Baseball ‘Archaeologists’ Uncover Priceless Long Lost Game-Used Bats of the 1950s
By Tom Palermo // December 17, 2018
CELEBRATING AMERICA'S RICH BASEBALL HISTORY
(Space Coast Daily images)
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – The year was 2004, and it was your classic American holiday gathering: The bounty was plentiful, multiple generations of family and friends were assembled – and casual discussion around the table alternated between Thanksgivings past and current affairs, such as politics, entertainment and sports.
After a short exchange about who might be the front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy, our sports discussion turned to baseball – as it inevitably does.
We talked about the unlikely sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series by the Red Sox.
Then the tone turned more somber as the conversation gravitated to the headline news of the day – the steroid scandal involving high-profile major league players, including career home run king heir apparent Barry Bonds.
As we moved from the dining room to the kitchen table to enjoy dessert and coffee Dad, 85 at the time, launched into a discourse about the absolute mismanagement and disarray of his beloved game.
My brother Jim and I looked at each other knowingly and moved our chairs closer to the table to hear what he had to say because of our father’s first-hand experience and perspective of the game that few, if any, living human beings had.
Dad was absolutely incredulous about the steroid abuse in baseball and what it meant to the integrity of the game.
Beginning in 1927, when he was six years old, until just before World War II in 1941, Dad was a part of the St. Louis Browns organization.
His first job with the Browns was as mascot of the team. At the age of nine, he was made the batboy and by 16 was managing the visitor’s clubhouse at Sportsman’s Park, home to both the Browns and Cardinals.
AMERICA’S ORIGINAL SPORTS BAR
My father’s recollections of how baseball was almost 80 years ago haD not been clouded by living through the Great Depression, tromping through Europe during World War II and raising four children with my mother, Nadine.
Upon returning from the war, my Dad had to give up a promising professional umpiring career to assist his ailing father in the family businesses.
Among the family’s holdings was a neighborhood tavern across the street from Sportsman’s Park.
The tavern opened in 1923 and was also the family homestead for four decades.
The tavern, located at the intersection of Spring and Sullivan Avenues, and adjacent to the left field gates of Sportsman’s Park, is probably America’s Original Sports Bar.
As early as 1946 patrons gathered every Friday night to watch the fights on the newest technology – a 12-inch Farnsworth television.
The tavern opened in 1923 and was also the family homestead for four decades. The tavern, located at the intersection of Spring and Sullivan Avenues, and adjacent to the left field gates of Sportsman’s Park, is probably America’s Original Sports Bar.
In the early 1950s, the tavern was remodeled and decorated with all kinds of game-used equipment from all 16 major league teams, including uniforms, caps, gloves, balls – and hundreds of cracked bats brought over from the ball park by a good friend of Dad’s who worked as batboy for the Browns and Cardinals from 1950-1955.
Players, managers and coaches from both leagues frequented the establishment – mainly for my grandmother’s cooking – and during prohibition, my grandfather’s homemade wine.
During our passionate conversation about the condition of the game, my brother and I, who are products of the Baby Boom Era, and have our baseball perspective rooted in the 1950s and 1960s, made the case that Aaron, Musial, Mays, Snider, Mantle, Williams and Banks would have hit perhaps 800 or more home runs if they had taken performance-enhancing substances.
The conversation then became a discourse on the history and culture of baseball and how the game has degenerated into nothing more than a bunch of spoiled cartoon characters (commissioner, players, owners and agents) who have little regard for the game and even less for the fans. We all yearned for the time when it was a game.
My mother, Nadine, listening on the periphery as she tended her two-year-old granddaughter, made a comment about “those old bats.”
Almost in unison, my brother Jim and I asked, “What ever happened to those bats!?”
Almost in unison, my brother Jim and I asked, “What ever happened to those bats!?”
Mom replied that she had packed them up in a refrigerator box sometime in the early ’60s and had the movers put them “somewhere” in the garage after relocating to Florida from St. Louis in 1985.
Neither my brother nor I had seen those bats in more than 40 years, but we remembered vividly when they adorned the tavern walls on Sullivan Avenue. Our curiosity led us to agree to head over to our parent’s house early the next morning to check it out.
‘OH MY GOD!’
Upon arriving the following morning, Mom had coffee ready, but we made a beeline for the garage. The area was more of a storage room than a garage. The roll-up door hadn’t been open for at least 15 years and, to our chagrin, the single light fixture was out of order.
The bat box was bound by twine and dried-out masking tape. While cutting the twine and ripping away what was left of the tape holding the box closed, by the dull light of a single flashlight, we joked that this must have been what it was like for Howard Carter when he discovered King Tut’s tomb deep inside the Egyptian desert.
Mom came up with a well-used flashlight and we started moving boxes and crates around looking for the bat box in semi-darkness. We finally uncovered the old refrigerator box behind a wall of smaller boxes and hanging clothes.
The bat box was bound by twine and dried-out masking tape.
While cutting the twine and ripping away what was left of the tape holding the box closed, by the dull light of a single flashlight, we joked that this must have been what it was like for Howard Carter when he discovered King Tut’s tomb deep inside the Egyptian desert.
Jim pulled the well-packed bats out of their container one at a time, and in the darkened garage, he passed them to me over the wall of boxes to take inventory.
I was stunned.
Mom, hearing the ruckus, stuck her head in the garage to see if everything was OK.
After a cursory, but high-spirited inspection of several bats, we quickly decided it was too dark in the garage to give our rediscovered treasures the proper examination they deserved.
INTO THE LIGHT
It was out of the question to move the entire box, because it was much too bulky, so we brought them into Mom and Dad’s sun-drenched Florida Room two at a time until 42 bats were lying in neat rows on the floor – labels up.
Dad, just arising, walked into the room, coffee in hand, and surveyed the bats.
“I see you guys didn’t waste any time,” he said.
As my brother and I gave him a briefing about our “who’s who” lineup of ’50s baseball, he reached down and picked up “The Man’s” bat – the only unbroken one in the lot.
“I remember when Freddie brought this bat over to the saloon,” he said. “This is a bat Musial used the day he hit five home runs.”
Freddie Buchholtz was the Cardinal batboy that day more than 60 years ago when Musial hit five home runs during a doubleheader, and Dad knew him well through his longtime connections at the ballpark and the tavern.
Seeing and touching the bats must have jogged his memory as Dad recalled there were “a bunch” of photos, letters and notes somewhere that chronicled his days in baseball, from the beginning. Mom, ever the pack rat, said they were probably in some of those boxes we already moved around – so back to the dark garage we went.
Grabbing about a dozen boxes, we brought them all into the bright light of day – but the contents were even more illuminating: Newspaper clippings with Dad’s photos from the 20s and 30s out of the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat; old photos of Dad in a Browns uniform, and sitting at Goose Goslin’s feet in the Brown’s 1931 team photo; Dad in San Antonio during the Brown’s spring training in 1938; and Dad during his professional umpiring career before the war.
There also were letters of recommendation from Brown’s owner, William DeWitt, to the War Department for Dad to go to Officer Candidate School; and a photo of Mom and Dad with my mom’s sister, Carmen Berra, and her husband, Yogi, at the Copacabana Club in New York City in 1952.
And then, there was the jackpot – notes about the bats and other artifacts, which we found out later we unfortunately no longer had, such as Rogers Hornsby’s baseball shoes, Roy Campanella’s mitt, an original Pirate batting helmet, various uniforms and a lot more.
We also discovered signed scorecards from the 50s and 60s, old Brownie and Cardinal original headshot photos that once hung in the tavern, a picture taken by Dad of Musial, Red Schoendienst, Uncle Yogi and Joe Louis, an original reel of 16 mm film of the 1950 World Series, a signed baseball from the ’64 series, and more.
As we read the notes compiled by Dad, Jim and I realized that this collection and combination of bats at our very feet were significant baseball artifacts of an era gone by.
For years we had talked about writing a book featuring the many fascinating stories about the “Golden Age” of baseball in the ’20s and ’30s that we had heard from Dad all of our lives.
This rediscovered group of game-used bats from the ’50s provided us another platform and incentive to share our stories and passion for our national pastime, thus WhenItWasaGame.net was born.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A resident of Brevard County, Florida for the past 35 years, Tom Palermo has more than 39 years experience in the media business as a publisher, editor and industry consultant. During his career in both corporate and small business entrepreneurial environments, he has founded dozens of local, state, regional and national print and digital publications.
Palermo has written thousands of articles and columns for daily and weekly newspapers, magazines, trade publications and web sites – and hosted a weekly radio talk show for seven years.
In 2005, Palermo founded Maverick Multimedia, Inc., which specializes in media-specific IT development; niche multimedia and custom publishing; and devising comprehensive strategic business and digital marketing plans.
Maverick Multimedia, Inc. is a Brevard County, Florida-based company that includes properties in digital marketing, publishing, special events and production, sports management, hospitality and business/marketing consulting. Among the company’s holdings is SpaceCoastDaily.com and Space Coast Daily magazine.
Tom and his brother, Dr. Jim Palermo, are the proprietors of the website WhenItWasAGame.net, which they founded in 2004 to celebrate their family’s rich baseball history – and whose themes and content are dedicated to recalling, celebrating and preserving our baseball heritage.
CLICK HERE FOR BREVARD COUNTY NEWS