A Level Playing Field

Billy Bean

Billy Bean

I am a true believer in the power of baseball to serve as a beacon to the nation and, increasingly, the world. Our game is about equal opportunity whatever the color of one’s skin; an open door for people of differing national origin, and an understanding that everyone, whatever their gender or sexual orientation, will play by the same set of rules. How different from the customs and practices of everyday life!

Today has been a big day for baseball and for America, marking one of those times when baseball has taken a position to lead the nation rather than belatedly follow it. Commissioner Bud Selig announced the creation of a new post, that of “ambassador for inclusion,” for Billy Bean, a former major league outfielder who struggled in his career because of the strain of keeping secret the fact that he was gay. In his new position Bean will provide guidance to support those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community throughout MLB, and will help MLB personnel to deal with this community sensitively and within the structure of the  joint MLB-MLBPA Workplace Code of Conduct.

“Major League Baseball is delighted that Billy, a member of the baseball family, will advise and represent our sport on a wide range of matters,” Selig said. “As a social institution, our game has important social responsibilities. To this day, the vibrant legacy of Jackie Robinson revolves around inclusion, respect and equal opportunity. I believe that Billy will help us proactively cultivate those fundamental principles, and he will serve as a significant resource to our clubs, current and future players and many others throughout our game.”

Selig and Bean were accompanied by Lutha Burke, the sister of the late former Major League outfielder Glenn Burke, whose homosexuality was acknowledged to his teammates on the Los Anglese Dodgers and Oakland As but was not widely own outside those clubhouses.

Jews who came to this country after the Holocaust—I was one, the child of survivors—understood being singled out for unequal treatment, but in this we were by no means alone. While Jews were admitted into Major League Baseball from its inception, African Americans were, with a handful of exceptions, institutionally barred at the door. For Jews, Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947 served as an indicator of changing American values toward difference. Coming after the horrors of World War II, we Jews embraced Robinson, the Dodgers, and hope for a level playing field for ourselves, too.

Playing baseball, attending games, trading baseball cards, and following the records of favorite players all served as outward affirmations of faith in the idea of America as a new home. My parents never took to baseball and lived their lives as strangers in a strange land, no matter that they were grateful, patriotic Americans for many more years than they had been embattled Europeans.

The parallel trials of Blacks and Jews illuminate the ongoing problem in American society: who is in, who is out, and who gets to decide? The Jewish experience in baseball was different from that of any other minority that sought to elevate its social and economic standing within the majority culture. But so have been the paths of African Americans, Italians, Slavs, Hispanics, and Asians.

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson

Let me suggest that no path through baseball could have been as lonely, as isolated, as utterly without consensus, as that of gay players. They did not see the game as a way out and a way up; acceptance and inclusion, they may well have thought, were the primary goals. 

As our national game, baseball in no small measure defines us as Americans, connecting us with our countrymen across all barriers of generation, class, race, creed, gender, and sexual orientation. Meritocracy is what we are promised as Americans and—despite societal inequities of long standing, and a widening gap in real income between the top and middle and the bottom—that is more nearly, practically true of our nation than anywhere else in the world. And meritocracy is what characterizes our national game more perfectly than in our nation. Can you play?—today that is the only question asked.

With Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson had forced America to confront the falsehood that baseball could truly be a national pastime while intentionally excluding anyone. America is a nation of nations, and its emblematic game is enriched by reflecting that truth. Today, baseball took another step toward leveling the field for all its citizens.

The Game within the Game

The Pitcher_cropIn 1987 John Holway and I  published a book titled The Pitcher. It was grandiosely and grotesquely subtitled “The Ultimate Compendium of Pitching Lore: Featuring Flakes and Fruitcakes, Wildmen and Control Artists, Strategies, Deliveries, Statistics, and More.” The book thus appeared to offer a rollicking ride through baseball history, a successor of sorts to my own execrable debut book from 1974, A Century of Baseball Lore. But the current ascendancy of pitching, highlighted wonderfully by Tyler Kepner last week in “Now Pitchers Have the Power,” [http://goo.gl/oklQe7] prompted me to take another look at this tattered old tome–much of it, gratifyingly to me, not half bad. Below, the introductory essay; remember this is from 1987 except for bracketed remarks.

“Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” —Warren Spahn

Viewed from the bleachers, baseball can seem child’s play, simple, clear, and sweetly pure of intent. Throw and catch, hit and run—these are things we can do (or once could) and, we may flatter ourselves, not so much worse than those fellows down there. The pitcher slings the ball toward the catcher; the batter swings to intercept it; the fielders, coiled, await the outcome. Broad expanses of green and brown frame the players as they spring into motion at the crack of the bat. The brilliantly white ball soars or bounds where it will, the batter takes his base or is denied it—and inning after inning, game after game, year after year, the ceremony is reenacted. Harmony. Grace. Justice.

Baseball is not really so routine of course, or we would not care about it as intensely as we do. Is there a single action in all of sport more difficult than hitting a pitched ball, or one more intricate than pitching to a batter? What can appear more natural yet be more practiced than catching a fly ball? The beauty of baseball, its sustaining satis­faction, is that it is both simple and com­plex, slow  and  sudden, predictable and surprising—a tangle of paradoxes that, like art, like life, reveals itself only by degrees. The astute fan may weigh the merits of a sacrifice bunt or a steal of third base; after much study he may even solve an age-old enigma; yet the essential mystery of base­ball—what goes on between pitcher and bat­ter—remains forever hidden in plain sight.

The eternal conflict in baseball, pitcher vs. striker. Muller & Deacon statuettes from 1868.

The eternal conflict in baseball, pitcher vs. striker. Muller & Deacon statuettes from 1868.

We enter the national pastime’s labyrinth of deception with the opening words of the official rules: “Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players….” While bas­ketball may be a game of five against five, and football, of eleven against eleven, no part of a baseball game pits nine men against nine. One might as well describe the sport as a free-for-all matching two rosters of twenty-five players each. In fact, baseball is a joint enterprise before the game’s first pitch and after its last one, and at precious few points in between.

As a team game, baseball is an aggregate of individual games played for individual goals. It may be seen as the lonely struggle of one man, the batter,  to overcome nine opponents. Or, if we consider the seven men in the field to be of no concern if the batter cannot first hit the ball, the conflict narrows to one against two, hitter against the bat­tery. But even in this game within the game, the catcher plays a passive role: his wisdom may direct the battery attack, but little that he does with the ball can set the larger game in motion. And so baseball’s conflict tele­scopes further, to the primal combat of pitcher and batter, one against one.

Locked in concentration, the antagonists devise their strategies, ready their weapons, and face each other across the odd distance of 60 feet, 6 inches. The batter is armed with a tapered club, ideally of white ash, up to 42 inches long and of unlimited weight (al­though approximately 2 pounds is the cur­rent standard), with a diameter of 2.75 inches at its widest point. The pitcher grips a cow­hide-covered sphere fashioned from layers of tightly wound woolen yarn, rubber, and at the center, composition cork; it weighs 5.25 ounces and is of a diameter slightly greater than that of the bat. He must apply speed, spin, and guile to the ball while di­recting it over (or tantalizingly close to) a plate 17 inches wide, within a vertical strike zone of 2 to 3.5 feet depending upon the height and stance of the batter and the pre­dilection of the umpire.pitcher with ball modeled on lefty grove_a

A good major-league fastball, traveling 90 miles per hour, will traverse the 55 to 56 feet between the pitcher’s point of release and the heart of home plate in 0.42 seconds. Within the first 0.22 seconds after the ball leaves the hand, the batter must pick up the flight of the pitch, identify it by its rotation, predict its location, and decide whether to swing or not. He will need the remaining 0.20 seconds to stride, rotate his hips, and apply torque to the bat through the muscles at the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. To drive the ball into fair territory, he must meet it within an arc of 15 degrees in front of or behind the point at which the bat is perpen­dicular to the path of the ball—a space of about 2 feet, through which the good major-league fastball will pass in 15 thousandths of a second.

Even if he connects squarely, however, he has little control over where his hit will go. Because both the ball and the bat are round at the point of impact, the batter cannot di­rect and manipulate the ball as golfers or tennis players, with their flat-surfaced clubs and racquets, can. Thus, there exists the phenomenon of the hard-hit out, which any batter will tell you is not compensated for by an equal number of scratch hits; and thus, we define the successful hitter as one who fails only seven times in ten. The major-league pitcher is a formidable foe, so for­midable that only four batters in the 20th century—Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Rogers Hornsby, and Babe Ruth—have ever been his equal, reaching base as often as they were retired, for even a single sea­son. [I will add here that in the 19th century, John McGraw, Hugh Duffy, Ed Delahanty, Joe Kelley, and Billy Hamilton did it; and in the 21st century  Barry Bonds did it four times, with an other-worldly peak of .609 in 2004.]

Pitcher and batter are constantly looking for some key to obtaining momentary ad­vantage. The batter will alter his stance, his location in the box, his grip; the pitcher will change his speeds, his selection of pitches, his delivery. Through this series of adjust­ments, the game within the game stays in traditional balance, with the average major-league hitter batting between .250 and .275 and the average major-league hurler yield­ing 3.50 to 4.00 runs per nine innings. (These norms are a matter of practice, not a product of physical law. The earned run average for all play from 1876-1986 is 3.66, and the batting average is .268.) [At this moment in 2014, the MLB ERA is 3.79 and the BA is .251.]

The Pitcher, by Douglas Tilden, San Francisco, Golden Gate Park

The Pitcher, by Douglas Tilden, San Francisco, Golden Gate Park

But sometimes the combatants’ adjust­ments are not enough to prevent the long struggle from tilting radically in favor of one or the other, as it did for the hitter in 1930 and for the pitcher in 1968. At such mo­ments, just as the fight seems a mortal mis­match and the public outcry is at its greatest, strings are pulled from above the fray and a deus ex machina—in the form of a designated hitter, a redefined strike zone, a livened or deadened ball—restores equilibrium. The owners and rules makers know that the ob­ject of the year-in, year-out competition be­tween pitcher and batter must be, not final victory, but eternal unresolved conflict if the fans are to maintain interest and profits are to be made. These handicappers will pro­vide the balance between offense and de­fense that they imagine the public demands. If the customer clamors for a bushel of .350 hitters, he may have them. More home runs? As many as he would like.

Providing the hitter with an advantage re­quires tinkering with the game, which can be and has been done. But if you want more low-scoring classics, no problem: Just leave the rules and the ball alone for a generation and the .300 hitter will go the way of the dinosaur. Left unfettered, pitching is an ir­resistible force and will prevail. The prog­ress of baseball from a boys’ game of the 1830s to the national pastime and passion of today is the product of, on the one hand, a steady rise in pitching skill, fueled by ad­vances in physiology, training, and tech­nique; and, on the other hand, the repeated restraints placed upon that rise. These shackles permit hitters, dependent as they are on reaction time and electrical impulses to the brain, the chance to reestablish their former efficiency, thus maintaining the soothing illusion that, of all things, baseball, at least, remains the same.

But baseball has changed, and the steady onslaught of pitching has changed it most.

The Luckiest Man

I have posted two Lou Gehrig pieces this week so haven’t got much more to say. But a picture is worth 1,000 words, and this painting by Graig Kreindler lives up to the adage. I use it with his kind permission, and encourage you to visit his wonderful site: http://graigkreindler.com/.

Lou Gehrig, July 4, 1939 Farewell, by GRaig Kreindler.

Lou Gehrig, July 4, 1939 Farewell, by Graig Kreindler.




Lou Gehrig, 75 Years after the Speech

Lou Gehrig, Joe McCarthy

Lou Gehrig, Joe McCarthy

Lou Gehrig … disease … death … sadness. Yes, those are the connections we make automatically now, nearly seventy-five years since he withered away from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. We look at the trophy that his Yankee pals presented to him, this trophy that only two months after his last game was too heavy for him to hold during the farewell ceremonies of July 4, 1939. We think of the sympathetic portrayal by Gary Cooper in The Pride of the Yankees and how Lou loved his wife, Eleanor. It’s hard to get past the Hollywood version and the sadness, beyond the black-bordered memorial, to reflect upon the powerful young man who filled out his white warm-up sweater when he played for Columbia University. Let’s remember that fans loved Lou Gehrig not only because he was modest and kind, attributes that even today may be found in abundance; they loved him because he was extraordinary, a baseball player so relentlessly dependable that scribes likened him to a locomotive, “The Iron Horse.”

Today few fans will offer his name when prodded for the greatest players of all time, no matter that his place in the Hall of Fame was secure even before there was a Hall of Fame. Gehrig was not flashy, not even graceful, but by many measures he was the second-best hitter the game had seen up to his time. That the only man whose exploits exceeded his also happened to play for the Yankees was not a tragedy; it suited Lou’s character perfectly. When his friend, baseball writer Fred Lieb, asked him what it felt like to play in the shadow of Babe Ruth, Lou cheerfully replied, “It’s a big shadow; there’s plenty of room for me.”

So permit me to do for Lou what he would never have done for himself: step forward to recite a few of his routinely astonishing feats. Not only did he play every game for fourteen years, amassing the total of 2,130 that will be identified with him always, even long after Cal Ripken surpassed his mark; he broke the previous record for consistency by 823 games, or roughly five seasons. In the period 1926-1938 he averaged 147 RBIs, a figure many power-hitting Hall of Famers never equaled once. In our century, no one drove in more runs per game played and, as writer Bill Curran pointed out, Lou accomplished that while batting behind two of the greatest base-clearing machines of all time–Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. In 1931 Gehrig drove in 184 runs, still the American League record. But consider that in the previous season he drove in 117 runs in his road games alone (he was not a pure pull hitter and benefited little from the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium). His record of twenty-three grand slams stood until last season.

The Iron Horse and the Big Fella.

The Iron Horse and the Big Fella.

Gehrig was the man who never made any noise; he was in truth what he seemed to be: quiet, sturdy, strong, perfectly sure of his talents yet without an ounce of boast in him. Even when he did something great, he took a backseat. For example, the day he became the first American Leaguer to hit four home runs in a game (and he barely missed a fifth), his feat was scarcely noticed. It was the same day John McGraw announced his retirement. Even after Gehrig’s amazing performance in the Yanks’ four-game sweep of the 1932 World Series–three homers, eight RBIs, a .529 batting average, and a 1.118 slugging mark–Ruth got all the press for his “called shot” (which Gehrig, incidentally, followed with a homer of his own).

His team, of course, was a dynasty, and Gehrig appeared in seven World Series (the pins he received, to which he added his MVP and All-Star jewelry, he made into a bracelet for Eleanor). He was the constant, the only man from the Series contestants of 1926-1928 to play with the World Champs of 1936-39 (although his last game in the 1939 season was on April 30). Even today, after all the stars of all the years since his passing, a look at the top lifetime marks in on-base percentage plus slugging average–OPS, today’s most common measure of batting proficiency–offers this triad: Ruth, Williams, Gehrig.

I wrote this back in 1998 but, as we near the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s great speech, I thought it worth revisiting.

Gehrig, Williams, and the 1939 All-Star Game

1939 Sleeve Patch

1939 Sleeve Patch

The first All-Star Game (ASG) in the Twin Cities took place in 1965, and this summer you’ll read a lot about Killebrew and Versalles and Battey and Grant and Oliva and Hall. But there was an earlier one with a strong Minneapolis connection and a wealth of colorful background. The 1939 ASG, played at Yankee Stadium, remains notable in large part for two all-time greats who did not play in it: Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams, both with Minnesota stories.

Prefiguring that year’s World Series, there were six Yankees in the starting lineup for the American League (AL), and five Reds among the National League (NL) starting nine. Starting pitchers were New York’s Red Ruffing and Cincinnati’s Paul Derringer. Lonnie Frey drove in the first run of the game and the only run for the Nationals, as the AL won 3–1. Tommy Bridges got the win, Bob Feller—in his first ASG appearance—got the three-inning save, and Bill Lee took the loss. As the game’s details have receded into the mists of time, the backstory has risen to the fore.

Played on July 11, 1939, this was the first time the Midsummer Classic would be held at Yankee Stadium and the second time Gehrig was not the AL’s starting first baseman; Jimmie Foxx had replaced him for 1938 and Hank Greenberg for 1939. Gehrig was in uniform as the Americans’ captain, but he had ended his 2130-game playing streak on May 2. “Maybe a rest will do me some good,” he had said at the time. “Maybe it won’t. Who knows? Who can tell? I’m just hoping.” But he would never play again.

One month before the ASG, on June 12, the Baseball Hall of Fame had opened its doors. On the following day, Gehrig arrived at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he would be examined for six days, receive a diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and then stay in the region for another three days, fishing with Mayo Clinic doctors who hoped to ease in the painful news. Lou’s somewhat sanitized prognosis was made public in the latter part of June by Dr. Harold C. Habein:

Gehrig deplaning at Rochester, MN

Gehrig deplaning at Rochester, MN

This is to certify that Mr. Lou Gehrig has been under examination at the Mayo Clinic from June 13 to June 19, inclusive. After a careful and complete examination, it was found that he is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. This type of illness involves the motor pathways and cells of the central nervous system and, in lay terms, is known as a form of chronic poliomyelitis – infantile paralysis. The nature of this trouble makes it such that Mr. Gehrig will be unable to continue his active participation as a baseball player, inasmuch as it is advisable that he conserve his muscular energy. He could, however, continue in some executive capacity.

On July 4—Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert had rejected a proposal to honor Gehrig at the All-Star Game—the Yankees retired his No. 4, the first such action in baseball. Gehrig called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

In the ASG on the 11th, Joe DiMaggio’s fifth-inning home run provided an insurance run in the AL’s 3-1 victory. As Gehrig had begun to fade, the great centerfielder had taken the baton as the Yankees’ leader. Perhaps surprisingly, the 1939 club—despite losing Gehrig—became arguably the greatest in franchise history, outscoring their AL opponents by 2.7 runs per game (967 to 556) and winning their fourth consecutive World Series, losing only three games over that span.

DiMaggio was in the AL starting lineup for the fourth consecutive year. As a rookie in 1936 Joe had opened in right field as Earl Averill was named to play center. Now, in 1939, Boston had a rookie right fielder (he would play left field every year after that) who was not named to the squad, even as a reserve. His name was Ted Williams.

 Williams with Minneapolis, 1938

Williams with Minneapolis, 1938

In 1938, his one year with Minneapolis, Williams won the Triple Crown with a batting average of .366, 43 home runs, and 142 RBIs. But his antics in the outfield and on the basepaths drove manager Donie Bush to despair. Maybe the Kid was going to be the game’s next great star, but the comparisons offered by newsmen around the Triple-A circuit were not to Babe Ruth but to Babe Herman—or to Ring Lardner’s “Elmer the Great.” It is hard to fathom today, but as he rose to the majors Ted was universally regarded as a screwball.

Joe McCarthy, the AL squad’s manager, decided to teach the brash kid a lesson. He selected Doc Cramer, the Red Sox center fielder, to start the game in right field and passed Williams over entirely. Over the course of the 1939 campaign Cramer would  go on to hit .311 with zero home runs and 56 RBIs, with an On Base Plus Slugging (OPS) of 0.734. Williams would hit .327 with 31 home runs and 145 RBIs, with an OPS of 1.045.

After the 1939 season Williams went to Minnesota rather than return to his hometown of San Diego, where his parents had just separated and his brother Danny was running with a bad crowd. “Home was never a happy place for me,” Ted said, “and I had met a girl in Minnesota.” The girl was Doris Soule, whom he would later marry. The next year, the Kid would incur the antagonism of Boston writer Harold Kaese, who wrote, “Well, what do you expect from a guy who won’t even go to see his mother in the off season?” Ted never forgave him, nor any of the “knights of the keyboard,” and the long battle between the Kid and the press was joined.

One last Minneapolis note: two of the game’s five greatest players, in most anyone’s estimation, wore Millers uniforms in 1938 and 1951. One was Ted Williams. I’ll bet you can name the other (answer below).

Willie Mays_reverse








Picture Portfolio No. 6: Christy Mathewson

Frank Merriwell, the “All-American Boy” of the dime novels, was not modeled on Christy Mathewson, although many believe this is the case (Merriwell was a national sensation in 1896, when Matty was still in high school). On the contrary, the future star twirler of the New York Giants, he of the disdainful glance at the opposing batsman before tossing up his inscrutable fadeaway, might well have modeled himself on Merriwell.

No matter–chicken or egg, Matty was the real-life embodiment of all the dime-novel improbabilities. He had indefatigable verve, nerve, pluck … even, for a while, luck. An early nickname for him was “Big Six,” conferring upon him the combination of power and reliability of New York’s most famous fire engine, the Americus No. 6, a double-deck steamer that was a true New York Giant, tipping the scale at over two tons. (Forget that stuff you often read about Matty being named “Big Six” on account of his six-foot height.) In an era when most ballplayers were rough-and-tumble characters from the wrong side of the tracks who believed that fists were the best way to settle any dispute, Mathewson stood out as “the Christian Gentleman.” Tall, blond, aristocratic in looks and bearing, and college-educated, he earned a reputation for fairness and honesty that made him one of the game’s first role models for boys of whom middle-class parents could approve. This was no King Kelly or Rube Waddell, no flouter of convention and target of the law, no saloon crawler or base-path brawler.

He was “no goody-goody,” his wife Jane hastened to add whenever someone would expound upon his virtues, and that was probably true, but his press clippings declared him a paragon of virtue. He was known to cuss a bit, liked to gamble mostly on  checkers, at which he was a whiz, and poker, at which he was not, and there are a few recorded instances of his being involved in a scuffle. Some folks found him standoffish, even aloof, and accused him of having “a swelled head.” But his teammates, his manager, and even those most skeptical of creatures, the writers who traveled with the team, simply adored “the Christian Gentleman.” Like Kelly and Waddell, who had courted death through drink, Matty died not long after his playing days were over, though in his case from the lingering effects of poison gas inhaled during a wartime training exercise.

Mathewson began his professional career with Taunton of the New England League, in the summer after his sophomore year at Bucknell College, where he drew All-America attention as a fullback and drop kicker. During the following season, 1900, he went 20-2 for Norfolk in the Virginia League and in midseason was purchased conditionally by the Giants, who were unimpressed by his pitching and tried to convert him to first base. After the season, they returned him to Norfolk, whence he was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds. (Isn’t it amazing how a talent of this magnitude can escape the gaze of professional baseball people? It gives hope to every struggling rookie at every level of play.)

Fortunately for the Giants, Cincinnati proved to be no smarter than they had been. The Reds allowed themselves to be hoodwinked into an exchange of worn-out superstar Amos Rusie, whose career total of 246 major-league wins were all behind him, for Mathewson, whose 373 wins were all ahead.

These photographs recall Mathewson and his peculiar blend of piety and perspicacity. Action photos of him were bound into a flip book in 1907 by the Winston Film Company (“See Christy Mathewson Pitch!”) and issued commercially. The ingenious Matty used them to augment his own pitches to prospective clients for his off-season insurance business. Now that’s a calling card!

He was never without his Bible and his checkers. When traveling with the team, he would typically go to the local YMCA to play checkers in the evening, sometimes against a gaggle of opponents, whom he would play simultaneously, moving around the room from board to board. He was a Christian in upbringing and demeanor, but unlike Branch Rickey and other devout youths who had made promises to their mothers before embarking upon careers in professional baseball, he was not above playing exhibition baseball games on Sundays (baseball was not permitted on the Sabbath in New York until 1919). He was one of the guys, and he liked his extra money just as the other Giants did.

As a pitcher he was at his best when the going was tough; his three shutouts in the 1905 World Series have never been equaled. His ghosted autobiography, Pitching in a Pinch, explained how he would take it easy unless the situation was tight, i.e., “the pinch.” (Of course, that strategy was fine for the deadball era when weak batters were unlikely to drive the ball for an extra-base hit; today the six-inning “quality start” followed by two or three relievers is the preferred modus operandi.)

Interestingly, the great Mathewson took some of the toughest losses in history. In 1908 he would have been the winning pitcher on September 23, when Fred Merkle failed to touch second and turned a Giant victory into a tie game. When that tie forced a one-game playoff for the pennant, he lost to “Three-Finger” Brown. In the 1912 World Series he lost the final game in the last of the tenth inning when Fred Snodgrass muffed a fly ball and Merkle and the catcher, Chief Meyers, couldn’t agree on who should catch Tris Speaker’s foul pop.

The first of his ghostwritten books was Won in the Ninth. Ring Lardner declared that it ruined the literary tastes of an entire generation, but its readers certainly loved baseball all the more for sharing Mathewson’s thrilling adventures and imagining themselves in his shoes. This 1910 book was the first of a series to be known as the “Matty books”; later exemplars of Matty’s stilted prose are First Base Faulkner, Second Base Sloan, Catcher Craig, and Pitcher Pollock. Subtlety was lost on boys avid for detail and for echoes of the big leagues, so the ballplayers in Won in the Ninth included such barely camouflaged characters as awkward-looking shortstop Hans Hagner, slick-fielding double-play specialist Johnny Everson, and nimble first sacker Hal Case. Newspaperman John Wheeler, who covered the Giants on a daily basis, was Matty’s ghost for the series.

Almost Perfect

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw

An old friend who happens to be a Dodger fan–US District Judge Andrew Guilford–wrote to me this afternoon about last night’s no-hitter by L.A.’s Clayton Kershaw. “I’ve always been troubled when a pitcher loses a perfect game through an error by his teammate,” he wrote. “Decades ago, I checked it out, and I may be wrong, but I think it happens infrequently. It happened last night to Kershaw, who belongs with Koufax in the rarefied conversation of Dodger perfect games, yet will not be there through no fault of his own. We need a catchy phrase for a ‘no hit, no walk, no HBP, no E-1’ game and I have an idea. In a game now being flooded with all kinds of new sabermetric words we need to introduce this phrase: ‘A PITCHER’S perfect game.’

“I wonder,” Andy continued, “if anyone else has flown the flag I’m now flying (or tilted at this windmill), and whether there is any chance of adding a ‘pitcher’s perfect game’ to WAR, WHIP, OPS, DICE, DIPS, RISP, PECOTA, etc. Heck, I might even settle for ‘PPG’!”

The Pitcher, 1987

The Pitcher, 1987

This subject had interested me way back in 1987 when John Holway and I collaborated on a long out of print book called The Pitcher. Not even I possess a copy, but recalling that Dick Bosman lost a perfect game by committing an error HIMSELF (the E-1 which my friend would have exempted from his proposed PPG), I was able to wind my thoughts back to an article in SABR’s Baseball Research Journal of 1991, by William Ruiz, “Near-Perfect Games.” He identified five no-hitters in which the only man to reach base did so on an error.

July 1, 1920: Walter Johnson
Only baserunner came on Bucky Harris’ error leading off the seventh.

September 3, 1947: Bill McCahan
Only baserunner came on Ferris Fain’s error with one out in the second. After fielding a grounder, Fain tossed wildly to McCahan, who was covering first on the play.

July 19, 1974: Dick Bosman
Bosman’s own error in the fourth allowed Oakland’s only baserunner. Attempting a comeback after a sore-armed 3–13 record, Cleveland’s Bosman threw wildly to first after Sal Bando hit a chopper back to the box.

June 27, 1980: Jerry Reuss
Only baserunner came on Bill Russell’s throwing error with two outs in the first frame. Russell’s throw from deep in the hole on another play smothered a possible hit.

August 15, 1990: Terry Mulholland
Only baserunner came on third baseman Charlie Hayes’s error leading off the seventh. Hayes would later make a spectacular catch to end the game. Mulholland faced the minimum 27 batters.

Author Ruiz missed this earlier no-hitter in which the only two baserunners had reached on errors:

June 13, 1905: Christy Mathewson
Only baserunners came on errors by Bill Dahlen and Billy Gilbert. Three Finger Brown allowed only two hits through eight scoreless innings.

Harvey Haddix, 1961 Topps card

Harvey Haddix, 1961 Topps card

No longer counted as a no-hitter, Harvey Haddix’s perfect game of May 26, 1959 was broken up by third baseman Don Hoak’s error in the thirteenth (!) inning. Felix Mantilla advanced to second base on Eddie Mathews’ sacrifice. Then followed an intentional walk to Hank Aaron, and a ball hit over the fence by Joe Adcock that at first seemed a three-run homer. But Aaron slowed after passing second base and seeing the ball fly out into the night; Adcock passed him and was ruled out after being credited with a double. Final score, 1–0.

Pedro Martinez had a perfect game through nine innings on June 3, 1995 but like Haddix lost both his perfect game and his no-hitter in an extra frame, though he did win the game.

Have there been others to lose perfect games on errors before Kershaw? Remember, Ruiz’s article was published in 1991. Yes indeed, and this one was memorable because its mound artist was 2–8 on the season with a 5.30 ERA and had been demoted to the bullpen.

July 10, 2009: Jonathan Sánchez
Only baserunner came on Juan Uribe’s error with one out in the eighth.

And of course, there is last night:
June 18, 2014: Clay Kershaw
The Rockies’ only baserunner came on a Hanley Ramirez throwing error in the seventh. Kershaw became the first to throw a no-hitter with 15 strikeouts and no walks.

Ten men lost perfection by allowing a hit to the 27th batter–a pinch hitter prior to the introduction of the designated hitter in the American League in 1973 (thanks to Stew Thornley for help with the list):

August 5,1932: Tommy Bridges

June 27, 1958: Billy Pierce

April 15, 1983: Milt Wilcox

May 2, 1988: Ron Robinson

August 4, 1989: Dave Stieb

April 20, 1990: Brian Holman

September 2, 2001: Mike Mussina

June 2, 2010: Armando Galarraga

April 2, 2013: Yu Darvish

September 6, 2013: Yusmeiro Petit

One man lost a perfect game when the final batter, the opposing pitcher, was permitted to bat:

July 4, 1908: Hooks Wiltse (hit the Phils’ George McQuillan with a two-strike pitch)

Another man lost a perfect game by walking the final batter, pinch hitter Larry Stahl:

Lefty Hooks Wiltse at right, in 1906

Lefty Hooks Wiltse at right, in 1906

September 2, 1972: Milt Pappas (with a 1–2 count, umpire Bruce Froemming called the next three pitches balls—two of them were on the corners—to deny immortality to Milt)

Perfect games are quirky; ask Armando Gallaraga. As they are figured now they are defensive accomplishments of the entire team—although most importantly the pitcher. Pitcher Perfect Games like Kershaw’s—PPGs, as my friend Andy has labeled them— are certainly rare. Do they merit their own separate category?

A Death in the Family

gwynn-83When I learned about Tony Gwynn’s death this morning, from Barry Bloom via Facebook, I was strangely shaken. I knew Tony by his accomplishments, as millions of fans did, but I did not know him personally. We may have been in the same hotel lobby on occasion but I can’t say that we ever exchanged a word.

“Hail and farewell, Tony Gwynn,” I tweeted after quickly rejecting “ave atque vale,” which is the same thing but a bit showy. As a flood of comments followed mine, I found myself increasingly morose. Why? Tony Gwynn was not kin, even if it is universally agreed that he was a truly good guy of admirable character.

Slowly the answer came to me. I have been watching baseball long enough that I can recall the whole of Tony’s ball days. He was a part of my extended family, as he and I and my sons grew up in baseball and grew older, all of us apart yet together. We recall Tony not as one of the boys of summer in their ruin, as Dylan Thomas had it, but as a young friend of our summers together. We spent time with him, marked time with him, and today stopped time with him.

More than distant relatives, he and his  playmates pulled up a chair at the table when the family gathered for meals. We talked about them when we weren’t watching them. As the best hitter in the National League year after year, Tony often sat at the head of the table.

Now the scrapbook is closed. We will add no new snapshots of him to our family album, but we still have plenty at hand—flip to any page. I have my family and you have yours, but we share a family, all of us who care deeply about the game. We are the family of baseball.

Reflecting upon the complete last line of Catullus’s elegy for his brother, it fits the way I am feeling now, and I’m guessing it fits you too.

“And forever, brother, hail and farewell” (atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale).

Happy 75th Birthday to Our Game’s Shrine

Baseball Hall of Fame, 75th Anniversary

Baseball Hall of Fame, 75th Anniversary

Just to the left of the entrance to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is a scoreboard, a basic list of the scores from the major-league games of the day before. The symbolic point is clear: once the game is over, it is history, and it belongs to Cooperstown.

For a first-time visitor, the walk down Main Street to the Museum is impossible to perform slowly; the undertow of the building is too hard to resist. But Main Street, Cooperstown, provides a complimentary experience of baseball in America, a living museum that provokes thought and wonder of a different sort. Along with the coffee shops and drugstores is a souvenir extravaganza, from trinkets and cards costing less than a dollar to autographed rarities that could be in the Museum itself. The tradition is long: curio sellers lined the path of the Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land; peddlers’ shacks were a blight at Niagara Falls by the 1840s. In Cooperstown, however, the row of shops is pleasing: thanks to the foresight of the village fathers, even stores selling plastic coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, and “authentic replicas” must hawk their dubious wares from reasonably attractive venues. A jewel like the Hall of Fame must have a proper setting.

Step inside the Museum, your heart racing, then pause to catch your breath and find your bearings. Relax—there is no wrong turn. The story of baseball may be approached from the beginning, or from the end, or from any of the thousands of entry points between. If you go straight ahead, you find yourself in the Hall of Fame Gallery, with its silent array of plaques. Do you like to save the best for last? I suggest that you go around the bases, then return here, to baseball’s real-life home plate.

Baseball is at the core of our national life, and the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is the game’s national shrine, the repository of its heritage. Dedicated souls make the pilgrimage to Cooperstown, New York, a picturesque village of 1,852 inhabitants that is served by no airport, no passenger train, no major highway. They don’t get here by finding it on the way to there.

Abner Doubleday by Mathew Brady

Abner Doubleday by Brady

If baseball is played everywhere today, and bat-and-ball games have been played everywhere for centuries, why do visitors come to Cooperstown with such a sense of reverence, even a belief that baseball started here? There are several answers rather than one, and they tell a wonderfully American tale, equal parts history and myth, which begins with Abner Doubleday and ends with him. Along the way his legend was created, enlarged, punctured, and in the end enriched. He is not baseball’s inventor, but has become, oddly, its Father Christmas, offering bounteous gifts with a wink and a nod.

While the precise origins of the game we call baseball can be debated (and David Block I have done so, in our books and articles) we can state with certainty that it did not spring full-blown from the fertile mind of Abner Doubleday, or anyone else, in Cooperstown, or anyplace else. But the selection of the remote hamlet of Cooperstown, New York, was based on just such a notion: that anything as glorious as baseball must have begun in one place, at one particular time, and must have been the brainstorm of some ingenious American lad. Given these premises, a creation myth was inevitable; all that remained was to determine its particulars. To the question, “How did baseball come to be,” evolution seemed an unsatisfactory answer—messy, purposeless, and undramatic. It is at this point that the interests of Albert Goodwill Spalding and the good people of Cooperstown intersect.

James Fenimore Cooper, 1789-1851

James Fenimore Cooper, 1789-1851

Before 1939, Cooperstown was a typical American village, although one blessed by a spectacular setting. At one end of the town the glorious Lake Otsego, the shimmering body of water that James Fenimore Cooper (for whose father the village was named) called “Glimmerglass” in his Leatherstocking Tales. All around the nine-mile lake were softly rolling hills and a democratic mixture of stately homes and sportsmen’s cabins. The Susquehanna River has its origin here, at the south end of Lake Otsego, flowing from its height of 1,200 feet above sea level all the way through Pennsylvania and into the Chesapeake Bay. And here is the spot known as Council Rock, where the Iroquois nations met. And there is the spot known as Phinney’s Pasture, where baseball is said to have begun.

In the late 1880s, when Albert Spalding’s World Tourists—two teams of major-league players—attempted to spread the gospel of baseball to heathen lands, there was a widespread, good-willed debate about the origins of baseball among such prominent figures as John Montgomery Ward, Henry Chadwick, and Spalding. Chadwick, sports journalist, hopeless egotist, inveterate rule tinkerer, and relentless proselytizer, had played rounders in England before coming to these shores. Ever since he commenced to write about baseball in 1856, he had always ascribed the origins of his adopted game to rounders. In the 1904 edition of The Spalding Guide, for which he had long been the editor, Chadwick once again made the case for baseball’s debt to the British game.

Spalding had heard Chadwick’s argument a hundred times before and had always been content to disagree, politely. But this time he either lost his patience, or saw his opening, or—as Chadwick believed—was merely having some fun at his old friend’s expense. Rhetorically, Spalding took the position Ward had previously articulated: that something so typically American in every way could not have been of exotic origin. Those of a skeptical bent might add that Spalding’s motivation for stirring the pot had more to do with commerce than sport, or history, or even patriotism. Through the promotion attendant to the “Great Debate,” Spalding’s company might be counted on to sell additional balls and bats.

Spalding Cigar Box Label, ca 1910

Spalding Cigar Box Label, ca 1910

Spalding published his rebuttal to Chadwick in the 1905 Guide, but he still wasn’t satisfied. He encouraged the presidents of the two leagues, Harry Pulliam and Ban Johnson, to form a commission to settle the issue for once and for all. In the end the organizing task fell to Abrahm G. Mills, an dold sidekick of Spalding’s from the dawn of the National League in 1876. The appointed members of Mills Commission, also veteran cronies, set out to find an unknown genius because he simply had to exist, like the source of the Nile. It was not surprising that they found their man.

The critical piece of evidence in the eyes of the commission was a letter from Abner Graves, a mining engineer living in Denver, Colorado. In the letter Graves said he remembered with unusual clarity an incident related to the discovery of baseball. One summer day in Cooperstown, in 1839 or so (Graves at first was uncertain as to the year), a group of boys had gathered for a day’s play of town ball, in which the Cooperstown lads typically ran headlong into one another, injuring themselves in their enthusiasm. But on this day young Abner Doubleday drew a diagram of a baseball diamond in the dirt at Elihu Phinney’s cow pasture, and from that point on the boys began to play this new, organized game. To Spalding this was glorious stuff—the game for all America invented by a great general of the Civil War … and as has recently been revealed, an ardent Theosophist, as was Spalding’s second wife. Doubleday was long dead, so no one could ask him whether Graves was telling the truth or not, but Robert Doubleday, Abner’s nephew, claimed his uncle told him at length the story of how he invented baseball.

The commission asked Graves a few more questions, and its members were satisfied. They filed their report on the final day of 1907, fulfilling their three-year mandate. It was official: baseball came from America, and nowhere else; Abner Doubleday made it happen, in a spark of boyhood genius reminiscent of the already legendary though still quite alive Tom Edison. The league presidents accepted the commission’s findings in 1908. Chadwick was denied his chance at rebuttal, for he caught cold on Opening Day in Brooklyn and died before the month was out. The issue was settled … sort of.

Samuel 'Sam' Newhall Crane, 2nd Base, Washington Nationals, 1887

Sam Crane, 1887

The official pronouncement, however, was what America, and Al Spalding, were ready to hear. The next step was the one that sparked the establishment of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. In Ilion, New York, in the winter of 1917, five men sat around a hot stove at Michael Fogerty’s cigar store and agreed that there should be a monument to Doubleday in Cooperstown to honor his “creation.” Besides Fogerty, the men were Hardy Richardson, who had a fourteen-year career in the majors in the nineteenth century, baseball enthusiasts George Oliver and Patrick Fitzpatrick, and former ballplayer and boys’ coach George “Deke” White. (Deke White pitched in three games for the 1895 Phillies and was not Jim “Deacon” White, a Hall of Fame inductee in 2013.) They each pitched in the munificent sum of twenty-five cents and started the Doubleday Memorial Fund. But what they did next was more important. They enlisted the efforts of Sam Crane, former major-league second baseman and then sportswriter for the New York Journal. Crane promoted the idea.

Next the citizens of Cooperstown got into the act. Dr. Ernest L. Pitcher (perfect name) was a local dentist who headed up the fund drive to buy Phinney’s field and make it a baseball park. The folks of Cooperstown chipped in $3,772 and did just that. It took some further legal wrangling over the next few years and some help from outside sources to close the deal. Ground was broken on June 2, 1919, and the first game was played there September 6, 1920, with National League president John Heydler in attendance. Before the decade was done, people who wanted to see where baseball was born began to make trips to the hamlet on the lake.

The people of Cooperstown saw they had a good thing going. They approached Major League Baseball for its support of a celebration in 1939 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Doubleday’s invention. The response from the leagues was encouraging, and the locals set to work. In a merger of national and local interests, federal funds from the Works Progress Administration were combined with Village of Cooperstown funds to expand Doubleday Field, add stands, and make it the gem that it is today. What other village of 1,852 inhabitants has a ball field that seats 10,000?

Doubleday Field Plaque

Doubleday Field Plaque

The concept of a baseball museum to go along with the field was the brainchild of Stephen C. Clark, Sr., whose grandfather, attorney Edward Clark, had represented inventor Isaac M. Singer in a patent-infringement suit. The elder Clark’s association with Singer grew through the years, as they formed a partnership and Clark became the business head of I.M. Singer & Company. With the success of the Singer sewing machine and the thoughtful leadership of Clark, the company prospered, as did the fortunes of both men. Prior to the Civil War, Edward Clark began to spend summers at his wife’s birthplace, Cooperstown. Over the next three generations the Clark family’s wealth grew, and with it grew their love for the Village of Cooperstown. By the 1930s their philanthropy was evident throughout the village. They had funded numerous construction projects, including a hospital and a community gymnasium.

In 1935 Stephen C. Clark, Sr., was the vice president of the Otsego County Historical Society. The story goes that in that year a farmer in nearby Fly Creek discovered an old trunk in his attic that had belonged to the Mills Commission’s star witness, Abner Graves. Graves had left New York in 1848 at the age of fourteen to find his fortune in the Gold Rush. In this trunk were the possessions he had left behind, including a homemade baseball, battered and beaten, the cover torn open. This was indeed a baseball of great antiquity, hand sewn and of a small diameter like the few others that survive from the town-ball era. Mr. Clark purchased the ball for five dollars and displayed it in the historical society’s exhibition room, where it came to be called the Doubleday Ball (although there is no indication that Doubleday ever used it).Cleland Memorandum HOF 050834

In May of the previous year, one of Clark’s New York City employees, Alexander Cleland, a man with a keen promotional sense, had given him the idea of a national baseball museum sited at Doubleday Field. The concept was incorporated as the National Baseball Museum, Inc., a not-for-profit educational institution, in September 1936. The five-member board of directors contained names familiar to all Cooperstown residents: Clark employee Waldo C. Johnston, Mayor Rowan D. Spraker, newspaper editor Walter L. Littell, writer James Fenimore Cooper (grandson of the novelist), and Stephen C. Clark. Cleland was retained as the organization’s executive secretary and point man.

To the Doubleday Ball Clark added his own collection of baseballs and two of the game’s most famous pieces of early art—a lithograph of Union prisoners playing ball at Salisbury, North Carolina, during the Civil War and the 1866 Currier & Ives print of a championship game at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. National League President Ford Frick donated the 1889 championship trophy of the New York Giants.

The idea for a baseball hall of fame to salute the game’s immortals was Frick’s. It wasn’t brand new: in 1901 New York University had opened a Hall of Fame for Great Americans, though it didn’t include any sports figures. He suggested the concept of a baseball hall, and everyone loved it.

The American National Game of Base Ball, Currier and Ives, 1866.

The American National Game of Base Ball, Currier and Ives, 1866.

Many donations came in. One man gave a collection of old Spalding Baseball Guides. Clark Griffith, pitcher with the Chicago White Stockings and subsequently owner of the Washington Senators, presented Cooperstown with his collection of photographs, and Christy Mathewson’s wife donated the pitcher’s glove. (The museum’s collection was thus built by the generosity of a nation of fans, players, and executives who wanted to “make it to the Hall of Fame.” This method endures as the sole path to acquisitions; while millions have been spent to display and preserve the collections, the museum has spent not a penny to acquire them.)

But how to select those who deserved enshrinement in the Hall? After trying out the idea of somehow having the fans choose, Cleland decided instead to have the Base Ball Writers Association of America make the determinations. The controversy over who goes in and who stays out began with the first voting procedure. There were two categories of players—those who played in the nineteenth century and those who played from 1900 to 1935. The plan was to elect ten men from the list of thirty-three nominees from the “modern” era, and five were to be selected from twenty-six nominees of the nineteenth century by a special panel. Instantly, the press began to bicker about the choices, so the list of nominees was dumped. All that was required to be elected, the new rules held, was for the player to receive votes on 75 percent of the ballots cast.

Baseball Hall of Fame Roster

Baseball Hall of Fame roster through 1937; note wrong middle name for Cy Young.

When the votes were tabulated, more howls went up. Only five modern players had received enough votes, and none of the old-timers did. Cy Young received votes in both categories, but not enough in either. The first Hall of Fame plaques—for Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, and Christy Mathewson—were displayed in December 1937. Although not without squabbles, the voters seemed to straighten things out by the formal opening of the Hall on June 12, 1939, when twenty-five greats of the game were inducted.

Baseball Centennial Poster

Baseball Centennial Poster

As the Doubleday myth unraveled over the years, much like the stitching on the Doubleday Ball, Hall of Fame officials felt concerned, as if the Alexander Cartwright advocates had been trying to move the Hall to Hoboken, or the town fathers of Pittsfield, Massachusetts were trying to steal their thunder. But calm and reason prevailed, and after some agonizing about the unseemly implication that the Hall of Fame was tossing old Abner overboard, in the 1980s Hall executives settled upon this elegant official position:

Whatever may or may not be proved in the future concerning Baseball’s true origin is in many respects irrelevant at this time. If baseball was not actually first played here in Cooperstown by Doubleday in 1839, it undoubtedly originated about that time in a similar rural atmosphere. The Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown to stay; and at the very least, the village is certainly an acceptable symbolic site.

But that’s severely understating the case. If baseball was not in fact invented in Cooperstown, it ought to have been. And by now the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum of Cooperstown, New York, is not merely a monument that commemorates a historical event, real or fanciful—it has a seventy-five-year history of its own, in its own time, in its own place.

Even though Cooperstown was not truly the home base of baseball in 1939, it has been ever since. Like Mount Olympus, it is where the legends live.

This essay is adapted from one I wrote for Treasures of the Baseball Hall of Fame some years ago.

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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