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Vintage Leather: Catching a Rawlings Mickey Owen Signature Mitt

As the National Football League wound down the 2019 season with the final regular season contest at Seattle’s Century League Field on Sunday, December 29, the common description of the sport, that it is “a game of inches,” was on full display in the final play as the Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister was tackled just shy of scoring the game-winning touchdown (the San Francisco 49ers captured the division title). Actor and Director Billy Crystal described his earliest memory of passing through Yankee Stadium’s grandstand tunnel during a pre-game batting practice for an early 1950s game. In his recollection, Crystal’s memory was relatable as he recounted inhaling such scents including the diamond’s freshly cut grass evoking some of my earliest ballpark memories.

As my age advances and the physical impacts resulting from the hazards of military service continue to emerge as greater challenges for me, I am becoming acutely aware of the changes. Of the many residual effects that I contend with is substantial hearing loss and its continual degradation which is emphasized when I attend a baseball game but I can still enjoy the fantastic sound of the crack of the bat when a hitter gets a solid connecting with a pitch.  One of the most unmistakable sounds from the game is the “thump” of a fastball striking the catcher’s mitt, indicating to all within earshot the sort of pitcher occupying the mound. As each hard-thrown pitch lands into the mitt, the distinctive sound is unmistakable.

When I played baseball, the last position that I wanted to play was behind the dish. The idea of donning the protective gear and spending the game crouched down behind the batters while attempting to put a glove onto the incoming pitches (to prevent them from skipping to the backstop, especially when there are runners on base), didn’t hold my interest. As much as I enjoyed pitching, I lacked the mechanics to deliver the ball with decent velocity which relegated me to playing in the infield or outfield. Taking stock of my interest within the game, I was always fascinated by the catcher position and that this role acted as the on-field manager. The catcher is responsible for positioning the defensive players as well as calling pitches. Hall of Fame catcher, Mickey Cochrane was a player-manager who led his Detroit Tigers to consecutive American League championships (1934-’35), winning the World Series in 1935 from behind the plate (he also led the dominant Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets baseball team during WWII). Catchers have ascended to become major league managers more than any other baseball diamond position.

Through the efforts of several wartime philanthropic endeavors, many thousands of pieces of sports equipment were purchased and distributed to troops throughout the combat theaters (see: Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved) for recreation and distraction from the intensity and monotony of the war. As we have been acquiring wartime military-marked, game-used equipment, catchers’ mitts have proven to be quite elusive. Our collection of marked-gloves consists of those used by position players or pitchers. In 2019, we acquired our first military-used catcher’s mitt, a late 1930s-early-1940s Wilson Professional model that was hand-marked by the original owner who served in the Navy during WWII, Pharmacist’s Mate 1/c Gerald W. Benninghoff (see: Catching Corpsman: The Search for a Ball-Playing WWII Pharmacist’s Mate). Since the Benninghoff mitt was only marked with the sailor’s name, it is impossible to determine if it was provided to him (through one of the wartime sports equipment charities) or if he purchased it.

Several years ago, we were watching an auction listing for a wartime Rawlings catcher’s mitt with “U.S.” markings.  When that auction closed well above our budgeted financial limit, we decided to exercise patience while waiting for another example to surface.  The mitt listed in that auction was a signature model that recognized one of the game’s rising defensive stars behind the dish. Though by the end of 1940, St. Louis Cardinals catcher, Mickey Owen had proven himself with his glove and command of the Cardinals’ pitchers, his offensive stats were mediocre leaving him expendable with the rise of his back-up, Walker Cooper. Owen led the National League picking off would-be base-stealers in 1939 and 1940, taking down 61 and 60 percent (respectively). Despite his consistent play, the Cardinals traded Owen to the Brooklyn Dodgers in December 1940 for $65,000, catcher Gus Mancuso and minor-league pitcher John Pintar.

Mickey Owen’s first signature model catcher’s mitt was a professional model as seen in this page of the 1938 Rawlings catalog (source: KeyManCollectibles.com).

For a major league catcher to have a player endorsement contract with an equipment manufacturer, he would have had to have been quite established in the league. However, for Mickey Owen, his first signature model appeared in the 1938 Rawlings catalog following his rookie campaign that saw him splitting the 1937 season with Bruce Ogrodowski behind the plate. Considering that Owen batted a paltry .231 and had a minuscule .265 slugging percentage, it seems that Rawlings saw the catcher’s upside, especially since he was playing on the storied St. Louis roster.

Though he was a decent major league catcher throughout his 13 season, Mickey Owen is more of a recognizable figure due to an unfortunate defensive misstep that is much on par with the Bill Buckner incident (in the 1986 World Series). In his first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Owen saw his team capture the National League pennant, edging out his former team by a slim, 2.5 game-margin, though his own offensive performance for the 1941 season was considerably off the pace of his previous campaigns in St. Louis.

The first year of the Rawlings model “MO,” Mickey Owen signature catcher’s mitt as shown in the maker’s 1943 catalog (source: KeyManCollectibles.com).

For their first appearance in World Series in 21 years, the Dodgers faced the Yankees (their first of 12 World Series match-ups with the “Bronx Bombers”). After Game 3, the Dodgers were hosting the Yankees and were trailing in the series, two games to one. Owen was producing at the plate, hitting .285 over the first three games (two hits for seven at bats and one walk and two runs-batted-in).  In Game 4, the Yankees grabbed the lead in the top of the first inning on a two-out single by Charlie Keller plating Red Rolfe. In the top of the fourth inning, Johnny Sturm knocked a two-out single that scored Bill Dickey and Joe Gordon giving the Yankees a 3-0 advantage. With two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning, Mickey Owen drew a two-out walk followed by another by Pete Coscarart. Both Owen and Coscarart scored on a double by Jimmy Wasdell. which pulled the Dodgers to within a run. Dixie Walker led off the bottom of the fifth inning with a double followed by a two-run Pete Reiser homerun which gave the Dodgers the 4-3 advantage over the Yankees which they held onto heading into the top of the ninth inning. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher left pitcher Hugh Casey in to finish the game after facing the Yankees since the start of the sixth inning. Casey consecutive ground-outs to Sturm and Rolfe before facing Tommy Henrich. Henrich worked Casey to a full count and was a strike away from seeing the Dodgers pull the series even. Casey threw a sharp breaking ball that coaxed a swing attempt by Henrich. Strike three was called which should have ended the game however, the pitch also got by Owen and rolled to the backstop as the Yankees right fielder reached first.

The wheels came off the cart for Brooklyn as Casey was rendered ineffective and the Yankees plated four runs as Casey allowed five more Yankees base runners on two walks, a single and two doubles before retiring Johnny Murphy for the final out of the top half of the ninth.  Pee Wee Reese, Walker and Reiser would be retired in order to close out the game and giving the Yankees a 3-1 lead in the series. The demoralized Dodgers lost game five 3-1 sending the Yankees to their ninth World Championship and Owen became the scapegoat for the Series loss.

This U.S.-marked Mickey Owen signature model catchers mitt by Rawlings dates from the early 1940s and displays well along with my signed photo of the former Cardinals and Dodgers player.

Mickey Owen’s signature model mitt was available in the Rawlings catalog from 1938 and through thought World War II. Model “MO” is a high end mitt the features leather edging, lace wrist strap with sheepskin (for comfort) on the underside. When we received the glove a while ago, the leather was fairly dry and was quite dirty from use on the diamond. After a light cleaning, the red clay dirt gave way to reveal much of the silver foil remaining in the manufacturer’s stamps. In addition, the “U.S.” was similarly marked. The only damage this mitt shows is the water stain in the palm and a few spots of mildew, caused perhaps by sitting on a garage or basement floor for too long. Treating the mitt with glove conditioner revealed many of the stamps that were previously indistinguishable due to the tight, dry leather. With only a single conditioning treatment (and more to follow), this U.S.-stamped Mickey Owen mitt will display quite nicely and it has already become a great addition to the our glove collection. Adding icing to this cake would be if the mitt had provenance or was attributable to a specific service member. Unfortunately, there are no other markings and the mitt had no connection to a veteran.

Mickey Owen’s selective service call-up didn’t happen until the spring of 1945 in his fifth season with Brooklyn and his last game in a Dodgers’ uniform was against the Cardinals at Ebbets Field on May 21, 1945. In the contest, a make-up game (rescheduled from May 10 due to a rain-out) was quiet in terms of his offensive performance, going 1-for-4 ( a double in the bottom of the 6th inning) at the plate. The Dodgers were shut out by St. Louis, 4-0. A few days later, Owen was reporting for duty in the armed forces.

Prior to Mickey Owen’s induction into the Navy, the catching position for the Sampson Naval Training Center‘s baseball team in the 1945 season was predominantly held by former Rochester receiver, Tony Ravish. By early June, Owen was donning Sampson’s flannels and making an impact for the team. According to The Sporting News, his June 10 debut, he clouted the longest home-run ever made at the Sampson Naval Training Center Field, slapped out two singles, walked once, reached first base on an error and stole two bases to score five times in five trips to the plate, helping the Bluejackets beat Cornell University, 13 to 1. In a June 28 match-up against the industry league team from Curtiss-Wright in Buffalo, New York, Mickey Owen connected for three hits which was half of the total compiled by his Sampson Naval Training Center team as he led the sailors to a 6 to 2 victory. Facing the Eastern League’s Grays of Williamsport, Pennsylvania (a class “A” affiliate of the Washington Senators), Owen went 2-for-2, including a double to help his team to an 8 to 2 victory on August 31st.

Now cleaned and conditioned, this U.S.-stamped Rawlings Model “MO” Mickey Owen Mitt is in excellent, though used condition.

After the surrender of the Japanese, bringing about the end of World War II, Dodgers president Branch Rickey went to work planning Brooklyn’s 1946 season roster. Rickey expressed concerns that Mickey Owen would not be released by the U.S. Navy in time for spring training and began seeking alternatives for the starting backstop position. Manager Leo Durocher recognized the glaring hole left by Owen’s absence in speaking about the 1946 roster, “Its catching that makes me wakeful at night. I’m not kidding myself.” the “Lip” commented, “I’d give a lot to find another Mickey Owen some place. But you can’t shake that kind of guys off Prospect Park trees. We need a high-grade, hard-hitting receiver more than we need anything else I can think of at the moment.” The Sporting News| December 27, 1945

By the end of February, 1946, word of Owen’s impending release from the Navy had reached Dodgers management and the press. Owen was expected to be discharged from the Navy on April 2 and spoke with a reporter as he was shopping for a camper trailer while on leave (near his home in Springfield, Missouri) to use.

Prior to his release from the Navy, Owen negotiated with Jorge Pasquel, president of the Mexican League, obtaining a five-year contract offer which included a $12,500 signing bonus. Unfortunately for Owen, he was still under contract with the Dodgers and in doing so, created incredible controversy and a legal fight between Major League Baseball and the Mexican League. Ultimately, Owen played for the Veracruz team in 1946 joining with 17 other former major leaguers who were summarily suspended (for five years) by Major League Baseball’s commissioner, A. B. “Happy” Chandler. Owen’s actions gained the ire of Branch Rickey who stated he would never play for the Dodgers again. After the 1946 season, Mickey Owen was unable to play organized baseball but would resume his career in 1949 with the Cubs. Having been was waived by the Dodgers and following reinstatement by a federal judge who sided with fellow Mexican League veteran, Danny Gardella who sued Major League Baseball, Owens played sparingly for four more seasons with the Cubs and Red Sox before retiring after the 1954 season.

Slipping a hand into this catcher’s mitt, one can imagine the “thumping” sound of a fastball slamming into its thickly padded leather while considering the events taking place around the war-torn world. The only thing that seemed to make sense back then was the game.

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