View Full Version : Black Betsy was black? Are you kidding?

07-29-2011, 02:17 PM
I was reading Batting (1925) by F.C. Lane the other night. Lane was editor of Baseball Magazine and friend to many players. He writes:

Joe Jackson of melancholy memory, one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, always used a black bat. He once explained the origin of this bat to me. "When I was about fourteen years old, " said Joe, "before I joined the Greenville Grangers, I had some reputation as a ball player in my home town. One day a well known fan of the city, Captain Martin by name, called me into his place and presented me with the original of the black bats I have always used. The bat he gave me was much the same as the one I use today and it was black. I have that original bat now and although it is broken with hard usage, I would not take Five Hundred Dollars for it. I do not know that I am specially superstitious, but these black bats have led for me in the batting percentage of four different Leagues and they have hit for me over .400 in the American League. I have all my bats made after this one pattern and they are all black."

It is outrageous for Jackson to say his Black Betsy from Captain Martin was black and "broken with hard usage". It is apparent to anyone who studies bats that he used a store model bat during his playing days but put it down and picked up a black one whenever some photographer was about to take his picture.:D

07-29-2011, 02:56 PM
If you look at a picture of it, it's more off color.

07-29-2011, 03:55 PM
i'm assuming you've seen the original black betsy bat in the current Heritage Auction catalog? pretty amazing bat & write-up.

07-29-2011, 04:21 PM
Black Betsy and black betsy-2 toned. Flame burned barrel and natural handle

08-01-2011, 09:01 AM
I believe artifacts should be authenticated based on objective facts about the item itself. Provenance can aid authentication, but it should not replace it. The item must stand on its own and pass tests of common sense.

Let us consider the bat Lester Erwin believed to be Black Betsy on its own terms.

1. Katie Jackson died in 1959 and left a baseball bat belonging to her husband, Joe Jackson, to 13-year-old relative Lester Erwin. Katie’s will does not refer to the bat as “Black Betsy.” It only refers to it generically as a “baseball bat.”

2. I can tell you that in the 1990s, when he was supervising newspaper delivery routes, Lester acknowledged he owned the bat for well over 30 years before it ever occurred to him the bat could be Black Betsy. The missing link was the discovery of Jimmy Thompson’s 1932 article in the Greenville News-Piedmont, which quoted Jackson saying “I sent [Black Betsy] to the Spalding baseball company and they finished it for me and stamped their label on it.” Since Lester’s bat is a Spalding Old Hickory model, he concluded his bat was Black Betsy.

3. Lester’s bat is stamped Spalding Old Hickory Model 150.

4. Lester’s bat is curved. It is not broken.

5. Even today, Lester’s bat is not black. Lester’s bat has darkened considerably over time with exposure to light, as can be seen when it is compared to one of the 1930s photographs.

6. There are photographs from the 1930s of Jackson holding a curved bat with taped handle that matches Lester’s bat.

7. Lester’s bat is 34.5 inches and 39.4 ounces.

Did Joe Jackson use Lester’s bat during barnstorming games in the 1930s? I have no doubt. There is photographic provenance. In addition, sources as early as 1951 describe the bat Jackson used in barnstorming games as curved or crooked.

Is Lester’s bat Black Betsy? I believe the evidence from period sources is against it. Here is what we know about Black Betsy from earlier sources:

1. Jackson told F.C. Lane, the editor of Baseball Magazine, that the bat he obtained from Captain Martin was black. He also told him it was broken. This contradicts Jimmy Thompson’s later report in which Jackson stated “It’s never been broke, although it’s getting old now and I expect it any time.”

2. Throughout Jackson’s major league career, writers consistently noted the large size and weight of Jackson’s bat. For example, in the May 19, 1920 Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette and numerous other newspapers that carried the same article, there is a photograph of Jackson holding a black, two-tone bat labeled “Joe and Betsy” with the following caption: “To be more exact, it is ‘Joe and Black Betsy,’…Black Betsy is Joe Jackson’s own style of bat. He modeled it to his own liking, and he hasn’t changed for years. Some of the other ambitious hit-smiths try to use a similar model, but it generally proves too much for them. Joe’s Black Betsy is a giant bat.” While not referring to Black Betsy specifically, The Telegraph-Herald of April 2, 1911 writes “George Stovall and Joe Jackson swing the largest bludgeons. Joe is partial to a long stick, one that can chase the wide curve balls and get them. It seems to be mighty effective and Joe would not think of using any other bat.”

3. The May 1920 news photograph specifically says the two-tone bat Jackson is holding is Black Betsy. By itself, this photograph is not dispositive because everyone assumed whatever bat Jackson was holding was Black Betsy. I do not accept this photo as proof Lester’s bat is not Black Betsy any more than I would accept a 1930s photograph of Jackson with Lester’s bat and a caption identifying it specifically as Black Betsy as positive proof.

4. Many photographs exist of Jackson batting or posing with a bat during his major league career. He is not holding Lester’s bat in any of them. The failure to find a single photograph led authenticators to a “magic bat” theory: Jackson loved Lester’s bat so much he was afraid to use it and break it, so he used bats he liked less throughout his major league career. I am not sure how one squares this theory with Jackson telling F.C. Lane that Black Betsy is broken or with Jackson telling Thompson he expects it to be broken soon from use or with plain old common sense.

5. Spalding produced a line of Black Betsy model bats for retail sale that look nothing like Lester’s bat and everything like the Black Betsy identified in the 1920 photograph.


According to Jimmy Thompson’s 1932 newspaper article, Spalding had Jackson’s own Black Betsy as a model.

I find it hard to believe Jackson was never photographed during his major league career with his favorite bat, that he called his favorite bat Black Betsy even though it was not black while he had black bats he called by other names, that a bat made c. 1901 would have the dimensions of Lester’s bat rather than the dimensions common to the era, that Jackson would send a black bat he called Black Betsy to Spalding to have them “finish it” and that they removed the black finish and failed to replace it and also made it considerably shorter with a much thinner handle, that Spalding would stamp that bat not only with the Spalding name but with separate stamps denoting a retail model, that the newly finished and stamped bat would just happen to match in length, weight and stampings a Spalding store model bat, and that Spalding would then produce a Black Betsy model not patterned on the Black Betsy they had finished for Jackson.

When you have two competing explanations for something, it is better to select the one that requires the fewest assumptions. So, you can choose Lester’s explanation, which requires you to assume everything I just mentioned, or you can choose my explanation, which is that Lester’s bat is a Spalding store model used while Jackson was barnstorming in the 1930s, when he was older and needed a shorter and lighter bat with a thin handle.

Dave Bushing once said publicly: “If (Lester’s bat) didn’t have good provenance, I wouldn’t buy that thing in a flea market for $12. In the collectibles business, what you are often buying is the paper trail.” I believe the paper trail deserves some analysis, done with a major dose of common sense, and that artifacts themselves and not their accompanying paper trails are primarily what need to be authenticated.

~Take the red pill