More Thoughts on Early Baseball Mitts

A few days ago I wrote a post on 19th century baseball mitts, and I have a few more thoughts on the subject.

One thing that is striking, to me at least, is how relatively slow the progress of baseball mitts has been.  By 1910 at the latest baseball was big business, and with so many people playing the game professionally, it surprises me that glove advances weren’t faster.

While modern manufacturing techniques did not exist 125 years ago, there were almost certainly a higher percentage of highly skilled glove makers and leather workers then than there are today, people who could have crafted baseball mitts equal to modern mitts if a player had told them exactly what he wanted and was willing to pay for it.  Certainly by 1890, when most players were wearing gloves in the field, the best players were making enough money to pay for whatever kind of mitt or glove would best have served their purposes.

However, what I think a lot of it comes down to is that no one has a new idea until the first person comes up with it.  Then it seems obvious after a few years of hind-sight.

Also, progress has to be slow enough that leaps in technology, if you want to call it that, don’t seem like “cheating” by introducing something that the professional game as an institution sees as too far beyond what came before.

Obviously, for many years, players played bare-handed.  Gloves were introduced primarily to protect the players’ hands, not to make it easier for the players to catch the ball.  Of course, gloves immediately did improve fielders’ ability to catch the ball, because infielders no longer needed to let scalding line-drives go by unopposed once they had sufficient padding on their hands to prevent injury.

For example, to any player playing baseball in the 19th century, I cannot doubt that they would consider modern outfielders’ gloves to be cheating, because modern gloves make it possible to catch balls that could not possibly be caught with bare hands.  These mitts very clearly catch the ball for you in a lot of situations, and I think 19th century players would have considered their use an unfair advantage that defeated a player’s skill at catching the ball.

Instead, glove styles for the most part evolved gradually over time.  That way, no one really noticed on a year to year basis how much fielders’ mitts were changing.  Again, with respect to modern outfielders’ mitts, it was only after years of gradual elongation that a decade or so ago, people started to notice just how large some of these mitts had become, and rules were then passed (but not always strictly enforced since then) designating a maximum size for mitts.

Also, even when a real break-through was made improving baseball mitts dramatically, it took a long time for further advancements to be made.  In 1919, pitcher Bill Doak designed a new mitt which expanded the webbing between thumb and forefinger, thus creating a deeper pocket in which to catch the ball.  The mitt was a huge success, and Doak ultimately made more money from royalties on the sale of Rawlings’ Bill Doak model gloves than he did playing baseball.

The Bill Doak model quickly become the standard for major leaguers and remained so for almost 25 years with only minor improvements, such as lacing together the fingers.  Rawlings continued to make and sell the Bill Doak model until 1953, which is a good indication that it wasn’t considered out-dated until the early 1950’s.

I’m kind of reminded of Henry Ford and the Model-T.  When the Model-T was introduced, it was a ground-breaking achievement, a modern automobile that ran well at an affordable price.  The car was so successful that it dominated U.S. automotive sales for years and revolutionized manufacturing methods around the country and the world.  However, its incredible success led Ford to believe that it was the ultimate car, one that could not significantly improved upon.  Henry Ford nearly ran Ford Motor Co. into the ground, and in any event caused Ford to lose market share it never recovered, until his son finally convinced him that he needed to introduce new updated automobiles and seek to upgrade future models significantly at least every few years.

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