At spring training about two decades ago, a young shortstop named Omar Vizquel mentioned to Bob Clevenhagen that he needed a new glove as soon as possible. Clevenhagen, the glove designer for Rawlings Sporting Goods, said he had one ready, but it would take a few days to imprint the ”Heart of the Hide” logos and other markings. Without them, Clevenhagen said, he could have a new glove shipped by the next day.
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Vizquel opted for unadorned and it’s proved to be a wise choice. Over a career spanning 23 seasons, he has won 11 Gold Gloves for fielding excellence. Still robbing hitters at age 44 for the Chicago White Sox, the venerable infielder has remained true to his Pro SXSC model.
“Even today, we make his glove with no writing on it,” Clevenhagen says, noting the request is only partly a ballplayer's superstition. “It also guarantees the fact I made the glove for you. We didn't pull it off the shelf and ship it.”
Clevenhagen is known to many as the Michelangelo of the mitt. Since 1983, he has designed gloves (and occasionally footballs and helmets and catcher's gear) for the sporting goods firm best known as the Gold Glove Company. He is only the third glove designer in the history of the company, following the father-son team of Harry Latina, who worked from 1922 to 1961, and Rollie Latina, who retired in 1983.
Clevenhagen apprenticed with Rollie for a year before settling in to his position 28 years ago. Since then, he’s designed gloves for any number of major-league players including Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Torii Hunter, Mark McGwire and Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith, Robin Yount, Mike Schmidt and Cal Ripken Jr. He even designed a glove—a big glove—for the Phillie Phanatic. Nearly half – 43 percent – of major leaguers use Rawlings gloves.
Rawlings became synonymous with baseball gloves in the 1920s after St. Louis pitcher Bill Doak, then famous for his spitball, suggested his hometown sporting goods company connect the thumb and forefinger of a glove with webbing to create a small pocket. Previously, players dating back to the 1870s had worn gloves as protection (one early wearer used a flesh-colored glove in hopes of going unnoticed so opponents wouldn’t think him less of a man).
The Doak model glove, which Rawlings sold until 1949, drastically changed the game. ”A reporter once said the original designers, father and son, probably did more to do away with the .400 hitters than pitchers did,” Clevenhagen says.
Today's gloves dwarf those of the 1940s and 1950s. The Rawlings mitt Mickey Mantle used in his 1956 Triple Crown year, for instance, resembles something a Little League tee-ball player would use today. “It's sort of flat and it doesn't actually close easily because of the bulk of the padding, so you've got to use both hands,” Clevenhagen notes.
In 1958, Rawlings began making its XPG model in response to Wilson’s A2000, which had a larger web, a deeper pocket and less padding than previous models. With Mantle’s autograph on it, the glove quickly became Rawlings most popular model. It introduced “Heart of the Hide” leather, the “edge-U-cated heel”and the “Deep Well” pocket, still offered on gloves today.
Those Sportscenter highlight catches pulling home run balls back from over the fence wouldn't have happened 50 years ago, he notes, because players had to use two hands to keep the ball in the gloves of the era. "Today, the glove can make the catch for you,” Clevenhagen says. “You get that ball anywhere inside the glove, the way it's formed with the fingers curved, the webbing deeper, and it just makes all the difference in the world."