In his memoir, Lou Gehrig mentions that in 1923 Babe Ruth briefly used a “Sam Crawford bat.” It is time that today’s baseball enthusiasts learn the whole story of this unique episode in Yankee history.
Sam “Wahoo” Crawford, a native of Wahoo, Nebraska, played nineteen years in the major leagues, four with the Cincinnati Reds and fifteen with the Detroit Tigers. A respected slugger in the dead ball era, he managed a career batting average of .309 even when opposing pitchers would doctor the baseball with such enhancements as emery boards, soap, and tobacco juice. Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1957, upon his death in 1968 Wahoo Sam still stood ninth on the all-time list of base hits.
During his career Sam had learned that there were always weaknesses in the grain of major league bats. He eventually came up with a solution to this problem—the “quadrebuilt bat.” Sam discovered that he could select four pieces of lumber, glue them together, and plane them down to major league specifications—each bat had to be round, not over two and three-fourths inches in diameter at the thickest, no more than forty-two inches in length, and made entirely of hardwood. His innovation was that the wood grain ran crosswise rather than lengthwise, making a bat nearly indestructible. Crawford applied for a patent, took his idea to a firm in Whittier, California, accepted a part ownership in the business, and began to manufacture his special bats.
To advertise his new product, Wahoo Sam sent some samples to the New York Yankees with the hope that Babe Ruth would help to popularize them. When Crawford’s bats arrived in mid-June of 1923, Babe looked them over, noticed that they were an inch shorter and four ounces lighter, hefted them, and immediately pronounced them “too light.” For over ten days Eddie Bennett, the Yankees batboy and mascot, dutifully laid the Crawford bats in front of the dugout, but no one would even pick them up after Babe had refused to use them. Finally, Eddie begged Babe to give one of the new bats a tryout. Already in a bit of a slump, Babe thought he might as well appease Eddie so he took one of Crawford’s bats to the plate on July 2 against Tom Zachary of the Washington Senators. In five at bats, Babe hit a double, triple, and home run. The following day he notched a single and another home run. By the time he hit two home runs against the St. Louis Browns on July 7, Babe was hitting .464 with what he now called the best piece of wood he had ever used, the newly christened Betsy Bingle.
Naturally, Babe ordered a dozen of Crawford’s bats for his personal use. They were expensive, each one costing eight dollars, while the average major league bat sold for about two dollars. Babe’s average and home run total began to soar. He soon began to challenge Harry Heilmann of the Tigers for the American League batting championship until someone in the Detroit organization alleged that Betsy Bingle gave Babe an unfair advantage. Ban Johnson, president of the American League, investigated and on August 11 wired Babe Ruth to inform him that his Sam Crawford bat would henceforth be prohibited. Upon receiving this bad news, Babe and Yankee catcher Fred “Bootnose” Hofmann cut apart a bat and only then discovered that four sections had been glued together.
President Johnson sent an official notice to Yankees manager Miller Huggins: “The special bat George Ruth is now using does not conform to the regulations prescribed by the rules and must be discarded at once. The American League umpires have been instructed to stop Ruth from using this new bat, which I understand is the invention of Sam Crawford.” Huggins was incensed, as was owner Jacob Ruppert, and Babe was outspoken about this intrusion into his hitting power. Huggins fired of a complaint to Ban Johnson, explaining, “The rules simply state that the bat must be round, entirely of hardwood and conform to certain dimensions. The new bat used by Ruth is made of hardwood and is perfectly round. The rules do not state that the bat must be made out of one piece of wood. Ruth’s bat is not a trick bat but simply an improvement on the old type.” Johnson minutely examined a sample bat that Huggins had sent him on appeal, discovered that it had been laminated together, and therefore was not entirely fashioned from a single piece of wood. His prohibition of Betsy Bingle and all other Sam Crawford bats was upheld. The upshot of Johnson’s ruling was that Wahoo Sam saw his potential windfall evaporate and Babe Ruth, although he hit .394 that year, never caught Harry Heilmann in the batting race, the latter ending the season with a .409 average.