. Phillips says this style still dominates today.

Mr. PHILLIPS: You know, there could be some novel things introduced in the next 20 years, but normally baseball's been a very conservative, slow-moving game.

BOYCE: One company that's trying to tweak the design is Akadema, founded by former ballplayer Lawrence Gilligan. He says one of their mitts tries to protect the thumb by pushing it down and out to form an L-shape.

Mr. LAWRENCE GILLIGAN (Akadema): What we did was we added a piece in that glove that would actually put the thumb in a better position. When you catch the ball in the pocket of the glove, your thumb is never near it.

BOYCE: Gilligan says you can't totally reinvent the mitt. The game's official rules say it has to be leather and a certain size.

(Soundbite of crowd noise; cheering)

BOYCE: Back at RFK Stadium, catcher Gary Bennett is philosophical about the pounding his hands have to take.

Mr. BENNETT: You know, you've been doing it for so long in the minor leagues and everything and in high school and you been doing it forever, so you get used to it.

BOYCE: He's more worried about making the play.

Mr. BENNETT: You want enough padding in there so your hand doesn't get too beat up, but on the other aspect if it's too padded, then, you know, it's not--you'll have a tough time back there.

BOYCE: On this day, the Nationals don't win. And the pain of catching a fastball may sting, but not as much as losing the game. Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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