Saturday, December 28, 2013

More Than a Game

People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. 
I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring. 
– Rogers Hornsby

A few years ago I found an old, broken, worn-out, Little League baseball bat in the corner of an antique shop. The bat is a late 1940s or early 1950s Louisville Slugger 125J, Little League model, with a Babe Ruth decal.  The bat was badly broken – split along the grain, but the break had been carefully repaired. The first repair was probably done with black electrician’s tape judging by the tape residue still on the bat. The second repair was done by tightly wrapping the broken area with steel wire. To say that the bat spoke to me is to use a well-worn cliché, but it spoke to me.

“Label up! Hold the bat with the label up!” Most kids who learned to play baseball in the era before aluminum bats can remember those instructions, shouted at them as they hefted the bat at home plate and looked toward the pitcher. The bat in their hands would have been made from ash or oak, and the “label” was more than likely not actually a paper label or decal, but a manufacturer’s trademark branded into the wood. The child knew what the instructions meant, even if he didn’t know why; the maker’s name and emblem should be facing up.

Here’s a picture of the “label” on the Babe Ruth bat, and below it is an example of how it would have looked when it was new:

Before the mid-nineteenth century baseball players were expected to provide their own bats, and many sizes and shapes of bats were in use.  As the game became more organized, rules were imposed to limit the bat diameter and length; although the shapes varied, including some bats with flat hitting surfaces. Bats with a rounded barrel soon became the norm, but no matter what the size or shape, wooden bats were still subject to being broken during the course of a ballgame.

The contact between a pitched ball and the baseball bat is an exceptionally violent collision, and occasionally a wooden bat breaks at the moment of impact – usually splitting along the grain of the wood.  The best safeguards against breaking a bat are the choice of a strong, close-grained wood for its construction, and striking the ball with the edge of the wood's grain rather than the side of the grain.  The manufacturers of wooden bats place their trademarks or labels with the alignment of the wood grain in mind; if the label is facing up, the edge of the grain is toward the incoming ball.1

The history of Louisville Slugger baseball bats begins with a broken bat. In 1884 Pete Browning, the star player for the Louisville Eclipse baseball team, broke his favorite bat during a game, and Bud Hillerich, the son of a local woodworker, offered to make him a new one. Bud’s father, J. F. Hillerich, owned a shop that produced stair railings, porch columns and butter churns. Using his father's shop, seventeen year-old Bud turned a new bat for Mr. Browning who proceeded to get three hits with it the next day. 

Young Hillerich persuaded his father to add baseball bats to their product line, and they trademarked the name “Louisville Slugger” in 1894. While there have been other manufacturers of wooden baseball bats, the Louisville Slugger has been the best-known wooden baseball bat for well over a century. Frank Bradsby became a partner in the business in 1916, and the firm’s name was changed to The Hillerich and Bradsby Company. By 1923, the company was the largest manufacturer of baseball bats and over the years baseball legends like Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron and Derek Jeter have all swung Louisville Sluggers. 

Broken baseball bats are only useful as kindling for a fire and are usually discarded. However, as with most things, necessity sometimes trumps convenience; and that was the case with our 125J Louisville Slugger.  

One can envision the events unfolding as a dejected child held a broken bat that had seen many days of hard play on a baseball diamond.  The evidence clearly shows an attempted mending with black tape, possibly performed by the child, and a later wound-wire repair probably done by a father, an uncle or an older friend.

The story this bat tells is one about the time and effort spent to repair it and to convince a child that it was still usable and that a new bat was simply out of reach – at least for the time being. The story shows us a precise moment of generosity and affection as well as the shared lessons of perseverance, problem solving and economy. 

The wear on this bat demonstrates that it was used for a considerable amount of time after the repair was completed. One can imagine the emotions of the child changing from those of distress to grudging acceptance, and perhaps even to a smile of delight as the bat went back into play and the game went on.

A Louisville 125J, with the Babe Ruth decal in very excellent condition is apparently worth several hundred dollars to collectors. I get that, but I'd rather have this bat; it tells a better story.

“Use it up – wear it out – make it do,” is an old adage that we don’t hear or observe much anymore, at least not in the more prosperous parts of the world; but it’s a good lesson to keep in mind – if we want to win the game. 

Link to the history of the Louisville Slugger:
Link to video about The Hillerich and Bradsby Company:
Link to Rogers Hornsby bio, National Baseball Hall of Fame:
Link to Babe Ruth bio, National Baseball Hall of Fame:
  1. To understand the physics behind the impact between the baseball and the wooden bat, hold a deck of playing cards in your hand and strike a surface with the flat of the cards and notice how the deck flexes and bends.  Now strike with the edge of the deck and notice how differently the cards react. The individual cards represent the grain of the wood and in this position much more force is transmitted into the blow. Not only will more force be transmitted to the baseball, the possibility that the bat will flex and break will be greatly diminished.
Personal note:  
My great-uncle, Texas Grey Burleson, played baseball with Rogers Hornsby when they were children. They both grew up on the Blackland Prairie of Texas in a large bend of the Colorado River known as Hornsby Bend, just east of Austin. Rogers Hornsby went on to great fame as a professional baseball player in the years between 1915 and 1937. As the family legend goes, Uncle Grey wanted to leave home to play baseball too, but was told by his father that baseball was only a game for children.  He soon left home for work as a cowboy in Wyoming.

Rogers Hornsby is buried in his family's cemetery at Hornsby Bend, Texas.

1 comment:

  1. Loved it! I still have my bat and glove from when I was about 8. And make do was understood....our baseball finally wore "clean" out. We were shellshocked.
    Then we found a nice round rock and I sneaked into Dad's garage and used a whole roll of electrical tape to make a new ball. The ball worked pretty well but I was in big trouble. Good ole days.


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