Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

My favorite baseball stories are the tiny little gems that you never think about on a day to day basis, even as a hardcore fan, the kind that add to the lore and legend of the game and give it its mythical status. They’re the ones about Ruth,  DiMaggio, Bo Jackson.

Every once and a while legendary players from different generations intersect in one place, and things are passed between them, questions and tips, grand stories and anecdotes. We as fans are only privy to but a small fraction of these conversations, but they give us a deeper insight into the game: they peel back the glossy veneer of crisp white uniforms and manicured grass, and sometimes what we find is dirty, sometimes it is strange, and, on the rarest occasion, it is fabled.

I’m reminded of one of these rare stories – it such a small treasure that only a handful in the history of the game have experienced and spoken about it.

I speak of the burn of the bat.

The first instance of its mention (as far as I can tell) is a Peter Gammons article in Sports Illustrated from 1986, when Ted Williams, at Red Sox spring training to help out with hitting instruction, met up with Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly at a restaurant in Clearwater, FL to talk about hitting. In the car on the way to the restaurant, Boggs and Williams are talking, when all of a sudden Ted pipes up from the backseat:

“Have you ever smelled the smoke from the wood of your bat burning?” asked Williams in a voice not unlike that of John Wayne.

“Whaaat?” said Boggs.

“The smell of the smoke from the wood burning?” “What are talking about Ted? I don’t understand.”

“Five of six times, hitting against a guy with good stuff, I swung hard and — oomph — just fouled it back. Really hit it hard. And I smelled the wood of the bat burning. It must have been that the seams hit the bat just right, and the friction caused it to burn, but it happened five or six times.”

Boggs shook his head. “Awesome.”

At the restaurant, three of the best left handed hitters in history sat down, and most of the meeting is Ted Williams telling both of the young guys that everything they’re doing is wrong and that he could hit better than them. Which, of course, was true, even as an old man. Then, right at the end, when Ted is about to leave, he asks Mattingly the same question:

WILLIAMS: Have you ever smelled the smoke from the wood burning?

MATTINGLY: I’ve had it happen. Yeah. Twice. All of a sudden, I smelled a real big burn, and at the same time I was thinking, “I just missed that one.” Two or three times I’ve never told that to anyone, because I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I think one of the bat burns came off Nunez, too. It takes a perfect rising, four-seam fastball, a perfect swing, a foul straight back … and you can smell the burn of the seams and the bat.”

BOGGS: That’s the damndest thing I’ve ever heard. I thought I’d heard everything about hitting, but that’s unbelievable. Amazing.

I first read about the burn a few years ago when I was researching the All Star Game at Fenway in 1999, which was basically Ted Williams saying goodbye to the his life, tipping his cap to the Red Sox fans for the first and last time ever:

This was an amazing All Star Game (how often do you say that!?), as it was right smack in the middle of the steroid era and featured some pretty crazy events. It was here that Mark McGwire, coming off his 70 home run season, put on an absolute show in the derby, hitting 13 home runs in the second round. During the game, Pedro Martinez struck out 5 of the first 6 batters he faced, injuring himself in the process. I think we have to watch that, right?

Well that was awesome.

It was also here that McGwire and Williams would meet. I’m not sure whether I saw video, or whether it was just the mythology of the moment that has created the portrait in my mind’s eye, but I seem to remember The Kid wanting to say something to Big Mac; Williams whispers something in his ear, and McGwire nods. Gammons has the call:

After the game, McGwire repeated the story of how Ted called him over and asked if he’d ever smelled the bat burning. “I told him I had,” said McGwire. “But can you believe that he knew who I am?”

“What are you talking about, smelling the bat burning?” asked an All-Star teammate.

That’s the most amazing thing about this phenomenon. Almost no one has experienced it. The only reason we even know about it is because Ted Williams made the art of hitting his life’s work and talked about it with any other ballplayer that would listen.You seemingly have to be one of the best hitters ever to have a chance at having it happen.

As the Splendid Splinter would say, “Only the guys who whip that lumber have smelled it”.

 

Sources: Sports Illustrated, April 14, 1986, ESPN, July 5, 2002