[Editor's Note: Just learned that this week's ESPN column, which was originally slated to run on Thursday, is instead running today -- here's the link. Meanwhile, today's blog entry is written by Uni Watch intern Vince Grzegorek.]
I recently came across this photo of a House of David baseball team from 1933. Nothing completely unusual, except for the fact that the caption claims that the team is shown receiving one of the first aluminum bats ever made from members of the Aluminum Corporation of America (ALCOA).
The date, 1933, surprised me (and also surprised resident Uni Watch old fogey and aluminum specialist Robert Grzegorek, my father, who has worked at the ALCOA plant in Cleveland for over 25 years). I’d always been under the impression that aluminum bats had a much shorter and more recent history, starting sometime around the late 1960s. Some initial research revealed that the first patent for a metal bat was given to William Shroyer in 1924, so it’s not inconceivable that a primitive version of such a bat would have been made nine years later. Then again, all historical evidence points to the fact that aluminum bats didn’t make an appearance until sometime around 1970, when Hillerich & Bradsby contracted with ALCOA to produce them, or when Worth first made a solid aluminum bat for Llittle League play.
The intriguing gap between the supposed aluminum bat in the House of David picture in 1933 and the rest of the historical begged for further investigation. Perhaps there was a whole cache of evidence — 40 years’ worth — waiting to be unearthed in a file cabinet or photo collection somewhere.
Donning my Sam Spade hat, I decided the best place to begin the investigation was with Joel Hawkins, co-author of The House of David Baseball Team, the book where the 1933 photo and caption are taken from. I sent Mr. Hawkins a short note asking about the origin of the photo and story, and received the following disheartening response:
I was told the story [about the bat] by Tom Dewhirst in 1991. He’s the HOD gentleman in the photo that was receiving the bat. He was quite old at the time and I had to keep him on track. Sometimes his stories contradicted themselves. We were looking at the photo and he told me that it was from the ALCOA people, but could not identify them. I don’t think it was to be used for a game. I asked Tom where the bat was, and he told me that it was sitting behind one of the radiators at his home. Plus, he didn’t remember what it was for.
Another player later on told me that it was not aluminum but solid silver. When I followed up with Tom he was adamant that it was aluminum. That was the story that I was given and that’s what I relayed in our book.
HOWEVER, I was shown an article about a year after our publishing that was from the late 1980s, with Tom Dewhirst and the same bat. This article had a story about how the “bat” was given to the team for winning some tournament. This article stated that the bat was silver and was more of a trophy.
Had I known the conflict at the time, I would have had that part omitted from the caption.
Unfortunately, a new chapter in the history of aluminum bats will not be written. But at least an old chapter will be rewritten correctly.
Tangential Bonus Material: On Joel Hawkins’s House of David research site, he includes a link to a uniform gallery. Highlights include: Awesome circular style lettering from 1916 (closer view here), and jerseys with the “H” and “D” superimposed on an “I.” Not only that, but he shows how you can differentiate between authentic House of David baseball teams and impostor versions based on uniforms. Real. Real. Fake.
Want to read all about how aluminum is made into aluminum bats? Check out this helpful article.
Meanwhile, there’s a backlash against aluminum bats these days, because they supposedly lead to harder, faster line drives that can injure or even kill a pitcher before he has time to react. Many leagues and municipalities are moving to ban them, most recently New York City Council.
Bowie’s Greatest Hits, Track Number 1 – “TVC 17″: Former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn recently passed away. Unsurprisingly, most of the obituaries failed to mention his role in a pair of classic uni-related tales, both involving Braves owner Ted Turner.
In 1976, Turner had many of the Braves wear nicknames, instead of their surnames, on the backs of their jerseys. Ralph Garr wore “Roadrunner,” Joe Neikro wore “Knucksie,” Jimmy Wynn wore “Cannon,” and so on. The wild card was pitcher Andy Messersmith, who wore uniform No. 17 — Turner had him wear a “Channel” nameplate, thereby creating a walking billboard for Turner’s television station. Kuhn was not amused, and eventually the Braves simply used “Andy” on the back of Messersmith’s jersey.
A year later, Turner gave manager Dave Bristol a “vacation,” appointed himself manager, suited up in uniform, and moved from the owner’s box to the dugout. Kuhn, once again, was not amused, and Turner’s managerial stint was terminated after one game (full details here). He remains the last MLB owner to wear a uniform in an official capacity.
Vince’s Uni Watch News Ticker: After Scot Pollard’s “Do Drugs” faux pas, maybe parents should be wary of letting their children imitate his hair styles. … DJ Strawberry, the son of Darryl Strawberry, had his initials and uniform number cut into his hair earlier this month. … Spring training isn’t just for the pros. … Are those bath towels being used in the Baltimore dugout? … Nicole Woody wore a neon green headpiece/hairnet while competing against the boys in Maryland’s state wrestling competition this month. … Think Bermuda’s Dwayne Leverock needs a special tailor for this uniform? … After the Florida Gators gave President Bush a commemorative jersey during their recent visit to the White House, www.sportsnet.ca quipped, “The No. 43 Florida Gators jersey for U.S. President George Bush is symbolic of: A) Bush being the 43rd President; B) the number of times Bush has mispronounced the word ‘nuclear'; C) the number of votes Bush actually received in Florida.” … Most MLB players have their names on their gloves, but Milton Bradley has his initials (his middle name is “Obelle”). … Calvin Brock from the Illinois Fighting Illini seems to be missing an apostrophe in his tattoo.