There was a time in my life where the world revolved around broken bats.
Baseball ruled my youth. From the time the snow melted, until the leaves turned, it was all about baseball. In our neighborhood, we weren’t the richest kids. We were from working class families in the 1970’s all trying to squeeze out the good life with lots of kids and minimal resources.
I spent a lot of time at our local baseball park. By local, I mean within bike riding distance because that was the only way to get around town for us kids. With both older brothers and younger brothers, there was almost always one member of the family playing a game on either the little field or the big field, so I was there about every night even if my team had the night off.
As a spectator, with “spectator” meaning chasing foul balls for a piece of gum and playing cup ball in the open dirt space between the fields, an eye and/or ear was always kept open for the hottest commodity around, a broken wooden bat. Yes, boys and girls, all bats used to be made of wood. Aluminum bats were around, but to hit a ball to the sound of a “tink” was not the most desirable way one wished to spend their summer. Back in the day, one might as well spend the whole of summer in the reference section of the library rather than swing metal instead of natural wood.
Bats were expensive, even back then. It was a rare thing to have your own bat. I had a Carl Yastrzemski model 28-inch Louisville Slugger I got for my 5th birthday. The Yaz wasn’t for the backyard or the playground; it was a bat you held in your hands, took practice swings with and dreamt of championship winning balls flying over the Green Monster or the short right field porch of Yankee Stadium.
So, as I was saying, personal ownership of a high quality, store-bought bat was rare, which made the acquisition of batting practice, pick-up game, home run king, Indian ball bats of the highest importance. Hence, the broken bats market was vital to the game outside the game of summer baseball.
A typical summer day would start with a fine breakfast and then dress in my finest set of summer play clothes, grab the glove, the water-logged baseball an irresponsible five-year-old brother left outside in the last rainstorm and hit the road on the bike. Along the ride to the ballpark, neighbor kids would ride out of their respective driveways and fall into the line of bikers. We’d arrive at the little league field and before we’d split off into teams for the game of the day, we’d split off into search parties.
We’d first hit the woods in the ravine behind the big kid field and search for lost foul balls. On a game night at the park, found foul balls meant bubble gum, but in the daylight, found foul balls meant we actually had a decent, real baseball to play with. Once the woods were properly scoured, it was time to fan out and check the trash cans for broken bats.
Coaches rarely threw a broken bat into the trash during a game. The busted bat was usually disposed of properly long after fans, players and parents left as the coach was packing the gear to leave. He would come across said cracked bat handle and drop it into the rusted trash cans dispersed around the stands. With any luck, I’d find a true pot of gold—a treasure. A bat with only a slight crack in the handle. Whatever the haul, though, one of us would take the bat home for repair.
Dad had taught us the fine art of bat handle repair well at the Hays house. We had an entire metal container of tiny, thin finish nails just for this purpose. We would put the broken section of the bat handle in the vise and carefully tap nails across the cracked section. Every couple of nails, we’d remove the bat from the vice and tap the knob on the floor of the workroom. If the sound was solid, it was ready. If the sound was hollow or vibrated. it needed more nails. Once nailing was complete, Dad’s handy roll of electrical tape wrapped tightly around the handle finished the reclamation and the bat was, in true Frankenstein fashion, ALIVE.
These broken bats were the heart and soul of our baseball life. Without them, who knows what we’d turned into. Gangs of street thugs? Petty criminals? Math wizards? Basketball players? I shiver to think of my life without baseball. The joy of hitting a baseball would never have been the same. The crack of the bat, even if the crack has a slightly finish nail/electrical tape ring to it, would hold no magic to my young-at-heart 50- year-old heart.
Life’s simple pleasures.
The simple joy of a game.
A poor boy’s dream.