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FIRST PERSON

Lost Glove Was a Link to History

A mitt given to the author as a child might have belonged to major league trailblazer Larry Doby

July 12, 2006|Frank O. Sotomayor | Special to The Times

Who knew, in the pre-EBay world, that you didn't throw away a tattered baseball mitt, even one that looked a little odd with its three-finger design?

Clearly my parents didn't -- not that I blame them. They stuffed the glove in the trash or gave it to Goodwill as they prepared to move to a larger house and leave their Tucson barrio home, which Dad had lovingly constructed one adobe brick at a time.

Memories of that three-digit glove filtered back last month when I read a Times story about a mitt that had been found in a Torrance flea market by the original owner's brother -- 42 years after it had disappeared. Maybe there is hope, I thought, that I could be reunited with that black leather glove that my Dad brought home from work one day in the early 1950s.

Like many Mexican Americans of his era, Dad worked as a laborer; he was a gardener at the elegant El Conquistador Hotel. One evening, Dad came home in his 1938 Ford truck and proudly handed me a baseball glove. For me, a boy about to begin Little League, it was a miracle. It meant I wouldn't have to use that hand-me-down mitt that resembled a chubby pancake. Yep, the timing was perfect, but I stared with curiosity for a few seconds at the glove's unusual design: a space for the thumb, wide webbing and only two fingers.

"Here," said my father, Florencio. "One of the Cleveland Indians gave this to me, a black player."

I knew the Indians stayed at El Conquistador during spring training in Tucson and paid no attention to the comment about the donor's race. I slipped my hand into the glove, placing two digits in each of the two fat finger spaces, and ran off to a neighborhood baseball game.

Back in the day, before television, baseball was the favorite pastime for the Barrio Hollywood boys of summer. As the sun was setting, we'd assemble to play in the middle of Erie Street, using rocks for bases. Sliding on pavement would have been painful, but I guess that was a benefit of living on a dirt street.

A friend from a few blocks away, shortstop Eddie Leon, became an All-American at Arizona and made it to the major leagues, playing for the Indians, Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees. But for most of us, our baseball days were rather ordinary. I'm not sure whether to call my fourth-grade heroics a highlight or lowlight. Using my major league glove and playing outfield for Davis Elementary, I threw myself over a recently pruned oleander bush and stretched my left arm and gloved hand. The ball, like magic, landed in the mitt's incredibly deep pocket. I squeezed it. Then they took me to the school nurse to attend to the nasty oleander gashes on my belly.

Like millions of Little League youngsters before and after, I oiled my glove before each season. I also repaired its aging webbing, giving not a thought to the mitt's history. Later, I bought a red Mickey Mantle glove in Nogales, Mexico, and retired the black glove to the back shed, along with other boyhood items.

It was not until the 1970s -- after I had begun work in Los Angeles -- that I put two and two together: Cleveland Indians, a black player, 1952.

I realized that there were only two established black players on the Cleveland team -- first baseman Luke Easter and center fielder Larry Doby. Could the glove have belonged to Easter, a first baseman credited with hitting some of the longest home runs of his era? Perhaps. But because my glove was a fielder's mitt I believe it belonged to Doby, who became the first black player in the American League in 1947, only 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson had broken baseball's shameful color barrier.

My research about Doby, who had to contend with racial taunts and death threats in addition to opposing pitchers, made me more eager to get back the glove. I called Mom. "Sorry," she said, "it's gone."

How could I have left that mitt lying around? Years later, I became more chagrined when Doby was enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame. I wanted to write to Doby to see if he remembered handing that three-fingered glove to a gardener at his Tucson hotel. But I never contacted Doby and, in 2003, he passed away.

Easter is also dead, and my Dad died 25 years ago. The El Conquistador Hotel isn't around anymore, either. It was razed to make way for a shopping mall. But my boyhood memories live on.

I can't prove it, but circumstantial evidence tells me that it was indeed Doby's glove that I inherited ... and then let slip away.

Most likely, the glove sits decaying in an old trash landfill. But maybe, just maybe, that three-finger glove was rescued by someone and it's still around. If so, please don't put it up for bid on EBay. Give me another shot at my miracle glove.

Sotomayor, a former Times editor, is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism.

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