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BASEBALL WAS PLAYED FOR THIRTY YEARS BEFORE ANYONE THOUGHT ABOUT FINDING A WAY TO PROTECT PLAYERS’ FINGERS
July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
When the St. Louis Brown Stockings, of the National Association, began their 1875 season, the roster was studded with current and future stars. Their venerable player-manager, Dickey Pearce, had been one of the first two men to be openly paid for playing baseball, way back in 1856. He also invented bunting and the modern position of shortstop. The left fielder, Ned Cuthbert, was equally innovative: In 1865, noticing that there was nothing in the rules to prohibit it, he became the first recorded player to steal a base. The center fielder, Lip Pike, was the first Jewish professional baseball player of note, and the right fielder, Jack Chapman, was so skilled at chasing down batted balls that he acquired the cumbersome nickname Death to Flying Things. The pitchers were a pair of rookies: George Bradley, who in 1876 would pitch the first major-league no-hitter, and Pud Galvin, a future Hall of Famer. Little noticed among these luminaries was another rookie, a twenty-one-year-old reserve named Charles Waitt. With Baltimore in 1882 he would make history of a negative kind by batting .156, the lowest ever by an everyday outfielder. That performance earned him the nickname Charlie (“Can’t Hit His”) Waitt—or should have, anyway. Clearly, if Waitt was going to make a living at baseball, it would be as a glove man, and sometime during the 1875 season he took a crucial step in this direction by inventing the baseball glove.
Ever since its birth in the 1840s, baseball, like boxing, had been a manly art pursued by stouthearted sportsmen using their bare hands. In this respect it also resembled its ancestor, cricket, which many baseballers still played on their days off. In 1918 Cap Anson, another future Hall of Famer, recalled baseball’s bareknuckle days: “We had a trick of making a spring-box of the fingers, the ball seldom hitting against the palm, and we could haul down even the hottest liners that way, though broken fingers happened now and then. The hands of the infielders and the catchers were awful sights, as a rule, but they stuck to their work even when bleeding fingers were useless at the broken joints.” Professional clubs averaged eight or nine errors per game, which explains why in the nineteenth century fielding was just as prized as hitting.
Waitt mostly played the outfield, but occasionally he spelled the Browns’ regular first baseman, Harmon Dehlman. One day, daunted by the infield’s fast-flying balls, Waitt took an ordinary flesh-colored glove, cut off the fingers, and slipped it on over his palm. The rookie was somewhat sheepish about his less than macho act, especially when questioned by Albert Spalding, the Boston Red Stockings’ pitching star and future sporting-goods entrepreneur. As Spalding later recalled, Waitt “confessed that he was a bit ashamed to wear it, but had it on to save his hand. He also admitted that he had chosen a color as inconspicuous as possible, because he didn’t care to attract attention.”
So wrote Spalding in 1911, thirty-six years after the fact, but his memory may have been faulty. Spalding said Waitt “had come from New Haven and was playing at first base.” In fact the Maine-born Waitt played only two games at first base in 1875, after which he was strictly an outfielder. There is no evidence that he had lived or studied in New Haven. However, an 1875 teammate of Spalding, George (“Juice”) Latham, was a first baseman who left Boston in mid-season to join New Haven’s team. In his memoirs Spalding may have confused Latham with Waitt, who was a teammate of Spalding in Chicago in 1877. (In a 1914 interview, Latham recalled the early days of gloves but made no claim to have introduced them himself.) Whatever the truth of the matter, Waitt is traditionally credited with inventing the baseball glove.
In the laddish milieu of nineteenth-century baseball, Waitt’s effeminate innovation was initially scorned. Opinions began to change after the revered Spalding, perhaps sensing commercial possibilities, started wearing a glove in 1877, when he switched from the mound to first base. Spalding also used a regular dress glove, but he improved on Waitt’s makeshift design by adding a padded palm. With his endorsement the innovation began to be accepted. Catchers and first basemen, who handled the largest number of throws, were the most enthusiastic converts. Many players also wore a fingerless glove on their throwing hand.
The last barehanded fielder was Bid McPhee, long-time second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, who shunned the leather from 1882 through 1895 before finally giving in for the 1896 season. In the six years before his switch, McPhee had averaged almost forty-five errors while winning a reputation as the best-fielding second baseman in the game. In his first year wearing a glove, he committed only fifteen errors.
The next big step came in 1920, when Bill Doak, a spitballing pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, started wearing a custom-made glove designed to form a pocket, with a bit of rudimentary webbing between the thumb and index finger. Doak’s design proved quite popular and began a shift in the glove’s role from hand protector to ball-catching device. Since then gloves have increased in size to the point where the webbing alone can use as much leather as an entire glove of the 1880s.
By saving countless fingers from disfigurement and sparing ballplayers the pain of permanent bruises, gloves made baseball a much more humane sport. Still, there were those who preferred the old days when rugged athletes had flaunted their gnarled digits as a badge of honor. As late as 1908 the editor and publisher of the baseball journal Sporting Life proposed banning gloves for outfielders. A year earlier Harry Ellard—a descendant of the organizer of baseball’s first openly professional club, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings—had poetically imagined an old-timer’s reminiscing about the days before the advent of gloves (and that other effete innovation, the catcher’s mask): “We used no mattress on our hands, / No cage upon our face; / We stood right up and caught the ball / With courage and with grace.”