“Doctored” bats have long been a part of baseball. In the early 1900s, some players drove nails into the ends of their bats and then covered the evidence with varnish. The hope was that the additional weight at the end of the bat would provide more power at impact. That strategy seemed to help players like Cleveland’s Al Rosen, who may have used one when he posted a .336/.422/.613 line in 1953. His 1954 season had started just as well, but in mid-May he was caught using a bat end-loaded with nails. Injuries definitely shortened Rosen’s career and hampered his batting statistics from the middle of 1954 until he retired following the 1956 season. That statistical falloff also drew attention to his struggles after losing his ‘doctored’ bat, casting a cloud of suspicion over his ’53 season.
Until 1975, incidents like Rosen’s simply resulted in the bat’s removal from the game. Any hits before umpires discovered tampering still counted and the player stayed in the game. That changed with the stronger wording to the rulebook in the mid-1970s, championed by former American League President Dr. Bobby Brown. The current rule states that the batter is out, and ejected, for using an altered bat.
6.06 A batter is out for illegal action when:
(d) He uses or attempts to use a bat that, in the umpire’s judgment, has been altered or tampered with in such a way as to improve the distance factor or cause an unusual reaction on the baseball. This includes bats that are filled, flat-surfaced, nailed, hollowed, grooved or covered with a substance such as paraffin, wax, etc. No advancement on the bases will be allowed and any out or outs made during a play shall stand. In addition to being called out, the player shall be ejected from the game and may be subject to additional penalties as determined by his league president.
Rule 6.06 (d) Comment: A batter shall be deemed to have used or attempted to use an illegal bat if he brings such a bat into the batter’s box.
While with the Yankees, Graig Nettles had a bat shatter on a bloop hit on September 7, 1974 leading off the fifth inning of a game against Detroit. Explosive evidence revealed a doctored bat, stuffed with what appeared to be rubber balls and cork. The umpire took away Nettles’ single and removed the bat from the game. The Yankees went on to win the game 1-0, owing their lone run to Nettles, who had hit a solo homer earlier in the second inning, perhaps with the same bat. Nettles stayed in the game and flew out to center in his last at-bat. He avoided suspension, maybe due in part to his claim that a fan gave him the bat and he said that while it wasn’t a bat he ever used before, he picked it up by mistake in that game against the Tigers.
It is likely that the offseason addition to the rules of ejection from the game, which took effect the following season, stemmed from the Nettles incident.
There are a few players who used altered bats during their career and were never caught, with their deception brought to light only by their own admission after their playing days were over. Bob Dillinger, Amos Otis, Andre Thornton, and Norm Cash have all admitted to using corked bats at times during their careers. Cash even provided instructions in addition to his admission, explaining that he drilled a hole into the barrel, leaving it mostly hollow, with cork plugging the end.
I used a hollow bat my entire career. I owed my success to expansion pitching, a short right-field fence, and a hollow bat.
While those players admitted their use, one player—known as much for his dishonesty as his being MLB’s all-time hit leader—has not owned up to anything. Only after a collector had a Pete Rose bat x-rayed did we discover that the “Hit King” at least owned, and may well have used, an illegal bat. So while many of the greatest home run hitters used steroids along the way, it appears baseball’s hit leader may have cheated as well.
After the rule modification in 1975, things were fairly quiet on the wacky bat front, except for the Angels’ “Disco” Dan Ford who served a suspension of three games in 1981 after using a doctored bat against Cleveland in August.
That changed during the mid-1980s, when more players seemed to take greater liberties. The 1987 season in particular had several controversial events during a year when MLB averaged 4.72 runs per game. That was the highest average since the 1950 season, and a mark that would not be topped until the expansion and steroid-fueled scoring rampage that started in 1994.
Whitey Herzog believed at least some of the increase in run production in ’87 came from loaded bats. Herzog, the Cardinals manager at that time, felt several players used loaded bats that season. In fact, he specifically accused players like Howard Johnson, Tim Teufel, Lenny Dykstra, and Rafael Santana. Dykstra in particular may have been used to the scrutiny, as the Boston Red Sox had accused him the season before.
Amidst the rash of accusations, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth came up with a mandate to allow each manager one bat inspection of an opponent per game. In one contest after the edict, Montreal’s Buck Rodgers called a challenge on Pirate R.J. Reynolds‘ bat while Pittsburgh head man Jim Leyland called for a look at Tim Raines‘ bat. It all may sound paranoid now, but the cries of cheating were not limited to hitters during 1987, as pitchers Joe Niekro and Kevin Gross were caught with material used to scuff baseballs that same season.
On September 1, the Astros’ Billy Hatcher broke his bat on a ground ball, which revealed cork inside the barrel. Hatcher had an excuse similar to the one Nettles had used 13 years before, as he claimed the bat wasn’t his. His story was that he borrowed it from a pitcher on his team. Dave Smith later confirmed Hatcher’s alibi. Despite all the allegations during the year, umpires only ejected Hatcher, who was the only man formally caught. The league suspended him for 10 days, setting the standard for corked bat incidents in coming years.
Another standard set, at least in the National League, involved the incumbent league president Bart Giamatti adding fines for the manager of a guilty player to the punishment for corked bats.
In 1994, the first year with a higher scoring average following 1987, Albert Belle starred in the greatest corked bat story ever told. Chicago White Sox manager Gene Lamont asked umpires to check the Belle’s bat in a game against Belle’s Indians. The umpire crew took it in the first inning and locked it in their dressing room after Belle brought it to the plate. They planned to send it to New York for examination. However, Belle’s Cleveland Indian teammate Jason Grimsley, who’s noted now for appearing in the Mitchell Report and admitting HGH and steroid use, crawled through the duct work in Comiskey Park during the game and switched bats. The Indian starter went for the save when he replaced Belle’s bat with another player’s.
The umpires noticed the switch immediately after the game and the American League announced an investigation into the bat’s disappearance. The Cleveland organization turned it in after the next game, citing a player’s “misguided sense of loyalty” as motive. Grimsley had replaced Belle’s bat with one of Paul Sorrento‘s, which rendered the ruse easily detected. Of course, in Grimsley’s defense, he couldn’t trade out a clean Belle bat because Belle had corked all of his bats at that time.
The league suspended Belle for 10 games and reduced it to seven upon appeal. Boston manager Kevin Kennedy accused the slugger during a game the next year, but Albert must have learned his lesson because his bat came back clean that time.
The Cincinnati Reds inducted former third baseman Chris Sabo into their Hall of Fame on July 17, 2010. But on July 29, 1996, umpire crew chief Ed Montague threw Sabo out of a game against Houston after Sabo’s bat broke on a pop out and umpire Tom Hallion showed a broken piece filled with cork to his crew chief. Sabo told Montague that it wasn’t his bat (a ballboy had brought out three bats after he cracked his original earlier in the at-bat). Sabo served a seven-game suspension, and the Reds paid a $25,000 fine.
A year after Sabo’s suspension, Wilton Guerrero, of the Los Angeles Dodgers, led off a game against the Cardinals with a corked bat that shattered on a groundout. Umpire Steve Rippley noticed the cork and ejected Guerrero, who later served an eight-game suspension. Unlike most of his fellow corkers, Guerrero admitted that the bat was his, and that he had actually deliberated for months before finally using it in a game because he felt bad about cheating.
In 2003, Sammy Sosa used a corked bat in a game against Tampa Bay. The altered bat came to light when it broke. Sosa claimed he grabbed the bat by mistake, and that he normally only used it for pregame batting practice. MLB confiscated all of Sosa’s other bats from the game, and found no cork in any of those after examining them. Sosa served a seven-game suspension, which the league reduced from its original penalty of eight games.
1987 seemed to be the zenith in corked bat accusations. The high run-scoring environment may have contributed to managers suspecting players of a spike in cheating. Coincidentally, steroid use began its rise around that time in MLB, and may have even played a role in the higher scoring. The use of performance enhancing drugs certainly became more widespread about the time Albert Belle used corked bats, and shows that while players injected their bodies with any number of performance-enhancing substances, some injected their bats with cork in hope of boosting their hitting ability.
References & Resources
Thanks be to- David Nemec’s The Official Rules of Baseball Illustrated, Baseball Digest, The Record (New Jersey), The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), The Palm Beach Post (FL), Houston Chronicle, Benchclearing: Baseball’s Greatest Fights and Riots (Spike Vrusho), Chicago Tribune, Akron Beacon Journal