In Bizarre Baseball Culture, I take a look at some of the more unusual places where baseball has reared it’s head in pop culture and fiction.
There is nothing new under the sun. That is one way to sum up the tale of “The Trick Baseball Bat” by Charles Biro (story) and Norman Maurer (art). It stars the comic sidekicks of a superhero named Daredevil (who’s name was later taken up by a Marvel character), it involves a magic bat (you know, like The Natural, only in this case it’s actually magic) and said magic bat is made out of a special type of wood that is incredibly bouncy (like Flubber in The Absent-Minded Professor). Oh, and that wood? It got it’s amazing powers from being nuked.
And the thing is, this story was from 1951. That was a year before Malamud’s The Natural hit bookshelves, a decade before The Absent-Minded Professor was in theaters and at the start of the 1950s, where every B-Movie ended up having some sort of monster mutated by atomic radiation, although to the best of my knowledge none of them were bouncing wood. It is a stretch to say that this story (in the public domain, originally printed in Daredevil Comics #77, found here) is the inspiration for those works (it has a significantly different ending), but it is a interesting coincidence. Too interesting to have been ignored up until now.
(more after jump)
Okay, so once again, quick history lesson. The Little Wise Guys were a gang of cartoonish kids who got their start hanging out with the superhero named Daredevil. And, as I said earlier, this isn’t the Daredevil that is known from a horrid Ben Affleck film. That guy (blind lawyer Matt Murdock) was created in 1964 by Stan Lee. The Little Wise Guys’ hung out with the Daredevil owned by Lev Gleason Publications. That guy had the shtick of being an expert with a boomerang, which, I have to admit, sounds pretty cool. Eventually, though, most superheroes fell out of favor, and, in the case of Daredevil, his comic was basically taken over by his kooky sidekicks, the Little Wise Guys. He only is referred to in this story. So, anyway, the Little Wise Guys are made up of Jock, Scarecrow, Slugger and Curly. Jock has glasses, Scarecrow is tall, skinny and doesn’t have much hair, Slugger is the small kid and Curly is the bald one. None of this particularly important. What’s important is that by 1951 they’d basically taken over the comic, and Daredevil’s role in this story is miniscule.
So anyway, here we go:
(This story, by the way, was written by Charles Biro, notable as being one of the first comic book writers to introduce true continuity into their comics, such as having characters age and remember past encounters, allowing, for example, for a enemy to become an ally after a hero saved them in a past story. The artist for this story was Norman Maurer, who was the son-in-law of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges, a manager and director for the Stooges in the 1960s, and a writer for Hanna-Barbera in the 1970s. An interesting career.)
We begin (after a title page that basically previews the story), with the boys seeing a classified ad looking for a pilot.Scarecrow, it should be noted, has a pilot’s license, so off they go to Mercury Aircraft, where this exchange happens:
Okay, so first let’s give the teenager a cigar, and then let’s have the teenager fly the plane. I’m not sure what would be less realistic now. Probably the cigar.
Anyway, so they go to the plane and are given charts, etc. Except, uhh… well…
So anyway, that’s why they stopped letting kid sidekicks ferry planes around. But all of this is just backstory, because now we get to the real reason this story is being featured here. Mainly, that tree branch that entered the airplane.
Oh, sure, on first look it just seems to be a branch, but when the boys try to throw it out (after it’s checked for radiation), they find that it is no ordinary branch. No, no, no.
No, no you don’t.
Okay, if not that, then you at least try to get it to some type of museum or something, right?
No, no you don’t.
Okay, so you make a baseball bat out of it.
No, not that either. Not if you are the Little Wise Guys, if you are the Little Wise Guys, you make a ball out of it.
To the best of my knowledge, wooden baseballs have never been used in any type of competitive game on any level, in any country, at any time. So why did these dolts use their wonder-wood (wait… that came out wrong…) on making a baseball?
I have no clue. But after they promptly hit the ball 200 yards (600 feet), they realize that maybe it’ll be a better idea if they use it to make a bat before their game against their local rivals, the Tigers.
Now, as this is happening, the president of the “Yackies” is chewing out a scout named Snodgrass, saying he needs to find a good player or he’s fired.
By the way, naming the scout “Snodgrass” is kind of inspired, as Snodgrass was also the last name of Fred Snodgrass, who infamously dropped a pop-fly in the 1912 World Series, costing the Giants the series.
So Snodgrass heads to the neighborhood game between the Little Wise Guys and the Tigers, and that’s where he sees the mighty Wise Guys put on a show, hitting the ball everywhere and scoring 15 runs before there is even an out. The Wise Guys consider telling the Tigers about the whole thing, but then they are approached by Snodgrass, who has other ideas, leading to this sequence of events:
In case you can’t read the above, basically Snodgrass offers 10,000 dollars to the Wise Guys, and then ups it to $20,000 when they try to explain otherwise. Meanwhile, the Tigers try to take a look at the bat (and it turns out there is nothing unusual about it to their eyes) and Slugger points out that they are a bunch of kids, so they need to contact their guardian- Daredevil- for them to be signed.
By the way, that salary isn’t that much for 1951. Joe DiMaggio, for example, was making $100,000. They would be making more than a young Mickey Mantle was, though!
So, needless to say, there are hijinks as Snodgrass tries to get the owner of the Yackies to sign them, and of course there’s the whole deal with getting Daredevil’s permission. These are stupid and boring, but what’s important in this is that one of the Tigers figures out that it’s all about the bat.
And so, the day of reckoning comes, as the Wise Guys suit up for a game against the “Blue Sox”. And, without their super bat, they have a lot of trouble:
And when they do find their usual bat, they find it in the hands of the captain of the Tigers, who had snagged it from them. And thus, this happens:
So, in short: the whole plan is messed up because not only does the head of the Tigers steal the bat, but he then sneaks into the game and then drops it, at which point the commissioner of baseball (either Happy Chandler or Ford Frick, depending on when in 1951 the story takes place- although the guy looks nothing like Chandler and only vaguely like Frick) calls the bat illegal, the Little Wise Guys are kicked out (or, rather, made bat-boys), and the bat is sent to be studied at Oak Ridge, where it was no doubt looked at by top men.
So, what’s so special about this comic? Well, nothing much, really, other than the fact that it, as I’ve mentioned earlier, has some shocking similarities with The Natural (magic bat) and Absent-Minded Professor/Flubber (bouncy stuff).
Of course, there are also some major differences. “Wonderboy” in The Natural wasn’t actually magic, and when it was looked at by authorities it was found to be completely normal. And the sport is different from the other “bouncy sports equipment” story, Absent-Minded Professor (and it’s remake, Flubber), where the action was on the basketball court.
Still, it is kind of weird, right?
Previous installments of Bizarre Baseball Culture:
Prologue: “Rockets on the Mound” (short story)
6: The Little Wise Guys and the Absent-Minded Natural (you are here now)