Vintage Lumber Academics: Pro Model Bats from Annapolis
Our collection, while diverse in its artifacts, is still narrowly focused on a spectrum that we have labeled “baseball militaria.” From uniforms, scorecards and programs, vintage photographs to on-field equipment, we have curated a broad range of items to shed light on the game’s lengthy, intertwined history with the armed forces and the people who played and served.
Without conducting a detailed inventory and employing a proper taxonomic, categorical and dating scheme, we can only approximate statistical data regarding the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection. Somewhere between 85 and 95 percent of our artifacts originate from the World War II period, with a handful dating to before or after that time frame.
Standing in the batter’s box and staring down a major league pitcher while attempting to determine the type and location of the pitch about to be thrown requires steel nerves and concentration. Prior to that moment, batters will have seen hundreds if not thousands of pitches, with considerable success in putting the ball in play. The sensation of leveling a bat and solidly connecting with a baseball is a feeling that is indescribable, especially if one is swinging a wood bat. While wooden bats are a mainstay of the professional game, college players employ aluminum “lumber” at the plate.
The switch to aluminum bats in the NCAA addressed two significant issues in the college game: the lack of offense (and thus, low fan interest and poor ticket sales for games) and increasing equipment costs to replace bats due to breakage. Aluminum bats were advantageous due to their significant reduction in weight, which allowed batters to increase bat speed and provide an increased energy transfer to the ball. The velocity at which the ball left the bat dramatically increased, allowing batters to hit for better power and average.
While college players are still permitted to use wooden bats, doing so would put hitters at a competitive disadvantage. Rather than the crack of the wood connecting with a pitch, fans attending college baseball games hear only the “tink” of aluminum from coast to coast, including at the armed forces service academies.
Our collection has a modest gathering of baseball artifacts from both West Point and Annapolis; however, two pieces of note are bats used by Annapolis’ baseball team. They stand out when compared to our WWII service lumber. From the center brands and barrel markings to the imprints on the knobs, the two bats differ from the 1940’s retail pieces commonly distributed to troops during the war.
Based upon the tight wood grain, weight and length along with the markings, it is quite apparent that these bats were manufactured for players who possessed greater strength, talent and skills. Properly identifying the bats provides data for cataloging as well as establishing an approximate value.
The two Naval Academy bats in our collection were manufactured with specific characteristics, including weight, length and proportional dimensions that were customized to meet the desires of professional ballplayers. These specifications were catalogued and assigned model numbers which could be ordered from Hillerich & Bradsby (H&B) by other players and teams.
Many professional model bats are marked with college or university names beneath the player signature on the barrel. In some instances, locating a professional model bat with a notable name and a correlating college can add significance to a collection as is the case with a Jackie Robinson model purchased by Ohio Wesleyan University, the alma mater of Hall of Fame Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey. Located below the players’ signatures on the barrel of each bat are stamps spelling out the team name; N A V Y, indicating that our two examples were purchased by the Naval Academy.
Each N A V Y-marked bat in our collection is team-purchased and known in the sphere of collecting as “Team Index Bats” or TIB. Baseball artifact expert Dave Grob wrote an excellent piece (Team Index Bats | MEARSONLINE.com, April 29, 2007) documenting TIBs for individual players. He stated “Team Index Bats provided the team with the ability to make orders for:
- General, At-Large Team or Organizational Use.
- Specific Specialized Team Use for items like Fungoes, Weighted Bats, and Generic Pitchers’ Bats.
- Special Events such as World Series and Old Timers Games.
- Bulk specific orders to facilitate spring training.
- And yes, possible individual player orders.”
The first point in Grob’s list is most applicable regarding collegiate use of professional bats and directly pertains to our two examples.
The first NAVY professional bat that we acquired was an “R43” Yogi Berra model (coincidentally, Berra served in the Navy during WWII). The measured length of this bat is 35 inches, which corresponds to the bats that the Yankee catcher ordered from H&B starting in 1947. Prior to Berra adopting the R43, the model was a Babe Ruth Model.
Chicago White Sox second baseman Nelson “Nellie” Fox, who starred with the club from 1950 to 1963 after three seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics, used an H&B model “C12” throughout his career. However, in researching Fox’s C12 bat lineage, an interesting and likely speculative historical bat lineage surfaced on a few different bat collectors’ forums. Unfortunately, the following is not attributable and unverified yet is fascinating.
In June 1932, Detroit’s Charlie Gehringer ordered a ” [Rogers] Hornsby model bat with a Billy Rhiel (Gehringer’s Tiger teammate) handle.” The Rhiel handle was thicker than the Hornsby model cited. After additional orders in May 1934, that model was designated as “Gehringer’s 5-26-34,” and subsequently, in the early 1940’s was assigned H&B model number “G7.”
In April 1951 Nellie Fox ordered a bat that had likely been crafted to the dimensions of a player identified as R. Kramer that had been apparently designated model C12. The dimensions were apparently the same as Gehringer’s G7 model, as the entry in Fox’ H & B records reads “4-13-51 R Kramer C12 use G7.” A similar notation “C12 use G7” appears several more times in Fox’s records in 1951, and finally, when Fox signed an endorsement contract with H&B on 7/11/51, his signature was put on a Model C12 which also became his Pro Stock model and, due to the somewhat unique dimensions of the bat, became forever linked with Nellie Fox.
Theory — There is no Major League player of the period named R. Kramer. Although the R. Kramer notation in Fox’s records may refer to a minor league player, it is also possible that the name was misspelled in Fox’s records and actually refers to Roger “Doc” Cramer who played with the Tigers throughout the 1940s and who would have been in a position to see and try out Rhiel’s and Gehringer’s bats and request the same model for his own use. Later, when bats were pulled from the H&B vault to be assigned numbers, the bat was designated C12, which would be consistent with H&B’s system of the first letter of the model number reflecting the bin from which it came, in this, the C (Doc Cramer) bin….
Thus, it is possible that Billy Rhiel’s model bat (Hornsby with thick handle), Charlie Gehringer’s model bat (Hornsby with Rhiel handle designated G7), Doc Cramer’s model bat (designated C12) and Nellie Fox’ model bat (C12) all share the same dimensions, with the lineage of Hornsby to Rhiel to Gehringer to Cramer to Fox.Unattributed commentary published in multiple locations.
Setting the Nelson Fox C12 model heritage aside, our more pressing desire was to properly date the two bats. Referring to the Keyman Collectibles’ Louisville Slugger Bat Dating Guide, we can narrow down the age of each bat to a range of years by focusing on details in the center brand.
Both of our bats are marked with the same center brand that was used by Hillerich and Bradsby from 1965 to 1979. We focused attention on the registered trademark symbol, the circled “R” located adjacent to the “R” at the end of SLUGGER.
With the era established and seeking to further narrow down the age of the bats, we referred to the POWERIZED wordmark to the right of the center brand. The absence of the registered trademark over the “d” on the Yogi Berra model narrows the age of the bat to 1965-1972. However, the unusual font-style of the wordmark (which includes a serif on the end of the “d”) was employed by H&B from 1964-66 along with our specific center brand. Based on these details, our “R43” Yogi Berra model bat dates to the above three-year period in the mid-1960s.
The Powerized wordmark on the Nelson Fox bat includes the registered trademark symbol above the “d,” indicating a date range of 1973-1979. However, H&B relocated model numbers from the knob to the barrel in 1976. Since the “C12” is located on the knob, we can further narrow the range to 1973-1975.
With the NCAA’s approval of aluminum bats ahead of the 1974 season, it is unlikely that colleges continued ordering wood bats. Because of the shift in materials, it is our assertion that our Nelson Fox bat dates to the last year of the wood bat regulation for collegiate baseball, pinpointing the year to 1973.
Baseball bat research resources:
- Louisville Slugger Knob Markings and Model Numbers – KeyMan Collectibles
- Mickey Mantle Louisville Slugger K55 College Baseball Bat – KeyMan Collectibles