Take me out to the ballgame (and then to court)

Today’s post is written by Kimberlee Ried, public programs specialist at the National Archives in Kansas City.

“Take me out to the ball game, take me out with the crowd . . .” 

These words, written by Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer in 1908, are still heard every night at  baseball parks across America, usually during the seventh-inning stretch. Even in the midst of summer heat, fans watch their favorite baseball players throw another strike, hit a homerun, or catch a foul—always in the hopes of winning the game.

On Tuesday, July 10, the city of Kansas City, Missouri, will host the All-Star Game. This exhibition game is played by the best players in the league midway through the baseball season. But there’s another piece of baseball history at Kansas City: a patent court case found in the holdings of the National Archives at Kansas City.

Victor Sporting Goods Co. v. Rawlings Manufacturing Co. was filed in 1909 in the U.S. Circuit Court in St. Louis, Missouri. Victor was suing Rawlings over the patent rights for a catcher’s mitt—specifically how catchers achieved “pocket” in their mitts.

E.L. Rogers’ patent drawing for a catcher mitt. Rogers patented multiple catcher’s mitts during his career with Victor Sporting Goods. Record Group 21, Records of the District Courts of the United States, St. Louis, MO, Law and Equity Case Files, #9571.

Victor Sporting Goods was founded by Charles Whitney and Elroy L. Rogers in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1898. Elroy and his brother Burt were the two inventors at Victor Sporting Goods, and they specialized in creating catcher’s mitts.

Rawlings Manufacturing Co. was founded in 1887 by George and Alfred Rawlings, two brothers that owned a retail shop in St. Louis, Missouri. The first Rawlings catalog characterized the company as “Dealers in Fishing Tackle, Guns, Baseball, Football, Golf, Polo, Tennis, Athletic and General Sporting Goods.” After a few years the store was destroyed in a fire, and the Rawlings brothers moved into manufacturing in 1898 with Charles Scudder, an investor.  By 1907 they were providing baseballs to major league teams.

Baseball gloves, or mitts, were created to help protect the hands of catchers. Early baseball gloves were not like the ones we know today—they were just work gloves made of leather. By the mid-1880s, padding was added to the gloves for additional hand and finger protection.

In the complaint filed by Victor Sporting Goods, the Rogers brothers claim that Elroy L. Rogers was the “original and first inventor of a new and useful improvement in Catcher’s Gloves.” The complaint also indicates that no other inventor has been in possession of the patent and that the ownership paperwork was filed with the U.S. Patent Office. In addition, Victor Sporting Goods claimed that Rawlings was profiting from the patent by manufacturing gloves using the model created by Rogers.

From 1885 to 1895, over a dozen catcher’s mitts were patented through the U.S. Patent Office. Rogers owned two of them: #528,343 filed in 1894 and #540514 filed in 1895. In their defense statement, Rawlings Manufacturing specifically referenced these patents in their answer to the complaint filed by Victor Sporting Goods. Rawlings noted that other patents, including their own #325,968, were the models used to manufacture and sell catcher’s gloves.

By 1911 the Victor Sporting Goods company had failed to prove to the court that Rawlings had unlawfully used Rogers’s patent, and the case was dismissed without proof.

The Victor Sporting Goods company eventually merged with Wright and Ditson in the 1920s and continued to manufacture various types of sporting equipment. The Rawlings company continued production of many gloves and continuously tried to “perfect” the catcher’s mitt. This included the well-known Doak model, named for St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bill Doak. Doak wanted a glove that would protect his hand and also help his baseball skills. The Doak model was the first glove with a pocket, as the thumb and forefinger were laced together. Today, Rawlings is an official supplier to the major leagues and has been since 1977.

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