Answer Man

Major league gloves just grew an inch

An old catcher’s mitt
An old catcher’s mitt

Q: In the past, the only two oversized baseball gloves were the catcher’s mitt and the first baseman’s glove. It seems now every player has a very large glove. I assume there is no limit on the size? It also would be interesting to know what one of these gloves cost. And I assume each player pays for his own glove?

Charles Lee, of Mascoutah

A: If you think today’s gloves are huge, you should have been baseball commissioner Fay Vincent trying to find a diplomatic way to squelch Glovegate 26 years ago.

Even in the 1980s, Major League Baseball decreed that gloves could not be longer than 12 inches from the heel to the tip of the index finger. But many players — especially outfielders — openly flouted the rule with mitts up to 15 inches. I’m not sure how top-heavy these might feel, but you can understand how an extra inch or two might provide the difference in making a spectacular shoestring catch or snaring a ball headed over the wall. And if 15 were allowed, where would it end?

“They were getting as big as jai alai cestas,” Vincent told ESPN last year, referring to the large basketlike devices jai alai players use to catch and throw the ball. “We were all in agreement that we had to do something.”

But Vincent had to step gingerly in 1990. A lockout had nearly erased spring training, opening day was shoved back a week and the umpires staged a brief boycott.

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t remember much about the gloves,” Vincent said last year. “But I do remember it was one of our few successes. That had a lot to do with our baseball operations people — and the game’s traditional respect for the rules.”

Vincent gives much of the credit to his deputy commissioner, Steve Greenberg, for assembling the major parties, including Donald Fehr, executive director of the MLB Players Association. Vincent probably knew Greenberg had a lot of skin in this dispute, because his father, Hank Greenberg, had pioneered the oversized first baseman’s mitt in the 1930s.

Vincent warned glove manufacturers in the fall of 1989 that he planned to enforce the rules on glove size the following year. When the abbreviated spring training opened in March, players were told they would have to have regulation-sized gloves.

Many were not happy. Considering that Rawlings admitted that a full 25 percent of the gloves they made did not meet MLB specifications, there likely were a lot of players trying to game the game.

“It’s a stupid rule, the kind baseball doesn’t need,” New York Yankees outfielder Luis Polonia said at the time. “I’m not cheating. I’m going to catch the ball no matter what.”

“I’m upset,” Atlanta Braves outfielder Dale Murphy added. “They’re giving me two weeks to break in a glove when it takes a year. It’s not fair.”

Others realized it had simply (pardon the pun) gotten out of hand.

“For certain, some of the gloves are too big,” Cincinnati Reds Manager Lou Piniella said at the time. “I saw some gloves on the Yankees that looked like loaves of bread.”

With the other troubles going on, the baseball poobahs had to tread softly. First, players were told they could have several weeks to break in a new glove before switching. And if they didn’t? Could outs be ruled hits — or even home runs if one were used to catch a ball leaving the park? Giants Manager Alvin Dark suggested that, when spotted, illegal gloves be confiscated and the player be made to finish the inning bare-handed.

Cooler heads prevailed. Any player caught using one (umpires were provided tape measures) would be ordered to change gloves. If he refused, he would be ejected. To keep the game moving, managers could only demand two measurements per game. Any play made before an illegal glove was found would not be changed. As it turned out, everybody lived happily ever after. There were no incidents, confiscations or ejections, and manufacturers went back to producing legal gloves.

However, you’re not wrong. Baseball gloves this year can be bigger than last year’s model. According to changes in the MLB rules for 2016, the allowable length of a fielder’s glove — including the first baseman — has been increased from 12 to 13 inches. Otherwise, I invite you to go to http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/downloads/y2016/official_baseball_rules.pdf to see the limitations on the size and materials detailed in rules 3.04 to 3.07. For example, a first baseman may wear a glove “not more than 13 inches long from top to bottom and not more than 8 inches wide across the palm ...” And that’s just the start of the specifications. You also can find a diagram in Appendix 4.

It’s certainly been a tectonic change from the early days of baseball as my colleague Sports Editor (and vintage baseball enthusiast) Todd Eschman reminded me. Early baseball was played without gloves, and early models were so primitive that they were used more to knock a ball down so it could be picked up more easily than to catch a hot grounder or sizzling line drive.

According to National Public Radio, Doug Allison, a catcher for the Cincinnati Red Stockings, is believed to be one of the first to don one in 1870 because of an injured left hand. The first confirmed use was by St. Louis Brown Stockings first baseman Charlie Waitt, who reportedly was called a sissy for using one in about 1875. Most players wanted to be he-men, like Cincinnati’s Bid McPhee, a Hall-of-Famer who was the last man to go barehanded, Eschman told me.

“This glove business has gone a little too far,” McPhee said once. “True, hot-hit balls do sting a little at the opening of the season, but after you get used to it, there is no trouble on that score.”

Sting? While playing for Providence in 1883, infielder Albert “Foxy” Irwin broke the third and fourth fingers of his left hand, so he grabbed an oversized buckskin driving glove, padded it and sewed the third and fourth fingers together to allow room for the bandages. In just a year or so, nearly all players were using the “Irwin glove,” according to the June 16, 1909, issue of the Trenton True American. Irwin’s own fielding percentage climbed from .835 (and a league-high 78 errors in 84 games) in 1882 sans glove to .881 in 1884 with glove.

According to an article in Smithsonian magazine, it was a St. Louis Cardinal — pitcher Bill Doak — who suggested that a web be placed between the first finger and the thumb to create the now-familiar pocket. Doak would go on to patent his idea and sell it to Rawlings, whose gloves soon became preferred by players. (See the full story at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-invention-of-the-baseball-mitt-12799848/?no-ist.

Still, they needed a lot of improvement.

“Gloves were pretty limited in their utility early in the century and only showed modest design improvements through the ’20s,” Eschman told me. “They really changed in the late ’60s, which is when limitations were written into the rulebook.”

As for picking up the bill, do you really think teams would make millionaire players pay for their own gloves? Let’s get serious here. It’s glove manufacturers who pay players for the right to add their names to the gloves they design. After all, what Khoury League catcher doesn’t want to feel like an All-Star by wearing a mitt with Yadier Molina’s name? Joe Ostermeier, the BND’s senior editor/digital, told me this revealing story.

“I’m reminded of a moment at the old Busch Stadium, watching (Cardinal All-Star center fielder) Jim Edmonds open a huge box of gloves provided him,” said Ostermeier, who is also the chairman of the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. “Dave (Wilhelm, the BND’s Cardinal reporter) and I watched, spellbound, as Edmonds slipped on each new glove, considered its ‘feel’ for just a moment or two, and then tossed them into two piles — keepers or losers, as it were. Amazing.”

According to a story on MarketWatch, however, few major leaguers wear custom-made gloves but, rather, use about the same top-end models you’d find in your neighborhood sporting goods store.

“Pretty much every major leaguer gets paid to wear a glove, and even minor leaguers either get paid or receive them free,” Steven Kutz reported. “The revenue in the baseball-glove business comes from recreational players, who often buy the gloves their favorite players use. Popular glove models the pros wear usually cost consumers anywhere from $200 to $500.”

Even if a team buys gloves for a few unknown rookies, it’s not going to break the bank, because, unlike bats that break, a good glove becomes like a player’s security blanket.

Today’s trivia

What unusual imprints did Al Jolson make in the concrete on May 12, 1936, outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: Some things never change. On Aug. 4, 1945, Soviet school children gave a carving of the Great Seal of the United States to U.S. Ambassador Averell Harrimen. He proudly displayed it in his Moscow office — until 1952, when the State Department discovered it contained a microphone with which the Soviets could eavesdrop on conversations. It’s now on display at the National Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade, Md.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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