With spring approaching, it’s perfectly acceptable to think about baseball. My baseball memories begin with the day I received my first baseball glove from my father. It must have been the spring of 1950, and an older cousin and I were going to walk over to the park and try out for a local Little League. The glove was a Heinie Manush model, a ballplayer neither I nor anyone I knew had ever heard of. In addition to the unusual name, it came with an exotic story.
My father acquired the glove while stationed in the Philippines at the end of World War II. He may have won the glove as a poker debt. I’m not sure. All I knew was that when I reluctantly assumed ownership, the glove was old. It looked ancient, like a fossil from the Paleolithic era. The kind of mitt you saw in the sepia photos of ballplayers named “Honus” and “Ty.” An outfielder’s mitt with no webbing and flat as an IHOP pancake.
Everyone else on the field had gloves that announced they were brand new, emblazoned with iconic names like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, with pockets so deep the ball stuck to them like super glue. And there I was with my flat-as-a-pancake Heinie Manush-model glove, which looked every inch like it had spent the past five years at the bottom of my father’s Navy seabag.
At the Little League tryout, it didn’t take long for me to get the picture. Every time I had a bead on the ball, the ball would hit the glove and spring out of it before you could say “Jackie Robinson.” Not only did the glove not hold onto the ball, it ejected it with enough force to send a physicist back to the blackboard. Like Charlie Brown’s kite, my glove was actively undermining my chance for a baseball career.
The glove ended up as a cushion I sat on to watch my cousin field smoothly the balls batted his way. The thing is, Manush was no slouch, no bench-warmer. During a 17-year career in the 1920s and 1930s Henry “Heinie” Manush played outfield for the Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Browns, Washington Senators and the Boston Red Sox. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964 with a lifetime batting average of .330. He led the American League in 1926 with a .378 batting average and placed second to Babe Ruth in slugging percentage. He died in 1971.
My father thought I would actually use the glove and be thankful for it. Perhaps he felt a certain kinship with Manush, the son of German immigrants. Like him, my father and mother were both children of eastern European immigrants. Slow to assimilate, their appearance in the outside world was an embarrassment to me. Emanating from them was the bewilderment and sadness of the ship bringing them to this strange land of America, where they stumbled ashore, unsure of who they were and suspicious of the world out there. They were one reason I was never tempted to invite any of my playmates to my house. And why I felt such guilt at owning such a miserable slab of leather that wouldn’t cooperate no matter how much neatsfoot oil I scrubbed it with.
That glove somehow symbolized my family’s slow pace to the middle class. While my uncles and neighbors were partaking of what would become a decade of unprecedented prosperity, it took my dad until 1953 to bring home a car of our own: a 1938 black Dodge Coupe that had no back seat — only a shelf where my sister and I squeezed in when we went for a ride. The automotive equivalent of a 1930s baseball mitt.
When barely 18 years old, I left home and joined the military, my parents further bewildered by my need to escape. My going off to college a couple of years later sealed the estrangement, as college deepened the gulf between us. I lost track of the baseball glove with the Heinie Manush scribble on it.
I eventually bought a new glove with money earned selling newspapers, but the old glove taught me the correct way to catch: using two hands. I have a fairly modern baseball mitt stowed in the trunk of my car. Just in case it’s needed.
Bob Kalish of Arrowsic is as former reporter with The Times Record.