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Old Time Baseball:  III - Equipment

The evolution of baseball also saw a revolution in the type and amount of playing equipment. The day of purposeful-some would say superfluous- equipment, like the sweatband, headband, batting tee, batting glove, was far off in the future, but all equipment has its roots in the nineteenth century.

Bumps, bruises, and fractured fingers were part of the lot of baseball players for years. The game was rough and tumble, the players were manly, and any type of protective garb was frowned upon.

Then one day in 1875, in a game against Boston, outfielder Charlie Waite of New Haven sauntered onto the field to play first base, his left hand adorned with an ordinary leather dress glove. The garment was an inconspicuous flesh color; Waite sought to attract as little attention as possible and did not wish to be considered less than manly by the partisans in the stands and his peers on the field.

Waite was able to glove his hand but unable to cover up what he was doing. The pioneer's "sissified" approach-the protective garment on his hand- triggered taunts and jeers from fans and players. Nevertheless, Waite played on, protected, swapping the pain of ridicule for the pain of a batted baseball.

One who always appreciated a good idea was Albert Spalding, a man who also knew too well the pain of a hard ball on bare hand. A year after Waite's glove  appeared, Spalding and his brothers launched his sporting-goods business, a  staple of which was the production of baseball gloves. And in 1877, when A.G.  shifted from pitching to playing first base, he also shifted to wearing a glove. "When I'd recalled that every ball pitched had to be returned, and that every hit one coming my way from fielders, outfielders, or hot from the bat must be  caught and stopped, some idea may be gained of the punishment received," noted  Spalding in defense of his wearing a glove.

The glove Spalding wore was padded but not  disguised in flesh color like  Waite's; it was dark leather and there for all to see. "I found," explained Spalding, "that the glove, thin as it was, helped considerably. I inserted one pad after another, until a great deal of relief was afforded."

Spalding began the trend, and gloves began to catch on in all types of variations. Catcher Henry Fabian of New Orleans in 1880 utilized two gloves on his left hand and placed a piece of sheet lead between the surfaces. Cap Anson sported kid gloves with cut off fingertips on his throwing hand. Anson's catcher, Frank "Old Silver" Flint, got by with thin leather gloves cushioned with raw beef steak.

Actually the mouth protector, not the glove, was baseball's first bit of protective equipment. Sported by Cincinnati Reds shortstop George Wright in the 1860s, it was a patented piece of equipment and a welcome replacement for the broad rubber bands that had previously been worn around the mouth by catchers to save their teeth.

Wright's sporting-goods company patented, manufactured, and enjoyed some big-money days selling the mouth protector for a time, until it became a footnote to baseball history when it was replaced by the catcher's mask. As the  story goes, the captain of the Harvard team, F. Winthrop Thayer, invented the mask, using the one employed in fencing as a prototype. He then presented the new model to his catcher, James Alexander Tyny, who had issued threats of quitting the game because of fear of disfiguring his face. Not until 1877 did professional catchers adopt  the maskthat fans referred to as a "bird cage" and that sportswriters ridiculed with such diatribes as: "There is a good deal of beastly humbug in contrivances to protect men from things that don't happen. There is about as much sense in putting a lightning rod on a catcher as a mask."Despite the criticisms, sales of catcher's masks became a good business. Peck and Snyder's sporting goods stores sold them for three dollars each. The store's ad copy claimed that "some of the top catchers of 1877" were using the equipment "made of wire and cushioned with soft leather . . . filled with best curled hair. They are light and easy to adjust."

Peck and Snyder of New York City not only carried the catcher's mask but also advertised "new styles of baseball uniforms and outfits; baseball caps, eight corners with star in top of corded seams for $10 per dozen ($1 sample by mail); uniform flannel for $8 a dozen, and second quality flannels at $6 a dozen." There were also belts for sixty cents each, heavy English all-worsted  hose in either solids or stripes for $2.50 each or $27 for a dozen. With cotton feet, the hose were just $24 a dozen-three dollars less for leggings.

The real impetus making the catcher's mask an important part of the equipment of  the national pastime took place in 1879, when the rules committee outlawed the foul-bound catch, banning catchers from retiring a batter on a foul tip caught  on the first bounce. This change in rules made catchers play closer to the plate-increasing their chances of injury and increasing the need for protection. More protection also came with the introduction of the chest protector, invented by a Hartford man as a way to eliminate the kayos of catchers who were  laid low by foul balls pounding into their chest. Dubbed a sheepskin, the chest protector was placed under the uniform, but its bulging nature served as a  magnet for boos. The first chest protector was allegedly employed by catcher John T. Clements of the Philadelphia Keystones in 1884.

By 1886 finger gloves were in fairly widespread use, and instead of two gloves most players now used only one. By the 1890s, gloves werestandard equipment in baseball. A few players, like Fred Dunlap, however, went through their entire careers without ever using a glove. Dunlap claimed he didn't need "the thing," and maybe he was right. He led the National League four years in fielding in the 1880s sans glove. And there were others who, like Dunlap, could not give up the old bare-handed ways. "The game of baseball is being spoiled by allowing players  to wear these abominations known as mitts," said Boston's Harry Schafer. "Players do not have to show skill in handling balls with those mitts in their hands. Those who cannot play without them should get out of the game and give way to those who can."

One player who benefited greatly from the use of a glove was Lave Cross, a massive catcher. Converted in 1892 to a third baseman when hejoined Philadelphia, Cross played the hot corner buttressed by his catcher's mitt. Using his oversized glove like a fly swatter, Cross smacked down and snared  virtually  every ball hit his way. "They're playing infield with barn doors," some reporters complained.

In 1895 the rules committee came up with restrictions on "barn doors." All gloves except for catchers' and first basemen's were limited to no more than 10 ounces in weight and no more than 14 inches in circumference, as measured around the palm. The smaller glove was the end of the line for a few players, like Lave Cross, now unable just to hack away at fielding their position. Baseball bats throughout history have possessed an almost mystical quality. Cap Anson allegedly hung bats like hams from the ceiling in the cellar of his house, and at peak times the old baseballer had at least five hundred pieces of favorite lumber seasoning away. Always on the prowl for a good piece of wood, Anson would go after ancient logs, shafts from carts, fence posts, anything he thought he could shape into good material for a baseball bat.

One of the more macabre stories about a baseball bat concerns a player named Perring, who, when the Ohio State Penitentiary was dismantled in 1880, collected the hickory wood that had formed the scaffolding that had outlived its usefulness. Perring fashioned the highly seasoned and strong wood into a bat that endured for the next two decades.

What would go down in legend as the famed Louisville Slugger, as the story goes, made its debut in 1884. Peter Browning, one of the premier batsmen of his time, broke his bat while performing for the Louisville baseball team. Faced with the pressure of a  crucial game the following day, Browning prevailed on J. F. Hillerich at the local wood-turning shop to create another bat exactly like the  one that had been broken. The day of the big game arrived. Hillerich had followed orders to the letter and presented Browning with a bat fashioned from  the wood of a wagon tongue. Browning batted out four hits with that piece of lumber and Hillerich and Bradsby evolved into the leading manufacturer of the baseball bat-including the famed Louisville Slugger.

The baseball stems from the most primitive of beginnings. Albert Spalding, who would go on to make a fortune producing them, mused about his early experiences.  "The ball was not what would be called a National League ball, nowadays, but it served every purpose. It was usually made on the spot by some boy offering up his woolen socks as an oblation, and these were raveled and wound round a bullet, a handful of strips cut from a rubber overshoe, a piece of cork or almost anything, or nothing, when anything was not available. The winding of this ball was an art, and whoever could excel in this art was looked upon as a superior being. The ball must be a perfect sphere and the threads as regularly laid as the wire on a helix of a magnetic armature. When the winding was complete the surface of the ball was thoroughly sewed with a large needle and thread to prevent it from unwinding when a thread was cut."

The early baseballs had personalities all their  own. Their weights varied quite a bit-and a few of them barely tipped the scales at 3 ounces. Stitching sometimes consisted of crescent-shaped sections.

In 1877 the exclusive right to produce the National League baseball was granted to A. G. Spalding & Brothers. All the covers of all the balls were made of horsehidc an aspect of the ball that remained constant until 1973. Regulation and quality control, however, was an absent item as teams "ordered up" or "doctored up" balls to meet their own needs. The better fielding clubs utilized a soft ball, while those teams who had good hitters made sure the ball they used was hard and lively.

A baseball went through a great deal of heavy duty in those early years, unlike today, when it is routinely replaced for the slightest blemish. An outstanding example of the use and overuse of a baseball took place on August 7, 1882. The Cleveland Spiders and the New York Metropolitans played out their game in the rain at the Polo Grounds in New York City. The ball that was in use from the first pitch of the game was wet, soggy, and dirty. The ninth inning was under way and the captain of the Mets asked the umpire for a new ball to replace the  virtually unusable and lopsided sphere. "I can't do it," said the umpire. "You'll have to play on with what you have." The arbiter's ruling was in the negative because the rules stated that a new ball could not be put in play except at the beginning of an inning. The ninth had begun.


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You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

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Written by acclaimed sports author and oral historian Dr. Harvey Frommer, with an introduction by pro football Hall of Famer Frank Gifford, When It Was Just a Game tells the fascinating story of the ground-breaking AFL–NFL World Championship Football game played on January 15, 1967: Packers vs. Chiefs. Filled with new insights, containing commentary from the unpublished memoir of Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram, featuring oral history from many who were at the game—media, players, coaches, fans—the book is mainly in the words of those who lived it and saw it go on to become the Super Bowl, the greatest sports attraction the world has ever known. Archival photographs and drawings help bring the event to life.

Dr. Harvey Frommer, a professor at Dartmouth College, is in his 40th year of writing books. The author of hundreds of articles and  43 sports books including the classics: best-selling New York City Baseball, 1947-1957 and best-selling “Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball ,the prolific Frommer also authored the acclaimed Remembering Yankee Stadium (second edition 2016) and best-selling Remembering Fenway Park..He is at work on “the Ultimate Yankee book” to be published in 2017.

Together with his wife Myrna Katz Frommer, he has written the acclaimed oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami.

Along with his wife Myrna Katz Frommer, he is a professor in the MALS program at Dartmouth College where he teaches oral and cultural history. Dr. Frommer has also taught "Sports Journalism" and "Sports and Culture" at Dartmouth College, Adelphi and New York University.

Frommer’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, The Sporting News, Men's Health and other publications.

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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2016 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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