At the turn of the 20th century, baseball had truly become ‘America’s Pastime’ and interest in the game was growing throughout North America at an unprecedented rate.
There were two major leagues (National and American), numerous minor leagues, and hundreds of semi-professional and amateur leagues. In addition to the thousands now playing the game at the organized levels, tens of thousands of youths were also partaking in the game across the United States and Canada.
With these new levels of interest in the game came an increased demand for equipment to participate. While 19th century players did not initially wear gloves, and would eventually wear gloves that are more likened to todays ‘batting gloves’, by the turn of the century, actual baseball gloves were being developed to better protect the players hands and to improve their fielding. Gloversville and Johnstown were the heartland of the American glove making industry, and it was a natural extension for some of the newly formed equipment companies to arise in this area as they had access to a significant supply of quality leather materials and an ample work force already skilled in the processes needed to produce the required finished goods.
Starting in 1898, the first of three major baseball glove manufactures that would begin operations in Gloversville and Johnstown entered the sporting goods manufacturing scene with the formation of the J.A. Peach Company. J.A. Peach enjoyed a fast and furious run that saw them patent unique designs that led to them producing 1,200 gloves per day until they ended operations around 1914. About the time that Peach departed operations in Gloversville, the Ken-Wel Sporting Goods emerged. They also enjoyed a successful run in Gloversville and by the mid-1920’s there were more Major League players wearing Ken-Wel gloves than all other brands combined. They would relocate their factory to Utica New York in 1927 and remained in operation until 1960. In between both of those companies arose a third area baseball glove manufacturer by the name of M. Denkert & Company of Johnstown. Founded by Mitchell Denkert in 1909, this company enjoyed a 74 year run as one of the premier baseball glove and sporting goods manufacturers in the world.
Mitchell Denkert was born in Moscow, Russia, in 1866. As a young boy he often encountered the world-famous author and philosopher Leo Tolstoy on the streets of Moscow. In 1888 he moved to America with his family and settled in Johnstown where he attended local schools. He also began a career in the glove industry as a table glove cutter at the Northrup Glove Manufacturing Company of Johnstown.
In 1893 he married Fanny Hirschberg, who was born in Berlin Germany in 1867, and had come to Johnstown with her family in 1886. The couple raised two sons, Henry (Hank), born in 1894 and James R (Jim) born in 1895. Both sons would graduate from Johnstown High School and Hank would go on to attend Yale University, graduating with a A.B. degree.
In 1909 Mitchell founded M. Denkert & Company at 213 West State Street in Johnstown (corner of West State Street and Wells Street) to begin manufacturing leather sporting goods by employing the skills he had learned as a glove cutter. His sons grew up as apprentices to their father in the business, making 2.5 cents per hour. Both sons would eventually join him as partners in the business in 1918 upon returning home from serving in the Unites States Army in France during World War I. Their unique three-person partnership enabled the company to flourish through the golden age of baseball (1920’s-1960’s). Mitchell was the head of manufacturing, while Hank employed the financial concepts he had learned at Yale University, and Jim did all the traveling and headed up sales and marketing. Together they created a leather sporting goods lineup that included; baseball gloves, baseballs, footballs, basketballs, volleyballs, soccer gloves, boxing gloves, boxing speed bags, gun holsters, and leather jackets for the military. For much of their existence, they were considered the largest manufacturer of boxing gloves in the world, and it is estimated that they owned 80% of the market. They quietly accomplished this position by employing their secret weapon of two boxing glove stuffing machines they had built by D H P Manufacturing of Johnstown (a side business that they also owned). This mechanized wonder put the horse hair into gloves, which was much faster and cost effective than stuffing by hand. They also designed a lace free basketball that was approved by the NBA and used by the New York Knicks.
Like their local glove making predecessors (Gloversville’s J.A. Peach & Ken-Wel), M. Denkert also came up with unique designs that led to the evolution of sporting goods. They were issued several different sporting goods patents for gloves, inflatable balls (basketball and football) and gun holsters. At least four different baseball glove patents were issued in 1926, 1938, 1956 and 1959. These patents brought improvements to the lacing between the fingers of gloves and the development of “pockets” that made the players better fielders.
According to Bruce Denkert, Jim Denkert’s son who worked for the family business during summers as a teenager in the 1940’s making 22.5 cents per hour, “they (Mitchell, Hank and Jim) were always looking at gloves and saying ‘what if’ and they would make adjustments until they got something unique that made their glove more useful for fielding. It was always trial by sample, and lots of small adjustments were made until they got something that was just right. My Dad and Uncle Hank were popular with the professional players, especially in New York City where they had box seats just behind the Yankee dugout at Yankee Stadium. They became well-known by the players for their skills and abilities to make adjustments to glove designs.” In 1936, Yankee Pitcher Charles “Red” Ruffing approached Jim Denkert and wanted him to make a glove “big enough to hide the ball and disguise his grip during his wind up”. Denkert created a unique model that accomplished this, and Ruffing won 20 games for the Yankees that season (he first 20-win season). He would go on to win 20 games in 1937 and 21 games in both 1938 and 1939.
Bruce Denkert goes on to state, “upon seeing what the Denkerts did for one of the pitchers he handled, New York Yankee catcher Bill Dickey approached my father (Jim) complaining how the rigors of catching were taking a toll on his hands, and asked him if he could make a better glove for him. Up until that period, the ball was caught directly in the middle of the glove (palm of the hand) and had to be trapped by the ungloved hand. The ball constantly hitting the center of the palm would make a catcher’s hand raw and nearly impossible to catch a double-header, and often required days off to rest their hands. At Dickey’s request, they created him a glove that moved the pocket up and away from the center of the palm. Early models produced less wear on his hand, but the ball would frequently pop out of his glove. In turn, they worked to widen the pocket by just the right amount to be able to trap the ball, while still allowing Dickey to quickly be able to remove the ball from the glove and make a timely throw if someone was running on him.” Using this style glove, Dickey would become one of the first Major Leaguers catchers to adopt a one-handed catching technique. Several years later, the next challenge for the Denkerts was to create a pocket in a fielding glove that would scoop the ball, trap it in the pocket, but still be able to easily and quickly get the ball out to make a throw. Bruce (Denkert) states “Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto came to us wanting something that would allow him to trap the ball, touch a base and then be able to easily get the ball out of the pocket while on the move and make a throw to the next base.” This led to Denkert’s key invention of the pre-formed pocket that was granted patent protection on June 19, 1956.
On May 1, 1948, Robert Cross (married to Hank’s daughter Eleanor) went to work for M. Denkert & Company as a salesman. According to Cross, “I remember that date because that was also the date that they opened their new 3-story building in front of the manufacturing building (213 W. State St.). The first floor was offices, with a room in the back for conferences and sales representative’s meetings, and a cutting room. The 2nd floor was the finishing room and embossing was done there. The 3rd floor was shipping and manufacturing remained in the original building in the back. I took two six-week trips each year to sell in the southern states. In addition to the traditional avenues of selling through sporting goods distributors and dealers, we also had a unique marketing approach through some non-traditional grocery businesses. We were set up in the S&H Green Stamps program in the 1950’s and had some of our gloves listed in their catalog. When customers sent us Green Stamps they had saved up, we would drop ship them their desired baseball glove model straight to their homes. Our company would then get paid by the Sperry & Hutchinson Company (S&H Green Stamps). The most popular gloves redeemed were the Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial signature models. It was also a big score for us when the A&P grocery store chain started carrying non-grocery items. I initially called on them at the A&P corporate building in New York City. I would then go to their distribution centers (Boston, Detroit, Atlanta) and sell them car loads of baseball gloves to stock the shelves of stores in those areas. I enjoyed the experience of working for the company through 1958, and then struck out on my own in the real estate market.”
In addition to innovative and quality designs, Denkert was also known for dyeing their gloves in unique colors such red, orange, black and different shades of brown. These unique colors would then be set off with silver stamping. That silver stamping usually included the signature of the most popular Major Leaguers in the game. Jim Denkert was responsible for getting the signatures of Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Phil Rizzuto, Bobby Richardson, Bobby Brown, Charlie Keller, Red Ruffing, Bill Dickey, Pee Wee Reese (20+ Denkert Models), Moose Skowron (15+ Denkert Models), Gil Hodges and the nearly 500 players who either used or endorsed Denkert Gloves throughout the company’s history. When talking about all the historical players that were once associated with the Denkert Company through the years, Bob Cross states “I regret that I let all of the signed contracts and the brass dies (in reverse) that they used to stamp the gloves get sent right to the Johnstown Dump when the company went out of business. They would be worth a small fortune today”.
While not every Major League player wore a glove that said Denkert on the label, hundreds wore gloves that Denkert made under private label brands for other companies. In addition to marketing their own Denkert Brand of baseball gloves and sporting goods, they were also the main supplier to dozens of private label brands of gloves, some of which included; Pro Master, Pro Maker, Coast to Coast Stores, Johnny Walker, Tru-Sport, Olympic, Firestone Olympian, Marathon, Montgomery Wards, Worthington, Monarch, M. Sharf & Co (Trojan), The Drier Co, JC Higgins (Sears), Yale, WASCO, Arrow Brand, Little League Approved, Ramsey Outdoor Stores, Sports, True Play, Stebbins for Sports, Guardian Brand, SECO, Warners, Geo Worthington Co., R.H. Macy Co., Western Auto, and Firestone Folsom.
From the 1930’s through the 1960’s, the Denkert’s had a box of 6 seats at Yankee Stadium just a few rows in back of the Yankee Dugout. It was on the end of the dugout closest to home plate, from which they had great views of the players going from the dugout to home plate to bat, as well as coming on and off the field. The seats were so close that you could talk to the players and hear them when they were upset or celebrated in the dugout. According to Bruce (Denkert), “the tickets were a great marketing tool. In addition to the Denkerts and their employees using the tickets themselves, they also gave them to business associates, and any Johnstown residents who stopped into their offices and asked for them.” World Series tickets were hard to come by, but any year that the Yankees were in the series complimentary tickets always made their way to the Denkerts from either Joe Gordon or Bill Dickey as a ‘thank you’ for the custom gloves they created for them.
For the 1942 World Series, the tickets were given to them by Joe Gordon. Gordon was the American League MVP that year (beating out Triple Crown winner Ted Williams) and the Denkert’s group of 8 lucky fans were his guests and got to sit in the most coveted seats in Yankee Stadium up against the team’s dugout. As an added bonus, they sat with Mrs. Gordon for the games that series. Cross fondly recalls being at Babe Ruth’s last visit to Yankee Stadium on June 13, 1948 when he gave his ‘farewell to baseball address.’ “As Ruth left his seat to exit Yankee Stadium for the very last time, he was so close I could have touched him. I lined up my camera to take his picture as he exited, but someone walked in front of my camera as I snapped the shot and blocked the picture as he walked by” states Cross. Ruth died two months later.
Through their baseball dealings, the Denkerts became close friends with many of the players they designed gloves for. Their relationships were not all about business and many of the players would make visits to Johnstown to socialize. Phil Rizzuto was a frequent visitor, and along with former players Tommy Holmes and Wes Westrum spoke at men’s club events at the Colonial Club (now the parking lot next to Partner’s Pub on South William Street) in 1954 as favors to the Denkerts. Family members also recall the likes of Rizzuto, Moose Skowron, Charlie Keller, Whitey Ford, Bobby Brown, Joe Gordon, Bobby Richardson and Bill Dickey frequenting the family camp located 15 miles north of Johnstown on Green Lake.
In addition to being very successful in their business endeavors and employing 125 people, the entire Denkert family took sincere interest in the community’s welfare and could be counted on to back worthwhile civic initiatives. In addition to the giving of their time serving on multiple civic boards, they were also generous in donating sporting goods to schools, youth camps, little leagues and military bases around the country so that the enlisted men would have items to use for both physical exercise and therapy (nothing like through around the old horsehide to sooth ones soul). According to Dick Luck (owner of The Hair Affair Barbershop at 4 S. William Street), “I worked for the Denkerts evenings during their last few years of operation ‘turning out footballs’. It was a great place to work and the Denkerts were very generous to those in the community. As a Little League coach, I would often bring players who needed baseball gloves to the factory. They would be allowed to help themselves to gloves in the ‘seconds bin’. Any time we brought a left handed player in and there was not a model in the bin to suffice their position, they would pull brand new product from their inventory. They never accepted money from Little Leaguers.” During World War II, M. Denkert & Company contributed to the United States War effort by redirecting their factory’s production capacity to manufacturing leather jackets for our military. In addition, they also redirected the production capacity of their secondary business (D H P Manufacturing Company) to the production of millions of shell casings needed to make ammunition for our troops fighting around the world. And when the Gloversville-Johnstown Glovers team in the Canadian-American League were in financial trouble in 1951, Jim Denkert stepped in as president of the Glove Cities Athletic Association to run the team.
M. Denkert & Company would continue to create innovation glove designs through the 1960’s. One of their most popular creations was the Moose Skowron Model Left Hander first baseman’s mitt, which closely resembles the first baseman’s gloves of today. They chose not to patent the design for fear that the larger glove manufacturing companies would simply make tweaks to any patents filed and circumvent their legal stance. So rather than giving roadmaps to their newest designs (by spelling them out in patent filings), they decided to simply run as long as they could and sell as many new models as they could before they were knocked off. By the early 1970’s, competition from the larger baseball glove and sporting goods manufacturers who were having their products produced in Japan and Puerto Rico made it difficult to compete as a domestic sporting goods manufacturer. The Denkert’s visited Japan to check on the business climate there, but ultimately decided to forgo doing business like that and closed their doors in 1973.
Over their 74 years in operation, hundreds of Major Leaguers, thousands of professional players and millions of amateurs have put on and used a baseball glove that was made in Johnstown by M. Denkert & Company, who proudly produced every glove in the United States. For the Denkert family’s role in the evolution of baseball glove designs and for supplying the professional and amateur baseball world with baseball gloves for nearly 75 years, M. Denkert & Company has been nominated for induction into the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony is set for June 22nd as part of the annual Vintage Baseball Game to be played at Parkhurst Field in Gloversville. Also set to be inducted at the ceremony are Johnstown’s Brian Mee, Fred Webb, F. Rulison and Sons, and the J.A. Peach Sporting Goods Company. The nominees will be inducted between innings of the game and the event will be open to the public. For more information about the inductions and event, visit www.parkhurstfield.org .
As part of the special “Year of the Glove Exhibit” currently on display at the Fulton County Museum that celebrates the area glove industry, there is a “Baseball Glove Exhibit” featured that includes items pertaining to M. Denkert & Company. Included are gloves, advertising items and a special “White Baseball Glove” that was created by the Denkerts for the 1957 National Boy Scout Jamboree in Valley Forge, Pa., and signed by all the attendees (courtesy of Jan & Jack Wilson). To see these items and the entire “Year of the Glove Exhibit”, visit the Fulton County Museum at 237 Kingsboro Avenue in Gloversville. Museum hours 12-4 on Saturdays and Sundays (Memorial Day weekend to last week of June), and 12-4 Thursday through Sunday (July through Labor Day). There is also a permanent “Denkert Glove Exhibit” on display at the Johnstown Historical Society Museum. The museum is located at 17 N. William St. in Johnstown. For hours, call (518) 762-7419.
A special Thank You to Johnstown Historian Noel Levee, the Johnstown Library, Bill Pollak, Robert Cross, Jim Denkert Jr. and Bruce Denkert for their assistance with the research for this story and sharing their memories. Bruce Denkert is 89 years old and resides in Daytona Beach, Fla., while Mr. Cross currently resides in Slingerlands and turns 100 on Oct. 1. If anyone who knew Bob would like to attend his 100th birthday party on Sept. 28, please reach out to me for the details.
Mike Hauser is the founder of the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame in Gloversville. If you have story ideas, old articles/photos or would like to nominate someone for the HOF, he can be reached through the organization’s website at www.fchof.com, email; [email protected] or call (518) 725-5565.