BY FRED ABATEMARCO --
"Like it was yesterday," said Bob, my friend since elementary school. He was recalling a day in 1961 when we essentially struck gold on the street of our Brooklyn neighborhood.
After a session of stickball, Bob and I were walking home from the P.S. 215 schoolyard, just as we did most afternoons, nothing special on our minds. It was five pleasant city blocks of perfectly maintained Mediterranean-style homes with red brick facades, covered verandas and rustic orange clay tile roofs. Leafy red maples adorned the front lawns.
As Bob and I turned the corner onto our much more modest street--one-family cottages and two-family homes separated by narrow driveways--we saw something wedged between the curb and the blacktop pavement of the street. It stood out among the newly fallen brown leaves on the ground. We made a simultaneous dash to grab it and Bob got to it first.
Without a word, he stuffed the find in his pocket and we hustled to a secluded nearby driveway. When Bob's fist reemerged, his fingers opened like petals on a time-lapse video of a blooming flower to reveal two ten-dollar bills and a fiver. We'd just hit a jackpot.
I was barely 12 years old and never had any cash. Occasionally, when my Uncle Carl visited, he'd bestow upon me a quarter or a half a buck. I also picked up some tips here and there fetching groceries for the neighbors. But I was too young to work and didn't get an allowance. If I wanted anything, I had to plead my case to my Dad--and that was like beseeching the king.
Bob stuffed the money back in his pocket and we walked the rest of the way home like giggling sailors on shore leave. We split halfsies. And we both knew outright how we'd spend our unexpected bounty: new baseball gloves.
Bob went almost immediately to Thriftown, a neighborhood discount store that specialized in toys and sporting goods. He bought a Marv Throneberry model first baseman's mitt for almost the exact price as his street prize.
I had something else in mind.
Nineteen sixty-one was a distinctive year in the baseball world. The New York Yankees were at the height of their post-war dominance, having won six World Series championships and nine American League pennants since 1950. They were running away with the league championship once again in '61. But even more exciting, two Yankee superstars, the M&M Boys, had captured the imagination of every sports fan in America
Mickey Mantle was an Oklahoma farm boy who was one of the purest hitters who ever played the game. Roger Maris, the other M, was a left-handed pull-hitter tailor-made for Yankee Stadium's short right field wall. Both were on pace to break the most cherished baseball record of all: 60 home runs in a season, set by the king himself, Babe Ruth, 34-years prior.
Mantle was pure Yankee: brash, cocky, full of himself. I grudgingly admired his talent, but his essential Yankeeness put me off. The recently acquired Maris, on the other hand, was intense, reserved, almost shy. He was an outsider and the underdog. As such, his bid for glory held great appeal to me.
The baseball glove I wanted was the one that Roger Maris wore.
It featured an innovative new six-finger style. Traditional baseball gloves had a wide patch of leather webbing laced between the padded thumb and index finger. But the Maris model, stitched together from two oversized pieces of leather, featured an additional finger-like projection in place of the webbing. But it made the glove stronger, streamlined and more flexible.
With a facsimile of Maris' autograph etched into the leather of the pocket, this glove also was the latest and the coolest.
For me, nothing less would do.
Until that point, the baseball glove I used was a hand-me-down circa 1950 or earlier. Not much larger than the left hand on which I wore it, it was a tattered, dark brown affair. Tears in the leather were taped over to keep lumpy white stuffing from falling out. The lacing was so loose and flimsy that sharp line drives and hot grounders often bent back my thumb and travelled into the outfield. The hitter wound up on base, I was embarrassed, and more times than I care to remember, I suffered a sprained thumb.
I imagined all that was about to change. However, there remained one obstacle. Spalding's Roger Maris Six-Finger Trap-Eze Model 42-135 cost $19.99 and I didn't have enough money. I was forced to beseech the king. Dad was surprisingly simpatico to my cause. However, he insisted that we find the best deal possible.
On his day off from work, with my big brother Frank at the wheel, Dad and I drove to a musty mom-and-pop sporting goods store on Flatbush Avenue. He hondled the price down to about $15.
I was giddy with joy all the way home in the back seat of the 1958 Rambler that Frank was driving. The car, by the way, was lame and ugly with a turquoise green exterior and curved, chrome-tipped fins. I ordinarily was embarrassed to ride in it. But not that
Saturday. I was oblivious to everything except my first new baseball glove secure on my lap.
I did not immediately rush out to play ball with my new glove. That was a no-no. A new baseball glove first needed to be broken in. Like making a Puerto Rican pernil roast pork for a family holiday dinner, breaking in a baseball glove involved seasoning with special ingredients, time-honored technique and lots of time and patience.
First, you gave the glove a light coating of oil, paying special attention to "the pocket," the part below the fingers and the webbing that will do the most work catching a ball. I liked to apply saddle soap, but any number of formulations worked--from olive oil to Vaseline to shaving cream. The key was to massage the lotion into the glove and wipe away the excess.
With each daily treatment, the glove is tied up overnight, with a ball in the pocket, held tightly by strips of cloth rag tied around the outside. (Using string or cord would leave ugly marks on the leather.) Every day or so, pounding a ball into the pocket, or a brief game of catch with a buddy, helps loosen the glove and it takes on a custom shape.
It takes about two weeks of treatment to get the glove ready for serious play. Gradually, over time and with use, the patina of my glove transformed from raw to burnt umber. It took on the distinct aroma of the saddle soap as if it was actually sweating. I loved to hold it to my face, breathe in the scent, then rub the pocket with my bare hand to feel the supple leather's grain.
I used the glove throughout my junior high school years. It travelled with me on subways and buses to ballfields all around Brooklyn. I used it for school softball games, sandlot baseball games, stickball in the street and catch. It survived rain and dirt and the rough pavement. It was dependable. It seemed indestructible.
Then one day ... it was gone. I put the glove down on the ground while up at bat. It was a normal thing to do. I'd done it hundreds of times. But this time, when I went to retrieve it, the glove was not to be found. No amount of sleuthing ever solved the mystery of my vanished glove.
I missed my Roger Maris Six-Finger Trap-Eze. I mourned it as one mourned a lost girlfriend.
Eventually, my Roger Maris glove was replaced by a newfangled Japanese model made by Mizuno. But it just wasn't the same. It was never the same.
You simply can't replicate your first glove affair.
ABOUT FRED ABATEMARCO
Fred Abatemarco is a career journalist who has been associate editor at Newsweek
, editor-in-chief of Personal Computing
and editor-in-chief and president of Popular Science
. JoeSentMe members know him best as the creator of the Back FROM the World