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Tuesday, July 26, 2005
Updated: July 27, 12:13 PM ET
Bats, and blasts, from the past

By Jim Caple
Page 2

I wish I could hand these four bats to each and every reader, so you could hold them, too. Take a stance with them. Swing them. To feel what it's like to grip history.

But you would have to get a signed release from your chiropractor first.

Louisville Slugger keeps the specifications on all the models of bats it has made dating back to the early '30s and has reference models of many bats from before that. Informed of this, I asked the company if it would produce several replica bats so that I could bring them to a big-league game and let current players test them during batting practice. A couple of weeks later, a shipment arrived on my doorstep containing exact replicas of bats originally made for Honus Wagner, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.

I couldn't have been more excited if the Smithsonian had mailed me the U.S. Constitution. After all, how many batting titles did James Madison win?

There are two main things you notice when you pick up these bats. One, they're big. The Ruth and Shoeless Joe bats are 36 inches long and weigh 38-40 ounces, depending on whose scale you trust. Next, with the exception of the Ruth bat, the handles are much thicker than modern bats. Scott Spiezio measured the Shoeless Joe bat against his own and found that Jackson's handle was almost as thick as his is at the trademark. There are Hickory Farms beef sticks that are thinner. The Cobb and Wagner bats also have almost no knobs.

Replica bats
Can you pick out the modern bat among the four replicas?
How the hell did they swing these things without steroids? These are not so much bats as clubs. You don't want to step into the batter's box with the Shoeless Joe bat, you want to go into the forest and knock down redwoods. Seriously, I carried my wife on my back for 253½ meters at the World Wife Carrying Championship a couple of weeks ago. I rode a stage of the Tour de France. I was chased by a bull in Pamplona, Spain. But my back started aching only after swinging these bats for an afternoon.

You don't need batting gloves to swing these, you need a truss.

 Walking around with the bats, I felt like a traveling exhibit of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Everyone, absolutely everyone, asked about the bats. Security guards, fans, concessionaires, front-office staffers, broadcasters, engineers, parking attendants, traffic cops, ushers -- they all wanted to know what the deal was with the bats. And when I told them, they all got a misty, envious look in their eyes. They wouldn't have been more eager to hold them if I were carrying around actual working light sabers.

The Shoeless Joe bat -- stained a rich brown -- was the most popular of the four bats because of its thickness and weight. Everyone who swung it got this look as if they were waiting for Kevin Costner to start pitching to them in a cornfield.

The players were no different.

Normally, when reporters walk into the clubhouse, players do their best to avoid eye contact and keep to themselves. They face the insides of their locker or flop on the couch to watch TV or walk into the lunch room -- essentially doing anything to stave off yet another repetitive interview. Not this time. When I walked into the Mariners' clubhouse, the players were drawn to the bats as if I had a Hooters waitress on each arm.

"Wow," rookie shortstop Mike Morse said, holding the Joe Jackson bat in his hands. "Can I use this in batting practice?" Catcher Miguel Olivo grabbed the Babe Ruth bat, asked for permission to use it and then immediately took it to the batting cage. He was so impressed with it that I think he was seriously considering using it in a game (and based on his batting average, he should try).

These were not surprising reactions. Players get very excited about bats, especially their own. Ichiro keeps his bats in a carrying case that controls the humidity, and he insists on carrying them to the dugout himself. Bret Boone has been known to keep more than 120 bats by his lockers, dividing them into hot and cold piles. Boone's bats are all generally the same model but he's convinced some feel good and some don't, and even the ones that feel good today might not feel good tomorrow. That's why he has Louisville Slugger on speed dial, frequently calling the company in the middle of the night for another order.

Replica bats
Raul Ibanez holds his own bat next to one of the replicas.
Adrian Beltre eagerly grabbed the Joe Jackson model and gave it a practice swing. "It feels good," he said. "What is it, 34 ounces?" Informed that it weighed about 40 ounces on Morse's scale, he didn't want to believe it. "It doesn't feel that heavy," he insisted. According to Louisville Slugger, it isn't -- only 38 ounces. Charlotte Jones, assistant to the manager of the company's pro bat department, says there are few things less reliable than a player's scale.

Regardless of the actual weight, Beltre eagerly used the Jackson bat through three rounds of batting practice and hit one home run. Spiezio went deep twice with the Shoeless Joe bat, which is once more than he has in real games this season. Asked whether he might want to switch, he laughed. "I don't think so, I don't think I could get around on a 90-mile [per hour] fastball," he said.

"It's pretty heavy," Beltre said. "It had good balance and it felt good when I made contact, but I don't think you could use it in a game. … Maybe I could use it against changeups."

"The handle is the biggest thing that bugs me," Richie Sexson said. "It's so big and thick. I don't know how he used it. But I don't think they were throwing 95 miles an hour back then, either."

This was a frequent observation. Players would grab the bats, hold them, swing them, marvel at the thick handles and occasionally praise the balance. But they would also say that it was too heavy to swing in a game and that old-time pitchers couldn't possibly throw as hard as today's pitchers if batters were successful with such clubs.

I think they're right -- the bats go a long way toward explaining how different the game must have been -- but not everyone agrees.

I will not mention names, but two former players grew extremely agitated -- angry even -- when I suggested that the bats were a strong indication that pitchers must have thrown much differently back in the old days. One player insisted he swung bats that were 35 to 38 ounces in the '80s, but when Louisville looked up his records, they showed that his bats were 33 and 34 ounces.

"They always say [their bats were heavier]," Jones said. "'That's what I swung. I was a caveman.' It's like saying you walked a mile to school every morning in the snow."

But these former players are correct in one important respect. Bats were heavier in their day. For decades, a bat's weight corresponded with its length. If you had a 34-inch bat, it weighed about 34 ounces. That's no longer the case. Most players swing thin-handled models that are 34 inches long and weigh 31 to 32 ounces. Julio Franco and Ruben Sierra probably swing the heaviest bats today -- 35-36 ounces -- but almost everyone else is about four ounces lighter.

This move to lighter bats is a relatively recent development. Bats that weighed 34 or 35 ounces weren't that uncommon into the late '80s. "I swung a 35-35," said Mariners batting coach Don Baylor, and Louisville's records back him up. "For long fly balls, I always wanted an extra ounce or two. I didn't want a ball dying at the warning track because I wasn't swinging a heavy enough bat."

Baylor says players switched to lighter, shorter bats a little over a decade ago because they saw Tony Gwynn winning batting titles with them. Jones agrees that's about the right time frame, but attributes the change to another reason -- a generation of players grew up using nothing but aluminum bats and no longer felt comfortable with the heavier models. So they asked for lighter and shorter bats.

The old bats have at least one advantage over today's. They don't break easily.

"We used this in batting practice and there are no chips, no nothing," Raul Ibanez said, inspecting the Jackson bat. Chips? The space shuttle's exterior should be this hard.

The most amazing thing about these bats, though, is that the 36-inch, 38-ounce Ruth bat is the model the Babe used late in his career.

According to the Babe Ruth Museum, the bat he used as a younger player weighed 42 ounces.

BOX SCORE LINE OF THE WEEK
It's one thing to give up 10 hits in a game. It's another to give up 10 hits when you weren't even the starting pitcher. Yet Washington's Sunny Kim somehow managed to do it over the weekend. Pitching in relief of Ryan Drese, Kim gave up 10 hits and eight runs while retiring just five batters. His line:

1.2 IP, 10 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 0 BB, 0 K

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is on sale now at bookstores nationwide. It can also be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.