Sammy Sosa’s corked-bat episode has led many writers and fans to wax nostalgic about bat imbroglios of years past, most notably the famous George Brett pine-tar incident from 1983. Which in turn leads Uni Watch to note that the pine-tar rag, once a fixture of on-deck circles, has largely disappeared from the game. Its diminishing presence directly corresponds with the rise of a little-noted uni-related element that has quietly overtaken the sport in the space of a generation: the batting glove.
Historical records on the subject are largely anecdotal, but the first ballplayer to have donned gloves at the plate appears to have been Bobby Thomson of the Giants, who wore golf gloves during spring training in 1949. But Thomson was never gloved in a regular-season contest—the first to do that, it’s generally agreed, was Ken “Hawk” Harrelson. Some sources say Harrelson first wore golf gloves while playing for the Kansas City A’s in 1964. Others cite a more lyrical and perhaps apocryphal tale, in which Harrelson was with the Red Sox in 1968 and, not expecting to play in a night game, spent the afternoon playing golf. Arriving at the ballpark with blistered hands after shooting 36 holes, he was surprised to find himself in the starting lineup and resorted to wearing golf gloves to protect his sore mitts.
In any case, other ballplayers soon followed Harrelson’s example, including Rusty Staub, who may have been the first to wear gloves on an everyday basis, in 1969. By the mid 1970s batting gloves were a common sight, and within another decade they’d become positively ubiquitous (and coordinated with teams’ color palettes, to boot). Indeed, by 1983 George Brett was the de facto standard-bearer for a fast-dwindling number of gloveless holdouts—that’s why he was using pine tar in the first place.
Today the bare-handed batting brigade is down to a mere smattering of players, including Vladimir Guerrero, Mark Grace, Moises Alou, Jorge Posada, and Jason Kendall, who collectively keep the pine-tar rag trade alive, if just barely. Meanwhile, in one of those nice full-circle developments that fate occasionally sees fit to provide, Ken Harrelson quit baseball in 1971 to became a pro golfer—perhaps his truer calling, given his .239 career batting average.