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Though it's hard to imagine baseball without the ubiquitous stitched-leather glove, the baseball glove was not part of the original game. Through the mid-1800s, players still fielded the ball bare-handed, which gave a decided advantage to the hitters. One of the first players credited with using a glove was Doug Allison, a catcher for the Cincinnati Red Stockings. In the summer of 1869, Allison wore a pair of buckskin mittens to protect his hands, which were sore from catching fastballs. However, his innovation did not catch on immediately, as fans and other players considered wearing gloves a sign of weakness. One story tells of a St. Louis first baseman named Charlie Waitt, who, in 1875, wore a pair of flesh-colored gloves in a failed attempt to avoid the derision of the fans.

The gloves early players used look strange to modern viewers. They were open-fingered, usually unpadded, and lacked the web or pocket between the thumb and first finger by which we recognize a modern baseball glove. Most players wore gloves on both hands, with perhaps a bit of padding for the catching hand. Not until 1903 did webbed gloves for fielders become prevalent.

Former players like Bill Doak and Harry Latina helped the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company develop many improvements in the 1920s. New glove features were marketed, then as now, with scientific-sounding names, like the Web Controller, the Deep-Well Pocket, and the Edge-u-Cated Heel, to take advantage of the public fascination with science and technology.

Gloves became increasingly specialized. Highly padded gloves for catchers, huge "scoop" gloves for first basemen, and large webbed gloves for outfielders were the norm. In 1950, the Baseball Rules Committee imposed a 12-inch limit on the size of gloves, but this was rarely enforced. Outfielders' gloves grew larger and larger, and in the 1970s some gloves could be 13 or 14 inches long.

Gloves have traditionally been made out of leather. Early gloves were made from range cattle hides, which were tough and durable, while modern gloves are often made of softer leather. Gloves made from this leather need much less time to break in, but tend to wear out sooner. Early gloves could last as many as eight seasons of full-time use, while modern gloves may last only three seasons before needing replacement. In recent years, glove manufacturers have begun to use synthetic materials like vinyl and plastic in their gloves, though many pro players still insist on the traditional leather.

Leather gloves need to be "broken in," that is, softened and molded to the shape preferred by the individual player. Many players have unusual methods for breaking in their gloves, but the most common one is to soak the glove in water, then put a ball into its pocket, hold it closed with rubber bands, and leave it for several days. Some players have even been known to run over their gloves with their cars, in pursuit of that perfect state of shapely softness.


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