Monday, August 17, 2009

Catching With a Vintage Baseball Glove

I spent most of the baseball seasons from 1974 to 1979 either playing baseball, poring over my baseball cards, reading about baseball, or daydreaming about baseball. I thought back then that if there were any justice the universe, someone who loved baseball as much as I did would have to be a big leaguer some day. Well that did not happen but I continued on as a fan until I lost interest finally during the steroid era. Since I have had only a lukewarm interest in baseball for the last ten years or so, I from time to time quip that I have forgotten more about baseball history than most people know. I believe this to be literally true.

When my daughters expressed an interest in playing fastpitch softball recently, my interest in baseball was rekindled. As I played catch with my daughter I realized how much I loved and missed baseball. Not so much the modern game, where most players hideously wear their baseball pants down over their socks, but the game before the modern glove, say, before World War 2. I had been a Yankee fan for most of my life but I had always been captivated by the picture of the sliding Pepper Martin of the 1934 "Gashouse Gang" St. Louis Cardinals that hung on my bedroom wall. That picture captured the raw, hustling, and fun style of play I loved and tried to emulate as a skinny shortstop for the Thatcher Men's Club team of the Elmira Small Fry baseball league. So in my rebirth as a baseball fan, I decided that it was the St. Louis Cardinals for me. Again, I am not as much a fan of the modern team but of the 1934 World Series Champion team. My favorite player on the team is Joe Medwick. He was also Yogi Berra's favorite as a youth growing up in St. Louis.

The evolution of the baseball glove has always fascinated me. Just looking at an old glove that is so small and has not even got stitching between the fingers makes one wonder how those old timers caught a ball with those things. On the other hand, I was always contemptuous of the modern "peach basket" gloves that emerged during my youth and are still going strong. They just seemed like cheating to me. So I simply had to buy a vintage glove and try it for myself. I won a Joe Medwick autographed model on ebay. What follows are my observations on catching a baseball with a vintage glove.

My first observation is catching with vintage glove requires a more heightened level of alertness than a regular glove. Playing with a modern glove is fun but can be a pretty nonchalant venture. One needs to be on his toes and two hands should be used on every catch possible with a vintage glove or you will drop a lot of balls.

Next, vintage gloves can hurt. My hand swelled considerably after catching about twenty balls tossed underhand in to the air. This taught me that catching a baseball with a vintage glove was very much like catching a football: catch with two "soft" hands taking momentum off the incoming ball by easing it in toward your body and quickly get it into your throwing hand. If ESPN calls great fielding plays "Web Gems" because most great catches are made in the web of the modern glove, then great plays with a vintage glove should perhaps be called "Palm Pearls".

Finally, it is clear that there are balls that would be easy catches with a modern glove that will not be caught with a vintage glove. Chances that come in low to the backhand side are the toughest to deal with.

Catching and throwing a baseball is one of life's purest joys. There is nothing wrong with a modern glove, but every baseball lover should experience catching with a vintage glove. It is pure bliss.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

How I Rediscovered Swill Beer

Like many folks these days, I have in varying degrees incorporated red wine, coffee, tea, cocoa and even beer into my daily routine after reading about their health benefits. Concerning wine and beer, let it be said that I have never been a big drinker. I started trying to drink one beer like a porter, stout, or pale ale every day because I read that they had the most antioxidants; I did grow to actually like them, savoring them for their taste. This despite the fact that, as my daughter reminded me, I do not drink beer for the taste but for the health benefits.

My trip into porters, stouts, and pale ales led me into the fascinating world of craft brewing. Craft brewing, or micro-brewing, is a classic reaction to the kind of blandness that inflicts many mass-produced products. Mass production has always helped the common man; it also creates the opportunity for small time producers who can make custom, niche products often with "snob appeal".

To most craft brewers, mass-produced beers of Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller are "swill", unworthy of the beer connoisseur. Thus the craft brewing culture bred a new kind of beer drinker, the beer snob. The beer snob often claims to be able tell what kind of barley, hops, yeast, and adjuncts are used in a beer and render a verdict on said beer's worthiness. "Adjunct" is dirty word in the world of beer snobbery. An adjunct is some other grain, usually corn or rice, that brewers of swill use to replace some of the barley malt of the standard water, barley malt, hops, and yeast that make up beer. Use of adjuncts by craft brewers is a cardinal sin to many beer snobs.

I must admit to becoming a small time beer snob myself. I had sworn off any beer produced by Anheuser-Busch, Miller, or any huge brewer. I rationalized that these beers just did not have the taste or health benefits of the porters, stouts, and pale ales I was drinking at a rate of one bottle per day or less. However, I discovered a craft beer, Session Lager, by the small Full Sail brewery in Oregon that would become my bridge back into mass-produced swill.

American beer before Prohibition was dominated by the lagers of 19th Century German immigrants which had displaced the ales of early American times (many of the framers, like Washington and Jefferson, brewed their own ales). It was the German brewers who introduced the adjunct, usually corn, that would characterize American beer. Corn was introduced to tame the the flavor of the six-row barley available in America (German brewers had used two-row barley in Europe). American beer was always lighter in flavor and easier to drink that its European counterparts. Americans were hard-working and America has a hotter climate than Europe so this style, American lager, fit right in.

Prohibition destroyed the American lager. The beer produced after Prohibition, was even lighter. This was the "Western lager" of Coors, Anheuser-Busch, and Miller, the beer that the modern craft brewing movement reacted against and demonized as "adjunct-laden swill". Enter Session Lager.

Some craft brewers decided that pre-Prohibition American lager was not so bad and might be an interesting brew, if only to provide a nice summertime "lawnmower" beer. Session Lager is such a beer. It comes in cool 11-ounce retro stubby bottles. I picked up twelve on a lark and was enchanted. I decided that Session Lager was my new beer of choice. Ever cost-conscious, however, I began to eye the sub-premium swill at the end of the beer cooler like Busch, Milwaukee's Best, etc. with renewed interest. I remembered from my youngers days that of all the awful cheap beer I ever drank, Busch was the best. So I picked up some Busch beer. To my surprise, it wasn't much different than Session Lager. If fact, it was really just as good at two-thirds the price.

So here's my advice: reconsider the swill that you have abandoned. You may be surprised by American lagers that are perhaps more respected around the world than they are in America.