Glove Like The Movies – Historic Glove Restoration Project

Historic glove project

Glove Like The Movies

What’s your favorite baseball movie?  42? Maybe The Sandlot or A League Of Their Own?  Chances are you like it for the story it tells, not for the props it uses.  But the props used by the actors and filmmakers are a part of telling that story.  You wouldn’t send Chadwick Boseman out onto the field as Jackie Robinson with the wrong equipment or, baseball gods forbid, a modern glove.  It has to be the right glove and the right bat for the time period, or else you’ll be too distracted by it to pay attention to the story.  Historical period movies have to have historically accurate period gloves.  Period.

Recently, I started repair work for a wonderful prop house called History For Hire.  They specialize in renting out period-accurate props for film and television shows, commercials, and photo shoots.  Since I have a healthy knowledge of leather working and an absolute passion for baseball, it seems a natural fit that one of my on-going projects at H4H centers around historical baseball gloves. 

History For Hire

The rental house has an extensive collection of all kinds of baseball props. And not just gloves, but that’s what I’m focusing on for now.  After years of acquisitions and stock loss, the catalog needs updating. There’s also a good deal of conditioning and repairs to do on a large portion of the glove stock.  That’s where I come in.

period baseball bats
Oh yeah, they got bats, too.

To begin the project, my first goal was to learn as much as possible as I could about gloves.  How they were made, what they were made from, how they were conditioned.  I learned that while it’s not quite as fierce as with fashion, when baseball styles changed, they did almost unilaterally, though some staples stuck around for a long time.

Next, I needed to come up with an easy way to identify what time period a glove came from.  In the past few weeks, I spent hours pouring over Sears & Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, Spalding, Rawlings, and Wilson catalogs, compiling as extensive a list as possible of what styles were available for sale and when.  I put together a sort of checklist of major features – the wrist closure, web style, finger shapes, etc. – then compiled them into a master list.

Checklist for historical gloves
I promise it makes some kind of sense. Mostly.

The earliest catalog I had access to (so far) was an 1878 A.G. Spalding catalog, showing the earliest version of what the sport considered an acceptable kind of hand protection.

Mangled Fingers, Broken Palms

You see, in the early days of baseball, players thought it unmanly to wear a catching glove.  Players typically made a kind of scoop basket with two hands, cradling the ball with both of them.  If a player judged the ball correctly, it could be caught with little more than a bit of a sting on the skin.  If they judged it poorly, they might shatter a few bones.  Broken fingers and hairline fractures were just a part of the game.  Catchers had an especially rough go of it, with no padding of any kind, both on their body and hands in the earliest days.

1878 catcher
1878. Yeah, this looks safe.

Of course pitching was at a slower pace back then.  There were no 100 mph heaters.  Most leagues didn’t even throw overhand until the early 1880s.  At-bats were much more about the batters versus the fielders than the hitter-pitcher duel we see now.  Even so, catchers still bore the brunt of the baseball hand injuries and when pitchers started throwing harder, something had to change.

A few early players experimented with hand protection, even attempting to make them flesh colored and unnoticeable.  They were met with such harsh backlash, the entire sport was shamed into going without.  It wasn’t until A.G. Spalding (yes, THAT Spalding) moved from pitcher to first base and used one, in part because of the wear and tear on his hands, that gloves became somewhat acceptable.  

The Spalding website claims that his company produced the first baseball glove in 1877.  In reality, they created the first mass-produced baseball glove that appeared on the market that year.  Spalding’s influence didn’t stop at gloves.  He also popularized a standard ball which which became the official MLB ball for both leagues into the 1970s.

Catching Get Some Relief

Not surprisingly, catchers were the first position to fully embrace the idea of protective hand wear.  The first style of gloves were fingerless, often referred to as the “brakeman” style, since it was almost exactly the same kind worn by streetcar brake operators.  

Brakeman Style glove
It’s better than nothing, I guess.

These gloves offered the palms of the hand some extra protection while leaving the fingers free to throw the ball.  They still used that kind of basket-like catch, though, so while there were less palm injuries, finger jams were still common.  Funnily enough, the earliest catalog listings for these gloves were sold in the same sizes as “fine gentleman’s gloves.”

From about 1885-1895, catchers gloves went through a rapid succession of development on two fronts.  The first mitts appeared, basically a large leather pad stuffed with felt to absorb the energy of the ball and bring it to a stop, not necessarily to fully catch it.  These kinds of mitts were still paired with a throwing glove because players were still using a two-handed catch.

Mitt pad with throwing glove

The other innovation came when the non-throwing hand fingerless glove morphed into a workman’s glove style.  Basically a giant oversized leather glove with some padding on the palm for the catching hand.  Some had reenforced fingertips to help prevent jams and to hold on to the ball better.  Catchers soon realized that it was possible to catch the ball with just one hand and completely protect their throwing hand.

Workman-Style Glove
Getting better….

Intrepid players and designers started to combine the two ideas – basically attaching the workman’s glove to the back of the pad and making it slightly flexible.  By the turn of the century, more and more catchers were catching with one hand.

Steady Style

For the next half century, the catcher’s mitt remained very much the same rounded, molded face shape, with most of the innovations involving the adjustable padding on the inside.  The industry also saw an explosion of different colors on the market.  In 1913 catalogs, catchers gloves were offered in brown, black, pearl, gray, tan, olive green, buff, and yellow.  Reds and brighter greens were also on offer, though usually for children.  Most models had prominent lacing around the edge, providing another opportunity for a splash of style or team spirit.

Catcher's mitt 1918
Catcher’s mitt, 1918. This basic shape with minimal changes saw use through the 1940s. Notice even back then, this glove came with a player’s endorsement.

These mitts didn’t come fitted, which made them easier to mass produce.  They did have adjustable wrist straps that either buckled or laced to the wearer’s size.  Much more important was the adjustable padding inside, which when properly distributed, would help a player close their hand around the ball while still protecting the palm. 

1B Gloves

As the most common fielding out comes at first, first base players were quick to realize the same thing that catchers did. If they didn’t maim their hands on a bad catch, they could play the game longer.  They also started out with fingerless gloves (as did position players) but soon adopted their own style of mitt which was distinctive from catchers.  A few pitchers also adopted this style, though as a whole, they moved on to the glove style quickly.

first baseman's mitt historical glove
Much more mitten shaped than a catcher’s mitt.

There was the same spirit of experimentation, including a “pita pocket” version that looked similar to later catching mitts. But by the end of the 1910s, the general standard settled into a slightly rounded mitt with a connected thumb and adjustable padding.  While catchers gloves were more round, the first base mitt was, well, more mitten-like in shape.  And it stayed that way for a long.  Until 1941, to be precise, when Rawlings introduced the Trapper glove.

Rawlings Trapper Style historical glove
If the word “crotch” makes you giggle, prepare to get a lot of dirty looks in the library.

Rawling patented their new mitt style, but knock-offs flooded the market almost immediately.  It’s definitely the first major step towards the modern glove.

Position Players

While in the early days, an infielder or outfielder might have used a first base-style mitt, most quickly moved onto a true glove.  The basic model was made with four distinct fingers, though occasionally three with the pinky and ring finger together.  The design looked like an oversized-looking work glove with individual fingers with some kind of rudimentary web between the index and thumb.

Position Player's historical glove
Variations on this theme lasted well into the 1950s.

This style glove is the easiest mid century modern gloves for prop masters to find for a number of reasons.  First, because the basic four finger glove was used with minimal differences from the turn of the century up through the early 1950’s.  Also, there’s a lot more position players on the field needing gloves than catchers or first base players.  Kids and casual players also usually purchased a fielder’s glove rather than a position-specific glove.  Because of this, there’s a lot more out there available for purchase. The tricky part here is make sure the webbing between the index finger and thumb is of a style available in a given year.  

Position players were the slowest to move towards the styles we see today.  In 1957,  Wilson designed the first A2000 model – the first truly modern fielder’s glove.  It was radically different glove, widening the webbing and creating a better trap for the ball.  It also improved upon the palm hinge, allowing the hand to close more easily around a ball.  The A2000 was such a well-designed glove, version of it are still available from Wilson new today.

Getting The Information Right

The goal with the project is to make sourcing the the right glove as easy as possible for film folk.  The frustrating thing about all of this is that there is always gaps in knowledge.  And even an expert can be wrong.  I recall reading a book by an extremely knowledgeable person who claimed a style of glove was invented in a certain year yet I at that same time, I had a catalog open to an ad for said glove dated four years previous.  

Speaking of it, the absolute best resources (when available) are catalogs. If you might have noticed, all of my reference photos are catalog drawings, as they are the best source for knowing exactly was was available to the public for purchase that year.  You also pull whatever catalogs you can get your hands on for at least five to ten years previous, as players rarely picked up a new glove every season.  Like any good superstitious baseball player, most players used a glove for several years.  

If you’re on a biopic about real people, you might get lucky and find ads with player endorsements that let you know exactly what Roger Hornsby’s glove looked like.  (Or at least the one he was paid money to SAY the glove he used!)  You might pull a player’s baseball cards, pour over photographs and newspaper articles, look at newsreel footage to be as reasonably sure as possible that you have the right style and color.

historical player endorsements
Babe Ruth slapped his name on a LOT of gear. Get that paper, George.

Historical Glove Accuracy Vs. Real-World Working Parameters

Or at least, that’s the ideal thing that should happen.  The stark reality is that sometimes these shows only have a few weeks (if that) to gather the props needed for a shoot.  In the grand scheme of things, a glove is only one of the hundreds and hundreds of other props needed to recreate history.  If it’s a very important prop, say, Babe Ruth’s distinctive pearly white glove, you’ll spend a good deal of time and energy making sure you have the right one and with a back-up in case it gets damaged.  If it’s being used by an outfielder who is never in focus in the back of a distant shot?  Not so much.

You’re also working with budgets.  Research takes time, which equals money.  Turns out experts in their field expect to and should be paid for their expertise.  Some shows, like the new A League Of Their Own series reboot, will hire baseball-specific advisors like Justine Siegal that stay on all season to make sure the baseball things get done the proper baseball way.

Even if you know what you’re looking for, availability can put a kink into your plan.  If the right historical glove isn’t available to rent, your only options are purchasing or fabrication.  Both can be expensive.  A rental of a glove for a feature-length film might be about $80.  You might find something similar to what you need for sale for a couple hundred dollars.  To have the exact right custom glove made by a union maker is at least a thousand dollars if not more.  Sometimes the money makes the choice for you.

Other times, you’re on set and suddenly the director decides he does’t like that glove color.  So you have to get the actor another color glove.  And even though you spent hours finding the exact right match to the references you pulled, the player now has a black glove instead of a tan one.  You have to be able to have enough period correct gloves on-hand to anticipate a move like that.  And you have to make peace with the fact that there’s always going to be someone watching who will rip you apart for it on an internet forum.

Looking Forward to Portray the Past

The need for multiple options is where going to a good prop house like History for Hire can help.  They have an extensive library of catalogs and research books that can help you organize and pull references.  They also have helpful folks who are familiar with the time period and can help you make some choices if you get stuck.

In the coming weeks, I’ll go through the hundreds of both historical and replica glove – cataloging, photographing, and repairing or conditioning each one as needed.  Some will be easy, some will require a lot of work.  If you’d like to follow along, check out my photo collection here.

In the mean time, this is a very cursory look at the deep dive I’ve done, but I still have gaps in my knowledge!  If you’re a glove collector and would like to chat, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Twitter!


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