The first baseball players didn’t field with gloves. They used their bare, unguarded hands to field and catch screaming balls from hitters, fielders and pitchers. When asked about this style of barehanded ball, Hall of Famer Cap Anderson famously said:
“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.”
For catchers in the game, this was an especially painful reality of the game. So how’d the first catcher’s mitt come to be? The story might just surprise you.
THE FIRST APPEARANCE
Generally known for his daring approach to the catcher’s position, Cincinnati Red Stockings’ Doug Allison was the first backstopper in the game to crowd the batter to be able to throw out base-stealers. This approach led to Allison injuring his left hand in the game prior to the matchup with the Nationals on June 28th, 1870.
The Red Stockings put the innovative Candy Cummings on the pitchers mound in the face-off against the Nationals. Candy was renowned for throwing a pitch that wildly confused batters – the curveball. There was only one downfall with the pitch; it would often escape the catcher’s grasp and allow runners on base to advance.
Allison knew he’d have to find a way to hold on to the pitch in spite of his injured hand. Using the resources available, the catcher cut the fingers out of a pair of buckskin workman’s gloves and donned them for the game. It was a simple means of protection for the catcher.
A sportswriter for the Cincinnati Commercial would etch the scene in baseball history. Sending a cable back to his home office, he would send the words, “Allison caught today in a pair of buckskin mittens, to protect his hand.” The story was printed the next day and seemed to be regaled as little more than a novelty.
INTO THE MAINSTREAM
A few years later, however, the glove idea would begin catching on. Most sources attribute the consistent use of the equipment to a player named Charlie Waitt, a first baseman (and sometimes outfielder) for the St. Louis Cardinals. Beginning in 1875, Charlie donned a pair of flesh-colored leather gloves during each game.
It didn’t take long for players to begin picking up the trend. Considering Cap’s words at the start of this article, it’s a bit surprising that it took so long. Beyond 1875, baseball companies of all sizes would begin the art of crafting leather gloves specifically fitted for each position on the field – each angling to get the biggest players to wear their mitts. But that’s another story for another day.