Steve Rushin. The 34-Ton Bat. New York: Little Brown, 2013. Print.
The title refers to a baseball bat, not the nocturnal flying animals.
This is not a baseball history book, but a book about the history of baseball things. That is, the history of baseballs, gloves, bases, batting helmets, socks, uniforms, caps, concessions, souvenirs, ballpark organists, and so on.
Sports Illustrated writer Rushin has a lively style as he flits from one topic to another. The title got my attention because my work occasionally has taken me to Louisville where the 34-ton bat leaning against the Louisville Slugger Museum Factory is an icon of the city. While the book does include the story of that bat and the Louisville Slugger bats in general, it covers much more.
This also is not really a baseball trivia book. However, the author is careful to use details effectively to make his point. Louisville Slugger bats have been custom made for major leaguers for over 100 years. Once Ted Williams sent a shipment of bats back because he said the grip was not the right size. The factory measured the grip of the bats when they came back and found them five hundredths of an inch off Williams’s specifications. Things like that make a difference.
Yes, we know that early baseball players did not wear gloves, and it was not until the 1950s that even the pros had webbed gloves that really spared their hands. Before that, the flat, padded “Hamburger Helper” gloves did not help much when catching a ball being hit at over 100 m.p.h. Once Lou Gehrig’s hands were x-rayed; the x-rays reveals that he had suffered a total of seventeen fractures in his hands. Iron man indeed! Many catchers’ hands were so misshapen that they hardly looked human.
The 34-Ton Bat pretty much starts with the first major league teams in the 1870s. It rarely goes back farther than that. Even so, the book acknowledges what a historian at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library told the author: “Many times when you read of the ‘first’ of something, you dig a little deeper and find one that came before it.” He recommends saying something like “the earliest known record.” (91)
A great example of this which the book relates is the story of the battling glove. Ken Harrelson used a golf glove to bat in 1964 during a game because he had developed a blister while playing golf earlier in the day. People apparently acted like it was something new, and Harrelson was teased about his glove. Still, Rushin found references to batting gloves going back to 1932 and batters specifically using golf gloves by the end of that decade.
Some changes did take decades to take effect. Even though teams were occasionally using batting helmets in the 1920s, most players scorned them in spite of the obvious protection they provided. Finally in 1971 Major League Baseball required batting helmets. A few years later they required helmets for coaches on the field. Players already in the Majors in 1971 did not have to wear them, though most did. The last player to bat without one was Red Sox catcher Bob Montgomery who retired in 1979. (He certainly wore plenty of gear as a catcher. Catchers were the first players to regularly wear protective cups—Rushin gives us a history of those, too.)
Another problem that baseball players and fans do not face today is the intensity of heat waves. Yes, people still occasionally pass out in the stands, but with air conditioning nearly everywhere and improved stadium sanitation, people playing baseball are not dying from heat. (Well, unless they are using the wrong kind of PED on a hot day.) At a Chicago Cubs game in the 1930s, a Cubs player took over as umpire in a game because the umpire passed out and could not be revived. He remained in the game and became an umpire for many years after that: I recall Jocko Conlan still umpiring games when I was a kid.
The Brooklyn Baseball team was first the Atlantics, then the Superbas, then the Robins, and finally the Trolley Dodgers or just Dodgers. The New York Highlanders were first nicknamed the Yankees by a Boston newspaper in 1909. The Detroit team was called the Wolverines. Their stockings had yellow and blue stripes, not unlike the University of Michigan Wolverines’ football helmets today. The striping reminded people more of tigers, and eventually that name stuck.
Rushin credits Randy Hundley with the first hinged and webbed catcher’s mitt used in the majors in 1967. I can recall seeing the padded doughnuts that passed for catcher’s mitts before. But, reminded of what the Hall of Fame librarian said, I wonder if that was really the first. I recall Pirate catcher Bob Oldis around 1960 having an unusual mitt that made him a defensive specialist. At any rate Hundley’s mitt caught on (yeah). In 1968 rookie Reds catcher Johnny Bench used it and really changed what people expected from a good catcher. Both Bench and Hundley could play in more games in a season than most catchers had up to that point.
It is like Columbus discovering America. There is solid concrete evidence the Norse were frequently traveling to North America in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The evidence is fairly strong that the Irish had been there, too, at one point. Thor Heyerdahl made a case even for Egyptians or Phoenecians earlier. However, Columbus’s mattered because after he landed in America, Europeans from many countries would go there, settle there, and eventually rule there. So Hundley’s glove became the model and marked the change in catchers throughout baseball.
This review just scratches the surface, but hopefully gives the reader an idea of what to expect. It is an entertaining and light read, but it is also clear that a lot of research went into The 34-Ton Bat, and a lot of love.