My oldest personal possession is my baseball glove, which I bought for eight dollars at Woolworth’s in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in 1960, when I was almost thirteen. It was a “modern” glove in that it had shape, unlike the ancient specimens I came across in my grandfather’s house that looked as if they’d been fashioned for trolls and exhumed from a bog, or my uncle’s first baseman’s mitt, a folding horseshoe crab. My glove had—has, I should say—a good deal of rawhide lacing, including four knots tied off on the back of the webbing. Its many seams are beaded, its metal eyelets number twenty-five. It has two leather pulls, one to snug up the thumb, the other to tighten the wrist strap, which is felt-backed for comfort and secured by a metal button that says:
The strap’s black nylon label boasts a “W,” which might stand for “Wilson,” except it doesn’t. The label also says “Made in Japan” and something else I can no longer read. It could be “Professional Model,” because that is what is inscribed in the leather of the glove’s “little” finger (its largest). The glove’s inside surface sports another beguiling “W,” as well as “Style 2681” and “[illegible] Set Pocket.” I can’t remember what sort of “Set Pocket” it was. Deep, I’d say. The inscription has been flattened out of existence by almost fifty years of service.
I bought this wonderful thing secretly, because my father had met the few remarks I’d made about “thinking of getting a glove” with his rote response: “You don’t want that.” (Other things I “didn’t want” were blue jeans, a bicycle, a penknife, a fishing pole, a permanent wave, and a pet of any sort.) A baseball glove? What would I do with it? Who would I play with? Boys at school? I was a girl. Didn’t I know that? And what was I going to play with? Not a hard ball: we were not having anything to do with hard balls. That’s how people got killed and their teeth knocked out and the next thing you knew there’d be a broken window and “I’ll be out there doing my act with the putty knife.”
For a week or so I fraternized with my new glove on the sly. Behind the closed door of the room I shared with my younger sister—silenced by death threats—I cradled my glove and pushed my face in it, inhaling the deep, fertile leather smell it pumped out along with pheromones, I’m sure. I kneaded it, shaped it, and slammed a ball—a brand-new baseball—in it. Outside the house, around the corner, out of sight, I found a clandestine battery mate, the wall of a brick college dormitory that had no windows on the lowest story. The glove activated all the baseball boilerplate I had amassed from incessant baseball-book reading. Confronting the wall, I flicked off the sign, looked in for another, slapped the glove against my thigh, wound up, and poured one in. Sometimes (if the wall was hitting) I cupped my knee with my glove, waiting for the batter to try to punch one through. I snagged the ball, pounced on it, speared it, whipped it home.
I walked around (out of sight of the house) with the glove tucked under my arm, wishing I could shove it in my back pocket like boys did in books, but of course my pants, when I was allowed to wear pants, had no pockets because my mother had made them, as she made practically all of our clothes. I wished I knew where to get neat’s-foot oil, not available at Woolworth’s, but no one I could confide in knew anything about that. Another thing I could not do, I might as well confess, was spit in my glove. I could direct the occasional spitting noise at the pocket, yes. But shoot a gob of spit right in there and work it in like you read about? No, I couldn’t.
I brought the glove to school, placing it beside me on the old fashioned bench seat, on top of my books—just like the boys did. In that distant day, or perhaps only in that parochial school, the boys and the girls were not allowed to play sports together at recess, and none of the girls had gloves. But we did play softball and my glove had no problem at all handling the larger sphere. It could handle anything.
Soon enough, unable to keep my love object to myself, I came clean with my parents. Fairly clean, at least: I kept the hard ball under wraps, nestling a tennis ball into the glove’s pocket in a prissily responsible manner. I told my father I thought I better tell him I’d gotten a baseball glove. It was a really good one, even though I happened to have bought it at Woolworth’s and even though it was made in Japan. I said it was a Wilson and I did not use a hard ball. He looked the glove over, said something unkind about “Made in Japan,” and pointed out it wasn’t a Wilson. He massaged it with his thumbs, sort of churning them around in the glove, which is what he always did when weighing in on leather quality—one of his specialties. The leather seemed okay, he allowed, but he said he didn’t see why the glove had to look the way it did. He whapped his fist in it a few times and then took it with both hands and bent it back and forth as if to reprimand it for the affectation of its deep pocket and slightly curved webbing. He entered briefly into the subject, familiar to all baseball book readers, of infielders sitting on their gloves to keep them flat so they could turn the ball over fast. I said I knew about that.
He said, “Is this the best you can do for a ball?” I told him that actually I had bought a baseball, but that I only used it against the side of the brick dormitory—you know the wall that doesn’t have any windows low down you could accidentally hit. He said that’s how you ruin a good ball, scuff it up, leather gets all nicked. I said that was true. The next big phase of life for my glove came the following year, 1961, with the advent in Minnesota of the Twins. My two brothers, then six and eight, became infected with the baseball bug, though in their own particular way, which, for the most part, did not include playing ball, and certainly not with other boys. This was not really their fault, because our parents did not like the idea of their children associating with other people’s children, especially with boys, who might piss against a tree, as had happened once. My mother had said, “That puts the kibosh on playing with boys.” Instead my brothers collected baseball cards—not too many, though, because my mother had declared the gum that came with them to be “verboten.” One of the boys collected statistics, just collected them and wrote them down. My parents got him a rubber stamp with his name on it followed by the title, “Statistician.”
Still, my father, who had been an athlete in high school, felt the urge to toss the old pill around with his sons and teach them the rudiments of the game. Fear of the annihilating ball persisted, however, and, after much deliberation and weighing of consequences, he procured a hardish rubber ball whose destructive power was less terrible than a baseball’s, or at least that was the idea. He also got the boys gloves, managing to find suitably archaic versions, possibly from the Goodwill, one of his haunts—though, given the intimate, even germy, nature of a baseball glove, inside and out, maybe they were new. My mother made the boys baseball suits. Being the same sort of person as my father when it came to authentic quality, she made them of genuine woolen flannel, just the thing for Minnesota’s ferocious summers of heat and humidity. She made them big so the boys could grow into them and they’d last for years.
So once a week my father, my two brothers, and I got in the Studebaker and drove across the river to the park where hardly anyone went, where there were no baseball diamonds to attract other people’s children—and played ball. What ensued beside the brown lowing Mississippi, among the leafy knolls and upon the undulating greensward, so unsuited to ball playing as most people understand it, is not really mine to describe. I can only say that it had no resemblance to The Natural and its scene of prelapsarian baseball. My father called it his “time on the cross”—as he called most family affairs. I brought my glove to Metropolitan Stadium to see the Twins that year. I sat in the grandstand with my father and his friends, well out of reach of the lethal horsehide, wearing the clothes my mother had made for such occasions: pleated skirt and middy blouse. My glove was in my lap, like a handbag.
The first few years of my glove’s long life were filled with bathos. I rarely found satisfactory human beings to play with, and my relationship with the wall ended when one of the dormitory residents complained about the sound the ball made hitting the building. Then we moved to Ireland. My glove came, too. I introduced it to various Irish people who ridiculed it, calling it another instance of American softness in sports—football players wearing armor, baseball players wearing padded gloves. They rolled out the familiar, self-regarding comparisons between American football and rugby, between baseball and hurling (a vicious game played with whirling sticks and a preternaturally hard ball that might have come from my father’s nightmares). I looked at my glove and was overwhelmed with homesickness. Years passed in a generally unfruitful fashion for my glove and me. I moved to London with it, and worked long hours as a barmaid. I had no chance of getting to know anyone who wanted to play ball, at least not when they were sober. My glove rarely made it out of my seabag. I learned later that there had been a regular Sunday pickup game of baseball or softball somewhere in London while I was there. That just made me feel bad: I had missed yet another chance for a different, more baseball-rich life.
Finally, in 1972, my glove and I returned to this country for good, to Massachusetts. This is when we both really came into ourselves and began to live. I finally got some neat’s-foot oil. I found people to play ball with. I found, too, for the first time, that it is an unfeeling world out there for the glove owner. I finally had to write my initials on my glove’s wrist strap with indelible ink, because some people can’t seem to distinguish between their own and other people’s gloves. They start trotting off or, worse, driving away with them. When they don’t have their own gloves—having lost them through negligence—they use your glove when your team is at bat. They haul away on its leather pulls. They stuff their big hands in the glove and yank the thing off when they’re done. Because they have chunky fingers, the inner lining gets pulled out, so now you have to find a little stick or something to poke it back in. It would make you weep, or throw up. I never saw anyone spit in my glove—I can’t think anyone would actually do that to another person’s glove. But people do leave a lot of sweat behind. Sometimes you don’t even feel like putting your glove back on, and you wonder whether real baseball players ever, somehow, wash out the insides of their gloves.
After a couple of years being back in this country playing ball, a terrible temptation came over me. I can hardly bear to write this down: I thought I might buy a new glove. But when I went to look at the up-to-date models, I was shocked. They looked so big, much bigger than mine, and overweening. They had latticework, hinges, supernumerary integuments and rigging, and all sorts of trademark graffiti stamped all over them, like “Flex-o-matic” and other things too stupid to remember. The fingers of some models extended all the way down the rear of the glove to the wrist, like the back of a lute or a huge leather seashell. They looked like they played a different game or were pieces of furniture. And they were horribly expensive, soaring into the two-figure range. What did it mean? Were gloves getting bigger to compensate for cars getting smaller?
I shelved the new-glove project for years, until, possessing no daughters, I bought gloves for my sons. By that time, the 1970s and its version of style were only a bad memory, and I found elegant gloves, at reasonable prices, that had at least a modicum of my glove’s natural grace.
My glove still has an ancient, raddled grace. Sweat, I suppose, has fused the inner lining to the body of the glove. It could not turn inside out if it wanted to. In fact, it’s sort of scraggy in there except in the first finger, which is still smooth from my keeping my finger outside, against the back of the glove, where it has created an abraded hollow. The heel of the glove is ripped where the wrist-strap pull has been yanked too hard, too often, and you can see the padding, looking something like alpaca. When I put my face in my glove I can smell our shared history. The leather’s intoxicating odor isn’t as urgent as it once was. It is mixed with the cold, mildewy aroma of Ireland and my seabag. There is a biscuity waft of ancient sweat and the muddiness of far-flung playing fields, and, for some reason, an ineffable, but unmistakable, fragrance of books.