Playing Catch

I am excited that spring training has started, even though we're still at the stage where the folks down in Port St. Lucie are doing little more than playing catch with each other. But, not to sound too Field of Dreams-y here, maybe that's more than enough to get excited about. This wasn't an especially bad winter, weather-wise, but it does feel like it's been way too long since baseball has been played. At least I would think so every time I looked at one of the shelves in my living room.

One that shelf is my great-grandfather's baseball glove. The glove has a place of prominence in my house, alongside other treasured family photos and mementos, which I think my great grandfather would appreciate. To help keep its shape and display it properly, I've propped it up with an unopened can of beer, which I also think my great grandfather (one generation removed from Germany) would have appreciated.

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When I first started to get into baseball as a kid, I was obsessed with the history of the game, with the depth and conviction of a true nerd. I had this enormous coffee table book entitled, simply, Baseball, and for reasons I can't quite explain, I couldn't get enough of the Old Timey photos therein. To young me, handlebar-mustachioed men playing the sport pantaloons and polo shirts seemed weird and funny and compelling all at the same time.

My grandfather abetted my obsession by unearthing this glove that once belonged to his father-in-law from the depths of his basement. We would even play catch with it on occasion, the thought that we might be damaging this ancient thing in the process never crossing anyone's mind. Since a new glove was beyond my budget, I used an old mitt of my own: a catcher's glove I inherited from older cousins that, for some reason, had a Catfish Hunter signature. Then again, I got most of my wardrobe from the same older cousins, so it made sense to use a Bronx Zoo Yankee's glove while wearing circa 1978 Sears active wear.

He was not one of those grandfathers who played the "in my day" card too often, but he always made sure to remark on how huge and padded baseball gloves were nowadays compared to what he grew up with. He'd played baseball for his high school team*, and the gloves he used were not any more advanced than those used by his parents' generation.

* The Grover Cleveland Lancers in Ridgewood, which was either Queens or Brooklyn depending on the year and the vicissitudes of city mapmakers.

As you can see, any resemblance between this and a modern baseball glove is purely academic. The "web" is just a band of leather, and most of the fingers are separate and free from one another. This makes it easier to move your hand within it, but also increases the likelihood of a ball slipping through the spaces. The lack of connection between the digits means the pinky can barely bend at all, which definitely limits its effectiveness.

The glove does have some small bit of padding, but no more than that of an Isotoner. It must have been very difficult to catch anything with this glove that wasn't a lazy fly ball. Combine this with the generally awful condition of fields back then--full of divots and rocks and snakes and whatnot--and you can see why errors were much more prevalent in days of yore than they are now.

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In this back view, you can see the glove is slightly adjustable, thanks to a wrist strap with two notches for a button. You may also notice a small tear in the lining. The padding behind it is gauze-like, thin and weaved. Of all the things that are so different about this glove in relation to its modern counterparts, though, the smell would be very familiar to any contemporary ballplayer, There's only so much you can do to tamp down that telltale leather odor.

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The patch on the left carries the insignia of Draper and Maynard (D&M) Sporting Goods, one of the biggest manufacturers of equipment for all sports in the early 20th century. This Christmas ad from the 1920s calls D&M "the lucky dog kind," hence the hound in their logo. According to this advertorial from a 1912 issue of Baseball Magazine, D&M helped develop the first baseball glove by reproducing a Plymouth buckskin glove at a player's request. (The veracity of this claim, like most from this era, is murky at best.) By the time this glove was made, however, the actual manufacturing was done by the Schultz Novelty and Sporting Goods Company, whose patch you can see on the right. And just underneath the button, you make out my great grandfather's initials.

I'm not 100 percent sure exactly how old this glove is. I used to believe my great grandfather had it as a child, but my (admittedly cursory) research shows it is slightly more evolved than the gloves you would have seen in the very early 1900s. (See: This glove once owned by Ty Cobb.) Based on this post at a vintage baseball glove forum about a D&M Babe Ruth model that greatly resembles this one (particularly in terms of the patches), my best guess is it dates from roughly the same era, the mid-1920s.

My great-grandfather was well into his adulthood by that time, and so I wonder why he chose to buy a glove at such an advanced age. Further muddying the waters, my mother tells me this particular great grandfather enjoyed baseball but was not by any means a fanatic. Certainly not when compared to another great grandfather of mine who watched every Brooklyn Dodger game he could and later applied the same monastic dedication to the Mets. He came from a family that was still very much connected to the Old Country, so did he buy this glove to Americanize himself in the nativist atmosphere of post-World War I? Maybe to play with his kids or use on company picnics?

Or maybe my great grandfather simply wanted to play catch, which is an impulse I can definitely understand at this time of year. I've played catch with a D&M model, a catcher's mitt inexplicably branded with Catfish Hunter's signature, and the black and red Spalding model I bought for my daughter last year, and the equipment itself has never mattered one bit. All that mattered was playing catch with someone, which is always great no matter the glove.

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