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1906 "Banana Bat" Belonging to Billy Sullivan
Starting Bid - $1,000, Sold For - $5,288
We would hazard to guess that few, if any, collectors have ever heard of, let alone seen, an item as unusual as that offered here: a rare “banana” bat, so named because of its curved barrel. We’ve never seen or even heard of another. Even the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown does not have one. What strikes everyone is the workmanship, shape, and quality of the bat. It's like Salvador Dali designed it. It really looks and feels like a work of art. But at the same time you can't help but think about if and how the shape will help the batter. Will it help him hit the ball where he wants? Will it send every hit to left field? Is this bat even legal to use? The short answer to all of those questions appears to be 'no'. A curiosity even for the most ardent fan of the deadball era, it even comes with its own slipcover and copies of the patent papers which were filed in 1906. What kind of bat has a special case like a pool cue? It is like a bat from an alternate universe.
This bat, in addition to its unique nature, also has a storied provenance, as it originates from the personal collection of former Chicago White Sox catcher Billy Sullivan, who considered it one of his prized possessions. While its design may seem novel today, it was not created as a novelty, but as a legitimate hitting aid for batters. This bat was the brainchild of Chicago inventory Emile Kinst, who received an official patent for its design on December 11, 1906 (that date is stamped on the bat). Kinst obviously looked upon the bat as a commercially viable product. As noted in an article published in the January 18, 1911, issue of the Chicago Tribune, he hoped to produce 400 of the bats and distribute them to various clubs. In looking at Kinst's original written specifications and illustrations for the bat (which can viewed in the accompanying copies of his original patent papers), it was intended to have a series of grooves carved within a concave portion of the curved barrel. According to Kinst, the grooves would enable the batter to hit the ball in whatever direction he desired and would also ensure that the ball stayed fair. Oddly, those grooves are not present on the offered bat, indicating that this may be either an unfinished model, or a later variation on his original design. We would guess the latter. On the offered example, the barrel features a series of numbers in place of grooves. The numbers “2,” “3,”and “4” are stamped on one side of the barrel, and the numbers “5,” “6,” and “7” are stamped (very faint, barely legible) on the opposite side. Theoretically, making contact with the ball at the position of those numbers probably corresponded to the direction the ball would take in the field. While we have no firsthand knowledge regarding the bat's efficacy, we do know Kinst's dreams of a financial windfall from the sale of his bat were laid to rest after it was rejected for use in professional baseball. As mentioned earlier, it was reported that Kinst hoped to produce 400 of these bats, but research has failed to determine how many were actually produced. The fact that this is the first example we have ever seen, coupled with knowledge that the bat was not officially sanctioned by professional baseball, leads us to believe that very few were actually made. This may even be the only surviving example.
What we do know, however, is that this bat was, for many years, one of Billy Sullivan's most prized possessions. Sullivan even had a special canvas carrying case made for it which bore his name on it for identification. Although it has never been determined when Sullivan acquired this bat, a 1939 news article from the Newberg Graphic, of Newberg, Oregon (where Sullivan resided during his later years), sheds some light: "Grand old man of baseball Billy Sullivan gave college boys some chatter at the gold 'P' banquet in Newberg last Fri. He exhibited the crooked bat presented to the Chicago White Sox's famous Hitless Wonder by a Chicago fan with a sense of humor. It has marks for showing just how to hold the bat for singles, home runs, right or left hits. One of his most cherished mementos." It would not be surprising to learn that the Chicago fan who gave him this bat was none other than Emile Kinst himself. Obviously, Sullivan got a great kick out of receiving this bat and took great delight in showing it off to friends and fans alike.
In 1954, at a banquet held in his honor in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, on the occasion of his being inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame, a photo was taken picturing Sullivan holding this very bat as he showed it to the crowd (a copy of that photo accompanies). Sullivan probably got a lot of use out of this bat on the banquet circuit over the years, as his reputation was that of “good field, no hit.” In fact, Sullivan was one of the worst hitters in Major League Baseball history, finishing his career with a .213 lifetime average. The fact that he played sixteen seasons in the Majors, eight of which were spent as the starting catcher for the White Sox, is a true testament to his outstanding defensive abilities. Most appropriately, he was a member of the famed 1906 World Championship White Sox, nicknamed "The Hitless Wonders" for their overall anemic .230 team batting average. When showing this bat, Sullivan probably used it to help make light of his former offensive deficiencies. Sullivan eventually passed the bat down to his son Billy Jr., who also played in the big leagues. They were the first father/son duo to play in the World Series, Billy Sr. in 1906 with the White Sox, and Billy Jr. in 1940 with the Tigers. The bat was later bequeathed to a gentleman who took care of Billy Sullivan Jr.'s widow, who in turn passed it down two generations to his grandson. It was from the grandson that our consignor purchased the bat.
This bat was just recently the featured attraction in a special exhibit honoring Billy Sullivan at the Hoard Historical Museum in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. (Sullivan played high-school ball in Fort Atkinson and is one of the town's favorite sons.) In addition to the bat, the exhibit also included Sullivan's Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame plaque, catcher’s mitt, team photo, and a baseball that he caught that was dropped off the Washington Monument. The bat displays moderate to heavy surface wear commensurate with its age and perhaps former use. The legible portion of the black stamping in the center reads "Base Ball Bat/Dec. 11, 1906/Chicago," while the numbers on the either side of the barrel read, respectively, "2 3 4" and "5 6 7" (very faint). The canvas carrying case is in Excellent condition overall and is hand lettered “W. J. Sullivan Newberg, Oregon/Chicago White Sox.” This is a one-of-a-kind baseball bat, not to mention the ultimate baseball conversation piece, which would make a worthy and very significant addition to any museum, world-class bat or baseball memorabilia collection. Reserve $1,000. Estimate (open). SOLD FOR $5,288
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