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A couple of years ago, I was part of a group that took a team of 11- and 12-year-olds to play baseball in Havana, Cuba. One day, as I was heading out to play catch with my son, a voice called out: “Oye! Segunda base?”

“Si?” I said with some hesitation. I do, in fact play second base for an over-35 baseball team. It must have been my quizzical stare that caused the man, one of the Cuban hosts of the trip, to hold up his left hand and, spreading his fingers wide, use his right hand to point at my baseball glove. “Segunda base!” he insisted.

The man had looked at my glove and seen that it was only 11 1/4 inches — one-quarter inch smaller than the next smallest glove I could wear. That quarter inch makes it the smallest glove on the field, and it makes me a second baseman. In an instant, my glove had communicated a world of information about a 40-something university professor to a Cuban baseball coach, mainly — since he had also played second base — that he had found a compatriot.

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As the playoffs approach, it’s worth paying a little attention to the mitts and gloves that make so much drama on the diamond possible. As pieces of sporting equipment go, you’d be hard-pressed to find one that serves as a bearer of meaning to the same extent that this piece of leather does. It told a Cuban ballplayer something fundamental about an American dad. But it also has a long history of telling Americans something complex and contradictory about themselves — their relationship to work, gender roles, adherence to ritual, faith in family, and notions of competition and fair play.

The first players of baseball didn’t use gloves, and the gnarled and maimed hands and fingers of players — especially catchers — testified to the punishment they endured trying to catch a ball barehanded. “We used no mattress on our hands,” wrote Harry Ellard in an 1880s poem commemorating the old Cincinnati Red Stockings. “We stood right up and caught the ball/With courage and with grace.” To stave off some of the punishment, the first catcher’s mitts were just leather palms made from gloves with their fingers cut off. One of the first fielder’s gloves, cooked up in the 1880s by the shortstop Arthur “Foxy” Irwin, was a driver’s glove with two fingers sewn together to protect fingers Irwin had broken, thereby, according to a Sporting News account, allowing him to play — and earn his daily pay.

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Early gloves were pragmatic, practical, and ingenious — all qualities Alexis de Tocqueville ascribed to Americans, even if we weren’t particularly good at book learning. The modern glove tends to occupy the sweet spot between those two different types of smarts. When Steve McQueen takes one into a jail cell with him in “The Great Escape” and monotonously pops a ball against the wall as he figures out how to escape the film’s Nazi prison camp, the glove becomes a symbol of the indomitability of the American spirit and the continuing commitment to ingenuity and inventiveness. It is as though the film is saying that an American could resist the German army with a baseball glove and a ball.

On the other hand — literally — is perhaps the most famous baseball glove in American literature, the one Holden Caulfield owns in “The Catcher in the Rye,” the glove once worn by his dead brother. “My brother Allie had this left-handed fielder’s mitt,” Holden explains, “He was left-handed. The thing that was descriptive about it, though, was that he had poems written all over the fingers and the pocket and everywhere. In green ink. He wrote them on it so that he’d have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up at bat.” The left-handedness, the poems on the glove, the notion that a boy would be in the ball field reading during the lulls in the game — all of these add up to Allie’s bookish iconoclasm, which Holden rightly sees as an affront to the “phoniness” of the American dream. The Caulfield boys’ glove can be read as a symbol for the dysfunctional American family, but that’s in sharp contrast to the gloves Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) and his movie dad don in “Field of Dreams” where the simple words “Wanna have a catch?” magically fix all of the intergenerational conflicts between fathers and sons.

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By the late 1800s, as gloves were becoming commonplace, the myth sprang up that originally donning a glove was unmanly and that players who did so were “sissies.” The protection they offered flew in the face of the deeply held belief in what Teddy Roosevelt called “the manly virtues”: good Americans’ capacity “to suffer punishment without flinching, and, at need, to repay it in kind with full interest.” That link between masculinity and violence haunts us to this day, and while the glove wasn’t the origin of that discourse, it served as a potent symbol of the toxic anxiety over effeminization right in the heart of America’s pastime.

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But concerns about manliness ultimately gave way to other aspects of American life: competitive advantage and financial gain. In the bare-handed era, it was not uncommon for a team to record 20 errors in a game, and two errorless games in a row were a rarity. Today, the average major league team commits roughly half an error per game. Current arguments about putting on the shift have nothing on the last century’s debate about putting on a glove, so completely did it transform the game. What’s more, a baseball glove could be sold and baseball players could be compensated for lending their endorsements and signatures to gloves. Players like Albert Goodwill Spaulding, who initially feared being taunted for wearing a glove, quickly learned that a surefire way to allay concerns about manliness was to make a lot of money selling sporting goods.

And while they do represent a lot of money — sporting goods are a $50 billion industry per year, with $151 million coming from the sale of baseball gloves in the United States alone — they’re also an endearing reminder of the hold of ritual and the power of belief. The breaking-in of a baseball glove and the putting it to bed for the winter have as many proscriptions and prohibitions as does replacing the Torah in the temple ark or preserving the consecrated host in the tabernacle. What’s more, a glove that touched the hand of Mickey Mantle once sold at auction for $239,000, and one simply bearing the name of Babe Ruth went for $11,600. Let no one say we are a nation of unbelievers.

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Industriousness, ingenuity, craftsmanship, perseverance, manliness, practicality, faith, success, decency. In America, we like to see these as our qualities, no matter how complex — and at times contradictory — they are. And as the most expressive part of what Walt Whitman called “our game,” the baseball glove helps tell the story about us while holding the contradictions in check.

Of course the biggest contradiction of all is that “our” qualities and “our” game aren’t strictly ours anymore — and maybe they never were. This month last year, a fan at an A’s-Red Sox game unfurled a banner proclaiming that “Racism is as American as Baseball.” Earlier this season, Milwaukee Brewers reliever Josh Hader was reported to have posted homophobic and pro-KKK tweets.

Americans hold no monopoly on virtue, manly or otherwise. We don’t even produce baseball gloves. Only about two-tenths of one percent of all gloves are manufactured domestically. Baseball — and baseball gloves — belong to the world, but so too do the qualities embodied in them that supposedly make America great. What does a baseball glove teach about America, above all? If we can see just a little of our cherished ideals reflected in others, just as my Cuban friend saw a compadre in one quarter inch of my glove, we would perhaps be better teammates in the global clubhouse.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece contained an incorrect time reference for when a fan unfurled a banner during an A’s-Red Sox game.


David Jenemann is the author of “The Baseball Glove: History, Material, Meaning, and Value,” from which this piece was adapted. Follow him at @davidjenemann