When I was eight years old, I lived and died baseball. Every summer evening I practiced Willie Mays’ showboat catch, throwing the ball high in the air and positioning my hands like a confident basket in front of me waist-high. Only when the ball hit me in the face did I notice that it had grown too dark to see. We played with a hard ball and my aching hands cried out for a baseball glove, so I inherited my father’s, a discarded remnant of his youth.
Made in the 1930’s, it was stiff and brittle, dirty brown with splayed flat fingers. Despite the apparent hopelessness of the project, I massaged the cracking leather with saddlesoap and placed a ball in its center, where the pocket should have been, secured it with rope around the glove, and slept on it for weeks. Unlike the tooth fairy, there was no surprise pocket and renewed flexibility; with the rope and all removed, the glove reverted flaccidly to the shape of a plate. There was another problem. I was a southpaw and my father a rightie, so I had to became adept at catching the ball in my left hand, instantly dropping the glove to fire a ball toward home.
The boys–it was always all boys–that I played with wore sharp-edged, pliable calf gloves with pockets so deep and wide that you just had to put out your hand to snag a ball from the ground or sky. These magic instruments possessed engraved signatures of Dimaggio, Mantle, and Mays, the gods of my childhood.
I may have asked for a different glove, I don’t remember. But I never questioned why I had my father’s glove. It was the best a girl could get. Girls didn’t get baseball gloves. Maybe a magic set or a chemistry set, but never something so completely male. A left-handed new baseball glove for me would be equivalent to dressing a boy in a dress. (Now I know about boys who indeed wanted to wear their mother’s clothes, but that’s another story.)
I did my best to hide my passion about the rush of power that came from hitting a ball at the fat of the bat; the thrill of throwing hard enough to make boys throw off their gloves to blow on their palms while looking at me menacingly; and the euphoric relief of tracking a fly ball until it landed solidly in my palm.
By the time I was eleven, I knew that no matter what kind of glove I had, I wasn’t supposed to be playing baseball anymore, and I didn’t want anyone to know that I still wanted to. So I dived into teen magazines, learned about french kissing, and forgot baseball. But my soul didn’t forget. No one knew how that old glove would shadow my life when I grew up not knowing how to take my work seriously. I took lesser salary, tried gamely to pass as a normal wife and mother, and grew expert at hiding my essence.
My first book was about Tom Seaver, the great Mets pitcher. When I was forty, after nearly twenty years of marriage, I stopped making believe that I didn’t like baseball. I fell in love with a woman and we’ve been together nearly twenty years now. The lessons of the ugly glove die hard, but my life partner bought me a beautiful, supple glove a few years ago that catches the delayed tears of rage as well as the gratitude for getting to rewrite the limited life offered to girls growing up in Eisenhower America.