Catching a Piece of Baseball History: Collecting Vintage Fielders’ Gloves

Willie Mays’ glove, used in the 1954 World Series for “The Catch,” sits in a place of honor in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY.

There may be no better way to chronicle the history of America’s pastime than by examining the evolution of one its primary pieces of player equipment, the fielding glove.

Baseball was originally played without gloves, and the first known use of them can be traced back to the mid-1870s. Originally designed more as a means of batting down the ball than actually catching it, the trend continued to evolve at such a rate that by the 1890s, all players were utilizing a glove for everyday play.

Player—and later sporting-goods mogul—Albert Spalding was one of the original manufacturers for baseball gloves. However, it was at the suggestion and insight of the St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher Bill Doak that the idea of what we know today as webbing became integrated into the glove’s design—what would eventually be referred to as the glove’s pocket.

As use became the norm and the popularity of the sport gained momentum with youngsters, it was only natural that player endorsements followed, and with that, the birth of the store-model glove.

Vintage baseball-glove values vary widely, with the jaw-dropping prices reserved for those used by famous players in big games.

The evolution of the baseball itself also caused the need for a change to the fielding glove. As the “dead ball” era gave way to the “live ball” era with the game’s increased reliance on hitting power, players demanded a change in the amount of padding sewn into the glove leather. Photographs clearly show this transition over time.

No position benefitted from the use of a glove more than the catcher. By 1890, the Decker Safety Catcher’s Mitt was introduced by former catcher himself, Harry Decker. The mitt consisted of a glove sewn to the back of what was essentially a small leather pillow. A simple design that served its function eventually led to other advances in glove technology.

When it comes to the collectability of fielding gloves, obviously those having been game-used by star players carry the most value and can be true “museum quality” pieces. However, even early gloves from the turn of the century can carry a significant value, even if they cannot be attributed to a specific player or professional use.

The most common and affordable collecting can be done through the aforementioned store-model gloves. With so many players and eras to choose from, the world of glove collecting is virtually only limited by the imagination of the collector.

A Babe Ruth store-model glove bearing an imprint of the Sultan of Swat’s signature on its lower left palm. Store models are the easiest way to begin to collect vintage gloves.

Some of the jaw-dropping prices realized for allegedly iconic, one-of-a-kind pieces came as a result of longtime collector Barry Halper’s Sotheby’s auction in 1999. Unfortunately, two of the more notable gloves became sources of controversy regarding their authenticity. One of those included Mickey Mantle’s glove used in the 1960 season and purchased by actor Billy Crystal for $239,000, the other being sold as Lou Gehrig’s final game-used glove, which saw actor-director Penny Marshall pay $387,500.

Speculation still remains as to the truth of the matter, and the story should serve as a warning to all collectors that proper research and due diligence are required before purchasing any high-grade collectible memorabilia.

There are many archival quality websites dedicated to documenting the baseball glove that can be a great source for research. Some of the more popular ones include Baseball Glove Collector, Vintage Baseball Gloves and Antique Athlete to name a few. There is even a dedicated forum for collectors seeking advice, to ask questions and get opinions.

Rob Bertrand has been an active collector of sports cards and memorabilia for more than 20 years. His involvement in the hobby community is well documented, having been the content manager for the Card Corner Club website before the company’s merger with CardboardConnection in 2011, where he is now a staff writer and multimedia content producer. Rob is also the co-host of the sports collectibles hobby’s only live and nationally broadcast radio show, Cardboard Connection Radio. He is the author of the highly respected and trafficked blog, Voice of the Collector and you can follow him on Twitter @VOTC. A dealer himself, Rob runs an online business through eBay, and is frequently asked to consign collections.

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