Moises Alou reached into his locker stall in the Wrigley Field clubhouse, rummaging among caps, Cubs uniform pants, game jerseys and pairs of cleats. Then he hauled out a well-worn glove.
Once shiny, the black outfielder's mitt resembled a house sorely in need of paint. The color was faded. Splotches pockmarked the fingers and heel.
After 12 seasons of regular-season use, four All-Star Games and one World Series, Alou faced the fraying leather and reality in spring training. He retired the glove.
"It was ready to fall apart," Alou said.
All-Star or Little Leaguer, a player's relationship with his glove is personal. Some players go through gloves and girlfriends at the same brisk rate. Others are together for the long haul. Some players treat gloves like leased cars, replacing them annually. Others clearly remember the first glove they owned.
White Sox catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., the son of a major-leaguer, grins when he recalls his Little League receiver's equipmenta Christmas gift from his father.
"It was Champion model gear," said Alomar, a six-time All-Star. "I was ecstatic. Later, I put that glove in a trophy case. It is at my mother's house in Puerto Rico."
In the beginning, there were no gloves. In his new book, "Glove Affairs: The Romance, History, and Tradition of the Baseball Glove," author Noah Liberman of Chicago reports that Doug Allison of the Cincinnati Red Stockings was the first professional to use hand protection in a game in 1870. But for yearsbefore and afterit was not considered manly to play wearing a glove.
Rawlings, the present glovemaking leader, introduced its Bill Doak model, a rather puffy, pliable glove, in 1919. But quality evolved slowly, Liberman writes.
"[In] 1943, 40 years after Wilbur Wright's flight, pilots were flying jets and professionals were still catching balls with pillows."
A journey through the National Baseball Hall of Fame's "Evolution of the Glove" exhibit in Cooperstown, N.Y., makes an observer wonder how anybody ever caught anything before 1919.
Some items in the collection: fingerless leather pads from the 1870s, a fingerless glove from 1883 that resembles a potholder and bicycle-type gloves that seem better for seizing handlebars than balls.
Cubs Hall of Fame infielder Johnny Evers' glove seemed puny, perhaps 7 inches from palm to the apex of the middle finger. Current infielders' gloves, like the ones that will be used in Tuesday night's All-Star Game, are half again as large. Reds Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench used a mitt that seemed as large as a hubcap.
Liberman and modern-day manufacturers credit the Wilson A-2000, introduced in 1957, as the breakthrough. It was thinner and allowed the catching hand to better grasp a ball.
Ironically, those "pillows" that Liberman scoffed at are hot items down the street from the Hall at National Pastime, a memorabilia shop.
Some 400 gloves dating to the 1890s, but primarily from the 1930s, are crammed into a large glass case, an overflow drawer and the basement.
Owner Michael Fassett calls them vintage gloves. Though he makes no claim that any big-name professional used the shorter, stubbier gloves, he said he sells about 100 a year.
A Joe DiMaggio glove on display listed for $465. A 1920s kid's catcher's mitt had a price tag of $135.
Before the White Sox-Tigers game May 24, the Sox gave away 10,000 Wilson gloves to kids, part of the glovemaker's deal with Major League Baseball.
The 10½-inch gloves, tan with black lacing and markings and with tightly laced fingers and firm, wide webbing, are more sophisticated than major-leaguers' gloves of 70 years ago.
Typically, the gloves carry a White Sox logo in the pocket, but this year the gloves were imprinted "2003 All-Star Game."
"I wanted to do it early in the season so the kids could use them right away," said Bob Grim, the White Sox's director of marketing and broadcasting. "If we can have kids say, 'I got my very first glove at U.S. Cellular Field,' we like that."
Many major-leaguersthe Cubs' Tom Goodwin, the White Sox's Jose Valentin and the Pirates' Jason Kendall among themgot started with dad's hand-me-downs, but the White Sox did provide the first glove for many youngsters. Almost every kid put the glove on as soon as it was received. And then they walked along the concourse pounding the pocket.
Your name here
Bob Clevenhagen is the Glove Man, a Rawlings employee for more than 28 years who supervises the company's custom division. This is the hot new thing.
Rather than simply purchase an off-the-rack glove, civilians can mix and match web and leather, and get their name inscribed on it too.
"This is my little glove factory," Clevenhagen said, leading a visitor to a tiny corner of Rawlings' massive distribution center in Washington, Mo., west of St. Louis.
Using ancient Singer sewing machines, the half-dozen employees there fill catalog orders for some big-leaguers' gloves.
Alex Rodriguez, the Texas Rangers' All-Star shortstop, is the top client. He's paid $5,000, plus royalties on sales of store models, to endorse Rawlings, Clevenhagen said.
In his spare time, Clevenhagen breaks in Rodriguez's glovespounding them with a wooden mallet several times over a few weeks, then rubbing in oil.
Rawlings has sponsored the Gold Glove Award for top fielders since 1957 and claims that 62 percent of the starting pitchers listed on major-league rosters at the beginning of the 2003 season wear the company's gloves, and that 52 percent of position players also wear them.
St. Louis-based spokesman Denny Whiteside also said that the firm sells 2 million gloves annually and has 37 percent of market share, making it No. 1. Wilson, Mizuno and Nike are other major manufacturers.
Most of gloves are made overseas now, and most Rawlings production is concentrated in the Philippines and China, Whiteside said. But custom gloves are still made in Missouri on Clevenhagen's watch.
"I used to make 1,500 gloves a day," he said. "Now I make 20."
It is a tiny percentage of Rawlings' sales. Customers willing to pay $198 to $250 get the kick of seeing their names stitched on the thumb. Forget Joe DiMaggio.
Making specialty gloves is nothing new for Clevenhagen, 58, who has black hair going gray and a grayish beard. He has framed autographed thank-you pictures from many players on his office walls, ranging from Pete Rose to Rick Sutcliffe and Bert Blyleven.
If he has enough time, Clevenhagen presents a special glove to presidents throwing out the season's first pitch. He has autographed pictures from George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
He also has an autographed picture from actor Kevin Costner that reads, "Enjoy the movie." Clevenhagen designed a glove Costner used in the film "For Love of the Game."
For decades, all gloves were tan with tan laces. But in the 1980s, black became popular with major-leaguers, Clevenhagen said, for a very simple reason.
"Black leather was the first soft leather you could get," he said. Other dyes had weakened the leather.
Clevenhagen said Ken Griffey Jr. originated the trend of using different colored laces simply to tell his glove from other outfielders. Later, Mark McGwire's black glove needed a quick repair and only tan leather was available. The result began a new rage for two-toned gloves.
"Now it's a style issue," Clevenhagen said.
Necessity presented Clevenhagen with a different challenge. He designed a glove for one-handed pitcher Jim Abbott, who kept it under one arm until he threw, then slipped it on as the ball approached the batter.
"The goal was to make it the easiest glove he could put on in his life," Clevenhagen said.
Occasionally, Clevenhagen gets mail from parents of children with unique circumstances, asking if he will make a glove for their child. This summer in his spare time Clevenhagen is trying to make a glove for one child who has no fingers on his right hand and another child who is missing a finger.
"I always try to get them done before the end of the season," Clevenhagen said.
Mix and match
Stenciled on the glass of the front door of the company in the low-slung, strip-mall-type building is "Glovesmith Custom Ball Gloves" in Imperial, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis.
Mike Seawel, president and proprietor of the family-owned business joked that this is "the world headquarters and factory."
Seawel, 54, is in his 12th year of making custom baseball gloves "for the serious player" after spending 18 years with Rawlings. Glovesmith sells between 2,000 and 3,000 gloves a year, many through sporting goods stores, but some to people who walk in the front door. Rawlings and other behemoths of the business dwarf his operation.
A walk-in may see stacks of cowhide and more expensive buffalo hide (a coming thing) or boxes of nearly finished gloves waiting to be taken home by workers and laced up.
That's after a machine cuts a pattern from steel dies, a splitter thins the leather, the glove is sewn inside-out, felt layers are inserted and glued, and the taking-shape leather is pulled down on a metal hot hand to form fingers.
The grease used to hold layers of leather together is from a secret formula, Seawel said, and each glove is made from 16 leather parts. He can make 350 gloves a week. Actual manufacturing time, roughly the same as Rawlings, is 2½ hours per glove.
It also says "Made in USA" in the pocket of Glovesmith gloves, something not many baseball gloves can boast these days.
Glovesmith does not have the resources of a Rawlings or a Wilson. Seawel advertises in men's rooms at eight major-league parks, including U.S. Cellular Field, home of this year's All-Star Game, and does not offer cash as an inducement to major-leaguers. Mostly, minor-leaguers and college players wear Glovesmith.
Illinois State left-handed pitcher Todd Stein, 22, who is from St. Louis, has worn a company model since 7th grade.
"I really liked the leather and I told my dad I had to have one," said Stein, whose black leather gloves cost between $180 and $250. "It's nice to pick the size of the glove, the web, and how stiff the leather is. I aspire to play professional baseball. If my glove is going to give me even a little advantage, I'll do it."
Not to mention, the lettering on the thumb spells out his name. That gives Stein one thing over Seawel.
"I do not have a glove," Seawel said. "I've never made myself a glove. They're all mine until they go out the door."
Shaping the future
New gloves may smell terrific, but no serious ballplayer trusts one fresh out of the wrapping. Breaking in a glove before using it in a crucial sitution is a rite, though methods differ.
Kids pound pockets until their fists hurt. Players use mallets. Some soften leather with oil.
"My routine was using shaving cream," said Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Brian Giles. "I heard it was a good thing. It seemed to be cool."
Although there are legendary stories about major-leaguers using the same glove for years, stitching them back together, most replace gloves more frequently.
Giles, a two-time All-Star, uses one glove per season but is always breaking in the next season's glove.
"Just by playing catch," he said.
But Alou can't completely let go of his favorite 12-year-old glove.
He still brings it out during pregame fielding practice and has big plans for it.
"I'm framing it," Alou said. He smiled. "I'll put it in silver, since I haven't ever won gold."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times