My education in baseball was old-school, beginning with my father tossing the ball back and forth to me in our back yard. I had one tool for the job, and that was my mitt. And it was flat.
Odd as it may seem, in late 1950s and early 1960s America, I was a kid using a pancake-flat baseball mitt. It was just like the ones you see in old photos that hang off the belts of guys like Frank “Home Run” Baker and other stars of the early 20th century.
Pictured here is my Woodie Held signature glove, Wilson Fieldmaster model No. A 2984. The ball is nestled in the “Grip-Tite Pocket,” and the back of the mitt notes that it’s nylon-stitched and “Made in the USA.”
I figure Mom and Dad bought the mitt for me somewhere between 1960 and 1962. I still have its predecessor – a Franklin leather mitt that’s also as flat as home plate. In fact, we occasionally used that mitt as home plate or a base in pickup games.
My father had a borderline obsessive fear of fire, and he drilled my brothers and me on exactly what procedures we should follow should the house ever catch fire. I never said it aloud, but if the house ever did go up in smoke, the first thing I was going to grab on the way out was my trusty Woodie Held Fieldmaster.
Most if not all of the other kids in the neighborhood had modern-style hinged mitts, which snap shut as the ball hits the hand. I remember taking some sandlot ribbing over my old-style glove, and at night I’d sometimes put a ball in the pocket and wrap string or rubber bands around the mitt to try to shape it like those the other kids had.
It was not to be, and that was my good fortune.
With a flat mitt, I made sure to catch with both hands whenever possible. And as the aspiring shortstop of the future for the Cleveland Indians, I got the best jump I could on any grounder hit my way so I’d be in the best position to field it. If the ball hit the leather, there was an excellent chance I’d make the play.
Those fundamentals, reinforced by my dad’s coaching and encouragement, gave me a foundation in fielding that carried me through many years of play.
And if my house catches fire, I know exactly how to get out — after I grab my mitt.