June 9th, 2014

Why Did the Baseball Glove Evolve So Slowly?

Peach Gloves

This is a guest column by Noah Liberman, author of the fine book Glove Affairs: The Romance, History and Tradition of the Baseball Glove. I am always pleased to share this space with my expert friends, but especially so when they have cornered the market on a subject about which I am largely ignorant. Images courtesy of Rawlings Sporting Goods and Wilson Sporting Goods. Enjoy! 

“I had my picture taken with Home Run Baker. He came to the ballpark in the fifties and I saw the glove he used. I don’t know how the hell they caught anything with those gloves, honest to God. The fingers were separated, no lacing there, unbelievable. I said, ‘Mr. Baker, how’d you ever catch it with that glove?’” —Brooks Robinson.

A few days ago, I wondered to John Thorn why the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) has no Equipment Committee. Isn’t this odd considering the important roles of the ball, bat, glove and spikes? For example, the glove, first used in a major league game in 1870, allowed infielders to be defter and more aggressive. It encouraged pitchers to throw overhand (because now catchers wouldn’t squawk). It brought about the infield fly rule (because you could now expect a catch). And it contributed to the introduction of the lively ball, in 1910, because fielding averages were at record highs and, frankly, the batters needed a break.

But as radical as the glove was, it was also stunningly slow to evolve. The reasons are fascinating in themselves and illuminate the essential nature of our game – which is precisely why equipment deserves its own SABR committee.

So let’s look at the charmingly, astonishingly slow evolution of the baseball glove.

When Wilbur Wright made the first powered, sustained and controlled flight in human history in 1903, a baseball glove looked like this:Noah, glove 1

In 1919, a Curtiss NC-4 became the first plane to cross the Atlantic, and a year later, Rawlings stood the baseball world on its ear with the introduction of this glove, believe it or not, the Bill Doak model.

When Charles Lindbergh made the first solo Atlantic crossing, in 1927, the Doak was still state-of-the-art. The same was true in 1932, when the tiny, stylish Gee Bee R-1 stunt plane hit 252 miles per hour. Are you getting the feeling that baseball gloves evolved very, very slowly?

Noah, glove 2The Doak was no longer cutting edge (though it was still in the Rawlings catalog) in 1943, when the Bell XP-59-A, America’s first jet plane, went 409 miles per hour. The glove of gloves that year was the Rawlings Red Rolfe “rolled-lace” model, the same kind Al Gionfriddo used in the 1947 World Series to keep a Joe DiMaggio drive from going over the wall in Game 6.

Take a look at it and note all the features that appear to make it hard to catch the ball. There’s the thick, round, stiff thumb and the thick, round, stubby pinkie. There’s the heavy padding at the heel. There’s no hinge. There’s a small pocket, the result of so much padding and no hinge. There are no laces between the fingers. So in 1943, 40 years after Wilbur Wright’s flight, American pilots were flying jets and American baseball professionals were still catching balls with overstuffed pillows.Noah, glove 3

You did your best to catch the ball in the palm then. “Two hands, son!” The rolled-lace web would snare the ball too, but it didn’t allow for the quickest return throw. And you didn’t get much help from the free-floating fingers if you misplayed a ball against them. This was not optimal design. And much of this was still very true in 1953, when the Stan Musial Personal Model was the top of the Rawlings line.

Noah, glove 4But finally, in 1957, almost 90 years after Doug Allison donned a glove for the first time in a professional game, the Wilson Sporting Goods Company introduced a glove with no significant flaws, the A2000.

The march toward the A2000 was so slow, it’s downright stunning. Why did it take so long? American technology had taken quantum leaps in the previous century and, besides, the A2000 didn’t require a lot more manufacturing skill than the Bill Doak model had in 1920.

Analyze the A2000 itself and you begin to get an answer: The A2000 doesn’t look like the human hand. It took almost 90 years for ballplayers and glovemakers to shake off the belief – or was it just unquestioned instinct? – that the glove must look like the hand, like any glove does.

The A2000’s padding is streamlined, and the fingers, thumb and heel are flat and thin. How different from a hand, with its fleshy heel and round fingers! The A2000’s thumb reaches nearly as high as the fingers do, it’s set into the glove at a low point, and it’s set quite forward from the palm and web (which was the Doak’s masterstroke, in a tentative way). Your hand isn’t much like this at all – until you close it around a ball.Noah, glove 5

The A2000 has a fully expressed hinge. Your hand has no such thing: it doesn’t need it, because the thumb and fingers move effectively on their own. But a baseball glove must have one, to allow the hand itself to do its work. The A2000 has a large web, larger than any before it. And it has laces connecting the fingers, a feature patented in the twenties but – no surprise here – not widespread for 20 more years. And the glove is oriented on an axis that runs diagonally at 40 degrees or so – not due north. Your hand does the same, when you close it around something.

But when you hold your hand wide open, your eye runs straight up through your middle finger; and if you look back through these illustrations, you see that in the early days, gloves were oriented this way, too. In most respects, they were like a hand held wide open. The evolution of the glove is, in large part, the slow realization that a glove must reflect how a hand moves to catch a ball, not how it looks when you stare at it.

Finger laces exemplify this necessity. Today we can’t conceive of a glove without them. The Ken-Wel Company’s fine Dazzy Vance model offered finger laces in the thirties, but most players rejected the idea because they felt they needed individually articulated fingers to grab the ball – as if they were still catching barehanded. And maybe they did need free fingers, considering how small and shallow the pocket was and how little the glove itself flexed.

But as the glove gradually evolved, as the thumb became more agile and helpful, as the padding was streamlined, a player could trust fingers that were laced together and worked as a unit. The fine shortstop Eddie Joost explains why he took a teammate’s advice and rigged up his own finger laces in the late thirties. “The Doak [glove], as small as it was, you’d have a ball hit out on the fingers and you would lose it a little bit. Clyde Beck showed me [his laced glove], and the ball just ran into the glove.”

In the same way, players gradually began to trust the growing webs. A watershed: catching the ball where your hand wasn’t. Joost says the A2000, web and all, was “half again as large as the gloves I had used.” And Al Kaline told a reporter: “The A2000 gave you so much confidence, especially when you had to catch the ball with one hand. The glove seemed to automatically collapse around the ball.”

The A2000 took the major leagues by storm. Rawlings had dominated the league since the late twenties, and its gloves were on the hands of four of every five major leaguers in the fifties. Wilson cut into that significantly but never won over a majority of players, because Rawlings quickly countered with similar features—and piled on many more, such as the Edge-U-Cated Heel (a narrow, streamlined heel with lacing running from thumb to pinkie), the Fastback closed-back concept, and the Flex-O-Matic Palm, with its distinctive radial lacing.

ken-wel brand glove 2Mention of these trademarks brings smiles of recognition to the faces of millions of sandlot players, from the fifties to today. This is the evolution of fielder’s gloves specifically, but catchers’ mitts and first basemen’s mitts have analogous histories. Lou Gehrig’s right hand was x-rayed late in his career; it showed evidence of 17 fractures. But as mitts evolved like gloves – losing padding, being oriented on the diagonal, gaining hinges and large webs and thumbs that helped produce a deep pocket and a firm grip – players could spare their hands.

The breakthrough date for first basemen’s mitts was 1940, with Rawlings’ introduction of the Trapper. You might scratch your head at why forties fielders’ gloves didn’t pick up on the Trapper’s big web and deep pocket, but that’s the way it was. Catchers’ mitts entered modernity with hinges and the first big, solid webs in the mid-fifties. Scratch your head again at why fielders’ gloves needed a few more years to grow a hinge. So why did it take so long for the perfect fielder’s glove to evolve?

Partly it was baseball’s natural traditionalism – although this is too vague an answer. That traditionalism, where gloves are concerned, was a product of the game’s manly ethos. In 1908, Sporting Life was still suggesting that only catchers be allowed big mitts; pitchers and infielders should wear small gloves and outfielders none at all. And even when gloves were accepted, players were still hesitant to let it appear that the glove, rather than the man wearing it, was earning the kudos and the money. “The glove, not the hands, does the work now,” Hall of Fame third baseman Pie Traynor, who starred in the twenties and thirties, hissed in 1959.

There was also the fear born of superstition, the dark cloud that trails every pro athlete. If a glove without finger laces brought a man to the major leagues, he’d be hesitant to entrust his livelihood to something radically different.

There were business factors as well. Although baseball became a big-money game in the first half of the 20th century, the companies making equipment remained regional and relatively small. As long as players at all levels – but especially major leaguers – were happy with the gloves they had (and the Bill Doak model was in the Rawlings catalog for 33 years), there was little impetus to change.

“There was no marketing advantage in innovation,” says John Golomb, a glove historian and custom glovemaker whose family owned and ran the Everlast sports equipment company for decades and who saw tradition at work in boxing. So it’s no coincidence that the A2000 came at a time when Wilson and its competitor Rawlings were becoming national sporting goods powerhouses.

Frank "Home Run" Baker, 1916.

Frank “Home Run” Baker, 1916.

Or maybe it was all cognitive. From Day 1, gloves and mitts were called “gloves” and “mitts.” If someone had started calling them “catching devices” early on, would manufacturers have been freed to see beyond the static hand to the dynamic tool that was the A2000?

I started this blog post comparing gloves to airplanes. That’s dramatic but not entirely fair. There was much more at stake where planes were concerned. General Billy Mitchell wrote in his 1925 book Winged Defense, “It is probable that future war will be conducted by a special class, the air force, as it was by the armored knights in the Middle Ages.”

But baseball is a game of peace; in fact, baseball gloves have always been what the U.S. government sends to soldiers overseas for recreation in wartime. So why did gloves evolve slowly? Because they could. Good for them and good for us.

Noah Liberman is a writer living in Chicago. His 2003 book, Glove Affairs: The Romance, History and Tradition of the Baseball Glove, was a Spitball award nominee, losing to something called Moneyball. It was recently included in Ron Kaplan’s 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die. Noah has also written Flat Stick, the History, Romance and Heartbreak of the Putter, an absurdly complete account of that vexed piece of sports equipment.

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