The Magic of the Mitt

It is one of life’s great mysteries: How do you break in a new baseball glove?

The answers read like something out of an anarchist alchemist’s cookbook. Stick it in the microwave. Soak it in a barrel of water between turns in the field (a major leaguer actually did this). Massage shaving cream into the leather. Bake it in the oven. Slather it with oil, truss it like a Thanksgiving turkey, and stick it under your mattress like the valuable it is.

One thing is clear: players today, especially young players, demand gloves they can buy in the morning and use that afternoon.  Bob Clevenhagen, the glove designer for Rawlings for the past 28 years who has worked with dozens of players including Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Omar Vizquel, says even major leaguers are impatient. The ritual of breaking in a “gamer” still goes on and some players still have exotic rituals. But most stick their hand inside a glove in spring training, decide it’s right, and then break it in over time.

I profiled Clevenhagen, the Michelangelo of the mitt, for a forthcoming Smithsonian magazine story and, during the reporting, discussed breaking in gloves with him and Denny Esken, a longtime glove collector from the Pittsburgh-area who is also involved regionally with USA Baseball.

Clevenhagen and Esken are both partial to Rawlings “Heart of the Hide” gloves made with leather from the Chicago-based Horween Leather Co. Horween has been supplying Rawlings since 1932, about a decade after a St. Louis Cardinals pitcher named Bill Doak thought it might be a good idea to string a web between thumb and forefinger and asked the local sporting goods firm, Rawlings, to make one.

Clevenhagen says the leather is more consistent and of better quality than in decades past. You can get a glove made by the same guys who create them for big leaguers — Clevenhagen and two assistants — by ordering a custom mitt from Rawlings via the East Bay site or Rawlings. 

These days, Clevenhagen says he automatically chooses the softest leather unless requested otherwise, but if you have questions about a glove, he’s easy to reach. Just call Rawlings and ask for him.

When you get a new glove, Esken says what makes it stiff today isn’t the leather, but the padding and any plastic inserts. Four years ago, I ordered a Rawlings Pro Player Preferred glove online (model PROS12IC favored by middle infielders) that I intended to break in and then give to my son. At the time, I also bought a cheap Nike Show Team dri fit glove to use on days when it rained or the fields were wet.

After hundreds of hours playing catch and quite a few hours rubbing in the lanolin-based homemade conditioner, Mitt Master Formula III, sold at Grand Slam, the Pro Player Preferred glove remains a little stiff. Not too stiff for me, but for my son, who has nabbed the Nike and, so far, uses it exclusively. (If you’re a fan of the coditioner, get your supply now; when I was in Grand Slam recently, they told me the guy who makes the milky formula is retiring).

Esken explained why. In addition to the stiff padding, the Pro Preferred gloves have a plastic insert along the thumb. “You’ll never break in that glove with that in there,” he said, offering to remove it.

“The best way to break in a glove is with a little bit of steam,” Esken says. The Mizuno steamer, like the at Grand Slam in Virginia Beach, is a good tool although he suggests not using the oil spray that’s often suggested. He also says you can just wrap a glove in a towel and put in in your dryer for a tumble. Getting some heat and moisture into the padding loosens it, helping to break in the glove faster. Clevenhagen, meanwhile, is partial to using the end of a bat to form the pocket.

Esken is widely considered a walking encyclopedia of gloves. He authenticates game-used mitts for an auction house. He says he’s sold some of his collection in recent years, but at one time he owned gloves flashed in games by Johnny Bench (the 1975 World Series), Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Mark McGwire, Roberto Alomar, Ozzie Smith, Mike Schmidt, Brooks Robinson, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton.

His prized possessions are mitts used by Mickey Mantle, including his 1956 gamer, the glove that caught Gil Hodges’ blast to left-center field, preserving Don Larsen’s perfect game in the World Series (it’s on loan to the Hall of Fame). I’d talked with Joe Torre about that catch for my story on the 75th anniversary of old Yankee Stadium years ago and it turns out that Esken, too, has spoken to him about it. Torre was in the left field bleachers that day and felt like Mantle was running to him as he made the backhand catch.

I mentioned to Esken that my first glove was a Rawlings Mickey Mantle model my father purchased using Phillies cigar rings and he knew the model number and the promotional deal. My father loved Mantle and I came to love him, too, even after I read “Ball Four” in sixth grade.

Looking for an image of that mitt online, I found the glove with its distinctive metal button on the wrist strap sold for $3.39 in those days if you also sent in 20 Phillies cigar rings, which my dad collected.  I used that mitt through Little League, then turned it into an autograph glove I toted to Reading Phillies (AA) games where it was signed by future big leaguers Larry Bowa and Greg Luzinski.

      That glove was for a Little Leaguer so it was small, but they’re not so small these days. Esken says the glove Mantle used to patrol the center field expanse in Yankee Stadium today would be used by a middle infielder. “The glove that Robeto Clemente used, the PG12, is the same glove Ozzie Smith used at shortstop.  The glove Mickey Mantle used in center field is the same glove Mike Schmidt used at third base,” he adds.

The good news for me is the Pro model I got for my son is only an 11.25 inch glove, probably too small for him at his preferred position of third base. And that means we’re in the market for a new glove. For him, of course. Only for him.

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