PINEY FLATS — When Don Droke was an assistant baseball coach at Sullivan East, he became the go-to guy when a kid on the team needed a glove repair.
Nowadays the man Patriots players called “The Drokester” no longer coaches baseball. But he still repairs baseball gloves.
Not only can Droke stitch up practically any glove of recent manufacture, he’s capable of restoring your old high school outfielder’s glove, your father’s first baseman’s mitt, your grandfather’s catcher’s mitt and, if need be, the relic your great-grandfather played with.
When he has completed his work, the glove will retain its historical integrity. He’s spent decades doing hands-on research into the subject.
“I started doing it for the kids when their gloves would break. I became interested in it because I liked doing it and I liked the challenge of it. Now collectors send me gloves to fix from all over,” said Droke, whose handiwork has appeared in glove collector publications.
His passion is top-of-the-line gloves, the models that would have been the choice of professional baseball players of a given era.
As you could imagine, he knows a great deal about Rawlings and Wilson gloves. But have you ever heard of Draper and Maynard? How about the Ken-Wel Dazzy Vance? Have you ever seen a Hugh Critz-Horace Ford Goldsmith KB?
Droke estimates at least 500 antique baseball gloves and mitts have passed through his hands since he began what he thought would be a casual craft hobby. He’s not only learned a lot about leather craft; he also has learned a great deal about the evolution of baseball.
“A glove from the late 1800s to 1900 ... it looks just like a work glove with external padding and no webbing between the forefinger and thumb. The earlier ones didn’t even have the webbing,” Droke said.
The earliest baseball gloves were essentially hand protectors. Players reluctantly adopted gloves and mitts as it became increasingly evident that human hand bones could absorb only so much punishment from barehanded catches.
Even after gloves became standard equipment, some macho fielders cut holes in the palms to allow the stinging, barehanded feel.
The first glove with webbing between the thumb and forefinger was Rawlings’ Bill Doak Model in 1919. Even then, the glove’s structure — a heavily padded thumb, heel of the hand and little finger — retained the primary catching pocket in the palm area. Individual fingers weren’t laced together until the aforementioned Dazzy Vance model in 1932.
Catcher’s mitts and their near cousin, the Lou Gehrig-era first baseman’s mitt, were basically hand padding with a ball-shaped pocket in the palm.
“A wide throw to first and the best you could hope for is to maybe knock it down and hopefully grab it before the runner got to base,” Droke said. “You take a top-of-the-line catcher’s mitt from the 1920s, if you tried to make a sweep tag at the plate like Johnny Bench, it ain’t going to happen.”
Gloves from the 1930s through the 1950s display an increased emphasis on the webbing between the thumb and forefinger. Manufacturers (often catering to the preferences of star players) continued to tweak the web to increase the glove’s efficacy as a catching instrument. But the overall ergonomics of the basic fielding glove perpetuated the primacy of the palm pocket.
In 1958, Wilson came out with the glove that changed everything.
“The Wilson A2000 was the first glove that, instead of breaking all the way across, broke along a diagonal axis so that when the ball hits the web the leather closes around it,” Droke said. “We broke the sound barrier before we figured out how to make a glove that could do that.”
Droke does not doubt that the arrival of the Wilson A2000 in Major League Baseball is the innovation that not only marked the end of the .400 hitter but also enabled the eventual expansion of professional baseball from 16 teams to 30.
Before the A2000, he said, professional baseball players were not only top athletes with the freakish natural ability to see and hit big league heat, they also had to possess a freakish natural ability to turn routine plays with balls hit and thrown at major league velocities.
“You look at the old scores and you don’t see them making a lot more errors back then. But you put on one of those gloves and think about a ball coming at you at 90 miles an hour. Think about catching a short hop or picking one out of the dirt. How many people could do that?” Droke said.
“Not many. And not many could do it now.”
To contact Droke, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.