Something about of the leather
The hall of fame third baseman Brooks Robinson had a tip for breaking in a baseball glove. Brook’s glove was a top professional quality Rawlings XPG glove. Back when Brooks played, the store bought glove you purchase had to go through a period term the break-in. The off the store shelf glove was hard and stiff , but every ball player knew that the glove would eventually become flexible soften and in the perfect shape contoured to your hand and just right not too floppy or too stiff. The break-in was a particular 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 around ball in the pocket with string and put under your mattress at night and during the unwrapped and pounded with your fist or a ball until the leather slowly broke in perfectly. The process could take weeks. Brook’s 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 soften perfection. Back when Robinson played, although gloves were made all over the world and the finest baseball gloves were all made in the USA. Nearly all these gloves were made from one kind of tanned cowhide except for a tiny few were made from more exotic leathers like Kangaroo or Horse. All gloves were one color, tan, the color that was natural to this leather’s particular tanning, which left the select cowhide ideal and specific for baseball glove production. The quality of the cowhide had particular traits that made it ideal for baseball gloves, that starts out stiff but over time would become darkened, stain, scratch, scuffed that would actually add to the leather’s feel and overall enhance beauty. At the same time this kind of leather was widely found in use for many common leather products such as saddles, belts, car seats, furniture shoes, and garments. The Famous Coach bags built their reputation on the use this specific the kind of leather and would over time process the same beauty that only time could add to them.
I have been in the baseball glove restoration business for more than forty years and I had the pleasure of restoring and repairing thousands of gloves going back more than a hundred years. Beginning principally in the 1920’s when Rawlings introduced their innovative glove “Bill Doak”model . The Doak glove novel design had an enlarge thumb which allowed for an enlarged 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 the time the Doak glove was introduced glove were predominantly leather and felt padding for the protection for the fielder’s catching hand. The designs and construction of the day had an emphasis on keeping the weight and size down. Manufacturers use softer thinner leathers mostly horsehide. To make their Doak model Rawlings needed to use a more rigid leather, since the horse hide was too soft and floppy to support the advance design a special tanned cowhide was introduced. The leather wasn’t special at that time it was probably the most common produced tanned cowhide. However, since over time the leather had become more special.
In my experience, I could not but take notice of this remarkable quality of this particular cowhide used for gloves. All the major glove manufacturers, Wilson, MacGregor, Rawlings and Spalding made by Rawlings, exclusively used this same cowhide. The particular cowhide for the most part 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 gloves made in the USA are gaining real value and fetching high prices.
A cow is a cow and nothing has radically change the evolution of the species in the last fifty years, 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 manager for the Striking Bag line of Everlast, a vinyl supplier representative gave me a sample of an artificial leather material that had remarkable properties I never saw 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 in use by itself with out the reinforcement of a cemented nylon lining. The supplier’s new material didn’t need the 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 1980’s and this was an omen for the future. There was a revolution coming of new materials, which would eventually eclipse traditional natural materials in glove design.
Today’s gloves are more artificial material than not. They need little to no breaking in. The new materials and combined with the inexpensive production cost of the orient has driven all the American manufacturers out of the production business and kept the cost of gloves very low and affordable. There are even some gloves that do not have any leather used in them at all.
When Rawlings discontinued production of their made in USA gloves in the early 2000’s, it mark the last gasp of the cowhidecentic gloves marketed by as the “Heart of Hide” which was tanned by the Horween Company. Rawlings “Heart of Hide” gloves and preferred by professionals dominated the top of the line market and was America’s remaining source of the traditional tan cowhide. For a short time in the 1990’s I made a line of custom-made baseball gloves. I source Horween leather for my gloves in a hope to caring on the high quality baseball glove tradition. My gloves were good but my intimate experience with the leather showed me that the leather although resembled the great cowhide of the past some what, it was just not quite the same. There was just something missing.
Ever since I obsessed on what happen and I’ve come to this investigative conclusion. The tanning of leather is dirty, smelly and a nasty process. Leather is essential to life, giving to many practical products. The ancient practice as old as civilization is kindred to cooking and baking. The multitude 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. Leathers velum books made six hundred years ago are still fully functional today. The process was relegated to locations far from populated areas due to their obnoxious aspects. The various kinds of leathers, soft or stiff produced depended on tanner’s select, unique recipe and process. Tanner’s 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 lose of the unique knowhow as well. It wasn’t long before American Glove manufacturers went as the shoemakers. By the mid 1970’s MacGregor discontinued American production and in the early 1980’s Wilson followed suit. The last Wilson made with the remarkable cowhide ended for good. I conclude that the particular baseball glove leather was source from a tanner in the northeast United States. Rawlings continued American production sourcing their leather from the Horween Company. I can only conclude that the Horween may not 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 happen at Horween either they lost the recipe or change their tanning process or formula. The Horween leather glove of the 1990’s and on was just not like glove they previously made in earlier decades. Rawlings imported produced Gold Glove series was good but not the same. They had largely successful line of imported SG model gloves made with a nice quality cowhide but it became thin and cracks affecting its overall longevity, which doesn’t come to the unique quality of the mystical cowhide. Since leaving American production Rawlings introduced a high quality expensive production line called Primo. Nice feeling and good looking as new the glove’s leather is woeful ripping out over time. Meanwhile, all manufacturers have moved to producing more and more multicolored gloves from every color in the rainbow and combination. The traditional tan color glove is almost unavailable.
Cowhide production has remained 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, has 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, in ever shirking planet and the cost will continue to rise putting a premium on leather product production. Leather and its unique properties will remain desired for consumer items, but will eventually relegated to high priced specialty products as the price for leather continues to rise in price. Much like the American Shoe and baseball glove production disappeared, so will 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.