Highlighting An Artifact: The Williams/Paige Connection

(Photographs courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

Bruce Markusen is the manager of Digital and Outreach Learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Like any major museum, the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum faces a quandary: trying to collect as many important artifacts as possible while knowing that only a small percentage of those items can be exhibited at any one time. It’s a challenging numbers game. In total, the Hall of Fame owns approximately 40,000 three-dimensional artifacts, everything ranging from bats and balls and gloves to uniforms, awards and trophies, and even a few non-baseball items (like pocket watches and bracelets). Given the physical limitations of the museum—and it is a good-sized place, featuring three floors—only 10 to 12 percent of the artifacts can be shown on exhibit at any one time.

That situation doesn’t mean the same 10 to 12 percent of artifacts remain on display all the time. They are changed in and out, in part to reflect new exhibits, developing stories, and current events (like the latest no-hitter or perfect game), and in part to preserve items from exposure to light and heat. At times, aging artifacts are given a “breather” from the exhibits and put back into the Hall’s storage area, where light exposure is minimized, and where temperature and humidity can be controlled most effectively.

Among the many artifacts currently contained in storage, or the “vault” as we sometimes call it, is an item that once belonged to Hall of Famer Ted Williams.

When I think of Williams, I think of hitting with scientific precision at the highest level. Without question, he had no discernible hitting flaw. Williams hit for average and with power, drew walks, and struck out relatively little, especially for a player who posted high slugging percentages. Given his well-rounded approach to hitting—and with apologies to Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and others—some historians have called Williams the best hitter the game has ever seen. Let the arguments begin on that issue.

A quick review of Williams’ hitting prowess is in order. He won six American League batting titles and led the league in home runs four times. On 12 different occasions, he led the league in on-base percentage. For his career, he batted .344 with a .482 on-base percentage, .634 slugging average, and 521 home runs. His home run total came despite losing three full seasons to service during World War II and parts of two other seasons while serving as a fighter pilot in the Korean War. By the most conservative of estimates, Williams lost at least 120 home runs to war service. He’s the last man to reach .400 for a full season (.406 in 1941).

As great as Williams was, there were moments of imperfection. One of those occurred in September of 1951. More specifically, it was September 14, when Williams and the Boston Red Sox hosted the St. Louis Browns. In the bottom of the eighth inning, with the Red Sox leading 9-6, former Negro Leagues great Satchel Paige became the Browns’ fourth pitcher of the day. After retiring Johnny Pesky on a ground out to start the inning, Paige prepared to face Williams, creating a premier match-up of two future Hall of Famers.

Paige quickly reached two strikes against Williams, who fully expected Paige to finish him off with a fastball. Instead, Paige threw him a change-up. Play-by-play data do not specify whether Williams took the pitch or swung at it, but the result was not what “Teddy Ballgame” wanted. He struck out, ending his showdown with the legendary Paige.

For his major league career, Williams came to the plate a total of 11 times against Paige. He picked up two hits in nine at-bats (for an average of .222) but did draw a couple of walks (improving his on-base percentage to .364). Williams’ strikeout against Paige on September 14 marked the only time Paige fanned him.

Ever the perfectionist, Williams did not react well to this small piece of failure. Angry and frustrated, Williams carried the bat back to the dugout, then lifted it up near his head and slammed it against the railing of the dugout. The railing won the confrontation, resulting in two major cracks running through the handle of the bat.

Under ordinary circumstances, the bat would have been discarded into a trash bin. But not this time. Someone kept the bat, which eventually made its way to Cooperstown. It’s unlikely Williams would have been the source of the artifact, not when it represented a moment of failure and frustration for him. Perhaps the bat boy retrieved it, knowing the broken piece of wood had belonged to one of the game’s greatest hitters. We’re not exactly sure who retrieved it, or how it got from Fenway Park to the Hall of Fame, but thanks to at least one or two thoughtful souls, and with some careful fact-checking by the Hall’s curatorial staff, the priceless artifact was saved and placed into the collection.

Seen in the photograph above, the broken bat, complete with the cracked handle, is now preserved in the Hall of Fame’s vault. To keep the bat in one piece, the area of the crack has been tied with a sturdy white ribbon (not seen in these photos), which also allows the collections staff to handle it with relative ease. This is a rare example of an artifact that has been “treated” or “corrected” in some way. Most bats that come to Cooperstown are not cleaned or altered; pine tar, mud and dirt are allowed to remain, since those elements are all natural to the game. But the large crack in the handle of the Williams bat makes it particularly fragile, necessitating some kind of reinforcement.

The two cracks are not the only evidence of the bat’s collision with the railing. To the left of the label we see an indentation, as if someone has taken a small chunk out of the wood; that is almost certainly the place where the bat initially struck the railing.

A few other items of note make the bat intriguing. The underside of the barrel features Paige’s name, written in cursive (not seen in these photos). Upon first glance, it appears it might be Paige’s autograph. But a closer looks reveals the spelling of Paige’s first name as “Satchell,” with two ‘Ls.’ Paige’s first name was spelled with only one ‘L.’ There’s no way Paige would have misspelled his own name in signing the bat, so we can rule out that this is a legitimate autograph.

The bat also contains a handwritten inscription, which says, “St. Louis Browns vs. Boston Red Sox Sept.  1951.” The specific date was left off. We don’t know who penned the inscription, which appears to have been written in plain black ink.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

In picking up the bat-with care, of course-I’ve noticed how light it is. A Louisville Slugger model made specifically for Williams by Hillerich & Bradsby, the bat weighs only 30-and-a-half ounces and runs 35 inches in length. It is a very light bat, particularly for the 1950s, but is a clear indication of Williams’ belief in the theory that lighter bats translate into greater bat speed.

As much as the bat’s physical attributes stir up some curiosity, the bat also provides a virtual connection between Williams and Paige, who would become linked again in the future, but for far different reasons. Fifteen years after their face-off at Fenway Park, Williams was making his Hall of Fame induction speech in front of a sizable gathering in Cooper Park (on the front steps of the Hall’s newly created Library). He brought up Paige’s name.

This is what Williams said:

Inside the building are plaques to baseball men of all generations. I’m proud to join them. Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better than someone else. This is the nature of man and the nature of the game. And I’ve been a very lucky guy to have worn a baseball uniform, and I hope some day the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way can be added as a symbol of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given a chance.”

At the time of Williams’ remarks, the Hall of Fame did not consider Negro Leagues players for election and induction. Jackie Robinson, who had been inducted in 1962, played only one season in the Negro Leagues and became a Hall of Famer based on what he did in breaking the color barrier and playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, not what he did in one season as the shortstop of the Kansas City Monarchs. Williams felt the omission of Negro Leagues greats was an injustice that needed to be corrected. At a time when fans and members of the media could have excused Williams for talking solely about himself, he instead chose to use the public platform as a way of helping some of his contemporaries.

Five years after Williams delivered those remarks, the Hall of Fame formed a special committee to consider the candidacies of Negro Leagues legends; the committee made Paige its first selection, the first to be elected to the Hall of Fame based on his Negro Leagues career. There is little doubt among the game’s historians that Williams’ words, along with his lofty and influential status as one of the game’s all-time greats, helped influence the rules changes that allowed for the Paige’s election in 1971.

Other Negro Leagues greats followed Paige to Cooperstown, including Gibson and Buck Leonard in 1972, Monte Irvin in 1973, and Cool Papa Bell in 1974. Then came Judy Johnson in 1975, followed by Oscar Charleston in 1976, and Martin Dihigo and John Henry “Pop” Lloyd in 1977.

After the elections of Dihigo and Lloyd, the Hall disbanded the Negro Leagues committee but continued to look at candidates through its various Veterans Committees. All of this culminated in a special election in 2006, when the Hall considered a massive number of Negro Leagues and black baseball candidates from both the 19th and 20th centuries. Once the votes were tallied, 16 alumni of the Negro Leagues and black baseball earned election to the Hall.

This long series of Negro Leagues elections certainly bears a connection to the saga of Paige and Williams. That is not to say that Negro Leaguers never would have been considered without the words of Williams on that day in 1966. They would have received their day in the sun at some point. But Williams’ words expedited the matter, putting pressure on the baseball establishment to make a change much sooner than it otherwise might have done. Perhaps most importantly, Williams’ push allowed some of the Negro Leaguers to enter the Hall of Fame while they were still alive and well enough to travel to Cooperstown for their induction. Those included Leonard, Bell and Johnson–and Paige.

All of these thoughts come to mind when I see the Williams bat and hear the story of his strikeout against Paige. It’s a story of an artifact that initially brought anger to a demanding man like Williams, but a story that ended with a commendable call for change and a deserving place in Cooperstown for one of the game’s greatest pitchers.

To learn more about the Hall of Fame’s collection of artifacts, please visit the collections’ website.

References and Resources

Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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5 years ago

Excellent article. Thanks so much.

5 years ago
Reply to  wagfg7


Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

Seems odd that Willams would have been upset at striking out. He went 2/5 with a home run earlier in the game. The Sox were ahead 9-6 and for them, the season and the game were all but over. Maybe it was his pride that he whiffed facing Paige or that the umpire made a bad call or he was angry at himself for not swinging at a strike. But we will never know. There are blue markings on the bat. Looks like ink. How did that get there? Another oddity is the printed inscription. One would think that the “author’ would have included the fact that Paige struck Williams out. After all, that is what makes the bat famous.

The Stranger
5 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

You don’t become the greatest hitter who ever lived by not being angry about striking out.

Melvin Hendrix
5 years ago

A very thoughtful and timely essay.