Rawlings…Finest In the Field by Joe Phillips

Thanks to some innovative baseball players and three fine glove designers Rawlings Sporting Goods fairly dominated the baseball glove landscape from 1922 forward. “Finest in the Field” and it stuck! At one point, in the 1950s, Rawlings was claiming that roughly 80% of all gloves worn on major leaguers’ hands. I don’t know if the company pundits were including the Spaldings which Rawlings was under contract to make according to their own designs, or not.

Still, that’s a stranglehold on the big-league market. Like Ned Pepper shouted to Roster Cogburn in True Grit, “FILL YOU HANDS…” and Rawlings was doing just that. Plenty of players who were MacGregor or Wilson or non-endorsees would sneak over to the Rawlings station wagons and pick out gloves. I’m not quite sure whether they had to pay for them or Rawlings would be generous enough to say, “here, take one or two.”

It all began in 1921 or so when Bill Doak, a saliva inclined hurler for St. Louis dropped by the Rawlings plant to explain an idea he had for a new glove. He did and the glove world changed. His glove, unlike most of the flat, pancake styles: CREATED A POCKET!” Soon players with the Doak were making a lot of one-handed catches, heretofore considered a “lucky” catch or not merely “stopping the ball” but getting a grip on it, flies and grounders. Ty Cobb ordered a dozen of them for his team.

Rawlings was now, definitely, in the glove “bidness.” So how did it work? Doak put a flexible laced web in his glove instead of the stiff flat piece web that kept the glove flat and difficult to close. Also added was that Doak dropped the thumb so that the glove began to curl and concave. Voila, a pocket. Harry Latina, glove designer for Rawlings, took the idea further, padded up around the pocket and came up with the long time used, “Deep Well Pocket,” for the Rawlings gloves.

From 1922 Rawlings began commanding the glove scene and various imitations began to dot the glove landscape. An interesting side note to this was the happenstance that Doak later opened his eventually unsuccessful glove company in the 1930s. Up until the late 1940s the Doak was around in various sizes and webs and was the first “important” glove for a lot of major league players.

In the late 1930s another lucky break for Rawlings or rather picking the brains and thoughts of the men playing the game, Latina and his St. Louis outfit developed the “Trapper” or “Claw” first baseman mitt, based on the fish nets that first basemen like Hank Greenberg had developed. You see, a first baseman normally doesn’t have to make a throw after catch the ball but better dang sure make sure it sticks in the mitt. Latina made sure it was sturdy enough, backing it with a “finger” type webbing.

That style basemitt lasted for three or more decades after being introduced.

The ball, when you caught it was catching it in a springy web. I remember as a youth we had a game called “burn out”. That is, we would stand close enough to one enough without killing each other and throw pitches as hard as we could make until the other player, his hand stinging or finger bent, would quit. I had a trapper and won many a “burn out.”

The “Claw” was great too in scooping balls out of the dirt. Made you” look good on the bag,” as they would say.

The next big Rawlings design and one that still captures the imagination of glove collectors is the “rolled lace web glove, primarily the Red Rolfe model, that Rawlings came out with during World War II. It was novel in that it worked in much the same manner as the trapeze base mitt in that the ball hitting the web, relaxed it so that it just was “snagged” and “snugged” in there. Another little tweak and one that would get the glove in trouble was that it could be extended, almost an inch or so above the fingers. That inch could mean the difference in catching or missing the ball and you would have a taller, longer glove in effect. Rawlings not only would put this on its smaller Red Rolfe RR models but would adapt the webbing to the larger outfielder/pitcher gloves like the Mort Cooper MC, but it was not offered in the retail markets.

Harry Latina would tell major league outfielders when he was passing out gloves in spring training in the late 1940s, “I can give you and extra step” (meaning reach with the extended web glove). All was fine until the Dodger Outfielder the 5’7’ Al Gionfriddo robbed Joe DiMaggio of a home run with a leaping catch using one of these rolled-laced gloves, one that would have resulted in several runs and was supposedly the only time that anyone had seen Joe DiMaggio so frustrated that he kicked a bag when he saw the catch robbing him.

In an interview I conducted with Rollie Latina, Harry’s son and equally famous Rawlings glove designer, he told me that evidently Joe D. got a protesting word to the higher ups in the baseball Commissioner’s office and the glove died an official death in 1951. The spiral web glove was kaput in professional baseball but one, if you can find it, highly sought by collectors like Art Katsapis and David Seideman. A few of these have turned up on the market worn by pros, that I’ve been made aware of by Tommy Henrich and Eddie Yost. Lots of vintage pictures though of star players like Larry Doby, Bob Lemon, Red Schoendienst, Carl Furillo, on and on were seen using this funky webbed glove.

This Rawlings glove holds a special magic for many collectors its allure not fully understandable, yet it’s evocative and one no matter in what combination such as on the Mickey Mantle XPG6-H will no doubt, remain popular.

The HH Harvey Haddix model introduced in 1954 is another popular collectible
glove if for no other fact than it was a glove used by Willie Mays to make his 1954 World Series catch and another one used by Mantle during the mid-1950s.

By 1957, when Rawlings was previewing its new Trapeze models (promoted as the “first new glove in 40 years!”) to Major Leaguers at spring training but not yet on the retail market with it, its fiercest rival Wilson was making headway on a glove that would change glove design for the next 50 plus years. It was a hinged-glove innovation where the glove was designed to break at the 5 O’clock point on the face of the glove, making it easier to close over on the ball. This was aided by dropping the thumb height and this glove quickly caught on.

It seemed to catch Rawlings by surprise though a Rawlings executive I interviewed, Elmer Blasco many years ago, who told me that Rawlings had a similar type pattern in the works, before the Wilson A2000 introduction.

It may well have but there are no clear evidentiary sources that point to this in 1958 as Rawlings was still touting a “cupped” or rounded pocket in its catalogs and taking a “last swing” at its dying 3-Finger Playmaker models. In 1959, Rawlings came out with three hinged model gloves, its RSP, DS and EM and somewhere in there the rare LB12 Lew Burdette (non-catalogued) models also, in 1960 its Mickey Mantle MMP which now boasted “Heart of the Hide” leather and was fitted with the hinge, a feature which Rawlings would be calling its “Lazy S.” One curious statement in the 1959 Rawlings catalog states Mantle’s MMP was “Autographed and used by the modern Yankee great.” This was a concept or printed statement that many game-used glove authorities seemed unaware of.

At any rate, Rawlings seemed to be caught, already found itself in a design but more of a marketing bind, likely from staying with its ‘Playmaker” concept too long before coming out with its novel Trapeze design and, in 1958, having the Wilson A2000 begin eating into its market both on the pro and retail levels. It was a quandary that Rollie Latina shortly answered with the excellent XPG series. Rawlings, to its credit, had developed a hinge pad for its Playmaker before its demise. Both Rawlings and Wilson had brought out “mid-line” patterns where there was a gap in the palm at the hinge area. So, the idea was being explored.

In 1958 Rawlings had just announced its now supple-sounding titled and promoted: “Heart of the Hide”® leather, a leather it had been using by now but now provided with an alluring title, famously so, a mantra leather that would continue for the next half century.

But Wilson seemed to have stolen a march on Rawlings maybe not so much in design surprise but certainly the company scored a marketing coup if nothing else. Clearly though baseball players pro and amateur alike were taking to the cross-hinge style glove.

The XPG3 Rawlings, its first XPG model introduced to the public featured the following:

* “U” shaped laced heel
* Double Lazy “S” Pocket Lace
* Deep well pocket
* Slim wrist and snugger adjustment
* Laced down thumb and little finger (tie downs)
* Along with Rawlings V-Anchored web

Strikingly the XPG3 resembled the 1960 Wilson A2000 glove except that Wilson was employing a sewn pinkie finger and thumb closure at its heel whereas Rawlings had created a laced “U” heel. Wilson came back the next year, 1961, copying the full laced “U” heel.

Wilson’s 1960 Web was a solid web like the XPG3. Rawlings had the crotch extension over its thumb. Otherwise the gloves looked similar. Art Katsapis, an avid modern glove collector, maintained that the Rawlings leather at that time and since was sturdier and the leather thicker (Heart of the Hide) than its Wilson counterpart.

For the next half-century Rawlings would make basically some design changes, some tweaks here and there, the great “BasketWeb”® would take command and the Trapeze made a startling comeback.

The XPG (and later the XGF featuring a Holster ® Single-finger opening in a closed back design) gloves were practical and workable gloves. These “X” models would boast a laced U-heel and in the next few years, Rawlings would introduce such innovations as a “Flex-O- Matic palm (for a short tenure) and “Edge-U-Cated” heels.

The “Heart of the Hide” image caught on and was accepted as a noteworthy brand for gloves.

The Flex-O-Matic palm was a design it appears where Rawlings wanted to hold onto the idea of different type of break in the action of the glove, more toward the middle with the glove forming less of a hinge or fold over. The idea was eventually discarded from the line. Collectors Jim Daniel and Bruce Rodgers, a buyer and seller, of premium gloves expressed a distaste for the pattern.

The surprise in the development of Rawlings gloves for the next few decades would be the discontinuation of its Trapeze line only to be revived by one of the great fielders of the 1980s, shortstop Ozzie Smith, now a Hall of Fame member. Smith when he hit the big leagues brought with him a glove from his youth, a Rawlings TG12 Stan Musial. Smith had Rawlings make his gloves and the design suddenly became a popular style in the big leagues with stars like Ken Griffey showing off this truly workable Rawlings model.

Another popular feature that Latina came up was the “BasketWeb”® a cross-weave webbing that looks like the Easter basket weave. One of the keys of the web is for the ball to relax in the trap and enfold the baseball when it hits and the BasketWeb® did this perfectly.

Rollie Latina would retire in the 1990s and Bob Clevenhagen would take over his reins after being tutored by the grand master. Bob is retired now and Rawlings seems to be doing things the corporate way by committees with all major production shifting to the Philippines.

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