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Caught in history: Collector fascinated by gloves’ connections to baseball’s greatest moments

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Game Four. 1927 World Series. A sunny afternoon in the Bronx.

You and I can only imagine the charge that went through 52,000 people in Yankee Stadium that early October Saturday, when Babe Ruth took a low curveball deep into the right-field bleachers in the fifth inning.

It was the Bambino's 62nd home run of the season, his second of the Series, and the key blow in the Yankees' 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The victory capped a four-game sweep for what many people feel was the greatest baseball team of all time.

It all seems so long ago and far away - until Mike Ellis plucks a glove off a shelf in his Missoula office. It's of yellowish-brown leather with a buckled back, from an era before the fingers of gloves were laced. On it is written: "Hill 1927 World Series."

Carmen Hill, he says, wore this glove that day.

Now Ellis, who brought the Missoula Osprey to town in 1999 and later moved his family here, doesn't expect the name "Carmen Hill" to ring any bells. He'd never heard of the guy himself until he saw the glove on one baseball memorabilia Web site or another.

And then the ball of twine that is baseball begins to unwind.

Turns out Hill was the pitcher who dished up that landmark home run to Ruth. Turns out the Babe's swing was, of course, caught by a camera - that familiar wide stride, eyes cast upward and bat pointing straight at the New York sky - and transferred onto a 20-cent postage stamp 56 years later. It is perhaps the best-known image of Babe Ruth.

"That doesn't mean much to anybody, but it's kind of fun to think that that glove was being used by somebody who was pitching to Babe Ruth, who hit that home run that in 1983 was put on a stamp," Ellis says.

Ellis is a collector of old-time baseball gloves. It's a hobby/passion he has indulged for years, he says, not to get rich and not even necessarily to curate a killer museum exhibit, although he certainly has the ingredients for one.

Several cabinets contain what Ellis insists is a modest history of gloves, from a 19th-century fingerless old-timer, worn at a time when it wasn't certain that such a crutch was altogether manly in catching the old horsehide, to a Wilson A2000, of the kind born in 1957 and largely unimproved on since.

"I'm not a historian. I'm not an expert. I'm not even an expert on gloves," says Ellis. "But I like gloves more than a lot of other baseball things."

Here, put your hand in one, Ellis says. "That's what it's made for. I don't care if it gets pounded a little bit. You can smell the leather. There are a lot of things about them that to me are a lot more fun than things like bats and jerseys, which are probably more popular to collect."

They haven't come up with the catch phrase yet, but his Osprey plan to celebrate the baseball glove in the 2010 season. They'll offer such promotions as $50 in cash to the person who catches the first foul ball with a glove at each home game.

Ellis is fairly sure that Hill's glove is authentic, though that's always an issue with "game-worn" gloves. He has a letter from Hill, dated 1973, that says it is. More to the point, when he researched Hill he found a compelling story.

"What's interesting is he hadn't done much in his career, but in 1927 he won 22 games for the Pirates," says Ellis. In an era rich with nicknames, one of Hill's was "Specs."

"I've heard he was one of the first two players in baseball to wear glasses, which for a guy nobody heard of I think is kind of cool," Ellis says.

Suddenly that warm afternoon in 1927 takes on more dimensions. Though overwhelmed in the World Series, the Pirates were no slouches. After winning the 1925 championship, they'd captured the '27 National League pennant with future Hall of Famers Paul and Lloyd Waner - "Big Poison" and "Little Poison" - in the outfield and Pie Traynor at third base. Paul Waner was the NL MVP and the league batting champion.

Hill was a 6-foot-1 right-hander more commonly called "Bunker." Despite giving up Ruth's two-run dinger in the fifth inning, he gave manager Donie Bush six strong innings before he was relieved by John Miljus. The Pirates had just rallied to tie the score 3-3. They lost it in the bottom of the ninth, when Miljus uncorked a bases-loaded wild pitch.

Afterward, in the noisy Yankees locker room, a reporter watched as Ruth dug through his cluttered locker for his misplaced shirt. Meanwhile his 7-year-old daughter peppered him with questions.

"Yes, Dorothy, the man gave your daddy a low curve on the inside this time. Yesterday the other man curved the ball on the outside. Yes, Dorothy, those were the two that landed in the stands."

"There's this thread," Ellis says, eyeing Hill's well-preserved glove. "Maybe that's what my life is now. My fun thing is to take a glove or another piece and there's a string and follow that string to find out everything that comes back."

A section of his collection is dedicated to store-model gloves endorsed by some of the brighter lights in baseball history: Mickey Mantle, both Waners, Ted Williams, Cy Young, Willie Mays, Al Kaline, etc. They didn't wear them, but each of the five charter members of baseball's Hall of Fame lent his name to a glove in the Ellis cache. He points to his Ruth glove, a Walter Johnson, a Christie Mathewson, a Honus Wagner, and a Ty Cobb.

The Wagner might be his favorite.

"I like the long fingers and the way it looks like a hand," Ellis says. "The leather is in such great shape, and I like the contrast between the dark web and the lighter leather on the glove itself. And it has a good label on the back. Labels are cool too."

It's called the workman's glove by collectors. But in the 1890s it was simply a fielder's glove. Ellis pointed out the features of one of his. It had no webbing, no finger lacing, no pocket.

If W.A. Clark's miners and smelter workers wore gloves at all when they played in 1898 - and the practice had only recently caught on at all positions - this was likely what they donned. The image makes another piece in the collection extra special in his Ellis' eyes. It's a silver trophy, the Copper King's Championship Cup, presented by J.H. Leyson, a watchmaker and jeweler in Butte.

On it is inscribed the score: "Mines 16, Smelter 12."

That game is a story he has yet to unravel, Ellis says. But he regards this and his other Montana-related pieces as prize possessions.

The Waner brothers are a couple of his favorite collectible subjects, and he was excited to find that an aging Lloyd Waner - "Little Poison" - had taken a sabbatical from retirement in Oklahoma in the late 1960s to coach the Missoula American Legion team for a season.

Likewise, Ellis was thrilled to learn that "Bullet" Joe Bush, a veteran pitcher credited with developing the forkball, played for a Union League team in Missoula in 1912. It made the huge and ponderous catcher's glove that Ellis came across that much more of a keepsake.

Seems the glove had been passed down through dealers from the family of Eddie Plank, the Hall of Fame southpaw who pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1901-1914. His last two seasons coincided with Bush's first with the A's. The glove in Ellis' collection was used by either catcher Wally Schang or Jack Lapp in the 1912-1914 seasons.

"I think I have a glove Bullet Joe Bush probably pitched into," Ellis says.

The Montana web gets wider. Bush, who was whisked to the majors by Connie Mack after pitching for the Missoula Highlanders in 1912, was nearing the end of his career in 1927 when the Pirates picked him up. They used him sparingly and released him in June, but for the early months he was on the same staff with Carmen Hill. The two were born three years and but 50 miles apart in Minnesota.

In one of Hill's letters that Ellis obtained recently, dated December 1968, the former pitcher described the end of the '27 World Series.

It's a matter of record, he says, that after relieving Hill in the seventh, Miljus loaded the bases with Yankees with no outs in the ninth inning of the tied contest. Miljus was probably the first American Serb in the big leagues. The Pittsburgh native was bayoneted in the leg and gassed with mustard gas in the Argonne Woods during World War I.

Miljus had walked speedy Earle Coombs and surrendered a bunt single to Mark Koenig. Both runners advanced on his first wild pitch of the inning to leave first base open. The Pirates intentionally walked Ruth.

Miljus proceeded to strike out Lou Gehrig and Bob Meusel, two of the big boppers in the Yankees' Murderers Row. With a ball and a strike on Tony Lazzeri, he uncorked the wild pitch heard 'round the nation, and the Yankees were baseball's world champions.

"Here is the part that's not in the record books," Hill wrote. "John Gooch is catching and calls for a (sic) over hand curve and stays down on one knee to give Miljus a target. For some unknown reason Miljus threw a (sic) underhand sweeping curve that was head high."

Gooch, he said, "was only able to slap at the ball knocking it down and it rolled behind Gooch about 12 feet. E. Coombs, the fastest man on the Yankee team, was on third and barely beat the play at the plate. Any other Yankee would have been caught."

Hill added one last point: "I received a letter from Miljus the other day. He recently moved to Bigfork, Montana. P.O. Box 202, Zip Code 59911. Sincerely, C.P. Hill."

According to a biography of Miljus in 1997, written for Serb World USA, Miljus moved to Bigfork in 1967. After his wife died in 1969, he lived in Florida before returning to Montana in 1972. He lived his last four years of his life in Polson, dying at Fort Harrison Veterans Hospital in Helena in February 1976.

"Miljus was a member of the Polson Veterans of Foreign Wars," the writer said. "In his last years he often spoke about the old-timers of baseball for the Kiwanis Club and other community organizations."

That's why Ellis collects pieces of baseball.

"Memorabilia," he says, "is an entrée to history, not just something to put on a shelf."

Reach reporter Kim Briggeman at (406) 523-5266 or by e-mail at kbriggeman@missoulian.com. Reach photography editor Kurt Wilson at (406) 523-5244 or at kwilson@missoulian.com.

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