Nostalgia: The 1950s and My Mitts

Going My Way, one of my favorite films, preserves an America when baseball mattered. That world of the 1940s was carried over, with all its views and values, into the ’50s and my childhood—a world for better and worse now long gone. The film opens with kids playing baseball in the street, just a few cars parked or puffing along, and Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley stops to watch “rightfield” for a kid who has to run home. In his autobiography, Call Me Lucky (1953),Bing writes about how he helped Leo McCarey, the writer/director, develop that character, how he wanted O’Malley to have a common touch, and so O’Malley is a friend of the St. Louis Browns and brings along a baseball uniform and a jacket the Browns (first in shoes, first in booze, last in the American League) gave him. The kids of his parish, whom he has to get in line, love the jacket and the uniform, and Bing takes them to games. People had their doubts about a baseball-crazy crooning priest, and wanted a more pious character, but Bing won the Academy Award for best actor, and the f ilm won best picture. Even the pope approved. Crosby later became a part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, perennial losers. By risking venture capital, he hoped he might bring luck to the club, the way— as he points out in his book—he had to the Browns: “I put on the uniform of the lowly St. Louis Browns, and by the time the picture was released, they’d won the [1944] pennant!” One of the first of many photos in his autobiography shows Bing as a teenager in a baseball uniform, his mitt in his left hand gripped tightly to his side.

I remember my first mitt, just a toy really, a pancake of a glove— plastic, brown with some black piping. It wouldn’t have caught a radish, but it was my introduction to the equipment that would be indispensable to me and my friends for the next fifteen years, hunks of leather upon which we would hang our dreams and disappointments, the memories of uncomplicated days, like our parents did and their parents before them. And so, like most stories, this is about loss—the end of an era, of a shared feeling, the easy hope of the times, and for me, the glowing emblems of it all, my mitts.

Growing up in the 1950s, we all played ball—street or school ground, Pony or Little League. The pennant race was a main topic of conversation in any town, any summer, anywhere. We baby boomers rode in on the coattails of our parents’ generation, the last kids— almost as if genetically encoded—to play baseball at all times of the year, to take it completely to heart. The ball game was on in the car, on the radio in the kitchen, and when TVs reached the majority of homes we came indoors on weekend afternoons to watch games in black-and-white. I can still remember the packed stands, the crowd coming to its feet as a ball arced over the outfield fence, the white hot dog wrappers blowing along the first-base line in Ebbets Field or out to the pitcher’s mound in the Polo Grounds, in that soft gray light of the past.

My father had a small wooden chest in which he kept his few souvenirs. My poet’s reaction is to make it a metaphor for his heart— both things were kept locked and rarely opened. Still, sometimes he would open one, which led to the other, and show me his huge Bowie knife, issued to World War II pilots flying over jungles, or the short black cane carved from gazelle bone he bought in Cairo. Sometimes he’d hold up a red ceramic star about the size of a fifty cent piece that came from the cap of a Russian pilot he’d taught to fly. Fascinating gear for a boy, and I never tired of seeing it.

But the one artifact of his early life I treasured most was his baseball mitt, which he always called his “Professional Fielder’s Glove.” That tag indicated it was expensive, not something for boys to play with. That glove meant more to him than any souvenir from the war; it held the mental pictures of his youth, the peace and simplicity now gone, when he grew up between the wars, when baseball pumped as naturally, as surely, as oxygen through every boy’s blood. The mitt was large, shiny, dark dark brown. I was too young to pay attention to the make, and certainly to the model, status details that would become common parlance in my teen years. “Professional” meant you couldn’t buy it in the local department store, and so it was connected to players in the big leagues, a glove they used, that set its owner above others on the field. This was his prize, his trophy of the times when people turned out wearing suits and ties, straw “boater” hats and best dresses to sit in the stands.

I recall that the fingers were laced and that it was not a “split-finger” glove as most were prior to 1950; it was not one of those 1920s gloves, a small black flapjack like Babe Ruth has on his hand in the famous photos. Even in 1955 or ’56 no kid had a glove without the fingers laced together at the top.

Recently, looking through vintage baseball glove Web sites and the gloves for auction on eBay, I came across a photo of a glove from the late 1940s or ’50s, a brand I’d never heard of, Sullivan Stall & Dean, and I was stopped cold; the computer photo took me back to that first time I tried his glove on and the heel and wrist strap rested halfway down my arm. More than fifty years later, I saw my father’s mitt gleaming darkly in front of me.

He never wanted to let me use that glove; he was afraid I would lose it. But as a boy without a mitt and with kids calling to play three-flies-up or hit-the-bat, I managed to wear him down and he finally let me take it out to play.

There was a large camphor tree by the mailbox and entry to our drive. I’d leave my gear—cap guns, Indian headdresses, wooden pirate swords—by the base of the tree instead of taking it all the way to the house when we switched from one game to another, one yard or house to the next. My things were always there when I came home—who would want an eight-year-old’s toys? So I left my father’s Professional Fielder’s Glove in my usual spot by the tree and raced up the street to a friend’s; it was gone when I came in for dinner. Of course. Exactly as my father had predicted. My first true baseball glove, gone in a day. There were teenagers in the neighborhood to whom—running around with kids my age—I never paid attention. One of them picked up a classic glove that afternoon for nothing more than breaking my father’s heart.

It would be two years before I was given another mitt, and it was nothing special: a second baseman’s short-fingered model, probably nine inches—maybe eight—from the heel to the tip of the index finger. Even when I was nine years old a portion of my hand extended beyond the wrist strap and brass button. The mitt was branded “Wilson” in black script on the strap but was not endorsed by any major leaguer, and was, after I worked on it, just wide enough to catch a softball, which is all we played then.

Older boys who made the school team had large smooth gloves their fathers bought at Otts on State Street or at All American Sporting Goods on Chapala, the next street over. They carried Wilson and Spalding gloves, Rawlings and Nokona, and some MacGregors, the top makes then and now. There were no discount stores then; cheaper gloves could be had at Montgomery Ward, and Sears sold J. C. Higgins gloves until 1961 when it switched to several Ted Williams–endorsed gloves. But Otts and All American had walls with mitts stacked four or five high, of varying models, twenty or thirty gloves right behind the register where no father with a son along could miss them. The high price of your dreams hung there just beyond reach, beyond any allowance, lawn-mowing, or paper route money. Sometimes, we’d just walk in and look at the lineup of gloves until a salesman would ask if he could show us anything. If you were given one of these top-line gloves, it was meant to last for many years; it was almost the 1950s equivalent to what economists now call “durable goods.”

By the beginning of seventh grade, my old Wilson mitt had, it seemed to me, grown even smaller. I was going out for centerfield, sometimes playing third, and I’d been haranguing my father for a bigger, regular-sized mitt for at least six months. His answer was always that I had a glove, that we/he couldn’t afford it. In hindsight, I see my father going off to work each morning in one of many sport coats from Silverwoods and Tweeds & Weeds, expensive men’s shops— Florsheim Imperials on his feet, driving his MG sports car. I see my mother wearing her one cloth coat for years. He had his priorities. But I was stubborn, and obsessed; it was my one topic of conversation as soon as he arrived home from work, and I asked for nothing else. I must have driven him to distraction, for one day late in the fall, I came home to discover the best mitt I (or anyone) would ever own, a new Wilson Bob Feller autograph model, a full-sized fielder’s glove twelve inches in length. It was top grain cowhide, a thick but pliant yellow leather with gray piping, made in the USA, the Wilson label on the wrist strap, a black cloth square with gold lettering spelling out the name. I couldn’t believe I had won such a battle of the wills and that this glorious glove was mine. That glove fit and flexed like a dream (or choose some other hyperbolic cliché). Why had my father broken down and decided to spend the thirty or forty dollars it must have cost? Later, I discovered, probably from my mother, that he had bought it at Otts and paid only fourteen dollars; he must have walked in on a big sale day, and the price convinced him.

Breaking in a new glove involved myth, ritual, and resources, and sorting through all three. As more modern mitts were made, from the 1940s through the ’60s, they truly had to be broken in, as the cowhide and thicker steerhide made a new mitt very stiff. Glove companies developed and sold many different conditioners to soften up new leather and to keep old leather pliable. Lexol was one, and another was Nokona Classic Glove Conditioner, which came in a tube with the company’s classic emblem of an American Indian on it. In the late ’50s A. G. Spalding offered Speed-EE Baseball Glove or Mitt Dressing Oil in a red can with a plastic spout. From the late 1940s and ’50s, Double Play Glove Conditioner contained mink oil and came in a five-inch-tall can. During those years Rawlings promoted Glovolium Baseball Glove Dressing, in a tin about the size cigarette lighter fluid came in, and Sears sold a two-ounce tube of Glove Conditioner—“a special formula for the care of fine baseball gloves.” Neat’s-foot oil (rendered from the feet and shinbones of cattle) was the one we all knew about, but no one had the money to buy and compare glove conditioning oils. Someone said rubbing bacon grease into the pocket, then baking the glove in the oven at 150-degree heat was the way to go, but I never saw that done. And a kid or two used Vaseline, which some glove repair specialists use even today. Mostly, we broke in our gloves playing a lot of catch, using them, stiff or not, in game after game, and repeatedly throwing a ball into the pocket from about a foot away and gloving it as we sat around talking—almost a nervous habit while watching a game or waiting for one to start.

My amazing new Wilson Bob Feller, however, was so supple I had no problems breaking it in. My only concern was forming a big and sure pocket. The first thing I did was ride my bike down to Jedlicka’s Saddlery on De la Vina Street and buy, for a quarter, a rawhide string, one stronger and thicker than the leather the factory used to lace the tips of the fingers together. For my taste, mitts were always laced too loosely, and on any glove I owned I pulled them tightly together. I used a metal pick that looked almost like a dentist’s tool, which came from a set we had for cracking walnuts and digging out the meat. I poked through the new rawhide string and then tied it off tight on the little finger. This curved the fingers inward and made a deep pocket from which any ball was unlikely to escape. Then, as many did, I placed a softball inside the glove, tied the fingers around it with string or rawhide, and placed the mitt beneath my mattress for a few days. Thus, the pocket was formed.

The other essential trick to developing a deep pocket was fingering—keeping your index finger out of the index finger slot in the glove. In those years, coaches preached that we should put all five fingers in our mitts and use two hands for every catch, almost as if it were a moral imperative. But you needed to protect your finger and palm from bruising, as that is where a ball most often hit in the pocket. Many kids put their index fingers on the outside of the glove to avoid the sting of the ball slamming into the pocket, but many of us placed two fingers in the little finger slot and moved the other fingers down to leave the index vacant. This gave the glove a more pronounced hinge or closing action, whereas keeping all five fingers in the slots gave you a flat and stiff surface with which to catch the ball. You had to rely on the web to snag a line drive or fly ball, and on early mitts, the webs were small. One way to tell gloves apart by decades is of course by size, and whether the glove is a split-finger or laced, with webbing or not. A 1940s Marathon 4225 endorsed by St. Louis great Whitey Kurowski, a split-finger glove, had only a one-and-three-quarter-inch leather strap between thumb and index finger for a web. By contrast, a Spalding glove I recently acquired, a Jim Palmer/Advisory Staff mitt from the late 1960s, has a web in it six and three-quarters inches tall by five inches wide. After the early 1970s, two changes in mitts occurred. The first is the “fast-back” or “speed-back” style, which eliminated the wrist strap and button or lacing at the end of the strap. It had leather all the way to the wrist with a small thin strap and a cinch to tighten it. On the back of those gloves, just where the index finger meets pocket level, is an oblong hole for the player’s finger. As early as 1962, Spalding produced a Rocky Colavito model featuring a small inch-and-a-half loop sewn on the outside of the base of the index finger, also found in Rawlings’s “Six-finger” style, which Spalding stole, calling theirs a “TraPocket.” Gone were the days of preaching all five fingers in all five slots. By the end of the 1960s, every major leaguer in the world made one-handed catches, and all Little Leaguers were catching fly balls one-handed and keeping their index finger on the outside of the glove. Times change. Glove manufacturing is all about making the biggest and surest pocket possible.

My glove and I were celebrities for a week or so; I had the newest and best mitt at school, and while I did not openly gloat, I must have been beaming the day long. No doubt I made the same number of stops at third as I did before and caught as many fly balls in centerfield, but other kids seemed to take more notice. I was sure the mitt was magic, and that extra confidence just may have helped with an amazing play or two.

Sic transit gloria mundi—thus passes the glory of the world. I’m not sure which Hall of Famer said that, but it was soon true. We were playing work-ups after school, and I was waiting for the second bus home so I could get my “ups” when the bus arrived and started to load. I ran to the edge of the field to collect my books and sweater when a friend’s younger brother, Timmy Armour, asked to borrow my glove. I said I had to leave, but he kept pleading that he was stuck in rightfield and unless he caught a fly ball, he’d never get up. He swore he’d put my glove back in the eighth grade classroom in my desk. All this time, and I hadn’t learned a thing about holding on to your mitt. I loaned it to him. And of course it was not in my desk the next morning. I checked the coat hooks in back of the room where some kids hung their gloves—nothing. I caught up with Timmy at lunch and asked him for my glove. He said he’d thrown it in the breezeway by our classroom, where we left our lunch bags before school. I reminded him he’d promised to put it in my desk, but he brushed me off and ran off to play as if my mitt were nothing more than a half-eaten five-cent bag of Fritos. I wanted to wring his neck. Forty-six years later and counting, I still want to wring his neck! No apologies, not the slightest attempt at restitution, as if such could ever be made for that sun-yellow steerhide wonder. To save ten seconds and a few steps, he just tossed it there for any unconscionable kid to steal, and one did. To top it off, the little squirt showed up a week or two later with the same model Wilson mitt. He liked mine so much he’d gotten his father to buy him one from Otts. Numbskull that he was, he came up to me to show me his neat new glove, not to offer it to me for losing mine. The only solace I took was that, though his was the same model, it was not the same glove. The leather was drier, thinner, and had some creases and wrinkles in it, an inferior piece of cowhide to be sure. Mine had been one in a million.

When it comes to fate and my lost mitts, I often feel as if someone has been stealing my signs, as if I were pitching and getting “pinched” by the ump. I don’t know how I told my father, but I must have. That was it. He would never buy me another mitt, and I couldn’t blame him. I had signed up for Little League again the summer after eighth grade but had no glove, so I ended up buying an old Rawlings Trap-Eze glove for six dollars from a kid I can’t remember. It took all my savings and any allowance I had, but it was a good buy—sun-bleached, cracked, and dry, it still worked—and the kid must have needed the money or had his heart broken by not making his team. The Trap-Eze was originally a midsized infield glove; early 1960s models were endorsed by Charlie Neal of the Dodgers (TG 84) and Vernon Law of the Pirates, and there was even a Stan Musial Trap-Eze model. The glove I bought was standard issue, a larger, later model not endorsed by any major leaguer.

I played a little baseball in high school, mostly games of over-the-line in which you could manage with only three to five players a side by blocking off right? or centerfield. I still used my old Trap-Eze, and when I went off to college probably one of my stepbrothers got it. The 1960s and ’70s rushed by with all the bad politics of those times. In graduate school, working several jobs to survive in different places, I didn’t have much time for baseball or a game of catch. I didn’t care then what became of the glove, but today I sure wish I had kept it as the icon it was.

Time passed and I found myself in Murray, Kentucky, teaching writing at a state university. I made a friend there, Ken Smith, a wonderful fiction writer from Arizona. One day, in the small downtown in Murray at something that would still have to be called a general store, I discovered an aisle with baseball gloves and a few other pieces of sporting equipment. I picked up a Wilson George Brett MVP 390, the A2350 model of select American cowhide with the “Grip-Tite” pocket. It was a midsized glove, eleven inches heel to tip of the index. It was not as big or pliable as my long lost Wilson Bob Feller, but it felt good enough on the hand. There was also a midsized Rawlings mitt, about which I cannot remember much, but they were inexpensive, so I bought both of them along with one baseball so Ken and I could play catch. Somewhere in our early thirties, we weren’t giving up on our youth altogether.

I moved back west, I moved back east, and though I had no one to toss a ball with, I kept that Wilson mitt and ball with me, protected and close to new, for a dozen years. Then one day a longtime friend, the poet Gary Young, and I were talking about his oldest son’s graduation from Little League to Pony League, and how he was growing out of his old mitt. On my next visit, I brought his son Jake my glove from Murray, and the ball as well, both still in fine condition.

Scratch the surface of nine out of ten men of my generation and they can tell you all about their favorite baseball mitt or mitts from their youth. I checked with my friends from as far back as grammar school and high school. When I mentioned mitts to Francis Orsua, he remembered that his father had bought him a three-fingered Eddie Matthews mitt in 1955, when he was seven years old. Matthews was from our hometown, Santa Barbara, and went to Santa Barbara High School. Francis’s father passed away just a few years back and the other day Francis brought out a box of photos. There were, as we used to say, “scads” of photos of Eddie Matthews and Francis’s father and uncles and their friends. Long before political correctness, there was Eddie Matthews, who would come home and hang out with his fans, even if all of them were Mexican American, as we said then. They loved baseball and Eddie was a hometown hero, and he gave back to the community.

Francis was not a big baseball player, but he remembered that mitt as if it were yesterday, a glossy dark brown to black infielder’s glove from the 1950s, a popular model with a thumb and three fingers instead of four. I recalled two or three of those mitts from grammar school, when we used to share gloves all the time. You placed your middle two fingers in the wide middle finger of the glove. He said he thought it was a Rawlings, but checking on eBay and a few vintage glove Web sites, I found the exact glove he described made by a glove company I’d never heard of, American Eagle, model #7013.

And so I set about trying to find my Bob Feller Wilson from 1959 or 1960 as well as a Trap-Eze, the unendorsed later model from the early 1960s.What I found was amazing. If you want the best vintage gloves in the best condition and you have $150 to $450 to spend for one, you can check in with Bruce Rogers’s Web site, where there are plenty of mitts from the early 1900s.The amazing gloves from the ’50s and ’60s sell for the highest prices; the famous Rawlings XPG3 Brooks Robinson model, for example, sold quickly at $150. And Wilson’s most renowned model, the unendorsed A2000, often sells for double that. On eBay, you can acquire gloves much more cheaply—if you can win an auction; every time I’ve seen an A2000 or a top Rawlings come up, the bids come fast and furious, and the mitts sell for between $100 and $200. I did manage to place the winning bid for a Trap-Eze Dick Howser TT 85 glove in good condition, but it was not the Trap-Eze model I had in the early ’60s, which was a bit larger. This model had the “hinged pad” “Deep Well Pocket” and the “Magic Action Back,” as all the models did. “The Finest In The Field!” and “Edge-U-Cated Heel” and “Arch Basket Web”—you have to believe Rawlings had a creative writer on staff, coining the phrases to brand into the heel and pocket, and along the thumb and webs of its gloves.

Despite searching for months through a rotating list on eBay and checking out all the other sites, however, I turned up not one Wilson Bob Feller. The closest mitt I found was a late 1950s model Lefty Gomez Wilson A2044. It was a nice, limber yellow leather but did not have the twelve-inch fingers or deep pocket of the Bob Feller. I’ve talked to a couple guys who run vintage glove Web sites and they have had lots of Bob Fellers come through, but always the earlier models from old companies like Hutch. My wonderful glove remains a mystery.

I did, however, come up with some great “catch” gloves, mitts in fair-to-good condition at lower prices. One reason for this, I discovered, is that after the 1960s companies started outsourcing their manufacturing to Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. That was the reason the gloves I bought in Murray were comparatively cheap—both were made in Korea. And I did find another Wilson George Brett A2240 glove in great condition, a later fast-back model with the round Wilson label. One way to tell the older Wilsons from the newer is the cloth label; the ’50s and ’60s gloves have the square label over the wrist strap, and the newer gloves have the circular black label with just a large gold “W” on the thumb. Though this glove was made in Korea, its leather is a more supple yellow leather than the stiffer brown leather of my George Brett glove from Murray, and this is a twelve-inch glove with the newer “Tru-Trap” web and “Snap Action” hinge. Through eBay I also came up with a great Rawlings José Canseco model RBG 36, a twelve-and-a-half-inch fast-back glove in great condition. I figured with his recent book and all the steroid trouble, few people would bid on the Canseco glove, and I was right. When it arrived, I found that it was made in the Philippines. It’s a good glove nevertheless, but the gloves that bring the highest prices with collectors—and there are a lot of avid collectors out there—are gloves made in the USA. Usually the cowhide is thicker, but the really thick hides are saved to make gloves for professional players, and you have to know someone to get those. Yet back in the ’60s, Rawlings sold a truly professional glove and designated it “Heart of the Hide,” and whenever one of those turns up for sale online, it is very expensive. The top price I saw for a glove on an eBay auction was for a Rawlings PRO-1000H fielder’s glove, Gold Glove Series, a non-endorsed top of the line model similar to the Wilson A2000.With six hours left in the bidding, there were already twenty-eight bids and the most recent bid was $399. This was a never-used mint condition glove, and collectors were coming out of the proverbial woodwork. On a low bid, I bought a Rawlings KM 6 Dave Concepcion model in poor shape. I figured, should I ever find the time, it would be a good project to restring and restore this shortstop mitt, especially since it is an older model with the single string lacing through the fingers, not the trickier X-lacing. But the wrist strap is about to break through and some of the lacing in back of the “Speed Trap Triple Action” web is broken. Probably this is a project, and a pricey one, for Kenny Jenkins, the professional glove restorer who has a Web site, of course, and who comes recommended by all the sellers and collectors. Jenkins for many years was employed by Rawlings for remodeling and repair, I assume, of gloves used by their major endorsers. These days, he has his own business, and the “before” and “after” photos on his site are impressive and can reel you in if you long for your old glove to look and work as you first remember it. The best eBay buy I managed was also a Rawlings, an XPG16, Chuck Schilling autograph. There were several bidders, and I just went higher trying to acquire a good condition XPG Rawlings, a mitt with first-rate leather. This is a second baseman’s glove, as Schilling was a second sacker for Boston. The glove shows wear but is still in fine working condition. I’d love to be able to test it out taking a few grounders at third, but these days I go in fear of bending that low, that quickly, that many times in a row, fearing one time I won’t be able to straighten up.

Collecting is about nostalgia, literally “home-sickness.” We’d all like to go back to our youth, for a little while at least. Picking up a few gloves on the cheap, fixing them up, tossing a ball with a friend until the bursitis returns—all of these take you back. If you’re from my generation, almost any baseball mitt will have you recalling the days. Put a mitt on your hand, pound your fist in the pocket, and you have your memories—you have your life.

About the Author

Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley is the author of fourteen books of poetry and editor of several anthologies. He has published two books of creative nonfiction, most recently Sleep Walk (Eastern Washington University Press, 2006).

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