Year of the (Baseball) Glove — Ken-Wel Sporting Goods
Part 2 of a three-part series pertaining to the major baseball glove manufacturing companies that once operated in Fulton County.
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 amatuer 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 intially 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 quaility leather materials and an ample work force already skilled in the processes needed to produce the required finished goods.
Last week I wrote about the J.A. Peach Company that began manufacturing baseball gloves and sporting goods in 1898 in Gloversville. Their unique and patented gloves were used by tens of thousands of youth and amateur players throughout North America, as well as many Major League professionals. Around the time that the J.A. Peach Company exited the sporting goods market in 1914, a local physician by the name of Dr. Morris Kennedy tried his hand at baseball glove making. Dr. Morris Kennedy was born in Brooklyn New York in 1886 and attended schools there. Upon graduating from Brooklyn’s Downtown Medical College in 1908, he began practicing medicine in New York City. According to Kennedy’s grandson Jon Galinsky, “a few years after becoming a doctor, Kennedy decided he did not want to be a city doctor and was looking to purchase a medical practice in Schenectady. Just before signing the deal, he took a train trip and ended up on the F., J. & G. spur that took him into Gloversville by mistake.
Once he saw the mountains surrounding the city, he decided that was where he wanted to open his practice”. He started in 1910 out of a home he purchased at 69 East Fulton Street in Gloversville. And for the next 58 years, he practiced medicine in Gloversville and was a prominent figure in the area. He saw patients at his home office, did extensive house calls, and had a close working relationship with the Nathan Littauer Hospital that was originally located just around the corner from his Fulton Street home on Littauer Place. He was also a decorated member of the Gloversville Elks Club and other civic organizations, as well as president of the Fulton County Medical Society.
In 1914, at the urging of one of his patients by the last name of ‘Wells’ (who had experience in the leather industry), Kennedy was convinced to enter the glove making business as a hands on investor in a new company they would call ‘Ken-Well Sporting Goods’. In 1919, Kennedy brought his brothers Bert, Philip, Allen, Nelson and Jack in to work for the operation.
Bert had owned a glove manufacturing business in Johnstown and brought the practical knowledge of leather manufacturing. While the other brothers had just moved to Gloversville from their hometown of Brooklyn, all where athletes and had knowledge of the sporting world and what a customer would be looking for in a quality product.
They were also good at playing the game of baseball and often show up in the boxes scores of local Industrial League baseball games that took place at Parkhurst Field. Allen had attended Syracuse University and played college basketball for the Orangemen. He also played a few seasons of professional basketball in Upstate New York. Allen would eventually take control of the company, allowing Morris to focus exclusively on his medical practice, while ensuring that members of his family would always have jobs. Their first factory was located at 49 Yale Street in Gloversville where they made baseball gloves, boxing gloves, hand ball gloves, footballs, volleyballs, punching bags, baseballs, and uniforms. Today, the site is an apartment building complex at the corner of Yale Street and Third Avenue. As demand for their products grew, they eventually moved to a factory at 138 North School Street. School Street is now known as Arlington Avenue, and the factory was located on the empty lot that is at the corner of North Arlington Street & Lincoln Street. Continued growth in the 1920’s led to them moving to an even larger factory at 74 Bleecker Street (most recently the former Grandoe Glove Company).
Ken-Wel became the largest manufacturer of boxing gloves in the world, but their specialty was baseball gloves. Their special designs enabled their brand to become very popular with notable Major Leaguers who endorsed their products. Some of the notable names connected to New York professional baseball included George J. Burns (New York Giants), Dazzy Vance (Brooklyn Dodgers) and Lou Gehrig (New York Yankees). On September 22, 1921, Bert Kennedy filed an application for a patent on a unique new design that moved the seams of a baseball glove from between each finger, to a central spot on the back of each finger of the glove that was welted together. This made for a design that caused less stress on the seams of the insides of the fingers and made the gloves difficult to rip or tear. The glove was named the ‘Ken-Wel NEVERIP Glove’ and the first Big Leaguer to have this glove made in his own design was former New York Giants star outfielder George Burns. Burns, who had just finished 11 seasons as a highly respected outfielder with the Giants, had just been traded to the Cincinnati Reds. Burns resided in Gloversville during the off-season and visited the Ken-Wel factory on February 10, 1922 to personally direct the making of his own model glove. By days end, when he tried on his unique new model glove, Burns proclaimed “Bert (Kennedy), it’s a wonder, feels broke in, I sure am anxious to use it.” The design would receive the official blessing of the United States Patent Office when it approved the design with an official patent on November 14, 1922. This design of a welted seam on the back of each finger is still employed in all fielding gloves made today (take a look at any fielders glove you may currently own).
On March 16, 1923, Philip Kennedy filed for a patent on a glove design that connected a baseball gloves fingers with leather laces. These interlaced fingers created a deep pocket that closed around the ball when it hit the palm. It also prevented the fingers of a glove from bending backward by the speed of a hard thrown or batted ball. It was advertised to help prevent errors by not spreading apart to allow the ball to get away. The patent was officially issued on April 15, 1924 and can still be found on all gloves made today (once again, check out any fielders glove you currently own and you will see this feature).
The first Major Leaguer to endorse this style glove would be Brooklyn Dodgers star pitcher Dazzy Vance. Vance was the highest paid salaried pitcher of that era and enjoyed a career that would land him in National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955. Huge advertising campaigns featuring Vance, Burns, future Hall of Famers Eddie Rousch, Harry Heilman, Waite Hoyt, Walter Johnston, Bucky Harris and many other star players ensued causing another spike in demand for Ken-Wel gloves by both professionals and amateurs. Soon, the company was able to proudly tout that there were more Major Leaguers using and endorsing Ken-Wel gloves than all other brands combined. Also endorsing Ken-Wel was a good friend of Allen Kennedy by the name of Lou Gehrig. Ken-Wel produced a special Lou Gehrig zipper-back first baseman mitt and centered a great deal of marketing around their Gehrig connection. The Ken-Wel line now featured 75 models of gloves and mitts, ranging in costs of 65 cents for a child’s glove, up to $14 for a catcher’s mitt.
Additional modifications were made to the Dazzy Vance model glove that incorporated a thumb with a diverted seam (to resist ripping at the thumb). Also added were sections of asbestos felt and eiderdown that were hand tailored to form a padded pocket.
A patent was filed by Bert and Philip Kennedy on this design on July 3, 1925 and was officially granted on June 7, 1927. In 1928 and 1929, Vance proved the superiority of the new cumulative design (the result of the three Ken-Wel patents) by making no fielding errors across both seasons. In 69 games, he had 134 fielding chances and scored a perfect fielding score (1000%). He would also pull off flawless seasons with the glove in 1931, 1934 and 1935. When asked how he accomplished the seemingly impossible feats of no fielding errors, he held up his glove and responded “see those interlacing’s running from finger to finger? That’s the feature that keeps the swift ball from slipping through. And furthermore, it makes the glove act like a steep trap, closing in on the ball and snapping the pill firmly into the pocket. It holds the hot ones! Two years ago, when I first used my new interlaced glove, they laughed at me. So now I tell them to laugh off my two-year fielding record”.
Vance wrote a book that talks about his star play and the patented Vance model glove called “Inside Dope on Batting and Pitching.”
By 1927, the company’s continued growth led to the need for an even bigger factory with more capacity. In July of that year, a meeting of a large group of Utica businessmen was held to raise funds to woo Ken-Wel into moving their business to the Utica New York area. Nearly $4,000 was pledged at the meeting and in September the Ken-Wel factory relocated to New Hartford New York and initially had 50 employees. Business continued to grow for Ken-Wel and they moved again in 1932 to a larger factory on 524 Catherine St. in Utica.
This location was also just a few blocks from the main train depot in Utica, which lead to efficiencies in the transportation of their sporting goods. At this time, the Utica factory reached 125 employees and the company boasted that they had 150 Major Leaguers using and endorsing Ken-Wel gloves and mitts. Their offering of products made or distributed continued to expand to include; catchers masks, chest protectors, shin gaurds, baseball and softball bases, footballs accessories (pants, helmets, shoulder and hip pads), basketballs, soccer balls, ski suits, tennis rackets, badminton rackets, wooden racket presses, golf balls and bags, boxing helmets, hockey gloves and elbow protectors, athletic supporter cups, and protective athletic ladies’ bustproof brassiere’s that were in demand by girls softball teams and the Roller Derby Girls.
In the early 1940’s, Allen Kennedy’s business attention began to turn towards real estate holdings in Florida and thoroughbred horse racing. He eventually stepped away from the day to day operations of the company and turned them over to his son in law Herbert Spring. During World War II and the Korean War, Ken-Wel supported the United States war efforts by producing gloves for the military.
In addition to baseball gloves (which were highly regarded by the government to be used by troops for both physical and mental health), they also produced fur lined gloves for high altitude aviators and ski troops, as well as back packs and skis. At their peak, Ken-Wel employed over 300 employees. In 1952, Ken-Wel Sporting Goods was sold to J. Lawrence Kennedy (no relation to the founding Kennedy’s) of Elmira New York. J. Lawrence Kennedy kept the company at the Utica location, but changed the name to “Kennedy Sports”. He also interchanged “Kennedy” for the “Ken-Wel” brand name on some of the products. Unfortunately, an unfavorable business climate was developing that would not be generous to the new “Kennedy” operation. The end of the Korean War brought to an end the government contracts they held. This, coupled with the expiration of the Ken-Wel patents, loss of private label glove contracts to Japanese manufacturers and the emergence of the larger national brands who made product cheaper overseas, brought about the demise of the company in 1960.
The Ken-Wel name was resurrected in 2004 when Joe and Lawrence Gilligan of Akadema Sporting Goods of New Jersey gained the rights to the Ken-Wel trademark and began producing high quality replicas of the Lou Gehrig and Dazzy Vance model gloves. The Ken-Wel Sporting Goods Company was recognized for its role in the development of the design of the modern baseball glove with induction into the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame between innings at the July 11, 2015 Vintage Baseball Game at Parkhurst Field in Gloversville.
As part of the special “Year of the Glove Exhibit” currently on display at the Fulton County Museum that celebrates the areas glove industry, there is also a “Baseball Glove Exhibit” featuring original items pertaining to the Ken-Wel Sporting Goods Company. Included are gloves, advertising items, a Ken-Wel advertising card signed by Lou Gehrig, catalogs and a copy of Dazzy Vance’s book “Inside Dope on Batting and Pitching”. 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 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays (Memorial Day weekend to last week of June), and 12 to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday (July through Labor Day).
A special thank you to Jon and Bob Galinsky for their help with the research for this story and access to their collection of original Ken-Wel Catalogs. They have since donated the Ken-Wel product catalogs to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. In exchange, both received “Lifetime Passes” to the Hall of Fame.
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; firstname.lastname@example.org or call (518) 725-5565.