Having a Catch

Though I live in Los Angeles, my wife and I rarely venture into Beverly Hills, but sometimes we go to marvel at the busloads of foreign women who swarm certain chic upscale stores on Rodeo Drive like Gucci, Cartier’s, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Fendi, or Chanel. I have very little to look at in these posh palaces of luxury and thankfully my wife, who is a weaver, prefers to make her own clothing. But she does like Coach bags, and there happens to be a Coach store on Rodeo. What surprised me when we looked at their window display was a baseball theme, with two-color bats and some multi-colored leather baseball gloves (orange/white, squash/fawn, navy/turquoise). Inside, in the back of the store, is a small men’s department. And sure enough, there were baseball beanbag paperweights, baseball glove leather wallets, card holders and satchels, and, yes, smooth leather ready-to-play gloves that felt good and brought back a flood of childhood memories when I slid my hand into one. Good God, I thought, this was my Proustian madeleine. Just as Proust had a small shell shaped French tea cake that unlocked his remembrances of things past, I felt the same reaction with that glove.

I remembered Little League tryouts when I was eleven years old. My Dad had bought me a glove and I liked to pound the pocket with my fist. I was a skinny kid, not very tall or strong, and I belonged in the minor leagues. The tryouts were meant to determine what boys would play in the “Majors,” while the rest would go to the “Minors.” One of the coaches hit a fly ball to me and I chased it down in the outfield and somehow, miraculously, caught it. I knew it was a lucky catch, but it ruined my chances to play much that summer because it put me in the Majors, along with boys two and three years older than me. Most of my friends played positions and got to bat in the Minors, as I sat on the bench, waiting to be tapped to pinch run or to play the last inning of a losing game. But the memory that I hold most dear is of that special catch during tryouts. The long run on the outfield grass, the hardball arcing over my head, my outstretched left arm, the ball landing in the deep pocket with a thwunk! and the look on everyone’s face when it didn’t drop out of my glove. It’s a moment that has stood the test of time, brought back to me in this Coach store in Beverly Hills fifty years later.

Baseball 032As my wife browsed bags, I pounded the stunning navy/turquoise leather glove and remembered our junior varsity team in high school when I was thirteen. I was playing second base and convinced my Dad that I needed a new infielder’s mitt. We went to a sporting goods store and I found a nice golden Spalding glove with the name Sam Esposito scrawled in the pocket. Esposito was a utility infielder for the Chicago White Sox from 1952-63. He had a lifetime batting average of .207 and hit just eight home runs in ten years, so he wasn’t a major league ballplayer for his bat. His fielding percentage was .957. Esposito was a glove man.

ART 051I was a die-hard Yankee fan, so I didn’t really follow Sam Esposito, but I liked the glove and have never forgotten his name. Nor have I forgotten when Mr. Morelli, our JV head coach, decided to move me from second to first. “You need to get a first baseman’s mitt,” he told me. When I protested that I had just got my Sam Esposito infielder’s glove, he said, “You can’t be a first baseman with a glove like that. If you don’t get the right glove, I’ll have to bench you.” Those are cruel words to say to a kid, to a fledgling ballplayer, to someone who had dreams of making spectacular plays, turning double plays, and not fearing line drives. My Dad had paid $29 for that glove, an amount equivalent to $235 today. I knew I couldn’t tell him I needed another glove, so I stuck to my guns and insisted that I could play first base with the glove I had. Mr. Morelli stuck to his guns as well and put another kid at first who was willing to get the right glove for that position.

Like that outfield catch I made for Little League tryouts, I hadn’t thought about Mr. Morelli and JV baseball in five decades. But that’s what I was thinking about in the Coach store. And that wasn’t all I was thinking about. I was thinking about my Dad. Having a catch was one of the things we did in our backyard on weekends. He was a lefty, so he had an old mitt that couldn’t be passed down. But we would play imaginary games, pitching to imaginary hitters, calling balls and strikes as we threw the hardball back and forth. I think it’s the nicest memory I have of being with my Dad. And just sticking a glove on my hand brought this back to me. If memory can be triggered so powerfully by something this simple, maybe it was worth forking over $350 to buy the Coach glove.

I don’t know what got into me. I wasn’t playing baseball and I didn’t have any friends who were. My son-in-law played softball, and maybe if I got the glove we could have a catch, like I used to do with my Dad so many years ago. Having a catch is an American pastime, just like…..well, like baseball. But before I made an impulsive purchase, I thought that I should take a look at other gloves, to see how far they have advanced since my Spalding Sam Esposito model, and make an informed decision.

I went to the Internet when I got home and Googled “Top Ten Baseball Gloves.” The top ten manufacturers came up first: Akadema, Nokona, Mizuno, Rawlings, Wilson, SSK, Zett, Louisville, Nike, Easton. Then I searched for the 5 Best Models. Two Rawlings, an Easton, and two Wilsons came up on one site. A Shoeless Joe, Louisville Slugger, Wilson, and Insignia were touted on another (Insignia made the Coach gloves; Shoeless Joe made remarkable Golden Glove hand-crafted replicas of bygone eras from 1910 to 1956). The more I browsed, the more gloves I found. This was not something you can buy without trying.

Baseball 027I also discovered that the price of gloves range from $20 to $500, depending on the craftsmanship and the quality of the leather (the best are made from steer, buffalo, and kangaroo!). Gloves can be custom made (Louisville Slugger specializes in this) or ready made, they can come “broken in” and “ready to play” or with a stiffer, stronger leather to break in yourself. The preparation is also part of the process. There are oils and conditioners, small tools to work on the stitching, and rubber bands or elastic bandages to wrap around the glove when not in use. There are different size gloves for infielders, outfielders, pitchers, catchers, and first basemen; for slow pitch and fast pitch, softball or hardball, men and women. Finding the right glove was not as easy as walking into a swank Beverly Hills leather shop and making a purchase. It’s much more fun than that.

Baseball players started wearing gloves around 1875—two pads of leather that stopped some of the pain and broken fingers that they were experiencing when they played barehanded. There was no “pocket” or lacing in those early gloves—they were used for protection and for knocking balls down more than catching them. Once the idea of a glove caught on, manufacturers began competing for the business—a business that grew over the years (indeed, centuries!) to what is now a $200 million dollar business according to the National Sporting Goods Association. That’s more than five million gloves sold each year in the U.S. In 1919 Rawlings came up with the idea of putting a web between the thumb and forefinger of the glove, and that was a game-changer. Balls were no longer caught in the palm, but in the web, which allowed for better fielding. Wilson’s A2000 was introduced in 1957 with a larger web and wider pocket, and it eventually became the official glove of Major League Baseball. But if you watch a baseball game you will see what a wide variety of brands, shapes, and colors are used.

When Brooks Robinson, one of baseball’s greatest third basemen (16 consecutive Gold Gloves), became a Baltimore Oriole in 1955, he learned to appreciate his glove by watching shortstop Willie Miranda. “He had a glove that he used almost his entire career,” Robinson noted. “It was so old that he resorted to putting tongue depressors and cotton in the fingers to keep them stiff. He gave me that idea. When a glove I really liked was getting old and loose, I’d stick tongue depressors up the thumb so I could use it longer.”

Ed Bouchee, who played first base for the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs and N.Y. Mets between 1956-62, figured out a way to break in his glove without it taking a year of infield practice. “I loved to warm up pitchers in the bullpen or along the side of the field,” he said, “because that’s how I broke in my first baseman’s gloves. You get that pocket set in there real good real quick.”

If you don’t have a pitcher to throw to you, you can find a batting cage and instead of bringing a bat, bring your glove and catch the balls coming at you from the ball machine. In other words, break in the glove by catching balls. The more catches you have, the more responsive your glove will be.

I don’t have a hard throwing pitcher or a batting cage in my neighborhood, but I have some friends who agreed to catch with me on an irregular basis, and I had my wife, whom I managed to convince to have a ten-minute catch in our backyard in the mornings and late afternoons. What I discovered was a new connection with my friends, who liked to wax nostalgic about their younger days when they played ball; and with my wife, who never put on a baseball glove or threw a ball before. What surprised me about my wife was how she took to it so easily. She didn’t “throw like a girl” and she didn’t drop the balls I threw to her. She liked the Wilson A800 Soft-fit glove I got her (for under $100—a steal) because it didn’t need breaking in and it looked similar to the A2000 I got (for over $200) because that’s what came so highly recommended. But the A2000 was made of premium leather that was stiff and needed a lot of work to soften. That’s why I also splurged and got the Coach glove, which was soft like the Wilson my wife was using, and bigger than either of the Wilsons. So with these three new gloves I could have a catch with my wife as we discussed family matters, and with any friend who came to visit, giving them a choice between the Coach and the A2000. What I noticed when I brought out the gloves was how broad the smiles were on the faces of my friends. No one refused to have a catch.

What I didn’t expect was how many of my friends went out and bought a new glove after throwing the ball around with me. Some even bought one for their wives. And one friend told me it was a great, and less expensive, replacement for couple’s therapy.

After trying these new gloves, I dug out my old Spalding Sam Esposito from the closet and decided to recondition it. On the Internet, I found that my glove was ranked by Vintage Sports Shoppe as a “very rare, top quality made glove.” I also found Fran Fleet, “The Sandal Lady,” who lives in Cotati, California, just north of San Francisco. She has been reconditioning baseball gloves for forty years and has developed a product called Glove Stuff, which she claims is all you need to clean a glove and make it soft again. It combines both cleaner and conditioner. I could have sent away for a bottle, but instead, I thought I’d pay her a visit, as my daughter lived in Santa Rosa, just eight miles from Cotati.

Baseball 005Cotati is a small town with one main street running through it. The Sandalady is a narrow shop nestled next to a restaurant and bar. There are no sandals hanging on the walls because Fran Fleet doesn’t work on sandals anymore, only baseball gloves. She wanted to change the name of her shop to The Glove Lady but the bank wanted her to fill out too many papers, so she left the name. Entering her shop is like going back in time. The gloves are stacked in front of her, behind her, and above her. Gloves from the thirties, the forties, the fifties are waiting to be restored, as well as some newer gloves that need some of her glove love.

Fran sat next to her 1910 antique Singer sewing machine, her face barely visible behind those piles of worn-out gloves. She looked at the webbing of one glove and saw that it was useless. Another had intricate lacing around the webbing which would take her hours to do. She got a phone call from Hall of Fame infielder Rod Carew, who played for the Minnesota Twins and California Angels from 1967 to 1985, but she mispronounced his name and wasn’t sure who he was. She answered his question about an old glove he tried to have repaired, and she talked to him about the difference in leather, the kind of lacing, and the quality of workmanship. He’d probably send it to her.

I showed her my old mitt, with the cracked leather on the inside, and the thinning leather of the web, and she said, “You can’t use this anymore.”

“What do you mean?” I protested. “Look how flexible it is.”

“Look how fragile it is,” she said. “You catch a well-thrown ball in that web, the ball could go through it and hit you in the face. You can’t repair this glove; you need to find an acrylic frame box and hang it on your wall, maybe with an old beat-up baseball in the pocket.”

I had brought along the Coach and the Wilson A2000 and showed them to her. “Nothing to do with this one, it’s ready to play,” she said of the Coach. “This Wilson,” she said, “is still stiff because the leather is of a different quality. I like the A2000, but mostly when they were made in the USA, which was until 1983. You can still find them on EBay but they can cost you upwards of $150 if they’re in decent condition. People think you need months to break in a glove. I can do it in 20 minutes.” She took the A2000 and asked, “Mind if I crack it?”  She put her glove goop in the pocket, using a toothbrush and a cloth, and then she showed me how she makes three creases, using her hands and her thighs to hold the glove, giving it a tough pulling.  And sure enough, when she handed it back, it was more flexible. She then said to put a softball in the pocket and a rubber band around it when not in use.

“Why do you keep your index finger outside the glove when you put it on?” she asked.

“More protection,” I answered. “When the ball hits that finger, it can hurt.”

“That’s because you’re not catching it right. You have to use your little finger to catch the ball. That’s how the glove should close, from the little finger, not the little finger and the thumb, which most players use. You should consider putting two fingers—the pinky and the ring finger—in the little finger slot, to strengthen that finger when you catch a ball.” This was a woman who had figured out baseball gloves by working on them for 40 years. Where was she when I was actually playing baseball?

In Santa Rosa, our daughter asked us why we had stopped in Cotati. We were standing in the middle of the cul-de-sac in front of her apartment. I got the three gloves from the car and said, “Let’s have a catch.”

As we tossed the ball around, I couldn’t help but think about how seeing that baseball glove in the window of the Coach store in Beverly Hills had brought me new ways to connect socially with my friends, brought me closer to my wife, gave us an excuse to drive up to see our daughter, introduced us to an American original in Fran Fleet, and got me thinking about my childhood, and my father, who passed away twenty years ago.

Not bad for a handcrafted piece of leather, carefully stitched, and ready to be pounded.




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