“Out in right field — it’s easy ya know” — Noel Paul Stookey

August 26, 2009

BILLY SUNDAY Chicago White Stockings

BILLY SUNDAY Chicago White Stockings

As I was picking up my suitcases at the airport in Savannah the other day, my cell phone rang. It was my brother, who wanted to know when major league baseball players stopped leaving their gloves on the field while their team was at bat. And why did they do that in the first place?

Between us, my brother and I have been working for years on collecting all human knowledge. This was just the latest installment. The only answer I had at the moment, as I yanked a suitcase off the carousel, was that the practice was still in place when I first went to a game at Yankee Stadium in 1951, and I was certain it had been discontinued by ’57 or ’58. So my guess was that it stopped in the early ’50s.

Since then, I learned that a rule requiring that all equipment be removed from the field at the end of each half inning was adopted in 1953 and took effect for the 1954 season.

As for how the practice began, the information is sketchy. It is certain that when organized baseball emerged in the middle of the 19th century, fielders didn’t wear gloves at all. When gloves first appeared, on an individual basis, they were work gloves — probably used to protect an injured finger or hand — and a player would stuff those gloves in his pocket when he left the field.

ADMIRAL SCHLEI New York Giants

ADMIRAL SCHLEI New York Giants

As gloves made specifically for  baseball appeared, they were too large to fit in a pocket, so that was no longer an option. Those early gloves were left on the field at the end of a half inning because they were used by players on both teams. As gloves and mitts became more customized, players no longer shared them, but they continued to leave them on the field. If a thrown or batted ball hit a glove that was lying on the field, that ball was in play. If a fielder tripped over a glove, that was his tough luck.

The rule adopted in 1953 was in a way based on the idea that a glove lying on a field constituted a hazard to navigation. Gloves and mitts by that time had become much larger than their forbears — though not nearly as large as those in use today — that baseball officials decided the practice should be discontinued.

HARRY DAVIS Philadelphia Athletics

HARRY DAVIS Philadelphia Athletics

The fact that gloves were left on the field for so many years suggests that there weren’t many incidents in which players were injured or the outcome of a game was affected. That doesn’t mean there were never repercussions from the odd habit. On September 28, 1905, for instance, Harry Davis of the Philadelphia Athletics hit a  ball that struck a glove left on the outfield grass by teammate Topsy Hartsel, and the carom enabled Hartsel to score the winning run in a 3-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox.

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