The Baseball Bat

... from the first crack to the 'clank'

by Bernie Mussill

Former Major League pitcher for the 1944 Phillies, Bernard James Mussill left the playing field to pursue a career in the sporting goods field. Bernie has been involved with this industry since the mid-40's. Along with his personal knowledge of sports equipment, Mr. Mussill has dedicated his time to research the origin and evolution of the Baseball Bat. (Link, Connie and Bernie)

Published in Oldtyme Baseball News, Volume 4, Issue 2
Updated 1999, 2000, 2008 , 2009 tranfered site from AOL--© Bernie Mussill, 2000
e-mail: blinddogpix@comcast.net

Check out the poster of 4 seam fastball grip on blinddogpix.smugmug.com

On file at National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc. Research Library. (Link, HofF)


Thanks to the following people and organizations for their help with this article:

Bill Deane, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Hillerich & Bradsby, Easton Sports, Rawling-Adirondack, Baseball's Greatest Moments, 20th Century Chronicle, Mussill's Sports Center, Charles "Red" House, Joe Bauman, Joe Houser

Photo Credits: B Mussill, National Baseball Hall of Fame,



 
 

'The Evolution of the Baseball Bat

Come travel with me one hundred fifty two years back into history and let us study 'The Evolution of the Baseball Bat". I am sure that each of us at onetime or another has had the urge to skip a stone across a lake or to pitch, catch, throw or bat some type of a ball. In Europe, Nicholas Grudich played Lupka with other boys by using a five-inch round pointed stick that was set at an angle, on the ground and hit with a flat bat. From these types of activities came groups of boys playing Rounders, Flyball, Townball and Caddy.

Townball was a game involving twenty to thirty boys in a field attempting to catch a ball hit by atosser. The tosser used a four-inch flit bat with a tapered handle so that his hands could grip it firmly for control and leverage. Even though history is sketchy at this time, I believe that it is safe to say that from this idea came the modem day baseball bat that is used in every game to thrill fans all over the world.
 
 

BYOB

(Bring Your Own BAT)

Numerous, changes were made in all aspects of the game of baseball during the first six years. At this time, each player was responsible for his own bat, and there were no restrictions as to length, size, or width. Bill Deane Senior Research Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, has on record a well-documented account of a baseball game played on June 19,1846 at Elysian Field in Hoboken, New Jersey. This game was the first played under the Alexander Cartwright rules, which included a nine-inning game, nine players-on each team and three outs per side. However baseball players made their own bats, and, as a result, many different sizes and shapes were used.

During this particular time in history, players experimented with different kinds of wood for their bats in order to improve their hitting ability. They soon realized that Wagon Tongue wood was the best for making baseball bats. While the transition to Wagon Tongue wood was taking place, players also realized they could hit a ball much more solidly with a round bat. While some players continued to make their own bats, others had their bats made by a woodmaker. Within the next four or five years, the round bat became very popular. All ball players were using a round Wagon Tongue bat and the only flat surface bat on any team was used strictly for bunting. The round-bat had definitely taken over.

As we arrive in the year 1852, there are still no restrictions on bats. Although the type of wood used for bats and the shape of bats were uniform; players could use any size bat that they could adequately handle. Knowing that bats with a larger barrel have a better hitting surface, players continued to have their bats made larger and of any length. This continued until the batter had the definite advantage and was prevalent, through 1858.
 
 

The Early Restrictions

In 1859, The Professional National Association of Baseball Players Governing Committee voted in favor of the first limitation on bat size. The limitation specified that bats may be no larger than two and one half inches in diameter and that they may be of any length. As we shall see, several more changes evolved from this limitation in the forthcoming years.

With the two and one-half inch barrel rule, players began to have woodworkers reshape-their bats. For example, the taper of the handle was made larger for a better hitting surface. Woodworkers were also now aware that. The best grain for baseball bats was found only in quality wood.

Approaching the Civil War years, 1861to 1865, some players had a difficult time gripping the large bat handle. In order to avoid this problem, they wrapped cord or string around the handle. The result was better control. Other players recognized the benefits of the wrapping effect and the-idea became very popular.

Before the year 1869, there were no existing limitations on the length of the baseball bats. Then, in 1869, the rule governing die bat length was adopted and stated "Length limit on bats, maximum forty-thee inches long." Surprisingly, this particular rule has notchanged. It is in today's rule- book under Division One - Rule 1.10A."The Bat".

While players had a chance to digest the new bat rules, the woodworkers were trying to manufacture the most popular bat. In 1879, after considerable experimenting with various styles, it was said that "long and slender is the common style of bats". In addition, the handle had a carved knob for better control.

Hillerich to the Rescue

An important event happened in 1884, which is now frozen in history. This event involved a broken bat and a young wood-' worker. During the 1884 baseball season, John Hillerich, a woodworker for his father and a good amateur ballplayer, was in the stands watching 'The Louisville Eclipse' of The Professional American Association play. During this game, Pete "The Gladiator" Browning, star outfielder, broke his favorite bat and became very frustrated.After the game, young Hillerich invited Pete to his dad's woodworking shop. He claimed that he could create a new bat for Pete.

After Browning and Hillerich selected a piece of white ash, Hillerich began to " shape the new bat" according to Browning's directions. With Browning looking over his shoulder and periodically taking practice swings, Hillerich worked through the night. Finally, Browning announced that the bat was just right. The next day, Browning used the Hillerich bat and hit three for three. Soon after, not only did Browning's teammates begin to order bats from the Hillerich woodworking shop, but so did players from other teams. Yes, the seventeen-year-old youngster made his first custom-made bat for Pete Browning, who virtually put the Hillerich family in the bat business.

As we progress to the year 1887, we find John "Bud" Hillerich and his father J. Frederick continuing to sell as many bats as they can make for the Major Leagues. Although small independent companies were also making bats, they lacked the proper skills and techniques and were unable to compete with the Hillerich business. Their bats were made based on the preferences of the individual players. "Bud" Hillerich and his workers knew the weight, length, style and selection of Wood. For example, there were many different types of wood used for making bats, including the wood used for making ax handles. However, only top quality Wagon Tongue, White Ash and Hickory were considered the best. Later, it was determined that Hickory was too heavy. Also, the Louisville Slugger trademark on each bat was now recognized by all players.

In 1893, once again the Baseball Rules Committee added two most important improvements to the game. First, it was no longer permissible to use bats sawed off at the end as well as flat bats used for bunting. Second, the pitching mound was moved from fifty feet to sixty feet, six inches from home plate. In addition, in 1895, the diameter of bats was increased to two and three-fourths inches, from two and one-half inches. The length of the bats remained the same at forty-two inches.

Whose Bat Do You Use?

The Louisville Slugger trademark on each bat led to the branding of player signatures on the barrel of the bats. Until then, players' carved their initials or in some other way marked the knob or barrel of their bats. Baseball players using Louisville slugger bats before the turn of the century included: Willie Keeler, Hugh Duffy, Pete Browning, John McGraw, Hugh Jennings, Honus Wagner and the Delaney brothers, just to name a few. " Bud" Hillerich earned a partnership in his father's business in 1897. The name of the company was then changed to "J.F. Hillerich and Son". At the turn of the century, A.G. Spalding and Brothers (Link,AG Spalding Ad), being in the sporting goods business, were advertising and selling their very popular Mushroom and Gold Seal bats. Wright and Ditson were also selling their Nap Lajole bats (Link,W&D), featuring the new and unique double ring handle. A.J. Reach baseball bats added even more incentive to the highly competitive business of manufacturing baseball bats.

Spalding's Mushroom

Spalding stamped the word Mushroom above their small trademark. They emphasized quality, balance and the knob arrangement at the end of die bat. This combination enabled the batter to get a better distribution of weight over the entire length of the bat. This advantage was not possible to achieve under the old construction. Spalding felt as though the Mushroom bat with the round knob was the perfect bat. The Mushroom Model M, plain or special finish, and Model MT, taped handle, each sold for one dollar.

The Spalding Gold Medal Bat, according to their advertisements, was made of the best quality White Ash. When purchased, this bat was inspected and registered with the model, weight, length and timber. It was available with gold or plain finish, taped and carried a diamond-shaped guarantee card. If any part of the bat proved defective during the season in which it was purchased, it could be returned with the guarantee card to any retailer or dealer that carried Spalding bats. Spalding also sold bats that were plain, gold finish, taped with a white wax finish. This particular model sold for one dollar and the same bat for boys sold for fifty cents.
 
 

One Bat Two Handles

Wright and Ditson, located in Boston, Massachusetts, featured a special Nap without a double ring handle. The second ring on the handle was also called the shoulder. Wright and Ditson advertised that batters had a much better grip and better bat control when they hit with their hands apart and the shoulder between their hands. If a player was to grasp the bat up on the handle (choke up on Lajoie bat, with or the bat), he could use the shoulder in place of the knob and, again, enhance his grip and control.

Nap Lajoie bats were available in light, medium or heavy weight. The bats were made from the best quality Ash and came in four styles. These styles included length, thirty-three and onehalf inches, shoulder three inches from end; length thirty four inches, shoulder three inches; length, thirty-five inches, shoulder, five inches; and, length. Thirty-five inches, shoulder, one and three-fourths inches. Also, the name Lajoie was branded on the barrel of each bat. Regular style Lajoie bats featured the taped handle and did not have the shoulder. The bats of Napoleon "Nap" Lajoie, star second baseman for the National and American Leagues, sold for one dollar and twenty-five cents each.

(Link: L S Bat   Louisville bat Double Knob)
 
 

Harvest the Field

Or

Hit the Ball

Now, let us focus on a rather unique bat that resembled a hand-held sickle. The inventor, Emile Kinst, applied for and had his bat patented in 1906. His bat featured useful improvements that enabled the batter to strike the ball in various directions. The handle resembled that ofa regular bat up to the trademark. However, beyond the trade mark, there were small longitudinal grooves as well as a somewhat flat concave curve that continued along the hitting surface to the end of the bat. The longitudinal grooves on the handle continued along both sides of the hitting surface. The face or concave part of the hitting surface had three larger grooves. The center groove was straight and the twoouter grooves bowed outward. These aided in preventing the ball from making a fly or foul tip by engaging the surface of the ball when hit. By hitting the ball at certain points of the bat, the ball could be driven to left, center or right field.

It is true that the Emile Kinst bat exhibited several innovative ideas that gave the batter, the extra dimension. I am sure that this bat was used by players at the amateur level and helped to improve their hitting. However, by 1893, the Major League rule on bats was very explicit. The rule, in part, stated that the bat shall be a smooth, round stick not more than two and three-fourths inches in diameter. For this reason, ‘The Major League Rules Committee’ rejected the use of the Emile Kinst bat.
 
 

Pay For an Autograph

 

 

As the years progressed, J.F. Hillerich and Son introduced still another innovative idea involving their bats and Honus Wagner. In 1905, Wagner, the shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, became the first player ever to sign a contract with Hillerich to have his autograph burnedinto the wood of the barrel of his Louisville Slugger. Tyrus Cobb, centerfielder for the Detroit Tigers, was another player who also began his illustrious reign in baseball with a Louisville Slugger in his hand. Often' called "The Georgia Peach", Cobb was one of baseball's greatest players. He was a fierce competitor with a lifetime batting average of .367. Honus Wagner, one of the greatest all-around players,' broke into the Majors hitting .344. Called "The Flying Dutchman", Wagner was considered, the best shortstop ever to play that position. Did you know that these two great players used the same style bat? Both bats had a large barrel with tappered, thick handle. Cobb was one of the last players to use the once-popular split-handed grip. He also taught this special technique to Tris Speaker and to Heinie Manush of the Detroit Tigers..

Frank Baker, another advocate of the' Louisville Slugger, played third base for Connie Mack in his one hundred thousand dollar infield. Baker's two home runs in the' 1911 World Series were game winners and led to his nickname "Home Run" Baker. Frank was The Home Run King in the American League for four consecutive years. He topped his career with twelve in 1913. Jack McGrath, of Hillerich and Bradsby, evaluated Baker's bat by commenting, "Baker used a bat antiquated even in his time. The handle was almost the size of the barrel. It was short but almost like a piece of lead because it weighed fifty-two ounces. There was no flex. It really was a ‘Wagon Tongue’.
 
 

J . F. Hillerich and Son are busy again with still another of their now famous innovations. This time, they developed the new cork grip handle for their bats. This feature was patented on September 15, 1914. I currently have in my possession J. F. Hillerich and Son Louisville Slugger Mode 40K, autographed by Joe Jackson. This bat was given to my father because he hit a home run to win a very important game ' (image not available)'

Now let us travel back into history as I grip the thick cork handle of the thirty-three inch, thirty-eight ounce 40K Slugger. Let us imagine major-league players such as Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth in the on deck circle, preparing to approach home plate and settle into their stance.
 
 Link to next page:

Enter Frank Bradsby FRANK BRADSBY


© Bernie Mussill, 2000
 Last updated 2009

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