A select few ballplayers in any generation are destined to attract attention with sartorial gestures that make a personal statement. Think of Delino DeShields sporting high socks in tribute to the old Negro Leaguers, or Fernando Rodney wearing his cap askew because, well, he's Fernando Rodney and he just wants to be different.
Craig Biggio's gunk-and-pine-tar-laden helmet helped him get a better grip at the plate while serving notice that a bona fide "ball rat" was standing in the box. And George Brett, Vladimir Guerrero, Jorge Posada and Jason Kendall were among the prominent players who refrained from wearing batting gloves long after they had become a standard piece of equipment for big leaguers in the 1980s.
Scroll through the nightly schedule of games on the MLB Extra Innings package, and you'll find at least a dozen hitters perpetuating that throwback tradition at the plate. Texas first baseman-DH Prince Fielder, who ranks among the American League's leading hitters, recently chucked his batting gloves and is going au naturel. The same goes for Oakland catcher Stephen Vogt, the Athletics' stocky, unassuming Everyman and resident RBI machine.
The Houston Astros have three position players -- Evan Gattis, Preston Tucker and Colby Rasmus -- who toil in a batting glove-free zone. They're joined by St. Louis' Matt Carpenter, San Diego's Wil Myers, Miami's Justin Bour, Seattle's Brad Miller, Boston's Blake Swihart, the Chicago White Sox's Conor Gillaspie, Texas' Delino DeShields Jr. and Pittsburgh's Francisco Cervelli -- hitters who are enterprising and bold enough to take a heater off the hands without benefit of cushioning to ease the sting.
At a time when your average high school player flaunts his sense of style by slipping on a pair of batting gloves or draping them from his back pocket, it's a refreshing sight for fans and purists who like their hands bare and their calluses in abundance.
That contingent includes Arizona assistant hitting coach Mark Grace, who banged out 2,445 hits over 16 big league seasons and only resorted to wearing batting gloves when the temperature dipped into the 30s or 40s. Grace felt out of sorts when he first tried wearing gloves at San Diego State, and he never warmed to them through 16 seasons with the Chicago Cubs and the Diamondbacks. He couldn't even be swayed by the prospect of getting paid to wear them in conjunction with an endorsement deal.
"If you remember me, I didn't wear fancy sunglasses. I wore eye black," Grace said. "I didn't wear wristbands. I didn't have any earrings or zebra-striped shoes. It was a lot of pine tar and a lot of rosin -- very vanilla. The batting glove companies would come, from Franklin to Wilson to Louisville [Slugger], and I would be like, 'Gosh, I'm sorry. I can't take your money to wear them. I can't be hypocritical.'"
When Grace watches a fellow bare-handed hacker line a double into the gap these days, he invariably sees a kindred spirit at work.
"A guy will be hitting and someone will say, 'Hey Gracie, look: No batting gloves,'" he said. "And I'm like, 'There you go. That guy is old school.'"
Chalk it up to the 'Hawk'
The historical evolution of the batting glove is chronicled in bits and pieces. The Brooklyn Dodgers' Lefty O'Doul reportedly wore a leather glove to protect an injured wrist during batting practice in 1932. Bobby Thomson and Johnny Mize of the New York Giants followed suit in spring training of 1949 when they took BP with gloves they received from golf pro Danny Lawler. And during a 1960 episode of "Home Run Derby," Mickey Mantle wore a single white glove in a head-to-head matchup against Ernie Banks.
All roads eventually led to Kansas City Athletics outfielder Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, who made history on the spur of the moment during a September game against the New York Yankees in 1964. An avid golfer, Harrelson played 27 holes on a day when he didn't expect to be in the lineup because the opposition was starting a right-handed pitcher. When he arrived at the park and discovered that lefty Whitey Ford was pitching -- and he was batting cleanup -- Harrelson grabbed a bright red batting glove to help protect a blister he had sustained on the links. He homered twice in a 9-7 loss to the Yankees, and a tradition was born.
Rusty Staub is often credited with being the first player to consistently wear two batting gloves at the plate. When Phillies All-Star Mike Schmidt signed an endorsement deal with Franklin Sports and designed a glove specifically for ballplayers in the early 1980s, many of his peers soon jumped aboard the trend.
No player did more to bring attention to the gloveless look than All-Star outfielder Moises Alou. During an unguarded moment in 2004, Alou told ESPN's Gary Miller that he alleviated calluses and prevented his hands from cracking by urinating on them. The revelation branded him as the baseball equivalent of Cosmo Kramer, who ditched his boxers in an episode of "Seinfeld" and walked around with nothing between him and the world except a "thin layer of gabardine."
A few big leaguers have emulated Alou, but mainly out of curiosity. Vogt tried peeing on his hands to help heal some blisters after he first went glove-free in the Florida State League in 2010, but he quickly abandoned the experiment.
"Somebody said to me, 'Try it. Moises Alou did it,'" Vogt said. "But I didn't see any difference. I definitely didn't tell my wife I tried it. She wouldn't have allowed me back into the house."
Grace didn't even make it that far.
"When Moises came out and said that, it was the first I heard of it," Grace said. "That wasn't my recipe at all. Nobody would want to shake hands with you after the game. If you got the big hit to win a game, they would just say, 'Nice hit,' and walk past."
Over time, batting gloves earned a place in baseball lore for a variety of reasons. Mike Hargrove made glove-tugging a part of his "Human Rain Delay" routine in the 1970s and '80s, and Nomar Garciaparra spent so much time dawdling and adjusting his batting gloves, he helped lay the groundwork for baseball's speed-up rules six years after his retirement.
In late May, Pittsburgh outfielder Andrew McCutchen treated fans to a slice of Americana when he handed out batting gloves to two Jolly Roger-waving Pirates fans in San Diego and gave them a memory to last a lifetime.
While a pair of high-quality leather batting gloves generally sells for $30 to $50, major leaguers and many minor leaguers don't ever have to worry about the expense because of personal equipment deals. John Ballas, a sales representative for Franklin Sports, said the average big league hitter runs through six dozen to eight dozen pairs during a 162-game season.
Inevitably, style has become part of the equation. Two years ago, Ballas helped design neon gloves that Boston DH David Ortiz wore in the World Series. Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia wears batting gloves that are the same shade as Fenway Park's Green Monster, and San Diego outfielder Justin Upton recently raised the stakes when he broke out a neon camouflage model as a shout-out to Padres fans with military ties.
"You're always trying to look and see what the trend is and where everything is going," Ballas said. "We have new stuff and new colors being released at the All-Star Game. Players are looking for more now. Fashion is important."
In the mold of Rod Carew and Carl Yastrzemski, a select few players prefer to use a single batting glove at the plate. That small fraternity includes Giants outfielder Hunter Pence and his teammate, pitcher Madison Bumgarner. They both apply pine tar right above the knob of the bat and wear a glove on their bottom hand. The top, or right hand, wraps directly around the wood.
"If I put a glove on my top hand, I feel like I don't have control of the bat," Pence said. "If I take the glove off my bottom hand, I don't have enough grip. I've just gotten used to the balance. I don't know if it's an OCD thing or what."
For the dozen or so players who wear no batting glove at all, it generally comes down to comfort and performance.
When Seattle shortstop Miller played at Clemson, he was smitten by the flashy purple, white and orange gloves the Tigers received as part of a team endorsement deal. But he missed the feel of hand against bat and quickly ditched them.
The Astros' Tucker wore batting gloves until he played in the Cape Cod League in 2010. He jettisoned them during a slump, had a big game and never looked back. His fellow Houston outfielder, Rasmus, began this season wearing batting gloves until Astros manager A.J. Hinch inserted him as a late-inning defensive replacement against Texas on April 10. In his haste to get to the plate, Rasmus forgot to bring his gloves. He homered off Neftali Feliz, and he's gone bare-handed ever since.
Bucking the prevailing trend requires some improvisation. When Vogt is squatting behind the plate, he'll grab a handful of dirt to counteract all the gunk he's collected on his right hand during his previous plate appearance. "With as much pine tar as I use, I wouldn't be able to throw the ball if I didn't mask it with some dirt," he said.
Grace typically required a week of spring training swings in the cage for his hands to blister over and form calluses. He enhanced his grip with a variety of sticky substances that made hand-washing an ordeal.
"Ask any of the clubbies," Grace said. "I used a lot of pine tar and rosin. After the game, I would ask for a wire scrub brush and the soap that mechanics use to get all the crap off my hands."
Grace can take comfort in knowing that a few active players are perpetuating the no-frills look that helped him establish his identity in Chicago. With his high socks and bare-handed hitting style, Miller looks like a classic 1950s throwback. You can practically envision him leaving the clubhouse and getting in his 1955 Ford Thunderbird and driving home, where he puts some Sinatra on the stereo and relaxes with a cold bottle of Carling Black Label.
If vinyl records and turntables can come back into style, maybe hitting sans batting gloves will, too.
"Because I also wear my pants up, people say that I'm old school," Miller said. "This is just me. It's just what I do. I don't do it because I'm tougher or anything. The smartest thing to do is to do whatever makes you perform the best. And this is what helps me. Just rub some dirt on your hands and go."