Saturday, February 19, 2011

Uncorking the Truth


Recently, I was interviewed for a blog entry at fangraphs.com and, in passing, interviewer Alex Remington mentioned something intriguing: Babe Ruth had once been caught using a corked bat. This was news to me, so I asked Remington where he found out about this claim and he alerted me to an article by baseball researcher Bill James at slate.com.

The article titled “Life, Liberty, and Breaking the Rules” details James’s opinion that “had steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs existed during Babe Ruth's career, Babe Ruth would not only have used them, he would have used more of them than Barry Bonds.” We’ll leave that opinion alone, though I am a bit surprised that James has knowledge of the quantity of PEDs that Bonds took during his career. With this kind of information, I assume we can look forward to James testifying in Bonds’s upcoming perjury trial.

As for performance-enhancing bats, here’s what James had to say:

[Ruth] was caught using a corked bat, which was not a big deal to the league authorities because they didn't understand what you could do with a corked bat, and he very probably continued to use corked bats for much of his career.
Pretty heady stuff. Alas, while James’s assertion that Ruth corked his bat is no doubt eye-catching, it is false and, quite frankly, inflammatory. However, Ruth did use a special bat that, while legal at the time, was soon barred from use by a league authority who felt that it was indeed a “big deal.” Here’s the real scoop:

According to a July 17, 1923, article in The Sandusky (OH) Star Journal (as well as a number of other papers around the country), “on July 2, [Babe] Ruth started to use a bat, the like of which has never been seen in the baseball world. Since that date Ruth has been on a swat spree that has greatly increased his home-run record.”

What Ruth was using was called the “Quadrebuilt bat,” and was manufactured at a company in Whittier, California. Apparently, former big leaguer Sam Crawford, who was living in Southern California at the time, had an interest in the company.

Available at Getty Images is the following photograph of Ruth, taken by famed photographer Louis Van Oeyen at Cleveland on July 16, 1923:


Getty Images preview image #73392611

The caption reads: “Babe Ruth standing before game in visitor's dugout. The Yankees split a doubleheader with the Indians at League Park, losing the first 6-0 and taking the second game 11-7. Ruth scored four runs in game two.” Is it possible that the bat Ruth is holding is none other than the “Quadrebuilt?”

On July 19, The New York Times reported that …


Babe Ruth is using a new bat, which he has named “Old Sam.” It is the gift of Sam Crawford, former star outfielder of the Detroit Tigers, himself a home-run hitter before the days of the lively ball. “Old Sam” came to Ruth on July 1. Since then he has made twenty-seven hits, including six home runs, in sixty-five at bat [sic]. The bat is one inch shorter and four ounces lighter than the club Babe formerly used. It is fashioned of green wood with a grain running inversely to that of the ordinary bat, and is made of four pieces, cleverly dovetailed.
It is not clear whether or not this four-piece “Quadrebuilt” bat is related to another laminated bat that was patented just a few months earlier, on April 3, 1923, by one Frank Sadenwater of Michigan City, Indiana. Sadenwater's patent (#1,450,646) was for “a ball bat comprising flat, parallel laminations of wood having the grain extending longitudinally of the bat and alternating laminations of wood having the grain extending crosswise of the bat, such laminations being joined by a bonding agent.” Here's the patent image:



After about six weeks using the special bat, the Bambino and the Yankees were informed by American League president Ban Johnson that the bat was illegal. An article that ran in numerous papers across the country as early as August 14, 1923, quoted Johnson as stating that the “special bat George Ruth is now using does not conform to the regulations prescribed by the rules and must be discarded at once.”

Ruth and the Yankees were stunned. Manager Miller Huggins correctly noted that “the rules simply state that the bat must be round, made entirely of hard wood and conform to certain dimensions. The new bat used by Ruth is made of hard wood and is perfectly round. The rules do not state that the bat must be made out of one piece of wood.”

A week later, however, Johnson’s decision was clarified. Apparently, it was not the multiple pieces of wood that were of concern, but the glue that held the pieces together. As quoted in The New York Times of August 21, Johnson believed that …


the glue … increases the velocity of the ball and makes the bat just as illegal as the emery or the shine ball. If its use were permitted … the batmakers would try to introduce the use of rubber and other foreign substances which are now forbidden by the rules.”
Interestingly, it was not until 1940 that the relevant rule (Rule 15) was amended to require that the bat be made of one piece of hard wood.

Incidentally, following his initial decision, Johnson cracked down on other illegal bats, as well. The Chicago Tribune ran the following article by Irving Vaughan on August 22:


BAN JOHNSON WARS ON 'TRICK' BATS

The boys who have been sneaking along with trick bats will have to mend their ways, at least in the American League. Following notice that Ken Williams, the Browns' slugger, had been using a doctored bludgeon, Ban Johnson, junior major league president, yesterday promulgated a bulletin to umpires that all trick bats, employed with the idea of getting greater length in drives, were taboo.

So far Williams and Babe Ruth are the only batters whose illegal practices have been brought to light. Ruth, until about ten days ago, was using a bat consisting of four pieces of wood glued together. Williams has been knocking 'em out with a bat in which a plug of wood had been inserted. According to Johnson, there are about a dozen men in the league who will have to discard their old flails, but he preferred not to make public their names.

In his bulletin on the subject, Johnson stated that any athlete caught using a bat that does not conform to regulations will be automatically subject to five days' suspension without pay. No protests of games in which an illegal bat was discovered will be recognized.
So, how much did the special bat really help Ruth? A quick check of Babe Ruth’s day-by-day statistics at retrosheet.org reveals that over the stretch of 40 games in which Ruth used the special bat (July 2 to August 11, 1923), the Bambino batted .448 with a slugging average of .860, collecting 64 hits, 14 HR and 41 RBI. Pretty impressive. Then again, in the 47 games after he was barred from using bat, Ruth batted .404 with a slugging average of .820, with 65 hits, 13 homers and 43 RBIs. I suppose that’s a drop from his “quadrebuilt” pace, but give me that kind of drop any day.

2 comments:

  1. Most interesting. I recall a story from some years ago when a bat used by Ruth was making the rounds of major league club houses (the reason for which I can't recall) when it came to the Mariners clubhouse. One of their players was carefully examining it when he noticed that it was a multi-piece bat. Other players looked and confirmed it. Your story only adds more fuel to the possibility that Ruth used doctored or special bats during his career.

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