The Mystery of Baseball Glove Leather
The Hall of Fame third baseman, Brooks Robinson, had a tip for breaking in a baseball glove. Robinson’s glove was a top professional quality Rawlings XPG glove. Back when he played, the store bought glove you purchased had to go through a period termed the break-in. The off the shelf glove was hard and stiff, but every ballplayer knew that the glove would eventually become flexible, softened, and perfectly contoured to your hand. Just right—not too floppy, not too stiff. The break-in was a particularly unique process. Typically, it involved rubbing specially formulated glove oil with brand names like Glovolium or Dr. Glove. More than likely, the lotion was just neat’s-foot oil, lanoline, beeswax and/or some combination. Glove owners often used petroleum jelly or saddle soap to achieve desired results. Regardless, after administering the potion to the leather, the glove was wrapped and tied up with string around a ball, which was placed in the pocket and put under your mattress at night. During the day, you’d unwrap and pound the glove with your fist or a ball until the leather slowly broke in perfectly. The process could take weeks. Robinson had a quick method to short cut the timely effort. He would wrap his new glove around the ball and dunk it entirely in water until soaking wet. Then he would let the glove completely dry at which point he would apply his oil concoction and miraculously the glove would melt into a buttery softened perfection. In Robinson’s time, gloves were made all over the world, but the finest baseball gloves were made in the US.
Nearly all these gloves were made from one kind of tanned cowhide except for a few that were made from more exotic leathers like kangaroo or horsehide. All gloves were one color, tan, the color that was natural to the tanning process. The quality of the cowhide had particular traits that made it ideal for baseball gloves: it started out stiff then with use, darkened, stained, scratched, scuffed—overall adding to the leather’s feel and enhancing the glove’s beauty. At the same time this kind of leather was widely used for many common leather products such as saddles, belts, car seats, furniture, shoes, and garments. The famous Coach brand bags built their reputation on the use of this specific kind of leather becoming more beautiful over time.
I have been in the baseball glove restoration business for more than forty years and have had the pleasure of restoring and repairing thousands of gloves going back more than a hundred years. Beginning principally in the 1920s when Rawlings introduced their innovative “Bill Doak” model. The Doak’s novel glove design had an enlarged thumb, making it possible to have a bigger web between the index and thumb creating a deeper pocket, which made it better for catching. The revolutionary design caught on and influenced all glove manufacturers of the time. Up until then, gloves were smaller and designed specifically to provide padding for the palm of the fielder’s catching hand. The designs and construction of the day had an emphasis on keeping the weight and size down. Manufacturers used softer, thinner leathers mostly horsehide. To make their Doak model, Rawlings needed to use a more rigid leather since the horsehide was too soft and floppy. To support the advanced design, a special tanned cowhide was introduced. It was ubiquitous; probably the most commonly produced tanned cowhide. However, over time this type of leather has become less typical.
In my experience, it was impossible not to take notice of the unique qualities of this specific cowhide used for gloves. All the major glove manufacturers, Wilson, MacGregor, Rawlings, and Spalding, which was made by Rawlings, exclusively used this same cowhide. For the most part, it maintained and almost miraculously kept its strength and integrity regardless of how it was abused and poorly stored. Restoration of these gloves is a pleasure and remarkably gloves forty to sixty years old can be restored for continuing use. On the resell market, these US made gloves are gaining real value and fetching high prices.
A cow is a cow. In the last fifty years, nothing has radically changed in the evolution of the species, yet by the end of the twentieth century the remarkable special tan cowhide has virtually disappeared. The factors for its demise are many-fold.
When I was the production designer for the striking bag line at Everlast, a vinyl supplier representative gave me a sample of an artificial leather material that had amazing properties I had never seen before. What made this material so desirable was that it had enough strength to be sewn directly together without extra support from a nylon lining. The least expensive economy bag in our line was made from a fabric-supported vinyl, the kind typically used for furniture and car seats. Although it had some strength it was not nearly tough enough to hold up under a rigorous pounding without the reinforcement of a cemented nylon lining. The supplier’s new material didn’t require extra lining, which was a huge production cost saver since additional nylon lining didn’t need to be cut and then cemented to the vinyl and hemmed before the bag was assembled. It was the mid 1980s and this was an omen for the future. There was a revolution coming of new materials that would eventually eclipse traditional natural materials in glove design.
Today’s gloves are comprised of more artificial material than not. They need little to no breaking in. The new materials combined with the inexpensive production costs of the Asian Pacific countries has driven all the American manufacturers out of the production business and kept the price of gloves very low and more affordable. There are even some gloves that do not have any leather used in them.
When Rawlings discontinued production of their made in the US gloves in the early 2000s, it marked the last gasp of the cowhide-centric gloves marketed as the “Heart of the Hide.” Tanned by the Horween Company, America’s remaining source of the traditional tan cowhide, these gloves were preferred by professionals and dominated the top of the line market. For a short time in the 1990s, I made a line of custom-made baseball gloves. I used Horween leather, hoping to carry on the high quality baseball glove tradition. My gloves were good but my intimate experience with the leather showed that although it somehow resembled the great cowhide of the past, it was not the same. There was just something missing.
Ever since, I have been obsessed with what happened to the leather and I’ve come to this conclusion. Leather is essential to life, providing for many practical products, but the tanning of leather is a dirty, smelly, nasty process. The ancient tanning practice is as old as civilization and akin to cooking and baking. The multitude of kinds of leathers can be derived from nearly any living organism that can be skinned and if properly tanned and maintained, can hold their qualities for ages. As an example, leather velum books made six hundred years ago are still fully functional today. Because of the noxious aspects of tanning, it was relegated to locations far from populated areas. The various types of leathers either soft or stiff depended on a tanner’s select, unique recipe and process. Tanners guarded their knowhow and passed their trade down from generation to generation.
The demise of the unique glove leather can be traced to the decline of American shoe production as foreign production competition began to force American manufacturers to shutter their doors. This caused a supply chain of closures as well, which included hundreds of individual leather tanners. Unfortunately, along with the closures came the loss of the unique craft as well. It wasn’t long before American glove manufacturers went the way of the shoemakers. By the mid-1970s, MacGregor discontinued American production and in the early 1980s Wilson followed suit. The last Wilson made glove with the remarkable cowhide ended for good.
I deduced that the particular baseball glove leather was sourced from a tanner in the Northeast United States. Rawlings continued American production, sourcing their leather from the Horween Company. I can only guess that the Horween leather may not have been the Rawlings original “Heart of the Hide” source and that their glove leather came by way of the same tanners that Wilson and MacGregor used. Something happened at Horween, either they lost the recipe or changed their tanning process or formula. The Horween leather glove of the 1990s and on was just not like the glove they previously made in earlier decades. Rawlings imported Gold Glove series was good, but not the same. They had a largely successful line of imported SG model gloves made with a nice quality cowhide, but it became thin and deteriorated quickly, affecting its overall longevity, and it doesn’t measure up to the mystical cowhide. Since leaving American production, Rawlings introduced a high quality expensive production line called Primo. It has a good look and feel as new, but the leather’s strength is woeful and rips prematurely with moderate use. Meanwhile, all manufacturers have now moved to producing more and more gloves in a rainbow of colors. The traditional tan color glove is almost unavailable.
Cowhide production remains steady and plentiful as long as the consumption of meat remains popular. However, environmental concerns and the health issues with the consumption of meat, primarily a first world luxury, have been diminishing consistently in recent years. Moreover, meat and leather production is not sustainable in the long-run, taking too much land, feed and water from an ever shrinking planet, and the cost will continue to rise putting a premium on leather product production. Leather and its unique properties will remain desirable for consumer items, but will eventually be relegated to high priced specialty products as the cost for leather continues to increase. Much like how the American shoe industry and US baseball glove production has disappeared; leather use in mass production products will eventually vanish. As the leather becomes more and more costly, world production will diminish and tanners will cease to exist.
Sadly, whoever tanned the special leather for baseball gloves has disappeared, died, whatever, and unfortunately so has the magical baseball glove leather along with it. RIP.