Words like first, rookie, last, final etc…have a special place in the hearts of collectors and researchers. The element of time is a powerful attraction that can lend an aura of significance to even the most rare and special of artifacts. On April 30th 1939, Lou Gehrig took the field for the final time as an active player. He walked off the diamond into a special place in history having completed playing in his 2,130th consecutive contest; a career and life ending far too soon. How special would it be to have in your possession Gehrig’s base mitt from that final game…his last glove? In my mind, this would almost beyond description, but not beyond belief as it an artifact that apparently more than one person or entity has laid claim to.
In 1999, the Barry Halper collection offered via Sothebys’ Auctions lot # 2141, an item simply titled “Lou Gehrig’s Last Glove”. At the same time, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York had in their possession a mitt from the Gehrig estate also identified as being Gehrig’s last glove. Both were attributed to being the mitt from the 30 April 1939 game. Objectively this leaves us with only three possibilities since they both cannot be that final glove.
1.Neither is Gehrig’s last glove.
2.Halper had the final mitt.
3.Gehrig kept his final glove and it was subsequently donated to the Hall of Fame.
Imagery Analysis: Before we run off and start canvasing period images, the first question that has to be asked and answered is are there significant physical differences between these two gloves that would allow them to be distinguished from each other? If so, what are they? In this case the answer is yes and the defining characteristics include:
-Wrist and closure strap on the back
Period images suggest that Gehrig can be found with gloves displaying characteristics of both models. This means Gehrig used various models over his career and that neither glove can be disqualified at this point, although the glove Gehrig is pictured with in October 1938 is much more consistent with that on display at the Hall of Fame than the Halper offering when the characteristics of web design/construction and wrist/closure strap on the back of the mitt are considered (PLATES A & B). This is an important distinction since the closer you get to the event in question, the likelihood that the glove pictured is the same one he used at the same relative time increases. By this I mean it is more likely that a glove in an image from 1938 has a higher probability of being glove in question from 1939 than one contained in an image from say 1936 or 1937. In addition, the Halper mitt can be excluded from being the one Gehrig is wearing in the photograph by the location of manufacturers’ label (PLATE C). An undated image from 1938 suggests that neither of these gloves is the one Gehrig is wearing when looked at for general size/contour. (PLATE D)
Manufacturers’ Information: Both models are identified as being Spalding products. A portion of the model number on the Hall of Fame’s glove can be discerned. The model # on the Halper glove was not mentioned in the description nor can it be discerned from the images provided in the catalog. A survey of period Spalding catalogs (PLATE E) identifies what Spalding considered their “Top of the Line” or professional quality base mitts from the period of 1936-1940. The Hall of Fame offering does appear consistent with the product featured in the 1938 Spalding catalog. (PLATE E)
Without getting to far off track, I think a cautionary note is worthy at this time with respect to use of retail catalogs. First of all, simply because a particular model glove does not show up in a catalog until a certain year, this does not mean the glove was not available to players before this time. In order for a catalog to have been available for retailers at the start of a calendar year, the catalog would have to have been approved, printed and distributed. The products in the catalog, especially new models, would have had to have been developed, tested, and approved and then produced. All of this takes time and that is something that is commonly overlooked by collectors/researchers.
Provenance: As I have always said, provenance cannot make any item into something it is not. The source of the item does not make it good any more than it makes it bad. The item must physically and chronologically make sense based on the story. In other words the provenance should be both reasonable and verifiable. By this I mean:
-Reasonable: Could the item have been obtained as claimed?
-Verifiable: Does the provenance stand up under scrutiny?
Barry Halper/Sothebys Provenance: According to the auction description, the glove was discarded by Gehrig after the 30 April game and given to Pete Sheehy. Sometime after this, Sheehy gave the glove to Babe Dahlgren who in turn sold it to Halper. As dramatic as all of this sounds, it is possible or reasonable that all of these individuals were involved in this chain of events as described. The problem comes when the provenance is subjected to scrutiny. While it appears fairly accurate that Halper obtained the glove from Dahlgren, this is where things begin to unravel. Dahlgren said in an interview in a June 1979 interview with the Sporting News that he obtained the glove in the spring of 1940; specifically, just as the team had come north from spring training and while Gehrig was cleaning out his locker. Gehrig gives the glove to Sheehy, and Dahlgren got it from Sheehy. The problem with this story is that according to an interview with Lou Gehrig on 16 April 1940, Gehrig had not seen his locker since at least January of 1940 and had not been to the clubhouse until at least after 19 April 1940.
For the record, the Yankees played their final barnstorming game of the 1940 spring in Lynchburg VA against the Brooklyn Dodgers on 11 April 1940. The club was back in New York for a three game exhibition series with the Dodgers from 12-14 April 1940. The Yankees opened at home on the 19th of April 1940, and according to Gehrig, he would not have been on hand cleaning out his locker when the team came back from spring training. While Dahlgren may have been mistaken about when the locker was cleared out, this is vastly different from the auction description that places the discarding of the glove to dates (30 April 1939 and or 2 May 1939). Almost a year would have passed from this time to when Dahlgren obtained the glove. (PLATES F & G)
There is also an often overlooked fact that continues to work against the already unraveling Halper provenance. That fact being that 30 April was not Lou’s Gehrig’s last game. On June 12th, 1939, the New York Yankees played an exhibition game against the Kansas City Blues in Kansas City. Gehrig was in the lineup and both hit and played the field. Although Gehrig’s toughness was clearly his calling card, I have serious doubts that Gehrig played the game barehanded at first base. Thus the glove he used on 12 June 1939 would have been his last glove and not the one the Halper yarn would like us to believe was discarded on 30 April. (PLATE H)
Hall of Fame Provenance: According to William C. Kashatus in his book “Lou Gehrig: A Biography,” various items were donated the Hall of Fame by both Gehrig’s mother Christina and his wife Eleanor at the time of the respective deaths. Two of these items were Lou’s Gehrig’s first and last mitts. I queried the Baseball Hall of Fame about the items donated by Christina Gehrig (Lou’s mother) when she passed away and they provided me with an inventory that includes among many other things, specific inventory entries for:
In an interview with Lou Gehrig as recorded by John Kiernan of the New York Times on March 16th, 1941, Lou Gehrig was still in possession of his last glove at that time. As Gehrig tells Kiernan, the glove on the shelf was the largest glove he ever used and he decided to make the switch based on the advice of Jimmy Foxx who gave Gehrig the glove. Gehrig even goes so far as to identify it as “the last glove that I used.” What I find very interesting is that the “Top of Line” Spalding product in circa 1938 was in fact the Jimmy Foxx model which would have born the same tri-numeral designation (222) that appears on the Hall of Fame’s Gehrig glove. This is invaluable first hand contemporary testimony from the person who would know better than anyone else what his last glove was. What readers should be clear on is that Foxx did not nor could have provided Gehrig with one of the gloves he used personally used. While Foxx was first basemen for the Red Sox at this time, he was also right handed. While odd for a first baseman, it must be remembered that Jimmy Foxx began his career as a catcher. (PLATE J)
In reading Jonathan Eig “Luckiest Man-The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig,” I came across some interesting information. Specifically the description of Gehrig’s last glove on page 279. Eig mentions that Gehrig had “reinforced the webbing between the thumb and the index finger with white tape.” This is a physical characteristic that is found on the Hall of Fames glove and not the one offered by Halper. (PLATE K)
The provenance supporting the glove at the Hall of Fame clearly lacks the consistency problems you find in abundance with the Halper glove. In addition, the case for the Hall’s glove is largely a first person narrative from the individual most closely connected with the glove; in short, straight from the Iron Horse’s mouth. The fact that Gehrig says he was still in possession of his last glove in March of 1941, means it could not have been discarded as claimed in the auction description nor obtained in 1940 by Dahlgren. In addition, there is also the additional thread of credibility with the tie in to Jimmy Foxx given the type/model of glove actually involved. A visual recap/reference is offered. (PLATE L)
As I go back and assess all of these various factors, there interrelationship, and what if any impact they have on offering an assessment on who has Lou Gehrig’s last glove, I came away with:
Imagery Analysis: Supports Hall of Fame’s Glove
Manufacturers Information: Supports Hall of Fame’s Glove
Provenance: Supports Hall of Fame’s Glove
Each person who reads this or decides to look into this topic on their own is free to form their own opinion as to what happened to the Iron Horse’s Last Glove. In my mind, reasonable questions at this point in time are who evaluated the Lou Gehrig glove for the Halper auction and who was responsible for the description that appeared in the catalog? What process, research or due diligence did they perform individually or collectively with respect to their work? Halper sold what was reputed to be Gehrig’s last glove at a price in excess of $300,000? That’s a lot of money for a story that does not seem to bear up under close objective scrutiny. For my money, “I’m betting on the Gehrig’s.”
As always collect what you enjoy and enjoy what you collect.
MEARS Auth, LLC
For questions or comments on this article, please feel free to drop me a line at DaveGrob1@aol.com