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Spring Has Sprung
Frank Deford
April 10, 1978
It's Opening Day, so buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, remember to hold the label up and tell me Who's on First?
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April 10, 1978

Spring Has Sprung

It's Opening Day, so buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, remember to hold the label up and tell me Who's on First?

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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.

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