History of Equipment in Baseball

Category: Sport
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Throughout history, Baseball equipment has evolved according to the demands of the game and necessity of the players; as a result, players have been provided with strategic advantages over their predecessors and many entrepreneurs have capitalized on the business aspect of the sporting goods business. When baseball first began, equipment was an afterthought; as long as the players had a ball and a bat then the game was on. The luxuries we see today such as padded gloves, protective helmets and state of the art cleats just did not exist. Uniforms were usually worn, but they were leaps and bounds away from what we consider normal today. The equipment baseball players have used over time has changed immensely as baseball has grown, and I intend to provide a detailed explanation of the evolution of bats, balls, gloves, cleats, and uniforms.

Baseball’s Rockefeller

In order for one to comment on the history of baseball equipment, it is imperative to discuss Albert Spalding and his contributions to the game. Spalding is the most important man in the world in regards to the history of baseball equipment. He was a pioneer whose vision was to start a sporting goods store to provide baseball players with the proper equipment and to make a hefty business out of it. He was the first man to actually record the rules of baseball on paper, and in those rules, he cleverly stated that the ball to be used must specifically be of the “”Spalding”” brand. This clearly exhibits his entrepreneurial skills at their finest. Throughout his career, Albert Spalding was a brilliant pitcher, who is credited with the demise of the National Association, Baseball’s first league. He convinced several other prominent players from the league to jump ship and join the Chicago White Stockings of the National League in 1876, which basically crippled the National Association. While in Chicago, Spalding and his brother began their sporting goods franchise. Even today, the Spalding name is well recognized in the world of sporting goods and is turning a profit as we speak. In my opinion understanding, Albert Spalding and his career are imperative to understanding the history of baseball equipment.

Albert Spalding was born on September 12, 1850, in the rural town of Byron Illinois. At the age of twelve Albert’s father, James Spalding passed away. This put a tremendous hurt on the family’s fortunes, and Albert was sent to live with relatives in Rockford, Illinois (Lamster 5). His mother hoped he would receive a better education, which would allow him to rise in the world and become successful. The separation from his mother and the trauma of his father’s death placed a hole in Albert’s heart. He needed to find something to fill the void. Baseball, it turned out, was just the Novocain for the soul that Albert needed.

Albert joined in the local Rockport games and was instantly a star. By the age of fifteen Albert’s talent was known throughout the town; many say he had already mastered the art of pitching. Albert played for the local youth team, the Pioneers, and although he was young, was fully aware of his natural ability to hurl the ball. “”Call it science, skill, luck, or whatever you please, I had at that time, when only fifteen years old, acquired the knack of pitching winning ball””(Albert Spalding). Spalding’s understanding that it was necessary to mix power and deception made him an instant success. At such an early age he recognized how important it was to be able to deceive the hitters. Because of his success and dominance over the competition the gawky teenager was signed to play for, “”The Forest City’s, a semi-pro team of recruited athletes whose living expenses were subsidized by the town fathers”” (Lamster 10).

In the summer of 1866, the Washington Nationals of D.C. came to Chicago to play the Chicago Excelsiors. However, before their professional matchup, they would play Spalding and his team of amateurs in a warm-up game. In a game that was supposed to be a quick washout and tune up to the real game, the seventeen-year-old Spalding pitched an amazing game and his Forest City’s upset the Nationals twenty-nine to twenty-three. Spalding was now a national celebrity and the whole country knew of the seventeen-year-old youngster dominations of the Nationals.

The hometown Chicago Excelsiors wasted no time in signing their hometown prospect to a professional contract. Albert now at the age of seventeen had achieved his goal of becoming a professional baseball player. Spalding signed a contract which afforded him a salary of forty dollars a week clerking at a grocery store, along with his baseball duties. This was a considerable salary for Spalding, considering that the average salary of the time was five dollars a week. Spalding’s job as a clerk “”was the Excelsior way of skirting the National Association’s bylaws stating a player could not be Kennedy compensated”” (Lamster 17). Spalding’s tenure with Chicago was extremely short due to the fact that the grocer who had been bankrolling him went bankrupt. Spalding then returned to the forest cities where he would once again be their star, leading them to a forty-eight and thirteen records.

Spalding would not wait for long to rise to the ranks of professional again. In 1870 he was signed for 2,500 dollars to play with Harry Wright and Boston Red Stockings. Wright went on a mission to sign a young talented pitcher who could be the face of his franchise. He signed Spalding to a ridiculous contract making him the highest paid player in the game, on the best team in the country. Spalding and his Forest City teammate Ross Barnes dominated the newly formed National Association winning championships from 1872-1875. While playing for the Red Stockings, Spalding developed his curveball, making him essentially un-hittable. His numbers were staggering as he posted one hundred fifty-seven wins in just five years. In his last season in Boston, Spalding put up the mind-boggling numbers of fifty-five wins, five losses, and a 1.52 earned run average. In my mind, those numbers form the best season for a pitcher in the history of baseball.

Unfortunately, Spalding and his Red Stockings were too dominant for the other teams to compete. The other teams around the league began to lose money as attendance numbers fell drastically. Many clubs moved or folded leaving fans frustrated as the league began to disintegrate. Another problem was the lack of governing body in the game, which resulted in players constantly changing from team to team and no direct consequences if the owners did not want to comply with the rest of the league. Spaldingrealized the league was going nowhere, and in the middle of the 1875 season, he made a secret pack with Chicago White Stockings owner William Hulbert to join him in the newly formed National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. Hulbert paid Spalding a salary of “”2,000 dollars annually, plus a quarter of the clubs profits (Lamster 22)””, to be the team’s pitcher, captain, and manager. Hulbert used Spalding, who was the best pitcher in the early history of professional baseball, to lure other prominent players to his team; including Philadelphia Athletics star infielder Adrian “”Cap”” Anson.

It may seem that Spalding turned his back on Baseball by moving to Chicago, but other than returning home and starting a new league, Spalding had other ideas on his mind. Spalding knew that the sport of baseball was on the rise. Therefore, he intelligently assumed that America would embrace the game with open arms and that the world would as well. Spalding realized that “”the field was open to an enterprising capitalist who might provide Americans with the bats, balls, and other equipment necessary to play the game.”” (Lamster 23). He understood that he could market his products using his fame as the hometown hero and that there would always be a demand for equipment to play the rapidly developing game. As a result, Spalding borrowed eight hundred dollars from his mother and went into business with his younger brother James, forming A.G. Spalding & Bro.

Spalding’s company would instantly flourish, as he turned his friendship with Hulbert into a series of lucrative endorsement deals which essentially made his products mainstream in the National League. Spalding’s contract stated that he would produce the official league baseball (which he donated to the teams for free), he also produced the

league’s official yearbook and his own Spalding’s Guide to Baseball. Spalding built his business from the ground up into what was becoming an all-out monopoly over the sporting goods realm. He eliminated his competition by purchasing his competitors companies, but by still allowing them to operate under their own name he created a false illusion of competition. Although Spalding began to succeed off the field, his many responsibilities and interests began to hurt his play on the field. He soon switched from pitcher to first base, where it became obvious his talent and ability were beginning to decline. He struggled through three seasons and finally realized his tenure as a player was over. He hung up the cleats in 1878 at the age of twenty-seven.

After retiring Spalding focused solely on his executive duties both for the White Stockings and his company. He became the owner of the White Stocking in 1882 when Hulbert died and he bought out his stock in the team. Now that Spalding owned baseball’s signature franchise the sky was the limit for his sporting goods business. Spalding’s monopoly on the sporting world continued in 1879 when he opened the first bat factory. By 1887 he was turning out a million bats a year. This just exhibits the popularity of the game, even in the late nineteenth century. By the year 1891, Spalding had ten sporting good factories throughout the United States. His store was now not only limited to baseball, as he manufactured athletic goods; such as uniforms and clothing for sportsmen’s wear, tennis balls, athletic suits of all kinds, bicycles, boats, fishing tackles, sporting shoes, and an endless variety of gymnasium outfits. Spalding continued revolutionizing of his sporting goods line in 1888-1889 when he took a team of players around the world to introduce them to the game of baseball n an effort to promote his sporting goods line. By 1896 Spalding employed almost 3,500 people in his rapidly growing enterprise. He ended the nineteenth century by pioneering another first in the sporting goods world; which was the ability of customers to order from the Spalding Sporting Goods catalog and have the products delivered. The new policy mandated quality, fixed retail prices, and improved consumer satisfaction. By 1901, the chain had grown from three to fourteen stores. “”Quality First”” became the organization’s slogan. This catapulted his business into the 20th century with the company never looking back.

The Mitt

Now that the history of baseball equipment’s founding father is out of the way, it is important to take a deeper look at each piece of equipment and its transformation over time. The glove will be examined first because it is the most altered piece of equipment; in addition, it possibly has the most interesting history because it did not even exist when baseball first began. There are many variations of the glove, and as the game has evolved each position has developed a special style of glove that fits their needs specifically. Although the glove initially began as a palm protector, it has now evolved into a heavily padded mitt with a web and a lacey design. The basic function of the glove is scooping a ball, stopping a ball on the ground or catching a ball in the air. Over time gloves have been mutated to explicitly serve a purpose for each position.

For the first thirty years of baseball, no one used a glove. The mere exception was Doug Allison, a catcher for the Cincinnati Red Stockings, who in 1869 had a saddle maker make him a mitt. He was taunted throughout the sport and the phrase “”Real man don’t wear gloves!”” was coined. The unpopularity of wearing a glove continued, “”In 1875, when Charles Waite of St. Louis received the same ridicule when he took the field wearing a thin, flesh-colored glove similar to the ones gentlemen wore while driving buggies.”” (Soyer). Although these men appeared foolish at the time, the trend caught on and by the late 1870’s these innovators had the majority of the league following their lead. The logic seemed to permeate through their skulls that it did not make sense to hurt your hand from catching extremely fastballs when the pain could be prevented. These gloves, however, bore no resemblance to the fancy gloves we see today. They basically were a fingerless oven mitt, which could not possibly alleviate the pain from a line drive hot off the bat or a backdoor fastball.

As the game progressed and the pitchers began to throw overhand, the catcher realized that the needed to do something quick to prevent the constant stone bruises and broken hands. Therefore, “”in the mid-1880’s; Buck Ewing, a catcher for the New York Giants, became the first to use a pillow-type catcher’s mitt”” (Soyer). The catcher’s mitt did not mirror Pudge Rodriguez’s Wilson A200 of today by any means. It simply looked like a fluffy version of a leather winter glove one would wear on the streets. The catcher’s mitt stayed basically the same for roughly forty years with the only major change being the mitt becoming bulkier with a single leather thong passing for a web. In about 1940 Rawlings Glove Maker Harry Latina made a great innovation in the catcher’s mitt. He pooled many players finding out what could make the glove better, and he accomplished his goal. He created a mitt with twice the depth than the previous mitt which the catchers absolutely fell in love with. They described the mitts and allowing the ball to stick.

The depth added to the catcher’s mitt completely changed the game. Catchers began to develop their defensive skills with the new mitt which allowed them to control the game and the base runners with a never before seen authority. This new mitt was terrific, but the catchers still had to use two hands, which is said to be the major difference between the mitts of the 1940s and 50s from the mitts today. The hinged mitt is what we see today in the major leagues. This mitt allows the catcher to catch the ball with one hand and or scoop a low pitch. Plays like the backhand scoop would never have been possible in the days before the hinged mitt. The hinged mitt was made popular by Johnny Bench in the 1960’s, and can greatly be attributed to Johnny Bench’s defense success. As the decades passed the hinge mitt’s design perfected and is still the style used today. The mitt used in the early 1970’s mirrors the catcher’s mitts of today, with the only exception being a better design, technology, and durability.

The flex-hinge catcher’s mitt derived from the first baseman mitt which was designed in 1941. First baseman’s mitts lack individual fingers but are generally very long and wide to help them scoop badly thrown balls from infielders. They were originally called the Rawlings Trapper, and over time have maintained the same relative design. First baseman’s mitt is an integral part of the game because they provide the infielders with support and confidence to get the ball in the general vicinity instead of at one specific point. They provide the first baseman with the flexibility to stretch out or pick a ball out of the dirt. Often the big gloves can make the difference between a throw over

the head or a shoestring catch. First baseman’s mitt is the biggest glove on the field, and they definitely serve their purpose.

Now that the gloves for specific positions are taken care of it is necessary to look into the evolution of the regular glove used for position players and pitchers. This mitt started out in the 1800’s with simple beginnings. The first gloves had no fingers and the next gloves had fingers but no padding. As the twentieth century rolled around, players began to understand the importance of the gloves and the benefits they provide. The gloves of the early twentieth contained a padded heel and padded fingers. It was not until 1918 when Bill Doak of the Cardinals “”tried out a cushion design with a built-up heel that formed a v pocket”” (Aldridge 18). This was the first time in history a player had used a pocket, but it certainly would not be the last. Doak realized what an advantage the pocket provided him and how well his fielding improved. The Bill Doak model with the web laced between the first finger and thumb created a natural pocket that revolutionized the game. Rawlings patented the model and it stayed in their catalogs until 1953.The word quickly spread throughout the league about the Doak model and soon many variations of the web and pocket popped up.

These variations advanced defensive prowess tremendously as a glove making revolution was now underway. In 1925 the Doak model was improved with a three-fingered fielder’s glove, which was later improved with a two-piece leather web. With the new gloves, the sky was the limit as new webs emerged with names such as the “”T”” web and the “”H”” web. The webs allowed players at different positions to have flexibility with their preference and what type of mitt their position demanded. In 1948 the five fingered glove was created. This gave the player complete control over the pocket of the glove and improved defense tremendously once again. The advancement of the gloves in the forty’s is so profound that most record books, including the SABR Baseball List and Record Book, only start keeping fielding stats starting in 1946. That blatantly says that before 1940 the gloves where completely sub-par.

Before the 1950’s, outfielders and infielders used similar gloves. This all began to change in the late 1950’s as outfielders realized that they could make catches that they had missed before if they had a bigger web. Therefore, Rawlings began to work on a glove specifically for the outfielders. In the 1960’s Rawlings finally developed an outfield specific glove. The model was a six-fingered Trap-Eze model which provided the outfielder with length and a flexible basket to secure the toughest catches. The back of the glove had a tighter fit which allowed fielders to cover more space without a floppy glove hanging out. This Trap-Eze style glove is still used widely throughout the major

leagues today thanks to its effectiveness and genius design. Today defensive superstar outfielders such as Ichiro Suzuki, Torri Hunter, and Andruw Jones use the Trap-Eze model developed by Rawlings in the sixties.

Infielders, however, did not require a big glove because their goal is to be able to get the ball out of their glove as quickly as possible and get it to first base. A big floppy Trap-Eze style glove would cause them to search the web for the ball, which would greatly decrease their chance of getting the runner out at first. Since the mid-twentieth century, infielder’s gloves have remained the same size, but have endured great changes in the composition of the leather and webbing to increase their quickness and sure-handedness while fielding balls. The gloves today feature special leather which is designed to resist the spin-off a ground ball. There is no doubt that the increase in technology over time has provided players with a strategic advantage. Fielding numbers today dwarf those of the early twentieth century when gloves were inferior. It is truly amazing to see the transformation of the glove from an oven mitt sold for two dollars and fifty cents to a three hundred dollar heart of the hide special leather mitt designed for spin reduction and maximum efficiency.

The Stick

The baseball bat is a smooth rod like a piece of wood used to hit the ball after it is thrown by the pitcher. The baseball bat is two and three-fourths inches in diameter which starts out skinny at the handle and widens as it progresses down the barrel. The bat does not weight over thirty-six ounces and is no longer than forty-two inches; it is also capped at the end of the barrel. The bat has changed over the centuries, but it has probably endured the least amount of change out of the major pieces of baseball equipment.

During the early years of baseball, there were no regulations on baseball bats. Players would show up to the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey with whatever bat they desired no matter what length or weight. They experimented with many types of bats, but it wasn’t long until the round bat evolved as the bat of choice. The players realized that they could hit the ball much more solidly with the round bat. Many players in the 1850s began to go to wood makers to make their bats, while some still made their bats on their own. It wasn’t until 1859 that the bats finally became regulated. “”In 1859, The Professional National Association of Baseball Players Governing Committee voted in favor of the first limitation on bat size. The limitation specified that bats may be no larger than two and three-fourths inches in diameter and that they may be of any length”” (Mussil). This shift in rules ended the art of players making their own bats because they were not as talented as the wood makers who could ensure that all regulations were met. Ten years after the first regulations, the rule governing bat length was established setting the maximum length at forty-two inches. The incredible thing about that rule is that it still stands today in the Major League Baseball rulebook. Now the precedent for the bat was set. After careful experimentation and surveying of the players, it was established that the bat would be skinny at the bottom and would widen as it went up the barrel. It was also established that the bat would be rounded at the bottom to give the hitter control of the bat. In 1894 the maximum width of the barrel would be changed to two and three fourth inches (Missal).

Although Albert Spalding contained a monopoly on the baseball world, the one thing he could not manage was to gain a firm grasp of the bat market. In 1884 John Hillerich made the star player of the Louisville Eclipse, Pete Browning, a replacement bat after his bat was broken in a game. Browning used the bat the next day and went three for three, and continued to use Hillerich bats for the rest of his career. Soon after his teammates began using similar bats, and many other players around the league began custom ordering bats from Hillerich, who was a woodworker with his father. The father and son tandem began a wood bat company which is now known globally as the leading bat manufacturer in the world, Louisville Slugger. The Louisville Slugger has produced bats for Major League baseball for over a century and counting. Louisville slugger would rival Spalding and eventually dwarf their business completely. By 1900 Hillerich and his father were turning out bats as fast as they could; the bats were flying off the shelves around the country to all the major league teams. The other bat companies could not keep up with Hillerich because they lacked the proper skills and techniques. Hillerich also had a tremendous advantage because he was an amateur ballplayer himself and he knew what the players wanted. Hillerich and his father succeeded because they attempted to cater every bat specifically to what each player wanted. This would prove to be influential of their success because they still use this formula today. In fact, the Louisville Slugger Factory in Kentucky has a copy of almost every model of bat ever made; they can even pull up the exact model and size of bat Babe Ruth used.

Hillerich became the “”bat baron”” of the country thanks to his advanced wood techniques, wonderful craftsmanship, and innovative ideas. One of his genius ideas was carving the signature of a player in the bat. He introduced this innovative idea with Honus Wagner, who many say is the greatest shortstop to play the game. Wagner became the first player to ever sign a contract with Hillerich and doing so set a precedent for other players to follow. Ty Cobb would follow Wagner’s lead as he broke into the majors smashing an amazing .344 with a Louisville Slugger in his hand (Mussil). Now that the games prominent sluggers were succeeding with Louisville Sluggers in their hand, it was game over for the rest of the industry. The Louisville Sluggers were made with fine grain high-quality ash that gave the players tremendous pop. In 1914 Hillerich furthered his dominance of the bat world by patenting the cork handle for bats, which as we move into the twenties we still see the prominent players using the Louisville Slugger bat; in fact, Babe Ruth used a Louisville Slugger Model R-43 with a medium barrel. The tree trunk of a bat was thirty-six inches in length and weighed forty-two ounces. This bat was a mammoth compared to what we see today. The average bat for a major leaguer today is around thirty-four inches and thirty-three ounces.

The largest and smallest bats ever made were constructed by Louisville Slugger in the early 20ths century. Al Simmons, who hit over .300 in eleven consecutive seasons, defied gravity essentially by using a monster bat of thirty-eight inches in length and forty-eight ounces in weight (Mussil). Simmons was a beastly hitter who attempted to punish the pitcher every time he went to the plate. Simmons played from 1922-1944. In contrast to Simmons, Willie Keeler used the smallest bat ever made by Louisville Slugger, which was only thirty and a half inches long and weighted thirty-four ounces. Keeler who was a mere five foot four inches tool coined the phrase “”hit it where they ain’t””. He was famous for his amazing bat control and superior bunting skills. His short bat allowed him to have amazing control of his bat, but it also deprived him of the power that Simmon’s mammoth bat granted him.

As the popularity of baseball grew, Louisville Slugger realized that they needed to advance their research. The realized that white ash would be the best type of wood for their bat, and they secured a considerable amount of woods in Pennsylvania and New York in order to make sure they would always have wood for their bat. With thousands of acres of woods secured up, it was now time for them to work on developing the best model of bat. As of today, Louisville Slugger has made over three hundred models of bats; in addition, there are about 20,000 specifications in the pro model file (Unknown).

Most players have the ends of their bats ‘cupped out’. This removes extra end weight and moves the center of balance toward the trademark, giving the batter better whip-like control. The bats range from style and size in order to accommodate each individual player. For example, both players could use the same model of a bat, with the same handle and barrel width, but one player’s bat could be shorter or lighter. The most common used bat today in the major leagues is the model M I 10, which was introduced by Eddie Malone of the Chicago White Sox. Over the last fifty years, bats have changed very little. The model types have been established, and it is really just a question of player’s personal preference, in regards to size and weight.

It amazes me to see players today using the same type of models that were used in the 1950’s. As previously mentioned, the bat has been subject to the least changes in the history of baseball equipment, but that’s not to say it hasn’t undergone any changes at all. The bat has evolved from a thick heavy stick to an aerodynamic piece of beauty. Because the bat is made of wood and can only undergo so many advancements, it is remarkable to see how physics and science have played such a huge role in its development. Baseball bats have gone a long way from the days of bringing your own bat, to the current phenomenon of have your own model of the bat made. In my opinion, the beauty of the baseball bat is that no matter how much it has changed over time, the basic principle of hitting the ball with the stick has remained for over one hundred and fifty years.

The Rock

Perhaps the most important piece of equipment in regards to determining what actually occurs during the game is the baseball. The baseball dictates every aspect of the game; after all, it is what the game is named after. The circumference, weight, and makeup of the ball have changed drastically over time; as result, a direct correlation evolved between the makeup of the ball and the statistics of the game is obvious. The current baseball weighs five ounces and is approximately nine inches in circumference. The ball contains a rubber cork, which is tightly wrapped in linear materials including yarn and twine (Wikipedia). Around that, a two-piece leather cover is put on top, which is then stitched tightly together using exactly one hundred and eight red waxed cotton stitches. The Rawlings baseballs used by major league baseball in our current era are truly are a masterpiece, however; it is important to take a look at the history of the baseball to understand how the baseball developed its modern form.

The first baseballs used in the mid-1800’s hardly resembled today’s ball in regards to its composition. The original dead ball design, as it was called, varied in size, shape, and composition. Historians have a tough time agreeing upon the actual makeup of the ball because so many variations existed. The variations of the balls differed from city to city due to the fact that there were no active regulations on the ball. The first baseball was said to weigh anywhere from three to five ounces. It contained a rubber corked which was loosely wrapped in twine. The ball was then covered with a plastic covering. As you can imagine, this made the ball extremely lifeless. One former player even said that hitting that ball felt like you were hitting something stuffed with feathers. Apparently, the ball was extremely soft and dead.

The baseball changed drastically when a rule change in 1872 established the weight and circumference standards that are still in existence today. The new rules stated that the ball was to weigh between five and five and a quarter ounces and the circumference had to be between nine and nine and a quarter inches (Johnson). Although there was a new baseball, production did not necessarily increase. The balls were still designed not to be lively. The logic behind this was that baseball at this time was not a game of home runs and power shots, but more of a finesse style featuring hit and runs and precision bunts. The primary object of the batter was either to advance the runner or get on and be advanced and score. It was an era of small ball dominated by good pitching and a dead ball. This era is known as the dead ball era due to the fact that during this period run production and power numbers were at an all-time low. The ball contributed immensely to the style of play, but the ballparks and pitching mound also contributed as well. At this time the pitcher’s mound had not been moved back to sixty feet six inches, it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the mound was moved back.

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