George Wright Remembers: Baseball Bats
As the response to George Wright’s “lost” interview from 1888 about baseball uniforms was highly complimentary, I give this space over to him once again. The time is again June 1888, the subject is baseball bats—including a number of variants that recall the corked bats of recent times—and the authority is impeccable. In the undefeated 1869 campaign of the Cincinnati Reds, in 57 contests that came against National Association clubs, George Wright’s bat produced an average of five hits and ten total bases per game, collecting 49 home runs among his 304 hits and batting .629. To the argument that the opposition was frequently soft: In the club’s19 games against fellow professionals (the Reds won all, of course), he hit 13 home runs and batted .587. I am indebted to my friend and estimable historian Bob Schaefer for the woodcut illustrations below. Now, to quote the nonpareil player of the age.
There is one curious thing in connection with base ball bats and their use by both professional and amateurs throughout the country which I think has not as yet been noticed, or at least received due attention.
I refer to the very marked changes which have taken place within my own recollection in the size and shape of base ball bats. It is queer whit an effect experience, change in playing rules, and especially the science of curving the ball have had upon them. Formerly long bats were all the rage, and players, both professional and amateur, held up legs of wood, some of them 3-1/2 feet in length, and fanned the air in a way that would seem perfectly ridiculous to the average player to-day.
Henry Chadwick of Brooklyn, the veteran among base ball reporters, was the first to introduce what was known as the square bat. It was forty-two inches in length, and was truly an immense affair. That was about the year 1860, away back in the days of the Knickerbocker, Eagle and Gotham clubs. Chadwick was always present at the games, sitting on the benches, invariably carrying an umbrella under his arm. The square bat, however, proved a fizzle, as the claim that more force was gained in the strike with less labor to the batsman proved untenable when put to the actual test.
At about the same time a hollow ash bat, loaded with a movable ball of lignum vitae, was used as an experiment by some players. A hole was bored some distance into the larger end of the bat, the lignum vitae ball inserted and the hole stopped up, This ball played freely back and forth in the hollow, and whenever the batsman brought forward the bat for the strike the ball rolled toward the end away from the handle, and the ball sent in by the pitcher struck the bat at a point opposite the lignum vitae ball. There was little advantage gained by this, however, as the rolling and snapping of the ball inside the bat often sounded like the tick of a foul ball and occasioned considerable trouble.
About the year 1873-4, in the [Boston] Red Stocking nine, a couple of bats made of willow, with cane handles, like those of cricket bats, were introduced. They had a certain spring end snap to them, but cost about $5 apiece, and as one would last on an average only one game, it was rather expensive. The bail went off with a snap and a spring, but the handles proved weak and were constantly breaking.
One of the most curious bats ever gotten up was one that was put into my hands to test. From the larger end, on the outer surface of the bat, a number of grooves were run up toward the handle for about six inches perhaps. This artful contrivance was to do away, if possible, with any such things as fouls or “ticks,” the claim being that the ball on striking the bat would catch upon the grooves and always be hit “fair.”
This, however, was soon abandoned. A laughable thing happened in connection with another crank “bat” once while I was testing it, which is perhaps worthy of mention. Some person had taken a bat, bored a hole in the larger end for about six inches, inserted several small rubber balls about two inches in diameter, and plugged up the end with cork so as to give to the bat no additional weight. The idea was to have a springy bat that would not crack.
I was striking, and neither the pitcher nor the catcher knew anything at the time about the “crank” bat. A ball was pitched and I struck at it, but unfortunately the stopper in the end of the bat came out and three or four of the rubber balls flew out in all directions, some at the pitcher, some at basemen, and some at the shortstop. There was a pretty lively scrimmage for those balls, I can tell you. I was put out on a “foul,” one “liner,” one “pop fly” and two “sky scrapers” all at once. This was certainly discouraging for a batsman, and I need hardly say that this unfortunate episode brought its career to a timely close.
The real reason for the substitution of the short for the long bat is its lighter weight, and the sharp, quick blow which one can give with it. In an “in-curve,” for instance, the long bat would have to be brought in near the body to hit the ball at all, although the striker generally allows the “in” and “out” curves to pass him, and strikes at the “drops” and “risers.” If any one would invent a base ball bat that would last a season without breaking, a player would willingly give $5 for it. But bats made of the very best stuff are constantly breaking.
“Base ball players are the hardest men in the world to suit in matters relating to their own outfitting when the choice is left to themselves,” said a well known sportinq goods dealer. “Take the matter of bats, for instance, and there are only two men in the Allegheny club who are good judges of the article. These are [Abner] Dalrymple and [Cliff] Carroll, who practically pick out the sticks for the whole team. Carroll brought back with him from Chicago a round dozen good sticks, and probably as many more have been selected since the boys gathered in at the beginning of the season. The Allegheny boys use a good sized bat, weighing: all the way from thirty-eight to forty-five ounces and averaging from thirty-five to thirty-seven inches in length. Another thing that 1 have noticed as peculiar about some of the boys is their superstition regarding a certain stick, which they call their lucky stick and will allow no one else to use. I have seen them stand about open lots watching with deep interest a lot of urchins play until one of them made a good hit. They would then move up, examine the bat, and in all probability buy it for ten times what it cost, though it might be a piece of the commonest kind of ash.”