WRITER - FATHER - HUSBAND - BIBLIOPHILE
A second son must find glory where he can.
-GEORGE R.R. MARTIN, A CLASH OF KINGS
A chapter from my forthcoming baseball memoir, The Tie Goes To The Runner, available in February 2023.
I don’t remember having much interest in baseball before we moved into our second house in New Jersey in 1977, in the little town called Berkeley Heights. If anyone is paying attention, the year we first came to Jersey was 1975.
We lived in the next town over, New Providence, for the first two years. It was a smaller house with a bigger back yard. I think we ended up moving to the Berkeley Heights house basically because of my sister. We outgrew the first place and needed a bigger one.
Like I said, I do not have many baseball-related memories from the first house. But I know it had already infiltrated our world by then. My parents would watch it here and there, for one. My mother had been a real tomboy as a kid. She loved sports. She’d grown up cheering for the White Sox and she loved to play ball as a girl. She was probably as much into watching baseball on TV as my Dad was.
My big brother played organized baseball when we lived in that first house. He was seven or eight when we moved there. But I think he was probably the only one of us who played before we moved again. I don’t remember even owning much baseball stuff. If we had a garage in that first house I cannot remember it.
The new house had a big garage though, and before long it was cluttered with sports gear. Baseball equipment in this garage would come and go. We would scrounge it up wherever we could find it. Garage sales; thrift stores. Baseballs were usually scattered around the whole garage. We would find them in the field or in the woods at the elementary school across the street. We had some rubber bases lying around. Lots of wiffle ball bats, wiffle balls, and tennis balls. I always remember using tennis balls to play catch or even games of baseball at the school across the way when baseballs were scarce.
My mom would get upset when we would commandeer tennis balls from cans she kept in the garage. This was because tennis was my mom’s favorite sport. She would play it with friends or even in local tennis clubs literally whenever she could. So when we ripped off her tennis balls to play catch or whatever, this would irk her. Today I find this rather understandable. But we were not about to let the occasional lack of baseballs stop us from getting out there and playing.
To play baseball, or a game we called “Running Bases,” or even catch, of course, you need gloves. Now, I don’t remember going to sports stores or Sears or Caldor to buy shiny new leather baseball gloves very often. But we never went without them, either. The gloves I remember playing with were always kind of ratty, often too small, not broken in well - pretty worn down overall. But there were usually enough to go around. I would guess that many of the gloves I played with were hand-me-downs. From Luke, for sure, but there were also three younger brothers coming up behind him, and he didn’t buy new gloves every year either. So we picked up more here and there.
We also abused the hell out of the mitts we did own, to be honest. We’d chuck them onto the ground when we screwed up a play in the field. We’d toss them into a corner of the garage when we were finished playing, in the vague vicinity of a basket or storage bin that they were supposed to go in. Then we would be pissed off, knocking over bikes and whatnot when we could not find them the next time. We’d also chuck them at each other - all the time. For sport, and in anger.
It’s hard to remember one particular glove that was “mine,” or was the longest-running mitt that I had. But I do have a vague recollection of one that I used a lot in my elementary school years. It was a light, tan-colored leather - a regular fielder’s glove for a right handed thrower. I can barely conjure that mitt up in my head and remember how well it fit. I left it out in the rain a few times but managed to get plenty of use out of it. The brand was Rawlings and the fake signature burned into the palm area was, who else - Mr. October, Reggie Jackson. That I remember vividly!
Here I am rambling all over the place about the baseball stuff we had and the early days when we used them, but what I am actually leading up to is one item in particular. If we were going to play catch or Running Bases, that was one thing.
But if you had a whole crew together, or even if we managed to collect all four of us brothers and wanted to have at it, you couldn’t get away with just a baseball (or two) and a few mitts. You also needed a bat.
We had some of those laying around too. Definitely for wiffle ball, and we always seemed to have a wooden bat and a couple aluminum bats. These were always in pretty sorry shape too. But there was one bat that was an outlier. It wasn’t, at least not for a long while, in sorry shape. And it hung around in our lives forever. It was always there. We had a nickname for this bat, and I could not possibly ever forget the bat OR the name:
If only I could lay my hands on that bat right now! I remember KONG like it was some kind of religious relic. For us, it almost was. How we came into possession of it is something I have not retained. I feel like in this case, it may have actually been purchased new, but I have no way to verify that. Maybe it came down from above or something.
This bat had an aura around it, that’s what I know. It sort of felt timeless. Perhaps “immortal” is a better word. I want to say it pre-dated all of us and will outlive all of us too. It may still be out there in some kid’s garage, or maybe somebody is taking cuts with it right now. But it can’t be a very little kid, and I’m going to tell you why.
KONG was no ordinary bat. First of all, it was wood. Important to point that out. In my youth, as I just mentioned, we had plenty of aluminum bats, in a few different sizes. They were usually pretty beat up, and I remember a few of them with the tape wrapped around the bottom where you grip it peeling away, so that it flopped around whenever you tried to hit. But if you were to pull the tape completely off it would be too thin and it also became slippery. One of many problems, in my mind, with aluminum bats.
A lot of people will advocate for the use of aluminum bats. They are used in all levels of baseball right up through college, but are not permitted in the major leagues. Everyone who plays little league as a kid learns to play with them. They are lighter and easier to swing. And when they connect to the ball it will travel farther and at a greater speed. You don’t have to hit a ball in the proverbial “sweet spot” with an aluminum bat because, well, it’s a piece of metal. There is no sweet spot. Also, you can’t miss that tell-tale CLINK an aluminum bat makes, which can be heard at every little league, high school, or college game in America, year upon year, all summer long.
But I have to admit, I never much liked that clink, and I still don’t like it.
For my money, you can forget aluminum bats. They aren’t the real thing. I don’t even know why I feel passionate about it to this day - but I do! It might have something to do with KONG.
Wood bats seem so much more authentic to me. There’s something special about them. I’m so glad that you can only use wooden bats in the majors. I know there are some who want to allow the use of aluminum bats in the big leagues, but I hope and even pray they won’t ever do that. There are a few reasons.
A wooden bat is heavier and tougher to swing with sufficient speed to drive the ball. That makes clubbing a home run in a major league game a superior achievement. It requires greater hand-eye coordination to connect the bat to a ball hard enough to drive it far with a wood bat because wooden bats do have a “sweet spot,” where the bat will really crush the ball. But it’s difficult to locate and strike the baseball with it, especially if the baseball is coming in at 90 miles an hour or faster.
Using wooden bats is also safer for players and spectators. A ball crushed by a major leaguer with a wooden bat is a lethal weapon, potentially. The speed at which the ball can hit a player either on the field (such as the pitcher) or a spectator in the stands can be enough to kill.
Does anyone remember the opening chapter of the renowned 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving? The narrator’s mother in that story is killed by a foul ball. This happens in real life, too, tragically. As recently as 2018, a 79-year-old woman was killed by a foul ball at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
But if these major leaguers hit with aluminum bats, the ball would travel faster and would strike players or people with even greater force.
Then there’s the signature sound of the ball being crushed by wood. You know, what people refer to as “the crack of the bat.” I do not know what it is about this, but it is important. Who would argue that they prefer the industrial clink of an aluminum bat to the sharp crack of a batter in baseball getting all of the wood on the baseball? I sure wouldn’t.
I had a moment last year with respect to this point about the sound a wooden bat makes, which I might call part of the unique music of baseball in its purest form. I took three of my four kids one Sunday to see the IronPigs. Their ballpark is only about 15 minutes away from my house and the tickets are relatively inexpensive - definitely in comparison to major league ball tickets. The only thing that was working against us was that it was a pulverizingly hot day and we were positively baking in the sun along the first base line the whole time. But that’s just another part of baseball - the Boys of Summer, and all of that.
Long story short, the IronPigs were absolutely demolished in that game. The date, for the record, was June 27, 2021, and the victors were the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, who, naturally, are the Triple A affiliate of the New York Yankees. The end result of this contest was a 19-1 ass whipping of the highest order.
I remember being in a bit of disbelief as the RailRiders ran roughshod, and their hitters clubbed just about everything the Pigs’ multiple pitchers threw their way. Never in my entire life that I could remember had I ever seen four home runs go out of the yard in the same inning. I remember joking around with my then-15 year old daughter Jane that I felt pretty confident that I could go down to the field and have a better chance to get the next guy out than any of the IronPigs’ hurlers on that day. That’s how bad it was.
The other thing that stood out so vividly to me from that day, aside from damn near crossing over due to heat stroke, was the batting clinic that gaggle of Yankee hopefuls put on. Naturally, if you’re gonna put across nearly 20 runs in a game, which is closer to a decent effort in football, you’re going to need a lot of hits. And the RailRiders hit the ball on that day. If you savor the crack of the bat - this is my general point - this day was truly a feast. I can still picture - and hear - those little white balls being slapped all the way to Hell and back that afternoon.
But that occasion truly hammered home how much I love a good, old-fashioned hit with a wooden bat. If I ever think of wooden bats in almost any context, I am never far from remembering the best wooden bat in history: KONG.
KONG was named, of course, after King Kong, a huge, hulking, powerful, alpha-male gorilla borrowed from the annals of celluloid history. In my youth we were not very removed from the epic 1976 remake version of King Kong, directed by John Guillermin. We all had thrilled to this movie, which may be best remembered for its poignant and now-famous poster, seen below.
Life is strange. How could anyone have possibly predicted back then the way that image would strike people in the 21st century? I know for a while one of us had this movie poster tacked to the wall in one of the shared bedrooms in our house in Jersey.
I’m not sure when we procured KONG, the bat - who picked it up or why. I also do not know when someone first called it “KONG.” All of that is way too far back in the archives of our humble family history for anyone to retrieve. But I know why we called it that. The bat was gigantic and it was painted black. If King Kong had actually existed, and some wizard had come along and cursed it by turning it into a baseball bat, the result would have been this bat.
I don’t remember the brand either. I want to say it was a Louisville Slugger, but who knows? What I do remember is Kong was long, bold, and exceptionally heavy. It had the thickest barrel in the world, or that’s how it seemed to me. That makes a difference because one of the things I have wondered, but could never officially verify, is whether or not KONG was actually a softball bat. Softball bats tend to be slightly longer than even adult baseball bats are.
But I doubt that KONG was made for softball because of the hefty barrel. Softball bats typically have more of a gradual taper. KONG had this mammoth barrel that made you wonder if what you were attempting to swing was some kind of mutant offspring between a baseball bat and that sledgehammer that John Henry used in the old, American myth.
So yeah, I’m going to stick with KONG being a legit baseball bat.
We loved that old bat, KONG. It seemed indestructible. It was practically a member of the family for a while there. At least, that’s how I think about it. The funny thing about KONG is that, for almost the whole time we had it, I literally could not swing it because it was too heavy. It took many years for me to grow strong enough to get KONG around to hit a ball. I was probably well into my teens before I could do this. But I remember playing with that bat a lot even before then. There was just something noble and mighty about it. It felt like you were holding Excalibur.
Then, after I was a bit older and could take it across the street and actually hit with KONG, I still vividly remember what it felt like to get a hold of a baseball with that big, black cannon. KONG had an incredible sweet spot. When you connected to a pitch with the barrel of that bat dead on, it was an explosion. You felt like Aaron or Reggie Jackson. The ball would blast off like a satellite or rocket ship and you were pretty sure that you had actually sent it into orbit.
O great and mighty KONG! Where are you now? Did someone dispatch you for firewood? I refuse to believe this. Did you suffer a nobler fate, splintering into shards when some warrior more worthy than I lay your massive barrel onto a fastball they then plowed over the fence for a grand slam? Also hard to accept, but at least that fate is more honorable.
Or - did someone steal you and remove you entirely and return you to some uncharted isle, into the depths of the jungle, where an even scarier warrior is now clutching you in his, or her, mighty arm, ready to make raw pulp of the next challenger?
Somehow, as ridiculous as this idea sounds, it feels like an even worthier destiny for a baseball bat as great as the immortal KONG.
LONG LIVE KONG!
(c) Jude Joseph Lovell