– 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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.