The 34-Ton Bat: The Story of Baseball as Told Through Bobbleheads, Cracker Jacks, Jockstraps, Eye Black, and 375 Other Strange and Unforgettable Objects

The 34-Ton Bat: The Story of Baseball as Told Through Bobbleheads, Cracker Jacks, Jockstraps, Eye Black, and 375 Other Strange and Unforgettable Objects

by Steve Rushin


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An unorthodox history of baseball told through the enthralling stories of the game's objects, equipment, and characters.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316200936
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 10/15/2013
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 248,615
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Steve Rushin has been writing for Sports Illustrated for the last 25 years and was the 2006 National Sportswriter of the Year. His work has been collected in The Best American Sports Writing, The Best American Travel Writing, and The Best American Magazine Writing. He lives in Connecticut.

Read an Excerpt

The 34-Ton Bat

The Story of Baseball as Told Through Bobbleheads, Cracker Jacks, Jockstraps, Eye Black, and 375 Other Strange and Unforgettable Objects

By Steve Rushin

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2013 Steve Rushin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-20093-6



Across 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.

Of course, it can also take you. Baseballs have ushered countless men into the ever after. They are such ubiquitous objects in American life that the United States Army, for much of the twentieth century, worked to weaponize them.

With the United States still two years from entering World War I, a soldier named Phil Rader, fighting with the French Foreign Legion in the spring of 1915, imagined having baseball's best pitcher by his side. "What Christy Mathewson could do to the Germans near our trenches!" Rader wrote in a column for United Press International. "The hand grenade is about the size of a baseball and it weighs only a few ounces more." Then, in 1916, six months before America's entry into World War I, an army officer invented a hand grenade that "is the size and shape of a baseball and is thrown exactly as a baseball is thrown." But the United States persisted in using cylindrical or pineapple-shaped grenades, ignoring the notion that nearly every American boy knew how to throw a baseball, but very few knew how to throw a pineapple.

"If America ever goes to war, she will have to have her bombing squads, and already there is a fertile field for recruiting," the London correspondent for the Washington Star wrote that summer. "It would be among the professional baseball players of the country." Already, British and Canadian troops, training together, were arguing over which method was "most efficacious" for conveying lit grenades a great distance: bowled, as a cricket ball, or thrown, as a baseball. The first question asked of Americans in the French Foreign Legion was "Are you a baseball player?"

The emblem of the French Foreign Legion was a flaming grenade, whose name derived from its resemblance to a pomegranate: a round fruit that fit the hand quite like a baseball. When the United States entered the Great War in 1917, its soldiers instantly surpassed the French as grenadiers. "Our boys already excel the French at grenade throwing on account of their baseball training," Captain Hamilton Fish of the 309th Infantry wrote to his father from France. The Americans, he reported, were throwing the grenades ten meters farther on average than the French.

In support of the war effort, the great Johnny Evers, then with the Phillies, traveled to Europe in 1919 on behalf of the Knights of Columbus, ostensibly to teach baseball in France. There, he suffered the reciprocal indignity of having a French soldier teach him the art of throwing a grenade. "He threw in a peculiar fashion," Evers recalled, "somewhat as though it were a discus, and the best throw he could make was about seventy-five feet." Later, Evers witnessed American soldiers throwing grenades three times that distance.

One of those soldiers was Hank Gowdy, the Braves catcher, whom Evers watched throw a grenade seventy-three yards in a field drill. "The French officers were immediately struck with the superiority of the American soldiers in the matter of grenade throwing," Evers wrote in a first-person piece for Baseball Magazine in 1919, "and they speedily connected this superiority with the new fangled game which Americans played."

The reverse was also true: Throwing grenades improved one's baseball. Gowdy was in the 166th Infantry in France, on the front line, a position he considered excellent training for his work behind the plate at Braves Field. "This hand grenade throwing is great exercise for the arm," he wrote. "It's a little different from throwing a baseball but it sure does develop the arm and shoulder." The grenades were heavier than a baseball, a fact that buoyed Sergeant Gowdy, who said, "I believe I can stop the fastest runner in the National League trying to steal on me with nothing to peg any heavier than a baseball." Gowdy, who led the league in caught-stealing percentage in 1915 and 1916—throwing out 55 percent of would-be stealers both seasons—improved marginally to 56 percent in 1920.

And still the baseball grenade designed by an anonymous army officer in 1916 was never issued to American GIs. But then every grenade—no matter its shape—was potentially lethal in the hand of its pitcher, a fact made eminently clearer in World War II.

In 1941, Johnny Spillane, a right-handed pitcher from Waterbury, Connecticut, declined a contract offer to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals and instead joined the marines, as so many others did that year. On November 20, 1943, the United States was invading the Japanese-held atoll of Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands of the South Pacific, when Corporal Spillane's amphibious landing craft ran aground on a coral reef and instantly became a sitting duck. "The Japs started lobbing hand grenades like high fouls," he recalled. Spillane threw them back with his pitching arm until one went off in his right hand. When it was amputated that night aboard a naval ship, his first thought was for the death of his pitching career.

And indeed, as he sat in the dugout before a 1944 World Series game in St. Louis—at the invitation of the National League pennant winners—Johnny was in the uniform not of the St. Louis Cardinals but of the United States Marines.

To better serve those soldiers, the U.S. military continued to build a better grenade, more easily thrown by American youths. At the end of World War II, the army's Chemical Warfare Service unveiled a new tear-gas grenade for the Corps of Military Police. The round grenade was 21/2 inches in diameter and weighed five ounces, the dimensions of a big-league baseball.

Once the ringed pin was pulled, an MP threw the grenade as he would a fastball. Except that this baseball released a nonlethal cloud of chloroacetophenone on its target. In October 1945 Popular Science reported: "The baseball-type grenade, because of its familiar shape and weight, has proved an accurate weapon in the hands of Yankee hurlers." To hammer home the point, pitcher Dave Ferriss was photographed, in his Red Sox uniform, regarding the grenade in his outstretched hand. He looked like Hamlet holding Yorick's skull.

As World War II gave way to the Cold War, American soldiers still lacked a lethal version of the baseball grenade.

Soldiers continued to throw deadly pineapples in Korea. During that war, "communist reds" were ridiculed in the American press for their weak throwing arms. "The Chinese, lacking America's baseball tradition, just can't heave grenades very far," the Associated Press reported.

But five years later, in 1956, Dr. Cecil C. Fawcett patented a lethal baseball grenade the size and weight of a major-league baseball. It fit the hand as a perfect projectile. Like the baseball, or the stone that slew Goliath, it fairly demanded to be thrown at a target. Its payload of 2,300 steel pellets could penetrate an inch-thick pine board from fifteen feet away. And so America found itself on the brink of a new age of warfare, in which its soldiers could throw lethal strikes with an incendiary baseball.

This dream of fireballing grenadiers was not exclusive to the U.S. Army. In April 1961, a week before the American-backed invasion of the Bay of Pigs, the official newspaper of the Cuban government taunted the United States with a reference to a Minnesota Twins pitcher from Cuba. "Pedro Ramos will trade a baseball for a hand grenade," went an editorial in the Prensa Libre, "but it will be to silence once and for all the Yankee batteries who attack the fatherland." In Ramos, the paper couldn't have chosen a more shambolic subject. The right-hander, in 1961, was on his way to losing twenty games and leading the American League in losses for the fourth straight year; in home runs given up (for the third time in his career); and in hits given up (for the second time). He also once led the league in hit batters, and perhaps for that reason the Prensa Libre imagined Ramos would make a formidable grenadier.

We'll never know, of course. Rather than "silence the Yankee batteries" for Castro, Ramos joined the Yankee batteries, pitching for New York for three seasons in the mid-1960s, while U.S. soldiers were fighting Communism on a different front. It was there, in Vietnam, that a lethal baseball grenade was finally employed in combat, in 1969, when the M67 fragmentation grenade became standard-issue for U.S. soldiers. It was used to fight the Vietcong (and to accidentally "frag" U.S. officers) with its five-meter kill range.

The hand grenade of the Vietnam era remained 21/2 inches in diameter, nearly identical to a major-league baseball, but its heavier payload made the M67 weigh fourteen ounces, almost three times as much as a regulation Spalding—a fact that did little to prevent the M67 from becoming known colloquially, within the armed forces, as a baseball.

Long before that happened, war was being described as if it were a baseball game. "The man who hit the Pearl Harbor home run for the imperial Japanese navy struck out with the bases loaded" went the first sentence of the Associated Press dispatch when Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo committed ritual suicide on Saipan in 1944, three years after he'd led the attack on the United States. The rhetoric hadn't changed late in the Vietnam War. "The Army is working on a ... teargas grenade made of rubber that skitters around like a baseball across a rocky infield," the Washington Star reported in 1971. It was a nonlethal device designed to subdue civil disturbances, said Colonel Lauris Eek Jr. of the Army Research and Development Office, and would replace "the hard-shelled baseball-type grenade now in use."

The baseball grenade that Red Sox pitcher Dave Ferriss had held in his hand, Hamlet-style, twenty-five years earlier was being ditched—alas, poor Yorick, I knew it well—for one that behaved even more like a baseball.

The truth is, baseballs were weaponized long before the baseball grenade. Charles Howard Hinton, an English eccentric of the Victorian age, turned baseballs into ammunition. In the future, he thought, all baseballs would be fired from a gun, and Hinton was a man who thought quite a lot about the future.

An Oxford-educated science-fiction novelist and mathematician, Hinton was married to Mary Everest Boole, eldest daughter of George Boole, inventor of Boolean logic and thus the father of computer science. But to say that Hinton was an absentminded professor doesn't quite do him justice. At the time he was married to Mary Boole, for instance, he was also married to Maud Wheldon, making him a mathematician who evidently couldn't count to two. Fleeing England after his bigamy conviction, Hinton landed at Princeton University, where he taught math, honed his pioneering theories about the fourth dimension, and spent idle hours watching the Tigers baseball team practice.

"Among college boys," Hinton wrote, "I had noticed many a case of [a pitching] aspirant who had to relinquish all efforts to make the team because his arm gave out." To solve that problem, in 1896, Hinton conceived a device that would save the arms of young pitchers—and, he was certain, eliminate the need for pitchers entirely. He set about building a contraption that would marry two of America's most overriding obsessions: firearms and baseballs.

After experimenting with catapults, "it occurred to me that practically whenever men wished to impel a ball with velocity and precision, they drove it out of a tube with powder," Hinton wrote. "Following then the course of history, I determined to use a cannon." And so he built a baseball-firing cannon that proved wildly temperamental. Sometimes the ball "merely roll[ed] out of the muzzle," as he put it; other times it was expelled with "prodigious velocity."

As Hinton explained to three hundred members of the Princeton Club in 1897, "The baseball is placed in the barrel of the cannon as an ordinary cannon ball, and is expelled by the pressure of air which comes from the rifle when a cartridge in the latter is discharged."

That cartridge was discharged when the batter stepped on a metal plate, sending an electrical impulse through a wire to the cannon, activating the cartridge of powder and, one would assume—a split-second later—the bowels of the batter.

It became clear in its very first exhibition—on its very first pitch, in fact—that Hinton's cannon made baseballs ballistic. "There was a muffled report, a puff of smoke and the ball went whizzing toward the plate," reported the Boston Daily Globe. "It appeared so suddenly that the batsman ducked [and] the catcher made a wild leap to one side while the ball sailed directly over the plate and up against the backstop with a resounding crack." Subsequent pitches were less accurate. One of the game's participants, Captain Bradley, was reportedly hit "in the breast and floor," which was surely every bit as painful as it sounds.

Excerpted from The 34-Ton Bat by Steve Rushin. Copyright © 2013 Steve Rushin. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Walk-in Freezer of Dreams 3

1 The Baseball Grenade 19

2 Stairway to Heaven 50

3 The Lost City of Francisco Grande 74

4 The Men in the Gray Flannel Suits 109

5 The Beanproof Cap of Foulproof Taylor 139

6 The Decrepit Urinals of Ebbets Field 188

7 "The Redhots Warmed with Mustard Saved Many a Life" 219

8 Row C, Section 42, Seats 3 and 4 at the Polo Grounds 251

9 Recessional 263

Acknowledgments 291

Notes 295

Bibliography 320

Index 326

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