08/21/2007 10:26 AM ET
Gloveless hitters buck the trend
Few barehanded lumber wielders remain in the game
By Jack O'Connell / MLB.com
Vladimir Guerrero is among a select few who choose not to wear batting gloves. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)
The evolution of baseball equipment has made it difficult for modern-day ballplayers to resemble their predecessors. Double-flapped helmets, shoulder and shin pads, weighted donuts, oversized fielding gloves. Just imagine what Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth or Cool Papa Bell would make of these things.
Some players, however, are throwbacks, bucking a trend clearly puts them in the minority. This is no more evident than in that handful of players who prefer to grip their bats without the aid of batting gloves, which have been a prevalent part of the baseball wardrobe for more than 40 years.
These days, batting gloves come in all sizes, colors and models featuring logos of teams and manufacturers. For some players, batting gloves are an essential part of their uniform and persona. Think of how much shorter Nomar Garciaparra's at-bats might be if he didn't wear batting gloves.
Among those who prefer the bare necessities when taking bat in hand are Angels right fielder Vlad Guerrero, Red Sox center fielder Coco Crisp, Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, Mets left fielder Moises Alou, Cubs catcher Jason Kendall and Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz.
"I never used them since I was small," Guerrero said through translator Jose Mota, "so I really don't like them."
One glance at Guerrero's helmet that is smeared with pine tar and it is clear how he prefers to improve his grip.
Posada is another who finds all the help he needs clutching his bat on the top of his head with a pine-tar stained helmet or on the ground with handfuls of dirt before each at-bat.
"I use a lot of dirt, a lot of rosin, a lot of pine tar," Posada said. "It's a feel thing. I don't use a certain amount of anything, though. I like the feel [of bare hands]. I like the stickiness of it and the dirt on the bat. I like to feel the bat in my hands. I don't like having it be too bulky. I've never used batting gloves."
Posada doesn't even wear a batting glove under his catcher's mitt as many fielders do. If that sounds like a macho thing, that may be part of it. Posada said his favorite player growing up was George Brett, the Hall of Fame third baseman who won batting titles in three different decades (1976, 1980, 1990) while eschewing batting gloves that had come into vogue in his era.
"I've talked to him about it," Posada said. "The bat just doesn't feel right unless you hold it with your bare hands. I watched the way he hit all those years and decided to go that way."
"I never wore gloves when I was in high school, I never wore gloves in Little League, I never wore gloves in the Minor Leagues," Brett said. "Then people started giving you batting gloves, and I just didn't like the way they felt. It was that simple.
"I could feel the bat [without gloves], and I liked that. Growing up in Southern California, you don't play baseball in 30-degree weather. It was always hot, so I just got used to hitting with no glove. I never felt comfortable with them. I'd wear them in batting practice sometimes because when you play 162 games, you get calluses and blisters and cuts and stuff on your fingers and it kind of makes your fingers feel better but I just never felt comfortable wearing them."
Brett did make good use of pine tar, which is, of course, well documented. As for protection of the hands, Brett and other gloveless hitters found different means.
"My hands were brutal," Brett said. "You look at a picture of me playing, and I had all those little tape things on there, a combination of pine tar and rock and spit. The only way you can get the pine tar off and the dirt off is with alcohol, and that dries your hand out. Your hands start to split, so you've got those little paper cuts in 'em. That's why I always had all those little pieces of tape around parts of my finger because I'd get those little splits in the pores of my skin."
"I don't worry about my hands because I use the [medical] tape to protect them," Guerrero said.
The condition of a hitter's hands is precisely the reason batting gloves entered the game in the 1960s, although some sources indicate the wearing of gloves in batting practice dates to the 1930s. Lefty O'Doul, the Pacific Coast League legend, was said to have worn a regular leather glove in BP with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1932 to protect an injured left wrist.
The use of golf gloves by hitters to help resist the sting of making contact during chilly April games in the Northeast was first experimented with by Bobby Thomson, Johnny Mize and other New York Giants players during Spring Training in 1949. Thomson was believed to have worn them in exhibition games but not during the regular season.
The arrival of the golf glove in baseball came in 1963 and was credited to Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, then a rookie with the Kansas City Athletics. After playing 27 holes of golf one afternoon with teammates Ted Bowsfield, Gino Cimoli and Sammy Esposito, Harrelson found himself in that night's starting lineup after the New York Yankees had made a pitching change to left-hander Whitey Ford.
"I was taking BP and had a blister on my left hand from all that golf," recalled Harrelson, now a broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox. "I remembered I had my golf glove up in my pants, so I ran upstairs and got it just before the game started. I put it on. The first time I go to the plate, Whitey hung me a curve ball, and I hit it over the left-center-field wall about 450 [feet]. I hit another one later on in the game. I was really getting some catcalls from the Yankee dugout. Back in those days, they had bench jockeys. You can't believe some of the names they were calling me."
Perhaps as a gag, the Yankees all wore shiny red golf gloves the color Harrelson had worn the next day during BP. But it wasn't long before Roger Maris was wearing one regularly. Before the decade was out, gloves were all over the Majors and in use by many of the game's best hitters, including Carl Yastrzemski, Rod Carew and Rusty Staub.
Still, all these years later, there are holdouts.
"When I put batting gloves on, it takes away from my feel of holding a bat," Crisp said. "I just can't do it. I never really used batting gloves. It's a simple strategy."
"The gloves now I'm sure are a lot better than they were back in the '70s and the '80s," Brett said. "Then all it was was a piece of cowhide. Now they have the comfortable stuff that is a lot thinner. But if I played today, I wouldn't be wearing gloves. Because it's the feel, it's all the feel."
Would Brett, who went against the grain of his time, discourage today's hitters from using them?
"No, it's all a comfort thing," he said. "It all depends on what they want to do. It doesn't make the ball go any further. It doesn't control the bat any better."
Or make someone a .390 hitter.
"Well, it doesn't. No," Brett said.
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.