Opening Day. There is only one, and it's in baseball. The theater has opening nights scattered here and there about the calendar, and there are various opening days of...the fishing season, the race meeting, the NFL season. But there is only one Opening Day, when grandmothers drop like flies and dreams are born anew.
Opening Day means spring. It means, literally, an opening: of buds spreading and jackets unbuttoning; of little birds' mouths gaping; of rubber bands being released from neat's-foot-oiled baseball mitts that have been held tight around a ball all winter. The Louisville Slugger sends painful jolts up your arms if you don't connect properly in the chill air. It will be better soon: warmer, and the wind will die down. But even now, if you keep the label up, you can knock that old horsehide clean and far and feel nothing but warmth.
The beginnings of the other major sports seasons have no connection with the natural rhythms of life. To be sure, they arrive according to an annual schedule but so do subscription renewals and visits to the dentist. If anything, the starting dates for football, basketball and hockey are reminders to look back. The beginning of football heralds the conclusion of summer; it goes hand-in-glove with—ugh!—back-to-school. And winter sports? If they're starting, then it must soon be—oh, no—winter. It is significant that of all the sports seasons, hockey and basketball most sneak up on us; if you are not attentive to the fellow with the blond teeth on the TV news, you will suddenly open the paper one day late in October and discover that the Celtics have already played four games.
But baseball. Opening Day. To have picked up the newspaper one fine day in April and seen this:
Why, that told you better than anything that God had truly kissed the land again, that a whole life lay ahead. Play them one at a time? Ridiculous. There were 154 to play, a number that overwhelmed a child's mind. Where would we be when the season was done? In a new grade, for certain. And perhaps our team would win. That, too. Not believe in Opening Day? Why, you might as well have said you didn't believe in Tinker Bell.
So, if you cannot bury your poor grandmother one more time, here is an article for Opening Day. It is not really about baseball. There are no bunts and round-trippers and sliders and curves. We have a whole summer for that. No, this is about Opening Day, about baseball sensations, about throwing out the first ball, about Cracker Jack and Louisville Sluggers, and about Who's on First? Let's start off with a quiz. The answers will be found buried in the article. If you bat .300—get five or more correct—you pass. You are also stamped as a strange person for knowing such foolishness.
1) Everybody knows that Taft was the first President to throw out a first ball. You think I'm going to ask a simple question like that? Who caught the first ball that Taft threw?
a Clark Griffith, the Senators' owner.
b Gabby Street, the Senators' catcher.
c Walter Johnson, the Senators' pitcher.
d Vice-President Sherman.
2) Cracker Jack was invented in Chi by:
a The Wrigley Gum Co.
b The head concessionaire at Comiskey Park.
c Two German immigrants with a sidewalk popcorn popper.
d Pop Norworth, the older brother of Jack Norworth, who wrote Take Me Out to the Ball Came.
3) Louisville Sluggers are now made in:
a Where else, dummy? Louisville.
b Hong Kong and Haiti.
c Slugger Park in Indiana.
d North Louisville, U.S.A., which is in the great ash forests of Ontario.
4) Only two real players are mentioned in Who's on First? They are:
a Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.
b Mickey Owen and Ralph Branca.
c Dizzy and Daffy Dean.
d Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb.
5) From 1910 through 1971, when the Senators left Washington for good, only two non-government officials threw out the first ball. They were:
a Perle Mesta, the famous hostess, and Clark Griffith Sr.
b Mrs. Calvin Coolidge and Shirley Povich, Washington Post sports editor.
c David Eisenhower and a returned Vietnam POW.
d Duke Zeibert, the restaurateur, and Sammy Baugh.
6) Every prize at Cracker Jack must pass:
a An esthetic test administered by the National Candy Coupon Council.
b A screening by the baseball commissioner's office.
c A simulated esophagus test conducted by Cracker Jack's "prize lady."
d Samplings personally undertaken by the chairman of the board and his grandchildren.
7) The Old Gladiator was:
a Wilson R. Keeney, a fabled blind woodturner who made 162,000 Louisville Sluggers.
b Bud Hillerich, former president of Hillerich & Bradsby Co., who is said to have made the first Slugger.
c Pete Browning, star of the Louisville Eclipse, who reputedly used the first Slugger.
d The Slugger that Joe Sewell used for 14 seasons.
8) Lou Costello was only 5'4" and weighed 195 pounds, but he had many sporting interests. He:
a Had 14 professional prizefights.
b Was a movie stunt man.
c Owned a 2-year-old colt named Bold Bazooka who equaled the world record at 5½ furlongs.
d Spent $5,000 on a personal campaign to get the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1953.
9) Walter Johnson pitched 12 presidential openers, the first in 1910 when Taft started the tradition. The Big Train lost a no-hitter in that game because:
a An easy grounder nicked a Philadelphia base runner, Ira Thomas, who had walked.
b While President Taft bellowed "Let it roll!" a bunt by the A's Rube Old ring stayed fair for a scratch single.
c Embarrassed for having unintentionally brushed back Home Run Baker, the easygoing Johnson grooved the next pitch and Baker, startled, poked an opposite-field triple.
d Washington Rightfielder Doc Gessler tripped over a child who was sitting in front of the outfield ropes, and that allowed an easy fly to drop for a double.
10) For sure, popcorn is this old:
a 126 years.
b 360 years.
c 560 years.
d 5,600 years.
11) When he hit No. 715, Henry Aaron used this player's bat model:
a Stan Musial.
b Eddie Mathews.
c Eddie Waitkus.
d Babe Ruth.
12) The last player mentioned in Who's on First? is the shortstop. He's:
a Never Mind.
d I Don't Care.
13) In the past decade only three politicians have thrown out the first ball for two teams. They are:
a John Lindsay, Richard Nixon, Richard Daley.
b Jimmy Carter, Spiro Agnew, Hubert Humphrey.
c Nelson Rockefeller, John Connally, John Gilligan.
d Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Henry Jackson.
14) The model for Sailor Jack, the little boy on the Cracker Jack package, is:
a R. W. (Boots) Rueckheim III, grandson of the company founder, who later became chairman of the board and is now retired in Lake Wales, Fla., where he lives next door to Red Grange.
b An unknown street urchin who was paid his "fee" in Cracker Jack and was bitten by the mutt Bingo while posing for the artist.
c A former minor league baseball player, Freddie Trail, who later gained brief notoriety when he was suspected of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby.
d The Cracker Jack board chairman's grandson, who was a childhood pneumonia victim and whose gravestone bears a carving of the Sailor Jack-Bingo drawing.
15) This Louisville Slugger model is the current bestseller:
a Johnny Bench.
b Reggie Jackson.
c Henry Aaron.
d Jackie Robinson.
16) When Abbott got the phone call telling him that Costello had died, he was:
a Packing to go to Cooperstown to present the Who's on First? script to the Hall of Fame.
b In Walter O'Malley's box at a Dodger-Giant game.
c Talking to his manager about performing Who's on First? at the White House when President Eisenhower entertained Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
d Watching the Who's on First? routine in an old movie being rerun on TV.
EXTRA CREDIT: Name the rightfielder in Who's on First?
Opening Day seems to have attained a certain ceremonial status long before presidents got into the act. Christmas found its arbitrary December slot on the calendar because there was already cause for celebration: the lengthening of the days, which had been the reason for the pagan festival of Saturnalia for centuries before Jesus' birth. In the same way, Opening Day fit right in as a welcome to spring. Of course, the vernal equinox always came before Opening Day, but in the northeastern quadrant of the country, where major league baseball was contained until 1957, consistently mild weather did not arrive until sometime in April. Moreover, it is worth remembering that in those days people did not gambol on indoor tennis courts all winter, or watch golf tournaments from the desert on TV, or fly off to Barbados and the Yucatan. Baseball was the only game in town, except maybe for some basketball over at the Y, and its return was a true renaissance of life.
We do not know exactly when politicians began to exploit this afternoon of goodwill, but it was surely by the Gay Nineties, perhaps earlier. When President Taft threw out the first ball on April 14, 1910 at National Park, a contemporary account noted that he was usurping the "time-honored" role of the District of Columbia's city commissioners.
But it has been the presence of Presidents that has made Opening Day very special. No other private enterprise has ever been accorded such cachet. Indeed, except for sporadic appearances at the Army-Navy football game, incumbent Presidents have rarely gone to stadiums for sporting events and never to arenas. But Opening Days have been treated by all Presidents with an annual deference given only two other non-governmental functions, posing with the March of Dimes poster child and lighting the White House Christmas tree.
From Taft in 1910 through 1971 (when the Senators left for Texas), the 11 Presidents went 45 for 62 on Opening Days. Given wars, death, depression, Communists and what-have-you, this is an incredible record. When the Chief Executives could not make it, they invariably called in their top relievers, the Vice-Presidents. Only in the Senators' final two seasons did somebody other than a government official fire the first pitch. David Eisenhower did the honors in 1970, and in 1971 a released POW, Master Sgt. Daniel I. Pitzen, became the last man to throw out the first ball in the capital.
Most Presidents quite enjoyed the task. Only Wilson (3 for 8) batted less than .500, but he attended other Senator games during the season, parking his limousine in deep right, where a substitute catcher was stationed by a fender to snare incoming line drives. Harding, Truman (7 for 7) and Kennedy never missed an Opening Day; Roosevelt made eight. Coolidge hated baseball. He had to be reminded every damn time why it was that everybody stood up in the seventh inning—something he remedied late in his term by leaving in the second inning. Still, Cal made four of his five Opening Days, and the missus was nuts about baseball. Grace Coolidge would not only pop up at Senator games during the season, but it is also on record that she kept score and stayed through rain delays.
Harding bet on the games to make them more interesting. Truman practiced surreptitiously on the White House lawn before his second opener in 1947 and then startled the photographers and everybody else by chucking the old apple southpaw. Ike was a good baseball fan, but shortly before his first Opening Day (1953) he announced that he would have to pass it up for a golfing vacation. All hell broke loose. The country club over the national pastime! Mercifully, old Jupiter Pluvius saved Ike; Opening Day was rained out, and he made it back from the links in time for the rain date. After that, Ike didn't mess around, boy; he made all Openers until 1959. Next question.
How did Taft come to start this great tradition?
Sorry, the folds of history have hidden that earth-shaking story. When the Griffiths were running the Senators, the fable—in the best tradition of Parson Weems writing about Geo. Washington and the cherry tree—had it that old Clark Griffith dropped by to see Taft, presented him with a gold pass and invited him to throw out the first ball. Because Taft had been a pitcher in his svelter salad days, he leapt at this opportunity. This is a great story except that Taft first threw out the first ball in 1910. Griffith did not become an owner of the Senators until 1912.
In fact, there was no advance warning of Taft's appearance; "The opening will not be attended by any ceremony," reported The Washington Post that morning. It is quite possible that Taft just up and went to the game on the spur of the moment. He did very little as President except eat and fret that he could not be Chief Justice, so what follows would be consistent with history. One can visualize Taft, as he sat in the breakfast nook that morning, looking out of the window and saying, "Besides lunch, what are we gonna do today?"
It was a sweetheart of a day, "sun-kissed" according to eyewitnesses.
"Well," said a chum, General Clarence Edwards, spreading some marmalade, "it's Opening Day at the ball yard."
"Yeah, who are the Nationals playing?" asked the President, reaching for another apricot Danish.
"The Mackmen," piped up Secretary of State Philander Knox, polishing off the home fries.
"District Commissioner Rudolph will be chucking out the first ball," added Mrs. Taft.
"Hmmm," said the President, finishing his Western omelet. "That gives me an idea. Let's pack a picnic and pop over."
And thus, as the Post reported, did there come about "the auspicious union of official Washington and baseballistic Washington."
On the diamond the Big Train was mowing 'em down. All told, he was to start a dozen presidential openers, winning nine, with six shutouts, but he would never again pitch as well as he did in his first. He would have had the first Opening Day no-hitter (Bob Feller finally got one 30 years later) but for the overflow multitude that settled in the outfield grass. With two gone in the seventh, Baker lifted an easy fly to the rightfielder, Doc Gessler. The swarm of fans seated along the perimeter of the outfield was supposed to dutifully scatter under these circumstances, but one boy was not nimble enough. Gessler tripped over the tyke, and the ball fell for a double, the A's only hit of the game.
But no sense crying over spilt milk. Taft and Johnson put on such a show of arms that even should diamond scholars "go back to the very inception of the national game—there will be found no day so altogether glorious, no paean of victory chanted by rooters and fanatics half so sweet as that witnessed yesterday." Perhaps proudest of all were the two managers, the storied Cornelius McGillicuddy (a/k/a Connie Mack) of the Athletics (a/k/a Mackmen) and James McAleer of the Nationals. They went to Taft's box to meet him, and while he greeted both courteously, the President disclosed his allegiance for the home nine by saving "a subtle wink and a double-action smile" for McAleer.
Despite his girth, Taft was no slouch when it came time to deliver the mail. Let the Post correspondent recapture that moment for us: "A mighty cheer swept across the crowd as President Taft showed such faultless delivery.... He did it with his good, trusty right arm, and the virgin sphere scudded across the diamond, true as a die to the pitcher's box, where Walter Johnson gathered it in...."
In a sense, the presidential tradition started that day by Taft has outlasted the Senators, because the consecutive-President streak goes on. Jimmy Carter served up the opening pitch twice in Atlanta (1972 and 73), and Gerald Ford is one of only three politicians in the last decade to have first-balled two clubs, working Cincinnati as Vice-President in '74 and Texas as President in '76. (Senator Henry Jackson pitched the first ball for both Seattle franchises, Pilots and Mariners, and Ronald Reagan did the honors for the A's and the Angels.)
But then, politicians are not as fashionable as they used to be, especially in the National League, which is ahead of the American even in this department. The most somber openers occur in Milwaukee, which always has the county executive throw out the first ball, and in Detroit, where gaiety is manifest when the fire department trots out its traditional floral horseshoe with its clever message GOOD LUCK TIGERS! and presents it to the manager.
On the other hand, San Diego once had a fellow dressed up like a chicken throw out the virgin sphere, and Philadelphia, which always confuses good humor with tackiness, employs the likes of Kite Man, Cannon Man, Sky Cycle Man and Parachute Man to deliver the ball into the park. A number of clubs have taken to using old ballplayers instead of politicians. Poster children are also somewhat in vogue, and two clubs have called upon local centenarians. The Dodgers used an umpire once, Jocko Conlan, and the Angels went with Mickey Mouse.
Predictably, Charlie Finley marches to a different Opening Day drummer. The likes of Governor Reagan aside, Finley has often preferred to have singers throw out the first ball, because then he can entreat them to warble the Anthem on the cuff. Just imagine how Finley would have gotten the Presidents to work freebies if he had owned the Senators: notarize contracts, naturalize players, pardon the ones with paternity suits, lead the Pledge of Allegiance.
Down in front! Pass the Cracker Jack!
Perhaps the best thing about Cracker Jack is that it never goes away, but you think it does, so it is a pleasant surprise when it reappears. This is not just me talking off the top of my head. Ask, say, an unmarried man, age 26 or so, would he like some Cracker Jack, and he will stare at you as if you had just inquired if he would like to watch The Donna Reed Show on a Muntz TV. People are bonkers about Cracker Jack as kids, and then they forget about it until they have kids of their own.
It also works this way: after a lousy week, during which no visions of Cracker Jack danced through your aching head, you finally get to a circus or a game, and Cracker Jack pops right into your mind. It would probably do it at the ball park even if a fellow named Jack Norworth had not, in 1908, been fishing around for some confection that rhymes with "back," hence: "Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,/I don't care if I never get back." Next question.
Who invented Cracker Jack?
The Rueckheim Bros., F.W. and Louis, German immigrants. When F.W. came to the Windy City from down on the farm in 1872 with $200 in capital, he and a partner set up a sidewalk popper.
Popcorn was not invented in a movie theater by Thomas Edison. It is the oldest corn going. One ear was found in the Bat Caves of New Mexico. It was 5,600 years old. But nobody had ever done a whole lot with popcorn. Then at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, F.W. and his brother (who had bought out F.W.'s former partner) wowed the innocents with a popcorn-peanuts-molasses snack.
Unfortunately, Cracker Jack is a sticky business. It was blob-sized until Louis figured out how to break up the gooey mess—by banging it against baffles in a rotating barrel. Then F.W. gave the new, improved bite-sized confection to a salesman. "Whaddya think of that?" F.W. asked.
The salesman replied, "That's a crackerjack of an idea."
That's a true story. Now do you want to go on with the history or get right into the prizes, the same way everybody does when they buy Cracker Jack?
Yeah, the prizes.
There is a very pretty woman at Cracker Jack, a former art teacher named Susan Reedquist. She is known around the plant as the "prize girl" or the "prize lady," depending on how up-to-date you are. She is in charge of selecting the 1,000 or so prizes that go into 420 million boxes of Cracker Jack each year. No fewer than 400 different prizes are packaged every day, and these are deposited manually—14 prize sorters dropping 128 prizes a minute. It is the only unautomated part of the process, but there are also three mechanized checks to ensure that a prize gets into each package.
Of course, just like you and me and batting averages, the prizes are not what they used to be. The prize lady has a vault that contains virtually every Cracker Jack prize ever produced, back to 1912, when prizes were introduced. Their heyday seems to have been in the 1930s, when the prizes included intricate metal and wooden toys. Once, during these halcyon days, there was an episode of Amos 'n' Andy in which de Kingfish went to a ball game and dropped a diamond ring he had bought for Sapphire. It fell into the Cracker Jack box out of which a fellow in the next row was munching. Of course the stranger thought the diamond ring was his prize. Ohhhh me, Andy! Imagine anybody today thinking that even a zircon ring could be included in a Cracker Jack box. Down in front!
But for goodness' sake, let's understand what the prize lady has to put up with. The Food and Drug Administration, for example. Nitpickers, all of them. You can't use sharp metal; you can't have any rough edges; you can't have toys that break into pieces. If it's not one thing, it's another. You could never in your wildest dreams imagine what is sitting prominently on the prize lady's desk. A simulated child's esophagus, that's what. If a toy can fit into the simulated esophagus, the prize lady has got to scratch it.
Worse, the prize lady has to accommodate today's TV generation. "The toys have to provide instant gratification," she says. "That's the effect of television."
The prize lady selects the prizes that will be tried out on whole children, as well as on their esophagi, and only the items that score high on the "smile scale" qualify for Cracker Jack. "You've got to remember that these kids have grown up in a paper and plastic world," the prize lady says. What the little shavers don't know won't hurt them.
Cracker Jack is one of the four or five most recognized brand names in the country. Ninety-nine percent of Americans are aware of it. And yet Cracker Jack is hardly in the mainstream in the way Coke and Ford, two other of the most familiar brand names, are. Undoubtedly, Cracker Jack owes much of its fame to its felicitous inclusion in the one sports anthem in the country.
But as you careful readers of The Wall Street Journal have learned, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Cracker Jack has been terrific for baseball, too. Why, Cracker Jack is still made with all natural ingredients: popcorn, peanuts, molasses, corn syrup, salt and sugar. There are still the same number of peanuts—nine to 14—in every box. And they use the exact same formula they've always used; connoisseurs can tell that the goo covering the peanuts is different from the goo covering the popcorn. You still get "A Surprise in Every Package." Take a hike, Mom's apple pie.
Think about this: suppose Norworth had not used Cracker Jack in his song. Has baseball ever thought about that? Suppose Norworth had used Moxie: "Give me some peanuts and cold Moxie!" Or Sen-Sen. Or JuJuBes. Wouldn't that be a fine how-do-you-do? Every time baseball played its theme song, it would be connecting itself with things that hardly exist anymore. That's all Bowie Kuhn needs, to be defunct-linked. And football. What a time it would have rubbing it in. Ha, ha, ha, baseball and Sen-Sen! Ha, ha, ha! Football would not let baseball hear the end of it.
So it has been a fair trade-off between Cracker Jack and baseball. And if Cracker Jack was struck by dumb luck in getting featured billing in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, it has looked out for No. 1 very well indeed. The name itself is a dandy, the prize idea a gem. It has two famous slogans: "A Surprise in Every Package" and "The More You Eat The More You Want." And everybody instantly recognizes the symbol of the little boy and his dog that has graced billions of Cracker Jack packs since 1919.
Actually, Sailor Jack and Bingo (for those are their names) are touched up every now and then, restyled to look more like a modern sailor boy and a fashionably precious mutt. For a number of years Bingo appeared forlorn; his head drooped. Now his puppy countenance has brightened. Jack has put on a white hat in recent years and is saluting much more proficiently than he did in the early going. That's the good news.
The bad news is that Jack is dead.
The sailor boy was modeled after F. W. Rueckheim's young grandson Robert, but alas, shortly after posing, the lad succumbed to pneumonia. He was buried in St. Henry's Cemetery in Chicago. On the child's tombstone is the friendly commercial image of Sailor Jack and Bingo.
What were your favorite wirephotos? There were two types I most admired. One was from Election Day and showed the President/governor/mayor emerging from the voting booth in his precinct grade school or church basement. This was democracy's pictorial equivalent of they-put-their-pants-on-one-leg-at-a-time-too. It made all the afternoon editions.
The other wirephoto jewel showed bat-kissing. If a fellow got a clutch bingle, he was shown bussing his lumber. If he hit three round-trippers he was photographed kissing one of a like number of bats, held rather like a bouquet. The most bats I ever remember a hero holding and kissing was four. When the operative number was five to 19, only one symbolic kissing-bat was employed for the wirephoto. (I always imagined these strict canons were spelled out in the UP, AP and the INP manuals.) From 20 on up, the number celebrated was formed by baseballs, the digits created by dots on the order of a Seurat painting.
Once in a blue moon a player was shown kissing a baseball, but he never was pictured kissing his glove. In wirephoto protocol, glove-kissing was considered kinky. But bats were there to be kissed. And the bats were always Louisville Sluggers. You could see the little oval trademark. So ingrained in the consciousness of American youth was the dictum "Keep the label up," that players made sure to do it even when kissing bats for wirephotos.
In Slugger Park there is a bat museum—tours daily—and amid the display of famous bats is an endorsement for Louisville Slugger from Babe Ruth. He raises a hymn to the cudgel, praising its "driving power and punch that brings home runs." As a child, I never saw such a testimonial, which is just as well, because it would have utterly confounded me. Why would any major-leaguer, Babe Ruth or anybody, bother to endorse a Louisville Slugger? Why, this would be as unnecessary as endorsing food or shelter. "Hello, I'm Julia Child, and I'd like to urge you to eat food!"
Oh sure, I knew there was such a thing as an Adirondack, and whenever anybody's dim-witted visiting maiden aunt bought a bat as a gift for a nephew, she got stiffed with a little brown number named Hanna Bat-Rite. But these were aberrations. A baseball bat was a Louisville Slugger...and if you threw it after hitting a ball you were out.
The Slugger is almost a century old. The baseballs are made in Haiti, and it is estimated that 85% of the gloves are manufactured in the Orient, but Louisville Sluggers are constant, immutable. Henry Aaron hit with a slimmed-down version of the model that Babe Ruth used. The official name of the company is still Hillerich & Bradsby, it is still 100% privately held, and a member of the Hillerich family's third generation of bat executives—John A. Hillerich III—presides as president.
The Hillerichs, like the Cracker Jack Rueckheims, were immigrants from Germany, where J. Frederick Hillerich was born in 1834. By 1859 he was sufficiently established in Louisville to open his own woodcraft shop. It had a reputation for quality manufacture of items like balusters and butter churns. His son Bud, a fan of baseball and an instrument of destiny, soon joined the enterprise.
One day in '84 (so our story goes), Bud was at the ball field, watching the local pro team, the Louisville Eclipse of the (then-major league) American Association. The star of the Eclipse, Pete Browning, broke his bat, and young Bud offered to make him a new one. Browning looked askance at Bud (the tale continues), but he accompanied him to the shop. Any port in a storm. Bud turned out an ash bat to Browning's specifications, and as you fable fans might imagine, Browning went 3 for 3 the next day. Soon Browning's teammates, and then visiting opponents, were beating a path to the quaint little woodshop on First Street. The elder Hillerich (the story guffaws) fumed; one can almost hear him bellowing at Bud in a Katzenjammer dialect, "Vat iss diss mit das crvazy baseball schtick?" Fade out....
Fade in the Slugger factory. Portentous bass voice-over: "Today that quaint little woodshop on First Street makes three and one half million bats a year!"
The Pete Browning tale is promulgated in all hallowed Slugger chronicles. And why not? Browning was a period superstar, lovingly known as the Old Gladiator. But there is a skeleton in the closet. On the wall of the company president's office is a clipping from a 1912 Louisville Herald. It relates a story told by Bud Hillerich that does not mention the Old Gladiator. Instead, Hillerich explained how he had made his own bat when he was playing on a semipro club. A teammate, Augie Weyhing, had asked to use it, and Bud had made one more for another teammate, Monk Cline. Monk Cline? Augie Weyhing? Down in front!
Anyway, the rest is history. The bat was known as the Falls City Slugger until 1894. In 1905 Honus Wagner signed a contract with Hillerich, permitting his signature to be branded on bats. He thus became the first baseball player ever to ink an endorsement pact. In 1911 Frank Bradsby, a sales expert, came on board, and the corporate name was altered in 1916. The factory was moved across the Ohio River to Indiana in 1974. Otherwise, business as usual.
More than 90% of all pros sign up with Slugger. Most join on as minor-leaguers earning a small fee and the promise that Louisville will make them personalized bats for as long as they play for pay. On semiautomatic lathes, consumer bats can be knocked out in eight seconds flat, but the pros' personal models are still turned by hand. Bats are never made or cut or formed. They are turned.
In the old days players used to make special trips to Louisville to talk to the craftsmen, to pick out their own timber. Not surprisingly, Ted Williams was the most persnickety. Players tended their bats, "cooling" them in alcohol, "tightening" the grain by rubbing them with a bone or a pop bottle. Today Louisville hears only from agents trying to renegotiate the old service contracts.
Styles change, too. Generally, handles have gotten thinner. Still, the most popular bat with the public is the Jackie Robinson model that has a relatively stout grip. The other retail autograph models are named after Aaron, Clemente, Mantle, Frank Robinson and 14 current hitters including Pete Rose, who is trying to get out of his Slugger contract so he can Charlie Hustle aluminum bats.
An original model is catalogued in a very simple way—by the initial of the player's surname and a number that indicates how many players with the same initial have had distinct models turned for them. Thus, the first bat made with a concave end is designated as C271 because it was turned for Jose Cardenal, who is the 271st player with the initial C to have had a Slugger model created for him.
A small room at Slugger Park holds file cards on every major-leaguer who ever had a Slugger turned for him. There is an eerie feeling there, a sense of time having stopped. A man can go into that file cabinet and determine what bat it was that Home Run Baker used on April 14, 1910. And in a few minutes a craftsman can turn that exact bat. There are 13 check points on every bat. It is always made from a white ash that has grown for 45 to 50 years in New York or Pennsylvania. The tree has to have grown on a ridge top or have been exposed to the north and east for the right amount of sun. Then it is cut and dried. Finally it is turned by an artisan who does it precisely as one of his predecessors did it decades ago, about the time the seed went into the ground and Home Run Baker took his cuts.
Unfortunately, it is hard to find young men who want to be woodturners. It requires a long time to learn this honest craft, and young people do not want to invest that time. Besides, there are aluminum bats. They already take up 35% to 40% of the total bat market, and their share increases every year. A Slugger will cost you nine bucks tops, but it will break and sting your hands, and you must remember to keep the label up. Aluminum bats sell for as much as $50, but they last and last, whichever way you hold the label. It is also alleged that a baseball jumps off them faster. The sound is different, too. It is more modern, like an automobile crash.
Aluminum bats are now allowed in every game but Organized Baseball. There, as always, the law reads that a bat must be turned out of one solid piece of God's own wood. Someday soon a phenom is going to step to the plate in the majors, fresh out of college, and he is going to be swinging with a wooden bat for the first time. Que serà, serà".
None of this upsets Hillerich & Bradsby as much as you might imagine. Remember, these are the same fellows who got out of butter churns when the time was ripe. Now their brand is pressed on aluminum bats, too. And the Slugger people are especially proud of their top-quality magnesium bats. Magnesium bats made by Louisville Slugger! Why, you might as well tell me there is magnesium Cracker Jack.
Bill Williams, Hillerich & Bradsby's vice-president of advertising, says, "The crack of the bat doesn't seem to mean that much to kids anymore." He spoke that not in anger but merely in resignation, with a hint of pity. Imagine never getting good wood on a ball. Imagine not knowing what a loud foul off Home Run Baker's bat sounded like.
Comedy is not the most dependable traveler through time. Many people now find the mots of the wits of the Algonquin Round Table forced and leaden. And Abbott and Costello, those purveyors of the broad and foolish? They appear downright puerile. Consider their horse routine, when Abbott, the tall one (he was 5'11"), brings Costello to blubbery tears by telling him deadpan about the mudder who had no fodder. Our first reaction is wonderment: Did a nation laugh at this?
You bet it did. Except for Laurel and Hardy, there has never been a pair of comics who were so enjoyed for so long. They were Top Ten box-office draws for more than a decade; in 1942 they were No. 1, just ahead of Clark Gable. They struck some simple childlike chord in us and strummed it again and again.
The pair broke up in 1957, and Costello died two years later when he was 50. Abbott, ever the happy wastrel, had to scuffle with the IRS over back taxes for most of his sunset years, but he lasted till age 78, dying four years ago this month. But they remain as much in evidence as ever. Their movies—and they churned out three or four a year for Universal—are everywhere on TV, usually during the children's hours, harmlessly washing our minds without leaving a trace upon our consciousness. But hush, my children, here is the one heirloom of Abbott and Costello that endures:
Costello: I would like to know some of the guys' names on the team....
Abbott: Oh sure. But you know baseball players have funny names...nowadays.
Costello: Like what?
Abbott: Well, like Dizzy Dean and Daffy Dean.
Costello: Oh yeah, a lot of funny names. I know all those guys.
Abbott: Well, let's see now. We have on our team: Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know's on third.
Costello: That's what I want to find out, the guys' names.
Abbott: I'm telling you: Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know's on third.
Costello: You're going to be the manager of a baseball team?
Costello: You know the guys' names?
Abbott: Well, I should.
Costello: Will you tell me the guys' names on the baseball team?
Abbott: I say: Who's on first. What's on second, I Don't Know's on third.
Costello: You know the guys' names on the baseball team?
Costello: Well, go ahead—who's on first?
Costello: I mean the guy's name.
Costello: The guy playing first.
Costello: The guy at first base?
Abbott: Who's on first....
That, of course, is just the beginning of the Who part. Not until considerably later do they introduce What. It goes on and on. Tomorrow is pitching. Today is catching. Why is in left. Because is in center, and finally, I Don't Care is at short. For some reason, there is no rightfielder.* The routine could be played at any length. Maybe at one point there was a rightfielder, but it didn't work. No one knows for sure. Strangely, even though Who's on First? is far and away the best-known comic bit in American history and even though Abbott and Costello played it more than 15,000 times—including a dozen times for President Roosevelt, who never tired of it—and even though they did it in vaudeville, in burlesque, on radio, on television and in the movies, there seems to be no account of what inspired it, who wrote it or even what Abbott and Costello thought of it.
Studio publicity had it that the comics introduced the routine in 1936 at the Oriental Theater in Chicago, but almost surely its origins date to 1931 or 1932. The two men had become a team shortly before. William A. Abbott, a theater box-office employee, filled in one night when Louis Cristello's straight man didn't show. Both men were from New Jersey, although Abbott grew up on Coney Island until, at age 15. he was shanghaied. Slipped a Mickey Finn, he woke up a seaman in the middle of the ocean. He later returned to show biz, the family profession.
Costello had a more uneventful childhood in Paterson where, despite his short stature, he played baseball and other sports. Later he had 14 professional prizefights and became a Hollywood stuntman. He was always interested in sports. In 1955 his 2-year-old colt, Bold Bazooka, equaled the world record for 5½ furlongs, and two years before that he had spent $5,000 of his own money on a vain campaign to have the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. (Now you know that No. 8 is a trick question; all the answers are correct. The other answers are: questions 1 to 7, c; 9 to 16, d.)
Given Costello's interest in sports, it is more likely that Who's on First? originated with him. Certainly no one claims that anyone but the two comics themselves wrote it. Betty Abbott, Bud's widow, believes that her husband and Costello first performed the routine—a version about one-third as long as the final one—at the Eltinge Theatre in New York late in 1932.
Almost from the first it seems to have been the centerpiece of their act, but it did not receive national attention until 1938, when Abbott and Costello got their big break, appearing on the Kate Smith radio show. Two years later they used Who's on First? in their first movie. One Night in the Tropics, in which Robert Cummings and Allan Jones starred. Because the comedians and the routine were a big hit in this film. Universal signed them, and they later used Who's on First? in movies of their own.
"They kept embellishing it," their manager. Eddie Sherman, recalls. "Initially they didn't do the entire routine the way it's been recorded or the way they did it in pictures. They added on a thing they called 'Naturally.' They were always adding things to it over the years."
The official version, if there is such a thing, was enshrined in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in 1956. The gold record and script usually are displayed on the second floor, next to the National League centennial exhibit. Recently. Universal bought the rights to Who's on First? so it can use the bit in a movie and a TV show. This is business, of course, but it is also altogether silly. You can no more sell the rights to Who's on First? without Abbott and Costello than you can sell the rights to Sally Rand's fan dance without Sally Rand, or Babe Ruth's home-run trot without Babe Ruth. Oh well, never mind. Down in front!
It is hard to pin down why Who's on First? became so popular and enduring—especially at a time when sports material usually bombed on the stage. For obvious reasons, the bit must have appealed to baseball fans, and probably it also appealed to those who laugh at baseball fans for being so devoted to the sport's minutiae, its names and statistics. It goes without saying that the routine never could have worked for another sport. Who's at Halfback? No way. Baseball is the only popular American sport in which every position is permanently set at a specific location. The one thing you can count on in life is that there is a first baseman and a shortstop and a catcher, and they are right where they were last month. The second baseman is not going to vanish—poof—and materialize down the leftfield line as something known as a nose guard or a power forward. Baseball positions are anchors in a shifting world, and to have given the most indefinite names to the personnel at these most dependable positions is to have made brilliant use of comic irony. That is the genius of Who's on First?
Obviously, two burlesque comedians did not sit around and ponder all this, but their routine has a sort of uncultured existentialism. Costello is like a Sartre character in No Exit, stymied at every turn despite being on the most familiar, comfortable territory. Abbott is a seminal bureaucratic figure, ever helpful, never helping. Maddening.
The routine was written in the depths of the Depression, a time when the nation was still as confounded by this unforeseen calamity as it was hungry. Without warning, unseen forces were frustrating, then destroying, common folk in ways they could not comprehend. Who? What? I don't know. Tomorrow! Why? Because. Economic disaster aside, the modern, impersonal, urban, red-tape society had just begun to crank up. You see, Abbott and Costello were saying, you can't depend on a damn thing anymore, not even baseball.
This is why, I think, they never came up with a rightfielder.
You might say that this is all a lot of gobbledygook. These' were two downtown comics who worked bawdy routines out front while the strippers were getting ready backstage. Maybe, but genius pops up in funny places and those who have it are often unaware of it.
On the afternoon of March 3, 1959, right after the Dodgers went off to spring training, Bud Abbott turned on the television in L.A. to watch an old Abbott and Costello movie. Who's on First? was in the film. Near the end of the routine the phone rang, and Abbott answered it. He was told that Lou Costello had died. "Tell me," Abbott would often say after that, "why did I happen to be watching that picture at that time? Will you tell me why?"
Probably because all along, surely, the rightfielder in the routine was God.
* There is a similar incongruity in another famous piece of baseball literature, Casey at the Bat. In the poem's third stanza, the two batters preceding Casey are identified as "Flynn" and "Jimmy Blake." In the next stanza, after Flynn has singled and Blake doubled, Ernest L. Thayer writes: "There was Johnny safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third." Why did Jimmy become Johnny? Why didn't anyone ever catch this? How could the poet have made such a mistake? What does it all mean?
Opening Day. Play ball. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack. Hey, keep the label up. Hello, boss, my grandmother just died, and I'm going to have to go to the funeral this afternoon, TAB VETERAN PORTSIDER LIDLIFTER MOUND CHOICE. The old lumber, Louisville Slugger. Who's on First?