By Steve Rushin
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No sport embraces its wild history quite like baseball, especially in memorabilia and objects. Sure, there are baseball cards and team pennants. But there are also huge balls, giant bats, peanuts, cracker jacks, eyeblack, and more, each with a backstory you have to read to believe. In The 34-Ton Bat, Sports Illustrated writer Steve Rushin tells the real, unvarnished story of baseball through the lens of all the things that make it the game that it is.
Rushin weaves these rich stories — from ballpark pipe organs played by malevolent organists to backed up toilets at Ebbets Field — together in their order of importance (from most to least) for an entertaining and compulsive read, glowing with a deep passion for America’s Pastime. The perfect holiday gift for casual fans and serious collectors alike, The 34-Ton Bat is a true heavy hitter.
Table of Contents
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THE WALK-IN FREEZER OF DREAMS
It arrives on a gray November day: a brown box filled with packing peanuts, which I brush away with an archaeologist's care to reveal a caramel-colored catcher's mitt—palm up, so that as I reach for it, it appears to reach for me, as if straining to be exhumed from a cardboard coffin.
The mitt belonged to Jimmy Boyle, who wore it for the entirety of his major-league baseball career, which consisted of a single inning of a single game for the New York Giants on June 20, 1926. With his team trailing the defending world champion Pittsburgh Pirates 8–0 in the top of the ninth inning, manager John McGraw summoned Boyle to replace Paul Florence behind home plate at the Polo Grounds. The twenty-two-year-old Boyle, about to realize his lifelong ambition, quietly slipped this mitt over his left hand.
Eighty-five years later, I remove the mitt from its box and instinctively secure it over my nose and mouth, like supplemental oxygen. I take a deep drag—of leather, sweat, and smoke, of a hot Sunday in Harlem, of late-afternoon shadows slanting across the infield, and forty thousand dry-throated spectators lamenting Prohibition.
And then I slide my fingers into the mitt—its pocket molded by the palm of a dead man—and shake hands for the first time with the grandfather I never knew.
Jimmy Boyle was my mother's father. He died of leukemia on Christmas Eve of 1958, eight years before I was born, but a photograph of him in his home Giants uniform—in a catcher's crouch, wearing this mitt, his short-brimmed cap tugged low across his forehead—hung in the house I grew up in, forever silent under glass.
In the photo, Boyle's thick wool socks are pulled high. The Giants uniform is long-sleeved, made of heavy flannel, eight ounces to the yard and spectacularly ill suited to a hot summer in Manhattan, to which Boyle had traveled by Pullman car, summoned there from Cincinnati on the Gothic letterhead of "The New York Base Ball Club, John J. McGraw, Vice Pres. & Manager."
In New York, Boyle signed a contract with the Giants for $250 a month, minus a $30 security deposit for the two gorgeous uniforms he was issued. He couldn't keep the home whites or road grays, but he kept everything else from his one summer in the big leagues, including his mitt, and a letter detailing his travel expenses to New York, and a note he wrote on July 24 from the Hotel Chase in St. Louis, on the fifteenth day of a sixteen-game road trip:
"To the best mother in all of this big world," it said, the Palmer script leaning backward, as if reflecting the sudden speed of his new life. "May I realize an ambition that I have harbored since birth." He signed it "James," then added "New York Giants," as if it were an honorific, like "M.D." or "Esquire."
Which of course it was.
Is it any wonder he saved these things? Having seldom traveled outside Cincinnati—where he and professional baseball were born—Boyle was a big-league ballplayer for forty-three days before that Pullman carriage turned into a pumpkin. Upon his release—he'd only played once in six weeks—he pressed some of his baseball mementos into a small scrapbook, on whose title page he had written, in that impeccable hand:
Little scrap book of mine
When your pages are dusty and gray
Then will your contents call me back
To the days that I've passed away.
He passed the scrapbook to his only son, my uncle Pat, now retired in Reno, who gave it to me as a souvenir. Souvenir: a French irregular pronominal verb that means "to remember."
I also got the mitt, and the contract countersigned by Giants secretary Eddie Brannick, whose first job with the club—as a sixteen-year-old in 1908—required him to guard the team's supply of baseballs for the penurious McGraw, who knew that those balls were even then an object of desire to fans, players, and anyone else seeking a piece of the national memory.
These objects—catcher's mitt, contract, and scrapbook—had been playing dead for eighty-five years. Now they were suddenly in my home—shaking hands, sitting up, rolling over.
Could they also be taught to speak?
Jimmy Boyle had a little brother named Ralph, whom everybody called Buzz, and Buzz was the better ballplayer. Buzz was my great-uncle in every sense of that word. Buzz played five seasons in the big leagues, the last three for the Brooklyn Dodgers, playing right field for Casey Stengel at a time in the 1930s when Hack Wilson played left.
On a childhood trip to Cincinnati in the 1970s—by which time Uncle Buzz had spent three decades as a scout for the Reds, then Expos, then Royals—I ascended to an upstairs room of his house, paneled walls filled with yellowed balls and lacquered bats and photographs of men who seemed like famous fictional creations to me but were, to him, colleagues and contemporaries.
On September 21, 1934—in a season when he hit safely in twenty-five consecutive games—Buzz broke up a Dizzy Dean no-hitter in the eighth inning of a game at Ebbets Field. The same afternoon, in the second game of a doubleheader, Dizzy's brother Daffy Dean did throw a no-hitter. Buzz made the final out, with Leo Durocher fielding his smash on a short hop and nailing him on a bang-bang play at first.
These men, and the tools of their trade, exerted a powerful hold on me. Like the woman in Luke, healed when she touched the hem of Christ's garment, or middle-aged Elvis fans, clamoring to catch his towel, I thought there was transcendence in the very fabrics they wore. I was hardly the first to think so. On February 9, 1936, two Brooklyn cops were walking a beat on Bedford Avenue, in the snow and sleet of a Sunday afternoon. As the patrolmen passed beneath the right field wall of Ebbets Field, they saw an unusual spectacle. From inside the ballpark, six baseball bats vaulted the wall and clattered to the sidewalk. There followed a single pair of flannel baseball pants, softly parachuting to the pavement. When three teenage boys followed the pants over the wall, officers Herman Nagle and Herman Moeller were waiting, nightsticks idly twirling.
One boy escaped. The other two confessed: They had broken into the Dodgers' clubhouse and stolen a bouquet of bats and my Uncle Buzz's uniform pants, BOYLE inked into the waistband. One of the teenagers, Robert Goldfarb, was arraigned in Adolescents' Court, while the other—fifteen-year-old Solomon Cohen—was sent to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric observation.
But the kid wasn't crazy to want to possess a big-league baseball player's uniform pants. Or if he was, I certainly understood the impulse.
As a child, I wasn't trying to break out of a major-league ballpark. I was trying to find a way in. Thirty-two years before my grandfather's catcher's mitt arrived by UPS, another baseball talisman had arrived in the mail, changing my life.
It was an embossed plastic card, like a credit card, that identified me on my thirteenth birthday in 1979 as the newest employee of the Minnesota Twins Baseball Club. The card—my rookie card, if they issued them to hot-dog boilers—bore the Twins' mesmerizing logo: two flanneled players, Minnie and Paul, shaking hands across the Mississippi River. It was like the seal of some sovereign nation to which I'd just been given citizenship. With closed eyes, I ran my fingers across my name's raised letters, as if doing so might reveal some secret message.
And it did, unlocking a hidden world. In my first season at Metropolitan Stadium, the Twins' outdoor ballpark in my hometown of Bloomington, Minnesota, I saw Reggie Jackson in his Yankees road grays walking gingerly in his spikes across the polished concrete floor of the interior tunnel where I punched in. "You suck," one of my teenage colleagues shouted on a dare, but Reggie walked on, ostentatiously oblivious, exactly as he looked later that day when fans showered him with the candy bars that bore his name, implacable in a fusillade of nougat.
That tunnel was baseball's backstage, filled with the multitude of objects that made it all go round: vaudevillian steel travel trunks, Louisville Sluggers, wheeled batting cages, CO2 canisters of Coke and Sunkist, laundry hampers littered with stirrups and sanitary socks, industrial bags of yellow popcorn, and sharp-cornered cases of Rawlings baseballs, pristine white in their little rows, as in a carton of Grade A eggs.
As with most circuses, the Twins were a family business, full of lifers—concessionaires, carnies, the tattooed and the too-tanned, men (for there were hardly any women) whose faces betrayed sun-soaked days and beer-soaked nights. My paychecks bore the facsimile signature of Calvin R. Griffith, the Twins' owner, who had a stuffed marlin mounted on his office wall and a parking spot whose RESERVED sign had been hand-altered to read REVERED.
Here, in one cantankerous man, was the whole history of major-league baseball. Calvin was a single degree of separation from the game's beginnings. At age eleven, he was adopted by his uncle, Clark Griffith, Hall of Fame pitcher turned manager turned Washington Senators owner, who had begun his own career in organized baseball in 1887. Clark Griffith invented the screwball (or so he claimed) and was the first manager of the New York baseball team that would become the Yankees. He was born the year before Charles Dickens died. And his son—it scarcely seemed possible—was my boss.
Calvin had been batboy for the Senators during the Coolidge administration. As a twelve-year-old, in Game 7 of the 1924 World Series, Calvin had been charged with guarding the supply of game balls at Griffith Stadium, just as Eddie Brannick had done years earlier for John McGraw with the Giants. But when the Senators beat the Giants for the world title that afternoon, celebrating fans overran Calvin and made off with the baseball supply, leaving the boy in tears.
Then, as now, baseballs were the game's most accessible game-used object, and they were prized. Owners employed cops or security guards to fight the fans for possession of a foul ball hit into the stands. Failure to return a foul ball was grounds for ejection and even prosecution well into the 1920s. The objects of the game—as Calvin discovered that day, weeping over an empty canvas bag—were unaccountably intoxicating to a great many people.
There were other intoxicants, too: At the Met, reporting for work on a Sunday morning as a thirteen-year-old, I passed case after case of Grain Belt beer stacked on pallets, the bottles waiting to be decanted into wax cups and then decanted again into Twins fans.
It was a job of proximity. No matter your level, you were granted access to the ballpark. I came close enough to hear the snap and pop of the static electricity on George Brett's powder-blue road pants. Rollie Fingers's face, in person, looked just like the guy's on the Pringles can. Strolling up one of the ballpark's vomitoria—has there ever been a less apt word for something so transformative?—revealed an expanse of grass as green as a pool table.
And all about us in the empty stands of the locked stadium were errant baseballs, hit into the seats during batting practice, waiting to be picked off the walkways like fallen apples from an orchard floor.
With a handful of schoolmates, I was assigned to the seething kitchens of the Met, charged with preparing the food sold by the roving vendors. We were a happy few. To get a job with the Twins in those days you either worked your way up from the fields of A-ball or rode your bike to East Bloomington, to the house of a guy named Smoke. I did neither, because my two older brothers already worked for the Twins. They had a word with Smoke, who was as mysterious and elusive as the name implied. Smoke signaled my approval, just as smoke did with the election of popes.
We were characters out of Dickens: children boiling pots of water to cook the Schweigert hot dogs peddled by vendors. In stadium vernacular, we were "stabbing dogs" and "pulling sodas" and "cupping corn," or popcorn. Our overlords were high school kids, my brother Jim among them. These mercurial manager-gods locked us in the walk-in freezers for insubordination, or for their own amusement. It was Lord of the Flies—Lord of the Pop Flies—but we didn't care. It was like living in a dream in that walk-in freezer, sitting on a mountain of ice cream and hot dogs and snow cones in a major-league ballpark. I felt like Superman, in his Fortress of Solitude, brooding on a throne of ice crystals.
I couldn't bite into a snow cone because my left front tooth was hypersensitive to cold. It had been broken in half by a thrown baseball when I was ten. As a result, I subsisted on Frosty Malts, $0.75 ice cream treats from the Northland Dairy. They came with wooden spoons that looked like tongue depressors. The lid of a Frosty Malt, when thrown properly, sailed like a Frisbee. On hot Saturday afternoons, the warning track at the Met was lid-littered.
We learned, too, how to snap bottle caps—discarded by the Grain Belt beer vendors—onto the field with a flick of thumb and forefinger. At the same time, an adolescent Tom Shieber was learning to do precisely the same thing with Budweiser bottle caps at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. He would grow up to become senior curator of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, caretaker of the game's most priceless and evocative objects, guardian of its crown jewels, including the first known protective cup, which crowned the jewels of catcher Claude Berry in 1915.
I had no way of knowing, in 1979, what would become of me, but I hoped it would involve baseballs, and bottle caps, and Frosty Malts, and powder-blue double-knit knickers that threw off sparks when they came out of an industrial dryer.
And tarps. Whenever it rained at Met Stadium—and we prayed with the fervor of drought-stricken farmers that it would—a lucky few of us were called out of the commissaries to pull the tarp. At fourteen, I was running onto a major-league diamond, trying not to get sucked under—by the speed of the grounds crew or the gravitational pull of professional baseball. I was exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up and—better still—I hadn't had to grow up to arrive there.
On nights it didn't rain, we closed the kitchen in the seventh inning and watched the no-payroll Twins teams of Butch Wynegar and Hosken Powell and Bombo Rivera lose another August heartbreaker. It didn't matter: A workday that began with the percussive thwock of batting practice ended with a PA benediction—"Drive safely"—and a ballpark-organ recessional.
The logos of various teams loomed over the Met Stadium parking lot, suspended from light poles, reminding the beer-addled fan that he had left his Nova beneath the haloed A of the Angels, or the interlocking NY of the Yankees. Baltimore Orioles slugger Boog Powell later told me that after games he would set off on foot for the team hotel at the edge of the Met's parking lot and sometimes fail to make it, stopping instead to tailgate with strangers, and then bunking in their Winnebago for the night, one cartoon Oriole drifting off to sleep beneath another cartoon Oriole, suspended from a light pole.
None of these things could happen a mere ten years later, let alone today. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they weren't all that unusual.
My hereditary affinity for catchers and their gear was sealed on the night of August 25, 1970, during a scoreless tie against the Red Sox. At 10:13 p.m., Twins public-address announcer Bob Casey informed fans that a bomb threat had been phoned in to the Met. "Ladies and gentlemen, there will be an explosion at 10:30," Casey announced definitively—if a tad alarmingly—by way of evacuating the stadium. I was later told that Twins catcher George Mitterwald fled next door to the Thunderbird Motel, where I still conjure a vivid mental image of him in full protective armor—and with the aid of a very long straw—sipping a mai tai through his catcher's mask.
Of course, the only baseball fan who was bombed that night was the drunk who phoned in the threat. Police traced the call to a pay phone inside the stadium, and the game resumed forty-four minutes later, but not before a different kind of fuse had been lit. As I reached school age, baseball was a bomb about to detonate. All its objects—ball, bat, mitt, mask, tarp, hot dog, cartoon bird, beer bottle, ballpark organ—were proving, individually and in concert with one another, powerfully hypnotic.
And so I set out to learn more. In the children's section of my local library was a leather chair shaped like a giant fielder's glove, and I would settle into the palm, like a soft fly, to read about the game.
I would riffle past "Alou" and just beyond "Boyer" in The Baseball Encyclopedia to find another, less celebrated baseball family: the two sets of Boyle brothers—Grandpa Boyle and Uncle Buzz, and their uncles, Jack and Eddie.
My great-grandfather, a fireman and brewery-truck driver named James Boyle, may have had two sons who would play in the big leagues—Jimmy and Buzz—but he also had two brothers who played in the majors: my great-great-uncles, Jack and Eddie. Which is remarkable when you consider that the whole history of major-league baseball is in essence a small town. In 140 years, roughly 17,000 men have played it, about the population of El Segundo, California, and just nine times the population of tiny Cooperstown, New York.
And my family was where it started, in Cincinnati, almost from when major-league baseball began, in 1869. On November 12, 1886, Jack Boyle of the Cincinnati Reds was party to the first trade in professional baseball, sent from his hometown team along with $350 to the St. Louis Browns, for Hugh Nicol.
Jack went on to play for the Giants, Chicago Pirates, and Philadelphia Phillies and was briefly—when signed by the Giants in 1892—the highest-paid player in the history of the game, at a salary of $5,500.
His brother Eddie, in 1896, caught for Connie Mack as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. These men survive in our family in ghostly objects: an Old Judge Tobacco card of Jack, a newspaper line portrait of Eddie, a sheaf of stories clipped from ancient newspapers. There is also, of course, a genetic inheritance. Jack Boyle—born one hundred years and six months to the day before I was—stood six foot four and weighed 190 pounds, exactly as I do now.
All of this is to say that for a full century, from the 1880s to the 1980s, a member of my family was employed by a professional baseball team. We were in 1892 the highest paid in the history of the game and, in 1982, the lowest paid.
At the Met—as Metropolitan Stadium was universally known, with appropriately operatic echoes—my wage in dollars went from $2.90 to $3.10 to $3.35 over three seasons. If he moved the decimal point one place to the left, a child of sufficient imagination could just believe it was his batting average, climbing.
In imitation of the ballplayers, many employees—grown men and teenagers alike, in a workplace where the women were largely confined to the concession stands—chewed Red Man tobacco. We children sometimes wrapped it in Bazooka or Dubble Bubble, and were profoundly grateful for the arrival of Big League Chew, shredded bubble gum in a tobacco pouch, that gave the cheek a conspicuous bulge without the incipient taste (or mouth cancer).
We were just kids. But we felt the clock ticking. That's because Met Stadium was condemned to close after the 1981 season. The Twins would be moving indoors the following year. Each of us knew, even then, it was the best job we would ever have, no matter what we would do as grown-ups.
The last game ever played at the Met wasn't a baseball game at all—it was a Vikings loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. We closed the commissary early as fans began dismantling the stadium mid-game, picking over its carcass for souvenirs. I took two seat backs. Others pulled down the field-goal netting and endeavored to tear out pay phones. A man climbed the scoreboard and began throwing down oversized letters and numbers, an apocalyptic rain of figures and characters that recalled an anxiety dream the night before an algebra exam.
A cloud of Mace descended on the stadium, issued by police. As we drove away, we passed several fans on foot carrying a piece of the goalpost down Killebrew Drive, like an army of ants speeding a pretzel stick away from a picnic. The foul poles were salvaged and erected at our local junior college. And then what was left of the Met was razed three years later to make way for the nation's largest metaphor. Or, rather, the nation's largest shopping mall, aptly named the Mall of America.
The next season, the Twins moved downtown to the Metrodome, and to unimaginable glories, including two World Series titles. I moved to the Metrodome, too, for a single season, to a strip-lit concession stand. It wasn't the same. For starters, I worked not for the Twins but for a professional "food-service company," which issued smocks the color of the San Diego Padres' uniforms and checks in the name of Volume Services.
If you looked down one of the tunnels leading to the Metrodome grandstand, you could sometimes see, from your cash register, Tom Brunansky appear on a patch of right field, running on nylon, beneath Teflon, while wearing rayon.
But that was it. No one was locked into meat freezers or pretended to enjoy Red Man or was yanked from his dreary post to pull a tarp across a major-league infield. There was no need for a tarp. It would never rain in the Metrodome, a heartbreaking knowledge that eventually broke my spirit.
I'm not a collector, and this book is not about collecting. Rather, it's an effort to see the history of baseball—and to glimpse the history of the larger world it inhabits—in the game's objects. I want to bring them—and, by extension, our ancestors—to life. I want to make these objects talk and dance and even sing, like the teapots and candlesticks in Beauty and the Beast. I want that rainy stadium and its shining grass. I want to remember: Souvenir.
In short, I want to animate what are always called inanimate objects. Which objects? All the inanimate inamorata that first captivated me as a child and continue to exert a hold in adulthood: balls and bats and caps, of course, but also hot dogs and beer cups and ballpark organs; all the beguiling trinkets hung on Peg-Board at novelty stands—the batting-helmet banks and bobblehead dolls—and the whole bewitching alphabet of baseball: the slanted blue script of the Dodgers' uniforms, the knotted STL of the Cardinals' caps.
The catcher's mitt that my grandfather wore at the Polo Grounds is on my desk as I write this, palm up, as if bidding me to take his hand and follow him somewhere.
THE BASEBALL GRENADE
A cross section of a baseball looks like a cross section of planet Earth. The tired assertion that baseball is a microcosm of America obscures the fact that a baseball really is a microcosmos, a little world. It includes an inner core of Indonesian cork wrapped in an outer core of Iberian rubber wrapped in a mantle of New Zealand wool wound tightly in a crust of American cotton thread. Major-league baseballs are assembled by hand in Turrialba, Costa Rica, where this little world's surface—two hemispheres of Holstein cowhide—is joined together by 108 stitches.
The single seam of a cricket ball is called its equator. But a baseball—sometimes sourced from five different continents—evokes the age of exploration whenever it's whipped "around the horn," a long-forgotten reference to the most dangerous voyage in maritime history. When a batter strikes out and the catcher throws the ball to third base, we don't think of the mutinous crew of the HMS Bounty rounding Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America. But we ought to, for that baseball, on its way back to the pitcher's mound, is taking the long way home, as sailors had to do before completion of the Panama Canal in 1914.
Little wonder that the baseball has been pursued and fetishized more than any other object in sport. When the manager of the Detroit Tigers asked Pope John Paul II for a personalized autograph, the pontiff—accustomed to holy relics—was more puzzled by what he was writing ("To Sparky") than by the familiar sphere he was writing on (an official major-league baseball).
Such veneration is not just Catholic but catholic. As Hank Greenberg threatened Babe Ruth's single-season home run record in 1938, his mother, succumbing to leading questions from sportswriters, said that she would make Hank sixty-one baseball-shaped gefilte fish if he hit sixty-one home runs.
He didn't, but plenty of symbolic baseballs have been ingested. The presidency of former Texas Rangers owner George W. Bush was bookended by baseball eating. In the last weeks before 9/11, in her husband's first year in the Oval Office, Laura Bush commissioned a cake from White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier, a Frenchman who wheeled his masterpiece—an edible baseball—into the State Dining Room on July 4, 2001, surprising the president two days before his birthday. Seven years later, a torture investigation by the International Committee of the Red Cross alleged a terrible analogue to the president's birthday cake: Interrogators at Guantánamo Bay had forced a detainee, in an act of unmistakable symbolism, to eat a real baseball.
Like the planet it resembles, the baseball has been an instrument of oppression and salvation, of birth and death. It's at the center of the game's most famous nativity scene. When his son Mickey was born in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, in 1931, zinc miner Mutt Mantle placed a baseball in his crib. And at the other end of earthly existence, William Hulbert, founder of the National League, was buried beneath a quarter-ton granite baseball at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Except for the 108 stone stitches, it looks like the boulder rolled from the mouth of Christ's tomb.
Hulbert was hardly alone in his desire to ride a baseball into eternity. The knuckleballer Joe Niekro, among many others, was buried with a baseball in his casket, disproving the notion that you can't take it with you.
- On Sale
- Oct 15, 2013
- Page Count
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- Little, Brown and Company