It’s hard to imagine today that there was a time when players were not encouraged to don a baseball glove, or any kind of protective gear, for that matter. Of course, the balls were softer back then; they still hurt, but the damage they caused to the human body was not as severe as it is today. Consequently, if you wanted to protect any part of your body from the dangers of the game, you came in for all sorts of ridicule, and your very masculinity was called into question.
Today’s glove evolved from leather strips a few players wore, often surreptitiously. The baseball glove proper dates back to about 1860, when players began to experiment with the skeleton of a glove as a method of protection. The earliest solution was to don a railroad worker’s glove. Doug Allison, of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, started wearing a buckskin mitten after suffering a hand injury. St Louis’ Charles Wiatt was another of the early players to wear a glove, although rumor has it that his glove was flesh colored in order to avoid notice. Wiatt feared his comrades would think him unmanly if he didn’t catch with his bare hands.
Because cricket players didn’t use gloves, popular opinion held that baseball players shouldn’t, either. However, as ball speeds increased, hand injuries became more frequent. In time, cultural expectations began to shift in favor of better hand protection.
We don’t know who first created the catcher’s glove, but claims have been made for both Harry Decker and Joe Gunson. Albert Spalding, who often pitched to Gunson, decided he could make a better glove. Spalding went on to market gloves without fingers but with a padded palm. Decker, meanwhile, obtained a patent for the “Decker Safety Catcher’s Mitt.”
Draper & Maynard, a New Hampshire-based company, is said to be one of the first glove manufacturers. They created a glove with padding for a shortstop named Arthur Irwin, and went on to lead the glove business until Rawlings surpassed them in 1919.
Webbed Hands Catch More Balls
A pitcher from Saint Louis named Bill Doak created history when he approached the Rawlings Company. He wanted a glove with a web in between the index finger and the thumb. The glove was a huge success. No longer was the glove viewed as merely hand protection; it had become a necessary tool, essential to the game. Today, the glove provides extensions for each of your fingers, making it an optimal catching device. You no longer have to catch the ball directly in your palm, but are able to grasp it with your fingers as well.
The fifties marked another period of development for the baseball glove. Multiple innovations hit the market during that decade. The Wilson A2000 was released: it had a much larger web, with a broad pocket. These changes ultimately made it the official glove of the Major Leagues. Another popular glove was the Rawlings XPG, which appeared in 1958. This glove had a deep pocket with a pronounced U-shape. Rawlings’ Trap-Eze glove came out only a year later, with webbing between all fingers.
In the 1960s, many companies exported their production to Asia, to take advantage of the less expensive labor force. Nokona was one of the few companies that remained, choosing to keep its production firmly planted in Texas. Nokona is now known as the last of the US makers of baseball gloves. It competes head-to-head with well-known brands such as Rawlings and Wilson.
A newer company, Mizuno, has pioneered the making of softer gloves. They use 3-D and 4-D technology to create unique gloves for each playing position. Akadema, another firm, was founded in 1997, but it has already crafted gloves for Hall of Famers, such as Gary Carter and Ozzie Smith.
How They Make the Glove
Although technology has influenced the evolution of the baseball glove, some aspects have remained unchanged over the years. One constant is the leather tanning process. As Rawlings’ official source for leather, Horween Leather Company has provided the raw materials for thousands of ball gloves.
The tanning process is long and detailed. It begins with the delivery of huge stacks of hides, from meat packers ranging from Canada to the Midwest. More than 650,000 animals are killed each week and the Horween facility receives about 1% of their skins. Of these, only 3% will be processed into baseball gloves. For more information on the tanning process, check out the YouTube video by Saddleback Leather called How To Tan Quality Leather.
Glove-making can be controversial. For one thing, it is becoming increasingly difficult to locate quality hides. Cattle are now moved to market younger than ever before, sometimes as early as 14 months old. Consequently, the quality and durability of their hides is not good enough to make the highest quality gloves. Tanneries are also contending with government regulations that restrict the use of the oils and dyes necessary to treat the leather.
Some companies have brainstormed ways around the regulations, going so far as to completely remove leather from the equation. For example, the Carpenter Trade Company released a revolutionary glove for the 2011 season. This glove is made, not of leather, but of nylon microfiber. Its fabric has a texture similar to suede, but it weighs far less than a traditional leather glove.
Experts may disagree frequently when it comes to baseball gloves, but they agree on one thing: the lighter the glove, the better it is for the game. The jury is still out on whether the new synthetic glove is worth keeping. So far, a mix of leather and nylon microfiber has shown itself successful on the baseball field, but leather loyalists may prove resistant to this change. As with most baseball innovations, time will tell what is most effective.
Carpenter came up with the idea to use synthetic materials as far back as 1999. They received inspiration from Roger Clemens, who has been very vocal about his need for a lighter glove. Clemens can detect a weight difference in his glove as small as 1.5 ounces. Further research by the Carpenter Company has shown that glove weight impacts the windup mechanics of a pitcher as well as the energy that can be retained over a high pitch.
Other companies are now picking up on this new materials trend. Eason developed a glove built with a mixture of leather and Kevlar, the fabric used in bulletproof vests. Wilson has added a synthetic “super skin” to the backs of several of its gloves and mitts. Mizuno has used linear regression to create a customized glove pocket. They utilize 4-D technology to identify pressure points when each player catches the ball. They discovered distinct pressure point patterns that vary from position to position. Mizuno utilizes this information to customize gloves that maximize the skills of players, based on their field position. Ironically, it’s now traditional tanneries like Horween who are playing catch-up. These firms are now challenging their designers to find solutions to the industry’s latest challenges. It will be interesting to see what they come up with in the near future.
Bottom line, the consumer has been the ultimate winner over the past 150 years with the bat, the ball, and the glove. Scientific advances have customized all three so that the player can have the best possible experience at the lowest possible price.