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NOTES FROM THE DUGOUT
By Tom Goldstein
In the upstairs office of my home where I often work on issues of this
journal rests a baseball bat, nestled against the corner bookshelf that
houses my fledgling baseball library. Its not just any bat, mind you,
but the real deala genuine Frank Howard, game-used Louisville Slugger
As many baseball fans are aware, at one time the 6 7", 275-pound
(during his heyday) Howard was the most feared slugger in the game. His
bat produced rockets that left the park in a heartbeat, and many a hurler
dreaded having to face the Senator slugger from a mere sixty feet away.
So it shouldnt come as a surprise that he used a rather long stick
(thirty-six inches in length, to be exact). And while the bat doesnt
seem heavy, its hard to imagine how anybody without the exceptional
strength of a man like Howard could have powered this bat with enough speed
to get around on, say, a Sam McDowell fastball, the way Howard did.
It never occurred to me while growing up a Senators fan in the 1960s that
I might someday be lucky enough to own one of my heros bats. Frankly,
the memories of watching him play, a cherished scorecard, and an autographed
yearbook are more than enough keepsakes. But a sluggers bat is something
special. In fact, to hold in your hands a bat that might have launched one
of Hondos gargantuan blasts at RFK Stadium or other environs is downright
magical. Some nights, when my thoughts are in gridlock, Ill rise from
my desk and reach for the bat, and as soon as I take a few awkward cuts
with Howards "club," Im instantly transported back
to my youth. For just a moment, Im sitting again in the left field
stands of RFK, watching Hondo nervously pace the outfield below, Del Unser
make a sensational catch in center, Ken McMullen charge a bunt and make
a perfect throw to first. As the memories rush through me, my mind relaxes,
I feel energized, and Im able to concentrate once more on writing.
Now, if someday I had to sell my Howard bat, or somehow it got lost in
a move, it wouldnt be the end of the world. Its still just a
bat, after all. But if someone came to me with a very handsome financial
proposition to slice it up into little pieces so that lots of Senators fans
could own a sliver, Id probably brain the guy with the thing (its
already got a major crack in the handle, anyway). Not only isnt the
bat for sale, Id donate it to a museum (preferably one that would
allow visitors to hold the bat) before Id let somebody chop it up
into meaningless souvenirs.
Unfortunately, the folks at the Upper Deck Card Company dont share
my sentiments. Last year, they purchased a Babe Ruth bat at auction for
$23,000 and then proceeded to slice up the heirloom (used by Ruth sometime
during the period 192331) into approximately 550 tiny pieces that
could be affixed to limited edition collectors cards that were randomly
inserted into packs of various 1999 Upper Deck card product lines released
in late 1998. According to Upper Deck hobby media manager Terry Melia, the
promotion was a way "to spread the wealth among many collectors."
When confronted by outraged members of the media and some big-name collectors
about the desecration of a Babe Ruth bat, Upper Deck and Melias response
was that there were still probably 50100 Ruth bats in existence, so
whats the big deal?
Well, heres one thought: Which Ruth bat did Upper Deck carve up?
We know it wasnt Ruths sixtieth homer bat (thats in the
Hall of Fame), and perhaps a few other famous Ruth bats are accounted for
as well. But what about this one? Did Ruth belt his first homer in Yankee
Stadium with it? Was it used to crack his 200th, 300th, 400th, 500th, or
600th home run? Did Ruth use it to hit one of his twelve World Series blasts
between 1923 and 1928? Its obvious that Upper Deck gave these questions
little consideration before, and clearly they cant investigate now.
But theyre not in the business of preserving history, anyway. If so,
they would have given the whole Ruth bat away to one collector in a promotional
contest similar to what Wal-Mart did a few years ago with a scarce Honus
Wagner tobacco card. But, as Melia put it, a contest with only one winner
doesnt "move enough product." Youve got to chop up
a famous relic into hundreds of pieces to do that. Its called marketing.
And from a financial standpoint, Upper Decks "Pieces of History"
promotion has been a tremendous success. Individual Ruth cards book for
as much as $2,500 each in some price guides, which means that a $23,000
bat has been transformed into over $1 million worth of memorabilia. Talk
about creating value! With this kind of "growth potential" (and
you thought the real money was in Internet stocks), why stop with Ruth?
Why indeed. Upper Deck has extended this unique method of "product
innovation" to bats of all of the members of baseballs illustrious
"500 Home Run Club," and "game-used bat" cards of Mickey
Mantle, Frank Robinson, and Eddie Murray were released in the spring. Of
course, its not the money that Upper Deck is after. Again, theyre
just chopping up history so they can "spread the wealth." As Richard
McWilliam, chairman and CEO, was quoted on their Web site (www.upperdeck.com):
"We are proud to commemorate Major League Baseball homerun kings in
a way that gives the common fan and collector a chance to own a piece of
history." (Its worth noting that none of these promotional schemes
would be possible without the approval of both Major League Baseball and
the Major League Baseball Players Association, but thats a story for
Which begs the ultimate question: What exactly would you own if you were
one of the fortunate few (odds are one in 15,000) to pull one of these Babe
Ruth (or Mickey Mantle) inserts from a pack of Upper Deck baseball cards?
Theres certainly nothing magical about the card itself, since the
minuscule slice of wood imbedded in the card is indistinguishable from any
other kind of wood grain, let alone featuring any markings that would connect
it with a bat. You couldnt show it to friends or baseball fanatics
with any pride, since theyd just stare back at you blankly and say,
"They cut up a Babe Ruth bat?" You wouldnt experience the
small pleasure I get from swinging my Howard bat. In short, all you would
have is bragging rights. Youd own a commodity, a "fungible"
good as they say. But you wouldnt have anything remotely connected
with the essence of the game.
And therein lies the problem. So many people who want a true "piece"
of the game are completely disconnected from its essence. Instead of appreciating
the special, timeless pleasures that come from leisurely moments spent at
the ballpark communing with friends, they want in on the action, inside
the locker roomthey want to be "the show." And if they cant
have that magical connection with the game, well by god, theyre simply
going to buy up the pieces that make up the whole. Better to have physical
possession of a commodity than nothing, right?
Perhaps thats why everything from players uniforms, caps, bats,
socks, jocks, and championship rings to trophies, stadium seats, turnstiles,
banners, outfield signs, and popcorn containers have sold for record amounts
on the auction block. (Someone once even paid a tidy sum for a piece of
stale cake from the wedding of Joe DiMaggio and Dorothy Arnold.) The pecuniary
excesses that have characterized society at large during the 1980s and 1990s
have also found their way to baseball. Why bother with a program from the
1955 World Series when, for the right amount of money, you might be able
to own the home plate from Ebbets Field? Who cares about a Mickey Mantle
autograph or magazine cover when you can buy his drivers license and
credit cards? Ever wonder what Negro Leaguers must have experienced barnstorming
across the country in the 1930s? Hell, maybe you can track down Satchel
Paiges roadster rusting in a junkyard somewhere, restore it for $100,000,
and retrace the Pittsburgh Crawfords travels, pretending that youre
sharing their plight.
Only in a frenzied milieu such as this could a priceless Babe Ruth bat
be worth more in pieces than as a whole. Its a mentality reminiscent
of the corporate raiders of 1980s fame who "created" enormous
wealth by destroying venerable companies that had been long-time employers
in many communities. Its also the same mentality that characterizes
the scavengers who cant wait to own a part of Tiger Stadium or Fenway
or even Wrigley once all the grand old ballparks are history. Theyll
gladly snap up souvenirs like stadium seats, signs, and bricks rather than
work (like the members of the Tiger Stadium Fan Club did) to preserve a
real place where fans could actually watch games and have real experiences
with other folks. Why save a temple for baseball fans that is part of our
mythical past when ones intent is merely to add relics to a personal
shrine in ones basement? Arent the brand-new "retro"
parks better anyway?
The bottom line, however, is that you can buy all the bats, all the jerseys,
all the seats, all the trophies, and you would still just own pieces. Todd
McFarlane may have paid $3.05 million for Mark McGwires seventieth
home run ball, but all he got was a baseball; Big Macs record moment
belongs to us all. Rupert Murdoch shelled out $400 million for the Dodgers,
but he just acquired real estate and bodies; hell never possess the
priceless legacy of Dodger fans in Brooklyn and elsewhere. My magical Frank
Howard bat would be just another piece of lumber in the hands of some bat
collector from Chicago.
The beauty of baseball is that it is as much a game played in the mind as on the field. Ownership comes not from buying priceless souvenirs or extraordinary jock-sniffing; rather, it results from embracing the gameplaying, watching, and experiencing. Only with that kind of "investment" does an artifact form a meaningful link with our heroes.
TOM GOLDSTEIN is publisher of Elysian Fields Quarterly.
This column first appeared in EFQ 16:3, Summer 1999
© 1999 Tom Goldstein
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