September 09, 2011
If you've watched an Arizona Diamondbacks game this season, you may have spotted it: A large golden bone that's permanently affixed to a railing in the team's dugout at Chase Field.
But why is it there?
And where did it come from?
If you're familiar with baseball history and bat preservation tricks, you probably already know the answer. As alluded to during the D'Backs broadcast on Thursday night, "bone rubbing" a bat is an old-school technique that dates back to the days of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Teams would keep a giant cow femur on hand so players could rub it against the barrel of the bat in an attempt to harden the sweet spot and extend its life.
If you look at the picture of the bone above, you can see a well-worn spot where the D'Backs have been rubbing their bats before approaching home plate.
The effect can also be achieved by rubbing another bat against the barrel, but it's nowhere near as cool as this old picture of New York Yankees great Joe DiMaggio with his bat and his bone:
As you can see in this ad taken from "Crack of the Bat: The Louisville Slugger" story, the famous batmaker used to boast of its bone-rubbing process. It took out ads in magazines and even printed the process on its bat themselves.
Somewhere along the way, though, the tradition faded. Louisville Slugger bats haven't contained the above branding since the 1940s and, in all the clubhouses and batting cages I've been around the last 10 years, I've never seen a big leaguer rubbing his bat with a bone.
To make sure my memory wasn't failing me, I asked my colleague Tim Brown if he's seen any during his career of covering baseball:
"Used to see them mounted in clubhouses," he wrote. "Not anymore ..."
Tim and I have both seen plenty of bat-on-bat action, of course. You probably have, too. It's a lot easier to find another bat lying around a clubhouse than an old cow femur.
Still, might we see a league-wide resurrection of bone rubbing in the dugout, whether its due to function, superstition or just a desire by the players to do something offbeat and goofy? Maybe. Hitting coach Don Baylor brought the bone to Arizona after manager Kirk Gibson brought him aboard and now the D'Backs are likely headed to a NL West title and the postseason. That's not the only reason for the rise of the snakes, but we all know that nothing spurs imitation in sports than seeing someone else achieve success with it first.
Also worth noting is that Marucci Bats, which supplies bats to many big league ballplayers including Albert Pujols(notes) and Chase Utley(notes), aggressively advertises that bone rubbing is a part of its bat-making process. The company rubs each bat with a bone before its sealed, as seen in Marucci's humorous commercial spot with Washington Nationals prospect Bryce Harper(notes):
There is some debate over whether bone rubbing benefits the maple bats that are becoming increasingly popular in the major leagues these days. They're harder than the traditional ash and so perhaps the process isn't as necessary. (Especially for big league ballplayers, who can get a replacement bat whenever they need one and don't care as much about preserving their bats.)
Still, it's cool seeing a team and a company dipping into baseball history and resurrecting an old tradition, even if the only big effect is a cool, nostalgic trip for the rest of us.