A ballplayer’s best friend is his or her glove.
You might be willing to let someone use your bat, but a mitt? Now that’s too personal.
With all the books I read, I look forward to the unusual and Glove Affairs: The Romance, History, and Tradition of the Baseball Glove, by Noah Liberman, fits that mold. It’s informative, lighthearted, and nostalgic, all in a nice little volume. For those reasons, I included it as one of the 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die.
It took a bit of doing to track Liberman down and get him to answer a few burning questions, but I think you’ll agree it was worth the wait.
Bookshelf: This looks like it was a fun project. What was its genesis?
Noah Liberman: At some point in my 30s, I decided I wanted to write a book before I was 40. I didn’t know what the book would be about; it was just a fuzzy goal of mine.
Well, this life deadline was approaching, and one day I left my glove on the bench after a softball game. This glove was a Wilson A2000-XLO from 1975 or so. I had saved up the $75 for it, and this was the model I wanted because it had the rakish open web, just like the one Sal Bando used with the Oakland A’s. I played third base, like him.
No new thing ever meant more to me than this glove, and rightly so: it looked great, it felt like a masterpiece of leather, it smelled great and it was just like what the pros used. I promptly blackened it with neatsfoot oil and did the same thing once or twice a year for nearly 25 years, until I left it on that bench and lost it forever. Let it be stated for the record that after 25 years, a gallon of neatsfoot and a billion sweaty innings, that glove had no cracks tears. A bit of the leather piping was worn away under my index finger, where it stuck out of the glove, but that was it. The glove was made to last, and it did. It didn’t fail me; I failed it.
So I started looking for a new glove and found it impossible to recapture what that glove felt like and meant. And gloves had changed over the previous quarter century. So I wrote a book about all this.
Bookshelf: The glove is more personal than any other piece of game equipment (not including uniforms). Do you think that because you wear it, while the other items – bats, balls, etc. – are held?
Liberman: Absolutely, but not just because you hold it. Because it evolves to fit your hand and only yours, and because you use this unique device for many years, unlike a cap or a pair of sanitary socks.
There really is no other piece of sports equipment like this. You can always go out and buy a new bowling ball, a new driver, a new pair of Nikes. In fact, you look forward to it. And Nike looks forward to it, too. But when you like a glove, you don’t spend a lot of time dreaming about the next one, and you don’t see Wilson and Rawlings and Easton advertising on Monday Night Baseball the way you see TaylorMade and Callaway advertising during golf tournaments. In fact, those companies want to make you dislike your current clubs. You never see that psychology with baseball gloves.
Bookshelf: What are the differences between what the professionals use versus the mid-high level amateur player?
Liberman: There are a lot of small differences, but there’s one big difference: pros’ gloves are harder. The only soft part is the pocket. The rest — like the fingers, thumb, base of the palm — is surprisingly hard. The ball comes at them so fast, pros feel they need something stiff on their hands to control it and funnel it in — not a mushy rag. And because they don’t feel that a soft glove gives them a better “feel” for the ball. These guys tend to catch it in the pocket more than the rest of us, so they don’t need luxurious Corinthian leather everywhere.
Their gloves aren’t necessarily bigger -– they’re often smaller, again because these guys don’t need a lot of help. Smaller is more nimble. It’s analogous to how pro golfers typically don’t use huge, cavity-back game-improvement irons. They’re out to capitalize on their skill, not correct for mistakes.
You can get a glove made at the same quality level as any pro. You can even be as picky on the specs as any pro, right down to the color of the thread used for your name on the thumb, if you want. The difference is that the pro gets his for free and you pay several hundred bucks. Then you probably break it in so it’s soft and floppy everywhere. That’s bush league!
Bookshelf: Do you collect gloves? If so, how many do you have?
Liberman: I bought a lot of gloves a decade ago when I was writing this book, mostly on eBay. I really enjoyed it. But it was mostly to learn more about them, to find good examples for my book, and to learn the black art of glove repair. Right now I have one solitary glove, a beautiful thing made to my specs by Glovesmith, an American company. It’s the modern version of my A2000-XLO, and frankly it’s a better glove. The workmanship and quality is the same as my Wilson, but the shape is just a little bit more modern. And thanks to my discovery that gloves don’t need much oiling, it’s not as dark and heavy as my A2000.
Bookshelf: Are you adept in the art of glove repair?
Liberman: I sure was. And this is another reason I wanted to write this book. I love how gloves have evolved, the “technology” of the glove as a tool, how gloves are made and fixed. All that. It’s interesting what you learn when you open up a glove.
Here’s something key: Glove leather is actually really soft. It’s tanned to be very supple and buttery. So when you’re breaking in a glove, you’re not breaking in the large swaths of leather: you’re really breaking in the lacing (which is quite constricted) and the places where leather is sewn in layers, like on the web. Even this leather is soft, but when it gets laced in tight and sewn in layers, that’s when a glove gets stiff. So the best way to “break in” a glove is to play a lot of catch and spend some time pinching and squeezing and kneading the top of the web, and where the web meets the pocket, and the hinge. Basically along the imaginary line where the glove breaks when you close it. Don’t go overboard with oil, because it won’t make the glove appreciably softer. The leather is already soft by itself.
Bookshelf: Craftsman love talking about their tools and their processes. Do you find that to be true about baseball players, or do they just take it for granted?
Liberman: Here’s how it works, and I guess I’m not surprised. The better the player on defense, the less he cares about his glove. And if he’s also a good offensive player, he cares even less. I can’t tell you how many good defensive players — Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mark Grace — had to struggle to tell me about their gloves, such as what they preferred and how they broke them in. Ron Santo, who was a fine defender, summarized it. “When you’re good, you feel like you can catch with anything.” So it was the utility men and scrappers who, it turned out, obsessed over their gloves. I guess they had time for that, and they were looking for every advantage they could find.
I asked Sammy Sosa “can I ask you a few questions about your glove?” and he just walked away. I think he thought I meant “your defense,” and he was rightly defensive about that.
Bookshelf: What about your kids? Do they play? What was their first “glove experience?”
Liberman: Ha! My daughter is a fine young soccer player and hasn’t shown much interest in baseball. And my son plays Xbox. ‘Nuff said.
Bookshelf: What was the biggest surprise you discovered during your research?
Liberman: I’ve mentioned a couple already, but I’d have to say I was most surprised by how slowly the glove evolved. I have a chapter that shows how much technological innovation happened in the world between 1917 and 1957 – while baseball gloves barely evolved. They still looked like overstuffed mittens – like Charlie Brown’s glove. But in 1957, the Wilson A2000 came out, and it was revolutionary. For the first time, a glove was made to fit the way your hand moved, not the way your hand looked when you stared at it. It had a hinge, and it had long flat fingers rather than short plump ones. And it was oriented on a slant, like your hand when it closes on a ball — not upright, which suits no hand.
A psycholinguist could have a field day with all this: was the evolution so slow because the item was called a “glove”? I mean, aren’t gloves supposed to match your hand? “Fit like a glove?” Well after 1957, baseball gloves fit their purpose. By the time the traditionalists in baseball had this epiphany — like a caveman staring at two rocks and imagining a spark — America and Russia were already working toward putting a man in space.
Bookshelf: There’s a lot of comparisons between today’s players and those who played prior to expansion, sometimes way before. Do you ever consider how those old-timers might have done defensively if they had access to modern innovations in gloves?
Liberman: Absolutely. I’m shocked — shocked I tell you! — that there’s no SABR equipment committee, because the equipment tells the story of baseball. They talk about the livelier ball that appeared in 1910, but what happened before that? The glove, about a dozen years before. It gave the advantage back to the defense. You could play the game completely differently — even if you had to use two hands still. It didn’t just change players’ ability to catch, but also how they could position their bodies, preparing for their next move even before they caught the ball. Fielding percentages skyrocketed. Of course they needed a livelier ball!
And look, they lowered the mound and shrunk the strike zone in 1969. But it wasn’t just because pitchers had the edge. So did defenses: A dozen years before, there had been that revolution in gloves, and now you could consistently make dazzling one-handed grabs, catchers could spear the ball with one hand (a catcher’s mitt was the first one with a hinge), etc. etc.
So you want to understand baseball and baseball players? The answer’s in your hand.