19th Century Baseball Mitts
I watched a clip of Troy Tulowitski making a bare-handed grab on a flip from Ryan Goins in today’s play-off game, making it easier for Tulo to make the relay to first for the double play. It was a fine play, but it got me thinking that players in the 19th century, although they certainly turned far fewer double plays than they do today, must have frequently caught softer throws with their bare hands, simply by virtue of the fact that baseball mitts were either non-existent or rudimentary compared to today’s mitts.
It also occurred to me that I had seen relatively few images of 19th century fielder’s mitts/gloves, because in 19th century baseball photographs, the pictures are almost all of players holding their bats or pitchers preparing to pitch with both hands bare. Part of the reason for this is that 19th century photography required people to keep still for relatively long period of times because of long exposures of the film of the day. There are few, if any, real action shots from this era, and pictures of fielders standing around isn’t very sexy.
On Bing and Google I looked “19th century baseball mitts,” and I learned something I hadn’t realized. At least some players in the 19th century wore gloves on both hands. The fielder’s gloves of the time were just thick leather gloves with no webbing or the fingers laced together. Catching a hard hit or hard thrown ball with these gloves required both hands to catch the ball with the glove hand.
Needless to say, at the advent of baseball mitts, players engaged in a lot of experimentation. Some wore no gloves (Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract says that 3Bman Jerry Denny, who retired in 1894, was the last player to play without a glove in the field), some wore a full glove on the fielding hand and a glove with cut off fingers on the throwing hand (sort of like handball gloves), and some wore cut-off gloves on both hands.
Even with cut-off fingers, the thick leather covering the palm of the throwing hand made it hard to make a good throw, particularly if one had grip the ball and throw it quickly. As the fielder’s hand mitts improved, fielders quickly did away with the fingerless glove on the throwing hand. In any event, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a photo from any time in the 20th century in which a fielder was wearing a glove of any kind on his throwing hand.
Early catcher’s mitts look much more like modern catcher’s mitts than the other fielder’s gloves with one major exception — they had no hinge. Presumably, catchers in particular wore padded gloves on both hands early on, but this was quickly replaced by a much more heavily padded glove, which because it had no hinge, was almost like a large leather pad in the shape of a modern catcher’s mitt. It definitely required two hands to catch a baseball with such a mitt — you had to trap the ball against the padded catcher’s mitt with the bare hand, which must have led to a lot more injuries to the bare hand from foul balls and wild pitches than occur today. Catchers still get their bare hands wounded by foul balls, particularly when a base runner is trying to steal, but much of the time modern catchers keep their bare hand behind them, while they catch the pitch exclusively with the mitt.
Generally speaking, professional infielders in particular had chronically swollen hands and fingers before at least 1890 because, even if they wore fielder’s gloves, the designs of the time didn’t provide a whole lot of protection.