Monday, January 11, 2010

Wearing the Black Gloves

What do raw meat, grass clippings, a dead sparrow, a dead rat and Limberger cheese have in common? Believe it or not, they have each been stuffed inside of a Major League player's glove. The last three were as a result of modern day pranks, but the raw meat and the grass were 19th Century ballplayers' attempts to add padding that was lacking in the early gloves.

Baseball gloves first entered the game in the 1870's starting with the catchers. Fielders were reluctant to wear gloves at first, not wanting to appear weak. Stories were told of players wearing flesh colored "mittens" so they would go unnoticed by fans. Sporting goods store owner and stand-out first baseman Albert Spalding was determined to change the perception of gloves so he proudly donned black gloves during a game in 1877. Not surprisingly, those thin black leather half-fingered gloves were for sale in his store shortly after the game.

This risk paid off for Spalding (heard of Spalding Sporting Goods?) and the game was also changed as a result. Within a few years nearly all fielders were wearing padded gloves on their non-throwing hands. Infielders became more aggressive, overhand pitching was allowed and sporting goods manufacturers soon changed the ball itself in order to compensate for this new tool. In his book, Glove Affairs: The Romance, History, and Tradition of the Baseball Glove, Noah Liberman states, "All in all, it's impossible to overestimate the effect gloves have had on the game of baseball. Perhaps no innovation has changed the game more."

Spalding's move was bold and I wonder if I would have the guts to do the same. It was a calculated risk. He knew ballplayers were breaking fingers and going home with bruised and swollen hands. He knew that he had enough credibility and fame that he probably wouldn't be laughed off the field. Still, he had heard stories of that happening to other men in their flesh colored gloves but he didn't let that stop him. I hope I have the wisdom to see the opportunities like Spalding did and the nerve to step onto the field wearing the black gloves.

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