Consider bats. In the course of baseball history, they have been light (Billy Goodman's 30-ouncer) and heavy (Edd Roush's three-pounder). Bottled (the Heinie Groh model) and corked (see Norm Cash). Exclamatory (Babe Ruth's, calling the shot) and inflammatory (George Brett's, recalling the rule book). Treated (with everything from linseed oil to tobacco juice) and mistreated (by Juan Marichal upside Johnny Roseboro's head). Short (Wee Willie Keeler's 30½-incher) and long (42 inches, the maximum allowed). Made in America (almost everyone's) and in Japan (Pete Rose's). Taken to bed (by Richie Ashburn, only when they had been good) and hung out in the cold (by Eddie Collins, to toughen them up). They have been old (Joe Sewell is said to have used the same one as his game bat for his 14 seasons, from 1920 to '33), new (Orlando Cepeda discarded his like toothpicks), borrowed (by Mickey Mantle to drive a ball 565 feet) and blue (in unavoidable aluminum).
In short, the bat (stick, shillelagh, mace, bludgeon, cudgel, war club, wagon tongue, Wonderboy) has been the most vital variable in a game that prides itself on constants. Balls are supposed to all be alike. Gloves are so inconspicuous they used to be left on the field between innings. But bats are mythic: Bernard Malamud's novel, The Natural, more or less hinged on a hunk of wood. Bats also are art: Claes Oldenburg sculpted a 100-foot bat for the city of Chicago. Bats are alive: When one breaks on a base hit, the expression goes, "It dies a hero." Bats are also the inspiration for a great many tales.
Earl Torgeson of the Braves had just ended an 0-for-forever slump with a single, but Giant catcher Sal Yvars didn't appreciate it when Torgeson slung his bat so hard it hit Yvars in the foot. So Yvars took the bat by the barrel and smacked it on the plate. Unfortunately, it popped. Only a handful of folks at Braves Field that day in '52 noticed the unsplendid splintering, and so it came as a great surprise when, at inning's end, Torgeson took off, charged across the diamond and commenced flailing at Yvars, who was sitting peacefully on the dugout steps. Two years later Torgeson and Yvars, still feuding, got themselves suspended after a beanball incident.
The first immutable truth about bats is that each batter has a unique rapport with his own. Images linger of Ruth carving notches like eyelashes around his bat's trademark to mark each homer he hit, of Johnny Pesky jabbering to his bats long before Mark Fidrych introduced himself to a ball, of Rose toting his bats to ballparks in customized leather sheaths, like a pool hustler with his cues. Batters can be roughly grouped into three species:
Shillelus umbilicus: This is the player who doesn't leave home without a bat, and would trade his home for a hot one. He hefts and hoards them till death do them part. For instance, when most of Ron Kittle's high school pals were burying six-packs in a cedar coffin to be dredged up at their 10th reunion, the future White Sox slugger interred his homemade bat. Then there is Ashburn, who slumbered with his lumber. "When you're going good, you want to take care of your bat," Ashburn explains.
Rose often punctuates interviews with his bat—handling it, flexing it, examining it for bumps and bruises. He chooses his wood carefully. "I usually use the same bat in batting practice that I use in a game," he explained shortly before breaking the major league hit record last year. "I may just pick one up that feels good to me that night. I might not have had any sleep, or I might have had too much sleep and feel a little stronger. My bats don't have weights on them so sometimes one might feel lighter than the other; other times it may feel heavier." Got that?
Lumberus nurturus: Not content with what nature offers, this player hopes to hype his bats, for whatever Frey-dian reasons. (Cubs manager Jim soaked his in motor oil during his playing career.) One common practice is "boning" a bat; that is, rubbing a bone or Coke bottle up and down the barrel of the bat to seal the pores and toughen the wood. In order to highlight the ball marks on his bats after a game, Dale Murphy cleans them with alcohol. (Yes, kids, alcohol!) Leon Durham has his mother pray over his sticks before each season.
Some have gone to even greater lengths for an edge. During the off-season, Frankie Frisch hung his bats in a barn to cure them like sausages. Eddie Collins buried his in a dunghill to keep them alive. Home Run Baker was said to have used a magical rubbing compound made of ingredients that he never would reveal. But the cake-taker was Jim Kelly, a former catcher in the Phillies' farm system, who once, while he was 0 for 16, not only drew a pair of eyes on the barrel (the better to see you with, my dear) but also a pair of glasses to compensate for the poor lighting in minor league parks. That night he nearly blinded his bat with a pair of homers.
Norm Cash, the king of the subversive splinter group, used corked bats that he believed added up to 50 feet a shot. By boring a hole about eight inches deep at the fat end of the bat and filling the top of it with cork, sawdust and glue, he claimed he could generate more bat speed without sacrificing mass. Stormin' Norman's theory looked terrific when he hit .361 with 41 homers and 132 RBIs for the Tigers in 1961. Would that his tainted wood had worked as well the next year, when he slumped to .243. Hitters have also carved grooves into the bat barrel to create a pocket of air to help push the ball from the bat. Pretty sophisticated, huh?
Instruments indifferentus: Perhaps it is all in the wrists. Willie Stargell, of the old Lumber Company, stipulated only that the model he used have someone else's name on it. Mantle's epic blast at Yankee Stadium was launched with Dale Long's bat. Lou Piniella would hit with anything handy, particularly a Mickey Rivers model. That's because Rivers often roamed the Yankee dugout like a carnival barker: "Hey, I got a lucky bat here." It was Rivers, you'll remember, who slipped Bucky Dent the bat with which Dent smacked the three-run home run that banned Boston from the 1978 playoff. But let history note: Both a borrower and a lender Rivers was. Roy White had earlier supplied Rivers with the very wood Mickey gave to Dent.