For guys of a certain age, there are few childhood memories fonder than that first new baseball glove. Kids who aspired to play infield chose gloves signed by Brooks Robinson, while future hall-of-fame outfielders begged their dads for mitts bearing the signatures of Roberto Clemente or Willie Mays, who remain two of the game’s best role models even today.
The first fielders played barehanded, and the early MacGregor Goldsmith, Spalding, Draper & Maynard, and Stall & Dean split-finger gloves that followed were not much better. They were more like leather or horsehide paws, with a perfunctory tangle of webbing or an unadorned flap of leather between the thumb and the index finger.
The signatures on many of these gloves from the early part of the 20th century are difficult to make out, but players like Edd J. Roush and Mel Ott won endorsement contracts, which makes vintage gloves bearing their signatures particularly collectible.
By the 1920s and ’30s, gloves had become specialized to a player’s position. Catcher mitts had extra padding, of course, to account for the 90-mile-per-hour fastballs that pitchers were hurling at them. The inside of the mitt had slots for the catcher’s fingers, but like a mitten, only the thumb was given freedom of movement. Similarly, first-base mitts were designed like giant scoops, since the position required accuracy when it came to catching a long throw from third.
By the 1940s, fielder gloves by Rawlings, Wilson, and MacGregor (the word “Goldsmith” had been dropped from the brand) were being designed to make it easier for infielders to pick up grounders and get the ball into the throwing hand quickly. For outfielders, gloves were designed to help the player snag a fly ball on the run, with deep pockets so the ball would stay put when the fielder inevitably hit the ground after making a diving catch.
Collectors of antique and vintage game-used mitts and gloves look for readable labels, leather that is supple rather than dry, and intact padding. An old glove is usually not that expensive, which means you can collect gloves from different eras and for different positions without breaking the bank. But for gloves that have been signed by a professional baseball player, the autograph is likely to eclipse the cost of the item itself, and then some.