News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 23, 2014

MARK BENNETT: The memories from a baseball mitt fit like a glove

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Man hasn’t developed the technology for time travel.

The smell of your old baseball glove can come pretty close, though.

Its chemical makeup is basically the DNA of my youth. Sweat from my grimy left hand soaked its finger holes. Numerous coats of linseed oil got rubbed into its pocket on summer nights. The dust of ball diamonds — from Prairieton to every other little town in Vigo and Sullivan counties — filled creases in the leather. It hung from my bicycle handlebars, rode on the bed of the coach’s pickup truck along with the guys on our Little League and Babe Ruth teams, and got flung into dugouts after a few particularly bad innings, silently accepting blame it didn’t deserve. It got rained on, spit into and spilled upon by postgame Cokes from the concession stands.

Fingerprints seem generic, by comparison. A mitt tells your story. It fits you like, well, a glove.

Last Sunday, our family spent the afternoon in the yard, tossing and hitting a baseball. Though they’re grown now, the kids remember the drill. They dug through a tub of ball gloves in the garage to find their own, located gloves for our daughter-in-law and our daughter’s boyfriend, grabbed one for me and another specifically for my wife (she’s a lefty). For the next couple hours, we took turns at bat, swatting grounders and fly balls toward the rest of us.

It’s been a few decades since I played baseball every day, all summer, but standing in the sun with a glove on my hand still felt natural. My dad’s reminders to “bend your knees” and “watch it all the way into your mitt” are reflex all these years later (though bending requires some negotiation with my knees now). I found myself coaching the kids, as if they were 10 years old again, to “swing level,” “step toward the pitcher” and “watch the ball hit your bat.” Of course, they quickly proved my reminders weren’t necessary. They hadn’t forgotten, launching fly balls and line drives that forced me to practice what I’d preached, using my glove.

Actually, I did only a few ground-ball, fly-ball drills as a youngster. I stood (or crouched) behind home plate as a catcher, always — from the first day of Pee Wee Baseball tryouts when the coach asked, “Who wants to catch?” and nobody raised their hand, except me. Thus, the glove I wore last Sunday wasn’t my first. That 1960s Sears & Roebuck model catcher’s mitt lay hidden in that tub in the garage, though, well beneath the less ancient gloves.

Later, I pulled it out and slid my hand into it, almost reverently. Time hadn’t changed the fit. Perfect. It remembered every curve and quirk of my fingers, having adapted to their growth from Little League to Babe Ruth. The pocket still has the shoestrings I wove through it, trying to reinforce the leather laces that began to pop once my brother’s fastballs reached higher speeds. By my high school playing days, I had to buy a larger, better padded mitt for the games.

But at home, I used my old Sears glove.

The bond between man and mitt runs deep. When a Bay Area earthquake hit during the 1989 World Series, players scrambled to get out of the darkened clubhouse, fearing it would collapse. Oakland shortstop Mike Gallego, known for his stellar fielding, ran into that blacked-out clubhouse, determined to find his mitt, which he did. “I couldn’t leave my glove behind,” he told ESPN The Magazine in 2012.

I get that.

The personality of ball gloves fascinates Jim Daniels. The 45-year-old southern Californian runs BaseballGloveCollector.com. The son of a baseball beat writer who covered the Dodgers and Angels in Los Angeles, Daniels has collected vintage gloves for 20 years. His website features a gallery of 14,000 photos that will put into a trance any grown-up baseball player with at least an ounce of nostalgic sentimentality. The gloves date back to the 1800s, when real men wore fingerless versions.

Then there’s the signature models, bought in stores ages ago by kids who have long since passed away, hoping to emulate the skills of their endorsers — Ty Cobb, Christy Matthewson, Joe Jackson and Walter Johnson. Others hail from the 1920s to the 1950s and ’60s. Each shows its character, wrinkled and darkened by hundreds of pitches and hits caught in its web. Each has its own story.

“The glove is such a personal extension of you, like your arms and your hands,” Daniels said by telephone Wednesday from Orange County. “Way they fit, it feels like it was made for you. There isn’t a better feeling.”

Like a prized Honus Wagner baseball card, a few “Holy Grail” gloves exist for collectors. That includes a Lou Gehrig zipper-backed glove that sold for $9 — a hefty pricetag — in the early 1930s. Daniels favors those 19th-century fingerless mitts — resembling 21st-century biker gloves — that came in flesh color, hard to detect by fans who might otherwise question the player’s manliness. “You think of them as individual works of art,” Daniels said.

Sometimes, Daniels will get a caller asking him to estimate the dollar-value of grandfather’s old mitt, hoping to sell it. “I’ll go, ‘Man, the family gloves are priceless. Don’t you have someone you can pass it down to?’” Daniels said of those conversations.

He puts his own boyhood glove — a 1976 Carl Yastrzemski Spalding — in that category, priceless. Same goes for his dad’s early ’60s Roger Maris Spalding. They used them together. “There’s nothing better than playing catch,” Daniels said.

That’s why the kids dug through that tub of mitts Sunday.



Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.