Zack Harold

freelance journalist

Jackie Mitchell Couldn’t Win

This article originally appeared on Lapham’s Quarterly‘s Roundtable blog on March 29, 2018. Click here to read the full story.

On the first pitch of that April 1931 game, Chattanooga Lookouts pitcher Clyde Barfoot gave up a double to New York Yankees outfielder Earle Combs. Then Lyn Larry singled to centerfield, bringing Combs home. Now Babe Ruth, who had led the American League the year before in both home runs and slugging, was coming to bat with no outs and a man on base.

Ruth approached the plate with “a wry smile playing at the corners of his mouth,” an Associated Press reporter wrote. The crowd of four thousand at Engel Stadium began cheering wildly. Like the smiling Ruth, they knew what was coming.

Lookouts manager Bert Niehoff walked to the mound, took the ball from Barfoot, and brought in his new pitcher—a seventeen-year-old left-hander named Beatrice Mitchell. Everybody called her Jackie.

Mitchell had first made national news two months earlier, in a short article that ran in sports pages around the country: “Enrolled in a new baseball school conducted at Atlanta, Georgia, by Norman (Kid) Elberfeld, former major and minor league figure, is Miss Jackie Mitchell, age seventeen, a left-handed pitcher.”

At the time, the sports media’s interest did not extend beyond that one sentence. For decades, women had been playing baseball in college intramural teams and novelty barnstorming clubs such as the Bloomer Girls, named for the billowy trousers they wore during games. Some women had even made it into men’s semipro leagues. It was hardly newsworthy that a girl would participate in America’s pastime.

But then, beginning the last week of March 1931, Mitchell’s name reappeared in the papers. Lookouts owner Joe Engel announced he was adding Mitchell to his team’s pitching rotation. Her first appearance would be in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees.

Mitchell was scheduled to make her first public appearance at Engel Stadium on March 31, where she was supposed to pitch for the press. But much to waiting fans’ disappointment, Engel kept her out of the public eye until the game and showed her off to reporters at a backyard pitching session instead.

It was at this point Mitchell’s origin story began to trickle into the papers. Her parents encouraged her to play sports from an early age—doctor’s orders after she was born premature. When she was seven years old, her family lived in a Memphis duplex beside future Hall of Fame pitcher Charles “Dazzy” Vance, who was then playing for the Memphis Chicks. When Vance saw his young neighbor playing ball with the boys and noticed she was left-handed—a coveted trait for a baseball pitcher—he taught her to throw.

As she grew older, Mitchell showed promise in tennis, swimming, and basketball. She thought about becoming an aviator like Amelia Earhart. But baseball remained her first love. When the family moved to Chattanooga, Mitchell joined the Englettes, a girls-only team owned by Engel and managed by her father.

Watching her pitch to a “boy friend” who agreed to serve as catcher, sports scribes noted Mitchell’s “odd side-armed delivery” but complimented her speed, control, and curve. They asked if she was nervous. “There is no use to get nervous over a ball game when I have been playing ball nearly all my life,” she said. “I will just go out there and do my best, and I believe I can fool the Babe.”

During his thirty-five years with the Lookouts, Engel became known for his vaudevillian antics. He once traded a slumping shortstop for a turkey, which he cooked and served to sportswriters. He staged a phone call to Adolf Hitler and held an “elephant hunt” in the outfield with papier-mâché pachyderms. Another time, he lured a newly recruited Native American player inside a teepee he’d erected on the pitcher’s mound. Engel emerged a short time later, bellowing “Custer’s revenge!” and holding a butcher knife in one hand and a “scalp”—actually a dark-colored wig—in the other.

But all that would come later. Engel’s first big stunt would be pitting a teenage girl against the Yankees’ Murderer’s Row batting lineup.

Newspapers across the U.S. picked up the story but remained skeptical. Writers pointed out the game was scheduled for April 1, a sure sign the whole thing was a prank. When a photographer telegraphed The Sporting News and offered to shoot Mitchell’s contract signing, the receiving editor thought it was a joke: “Quit your kidding. What is Chattanooga trying to do, burlesque the game?” The photographer wired back to assure the newspaper he was not kidding, but the editor was not convinced. “Yeah! Presume Al Capone or Charlie Chaplin will be catcher. In sending any more wires please pay for them so I can enjoy the laugh.”

The game would not take place on April Fools’ Day, however. Cold weather forced Engel to postpone until the next day. The delay did nothing to dampen anticipation. By the time the game began on Thursday afternoon, bells were ringing on teletype machines across the country as reporters filed accounts of the game.

Click here to read the rest.

Logan County bat maker is fueled by his love of the game

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Oct. 22, 2014.

Mike Crosby, owner of Crosby Bats

Mike Crosby, owner of Crosby Bats

MAN — Drive down Main Street, and it’s easy to tell what people in this small Logan County town have on their minds.

Painted bedsheets and poster boards hang on fences and front porches, proclaiming support for the Man Hillbillies football team.

Friday night lights are a big draw in southern West Virginia. Often, the local football team is the only entertainment in town.

But there’s at least one guy in Man who isn’t that interested in pigskin.

Mike Crosby is stuck in baseball season.

Working out of a matchbox-sized shop built onto the side of his well-kempt double-wide trailer, Crosby spends his days turning out custom-made baseball bats he says will rival anything produced in Louisville, Ky..

Crosby, 40, designs the bats on his home computer, drawing out the blueprints like an architect.

These plans are converted to sets of coordinates, which tell his computer-operated wood lathe how to shape the bat. He has different patterns for tee ball, Little League, middle school, high school and professional baseball players.

Once the designs are loaded into the lathe, all Crosby has to do is fasten a piece of wood into the machine and select which pattern to use.

The lathe takes over from there, moving its spinning blades over the wood, shaving the cylindrical billet into a baseball bat.

The process now takes about three minutes, but it took Crosby months to make his first baseball bat.

“It was hard to learn. I’d never done anything like this before,” he said.

x x x

Crosby fell in love with baseball at an early age.

“My dad was arguably the best baseball player in southern West Virginia,” he said.

His father, Tommy, attended try-out camps for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds, and was offered a temporary minor league contract by both teams.

Tommy turned down the offer, however, because he had a wife and child at home. He could make more money working in the coal mines.

But Crosby’s father continued to play ball, spending each weekend playing softball with a local men’s league.

Crosby remembers passing a ball around with the players when he was five years old.

He eventually became a ballplayer just like his dad, playing for Man High School before heading off to college.

He briefly attended Marietta College in Ohio and then transferred to Garrett Junior College in McHenry, Md., where he played for current West Virginia University Institute of Technology baseball coach Lawrence Nesselrodt.

“That man brought something out in me I never knew I had,” he said.

By his sophomore year, Crosby was leading the junior college conference in every offensive category except batting average.

His time in college baseball was cut short, however, when he got upset with a pitcher, punched a dugout wall and broke his hand.

The injury knocked him out of the major league draft. He moved to Pennsylvania to play in a men’s league.

Mike Crosby at spring training for the Gulf Coast Pirates

Mike Crosby at spring training for the Gulf Coast Pirates

In 1994, he drove to Pittsburgh to attend a Pirates try-out camp.

“When I threw to second base, their eyes got as big around as golf balls.”

The next year, the Pirates invited him to spring training. He spent a season playing for a Pirates farm team in Bradenton, Fla., the Gulf Coast Pirates, before another stroke of bad luck sent him to the dugout.

During a game against the Sarasota Orioles at spring training, he was catching against a Baltimore Orioles team, when a batter hit a ground ball to the short stop.

Crosby left home base and sprinted down the first base line to back up the play.

“My foot just popped,” he said.

He tried to walk off the pain. After a few more pitches, he rose to catch a popped foul. “As I turned to push off of that foot, I just went down. I knew something was wrong.”

Crosby had broken a bone on the outside of his foot. He would be unable to begin the season.

He returned to West Virginia and got a job at 84 Lumber in Elkview.

About two years later, while hefting bags of concrete from a delivery truck, the store manager told Crosby he had a phone call.

It was a scouting director for the New York Mets. The team wanted to offer Crosby a single-A contract.

Crosby said he would only sign if the team would let him play for a double-A minor league team.

The scout declined.

x x x

Once Crosby has cut the baseball bat, he transfers it to a manual lathe for the finishing touches.

As it spins, he holds a piece of heavy-grit sandpaper around the bat, sending puffs of sawdust into the air. All the bumps and ridges left by the computerized lathe are gone in just a few seconds.

If he’s working on a bat that will be used during games, Crosby next takes a hard piece of wood or animal bone and runs it along the length of the bat.

“It compresses the fibers to keep the bat from chipping,” he said.

Next, he goes over the wood with fine sandpaper. Then he runs his bare hand over it, using the moisture from his skin to pick up any leftover sawdust.

Crosby now reaches into his extensive collection of spray paint, which he keeps in a cardboard box above his sanding station. He tests the spray can on the front edge of his workbench, adding to the rainbow of paint blotches that cover the wood.

He has learned that painting bats while they are still on the lathe ensures the paint is applied as evenly as possible.

This is a two-tone bat, red with an unpainted handle, so Crosby holds a small piece of cardboard against the handle as he shoots paint onto the wood.

He depresses the button on the spray can and in just a few seconds the whole barrel of the bat has turned red.

Crosby props the bat in a corner to dry.

He’ll wait one day before moving on to the next phase of the process.

Go any faster and the paint job will be ruined. Like most of his bat-making process, Crosby learned this the hard way.

x x x

After giving up on baseball, Crosby spent five years on the independent professional wrestling circuit performing under the name “Mike Montana.”

“When I got done with baseball, I craved that attention. Just having people cheer for you again, that filled the void,” he said.

He eventually began working in construction but didn’t like it very much.

He went to work in the coal mines but, given the tumultuous nature of that business, decided he needed a backup plan.

One day Crosby was watching the Discovery Channel show “How It’s Made” and saw a segment on Sam Bat, the “Original Maple Bat Corporation.”

He remembered walking through the locker rooms during his days in the minor leagues.

“Every locker, every guy had a different bat,” he said.

Crosby remembered how intrigued he was by those bats, how simple and beautiful they were. He decided to try making a baseball bat. He purchased a wood lathe on eBay and went to work in a shed behind his house.

His first attempt didn’t work out so well. He spent two hours working the wood on the lathe but emerged less than victorious.

He showed his creation to his wife, Rebecca.

“I thought, that’s not even close. We’re going to starve,” she said.

Crosby still has that first bat, to remind him where he started. It resembles a baseball bat, but only vaguely.

It looks more like a caveman’s club. The wood is rough with none of the delicate curves of the bats he now produces.

Crosby realized he would need to upgrade his equipment if he wanted to make a high-quality product. After a little searching online, he found a Chinese company that makes computer-driven lathes.

He dropped about $12,000 on the machine and built a shop onto the side of his home for it.

The lathe arrived three months later, but it took him five months to learn to use it.

Crosby had never used computer design programs before, so he called a professor at Ohio State, who sold him a set of instructional DVDs on the subject.

“I never was a good student but I studied it and figured it out,” he said.

But even after he learned to use the necessary computer programs, Crosby still could not make a bat on his lathe.

The wood shattered each time he tried, sending shrapnel flying through his shop.

He finally contacted Steve Toth from Lehigh Valley Bat Works in Bethlehem, Penn..

Toth was interested in Crosby’s computerized lathe, so they worked out a deal. Toth would come check out Crosby’s gear, as long as he showed Crosby how to use the equipment.

The men worked all day in the tiny wood shop. By that evening, Crosby had made his first real baseball bat.

He emerged from the shop, bat in hand, to find Rebecca sitting on the porch steps.

“I said ‘What do you think?’ And she smiled real big.”

Crosby Bats was in business.

x x x

Each of his bats feature a large “Crosby Bats” logo on the sweet spot, just like the major bat manufacturers do. Crosby also personalizes the bats with players’ names and numbers, if requested.

He makes each of the decals using a vinyl cutter, but Crosby eventually plans to invest in a laser engraver.

Once the decals are applied, he puts a staple in the handle end of the bat and, using a wire hanger, dips it into a big PVC tube filled with polyurethane.

He hangs the bat in a small drying bay.

After the sealant dries, he uses fine grit sandpaper to remove any remaining rough spots.

Crosby also checks the bat’s weight by hanging it on a digital scale.

Players can request certain weights for their bats, and while there’s not much Crosby can do to increase a bat’s weight, he can shave off five to eight ounces by cupping out the end of the barrel.

He uses a standard hardware store router with a custom-built jig that holds the bat steady while the router drills into the end.

Once finished, Crosby wraps each bat in plastic cling wraps to protect the finish during shipping, and sends the bat off to his customer.

When he started the company in 2011, his goal was to get his bats in sporting good stores around the country.

“I never dreamed I’d have very much business around here,” he said.

His bats are now being used by young players throughout Logan, Kanawha and Putnam counties, and West Virginia University Institute of Technology and Davis and Elkins College have both purchased trophy bats from Crosby.

While he does sell bats in some sporting goods stores in Arizona, most of Crosby’s sales come through his website or word-of-mouth.

Crosby currently is not licensed to manufacture bats for Major League Baseball.

He figures he’ll take that step when one of his faithful high school customers gets drafted into the minors.

The shop remains a very small operation but, in some ways, that works in Crosby’s favor.

Major manufacturers churn out thousands of bats every day. The factories have quality control standards, but substandard products inevitably slip through.

Crosby said mass-manufactured bats often arrive at stores already broken.

Although it might look perfect on the outside, the wood is fractured on the inside.

You can tell by holding it loosely in your hand and tapping it against the ground. A good bat should carry the vibrations. A broken bat will not.

Crosby said most parents don’t take time to check their bats in the sporting goods store, however. They only realize something is wrong when their young ballplayer hits a fastball and his brand-new, expensive bat is reduced to firewood.

Crosby tests each of his bats before he ships them to customers. If he finds one that is broken inside, he puts it aside and uses it as a trophy bat.

But that’s not the only reason players like Crosby Bats. While bats in retail stores can sell for up to $120, Crosby’s custom-made bats sell for $60 to $70.

He could charge more — a lot more — but doesn’t want to. He prefers to keep them affordable for young players.

“I just want them to get out there,” he said.

While he would eventually like to make Crosby Bats his full-time business, Crosby’s number one drive is the love of the game.

Looking back, he knows he threw away an opportunity to realize his childhood dream of playing professional baseball.

He thinks if he had tried a little harder, he probably would have achieved his goal.

“My old saying was, I’d drive a bus, sleep in a tent and eat bologna sandwiches if I could get a contract.”

But he’s not sorry. Crosby has a wife and two daughters, he’s involved in his church and enjoys helping young baseball players hone their skills.

“If I would have made it to the big leagues I would have self-destructed,” he said. “I like the person I am now.”

Crosby doesn’t get to play anymore. But all over southern West Virginia, players are carrying his custom-made baseball bats to home plate.

They get to feel the vibrations ripple through their arms as wood meets leather. They get to watch the ball fly for the fences.

With a little luck and a lot of work, these boys of summer might get to see their dreams come true.

And if they do, they will take a small piece of Crosby with them.