National Pastime Museum: On deck circle equipment

By Marty Appel

A little development which took place in an on-deck circle in 1967 was revolutionary for a game steeped in tradition.

You see, until the Yankees Elston Howard slipped a weighted “doughnut” onto his Louisville Slugger bat that year, hitters awaiting their turn at bat had swung two – or sometimes three bats – in an effort to make their own war club feel lighter when they approached the plate.

But a Bergenfield, New Jersey construction worker named Frank Hamilton had another idea.

He cared little about a century of swinging two bats.  And he wasn’t daunted by the fact that it took players 34 years to wear batting helmets, after Ray Chapman was struck in the head and killed in 1920.  

Frank invented the weighted doughnut, which easily slipped on and off a bat, creating the same effect.

It was made of cast-iron, covered with a soft rubber.  Its weight varied between five and ten pounds.

Hamilton needed someone who could get this product off the ground and into the hands of Major Leaguers.  

Howard, the first African-American player on the Yankees, the first African-American MVP in the American League, and later the first African-American coach in the American League, lived near Hamilton.  Hamilton went to his home in nearby Teaneck to show him his invention.

“Your name would be on this and you could make a lot of money if we form a partnership and if it catches on.”

Ellie had the prestige and of course, the contacts, to get it onto Major League on-deck circles.  Within a year, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Willie Mays were among those using them. And although 1968 would be the final seasons for Mantle, Maris and Howard, the product was now out there.  

It was called “Elston Howard’s On-Deck Bat Weight,” although “batting doughnuts” (or donut) was the commonly used term.  Ellie’s picture was on the product’s packaging. Most people thought of him as the inventor, but he was merely a partner in the business and the face of the product.

It took some two years for a patent to be approved, and in the meantime, others were introducing a similar product and selling them at the youth level.  Ellie’s advantage with major leaguers was his popularity among players and of course, his access to them. But the product was applicable to all levels of baseball – amateur, scholastic and professional.  Howard and Hamilton’s company never made a fortune – after all, each team needed only one – but they did change the game.

Anytime you can change the habits of a game locked into tradition after a century, you’ve done something big.

Willie Randolph, who was in pro baseball as a player, coach and manager for 40 seasons (1972 – 2011) and coached for Team USA in the 2013 and 2017 World Baseball Classic, joined the Yankees in 1976 when Elston Howard was a coach.

“There were still some guys swinging two bats, but most players were using Ellie’s doughnut,” he recalls.  “For me, it wasn’t perfect. My first couple of swings never felt just right – it was as though my bat, light to begin with, was too light. But certainly, most players liked the idea of added weight in the on-deck circle.

“I broke in with the Pittsburgh Pirates – the ‘Lumber Company,’” he recalls.  “Dave Parker, Willie Stargell – big guys, big bats. And they started to use a sledgehammer in the on-deck circle.  It was one of the first departures from the doughnut.”

The introduction of the sledgehammer is actually credited to first baseman-outfielder Dennis Werth, who played pro ball from 1974-84.  Werth worked on his father’s farm in Lincoln, Illinois, and one day his father asked him to known down a concrete wall.

“The sledgehammer weighed eight pounds and I could feel it making me stronger,” he recalled in a 1981 interview.  “I didn’t think it was out of the ordinary.”

By the time he retired, it was not out of the ordinary at all.  The eight-pound hammer became part of team equipment that traveled with the club; part of what the batboys had to drag to the on-deck circle each inning along with a pine tar rag, resin, and yes, the lead bat and the doughnut.  (Today, they even have to drag the circle itself, which is now removable and no longer a cut out dirt circle between the dugout and home plate).

The sledgehammer opened the door to all sorts of ideas.  Another item was a lead bat. Another was a steel bar used in construction, about one inch in diameter with tape around the end for a better grip. David Wright of the New York Mets used this after picking one up at the CitiField construction site.  

Other items emerged.  Randolph remembers Rod Carew using a “weird apparatus,” a wind-resistant weight that was hard to swing, but certainly made the real bat easier.

Gene Monahan, the long time head athletic trainer for the Yankees, described it as “a weight with four dart feathers.  It was a fad.”

It may have been a fad, but Rod Carew used it and when you win seven batting titles, people notice everything you do.  The “dart feather” weight did prove to be a fad though, and its use is pretty much over.

By 2011, so too was the doughnut, although it is still manufactured and sold, but not used much on the major league level.  And it posed somewhat of a safety concern on the youth level, where it would occasionally fly off the bat the sail away.

Instead, a “sleeve” had emerged around 1990, a ceramic tube (actually, polycarbonate plastic) that weighs 24 ounces and quickly gained favor with pro players.  As players got bigger, the demand for a heavier sleeve emerged, sometimes running up to 50 ounces. One version featured a sliding weight. The sleeve is the most common object found in on-deck circles today, at least until the next “big thing” comes along.

The problem with all of this – and this touches on what Willie Randolph says, is that none of it might matter much, and might even be detrimental.  That is what a University of Hawaii kinesiology professor said six years ago, when he revealed that his studies convinced him that taking a normal on-deck swing with your regular bat was actually the best thing a hitter could do.

“The batter should mimic in his warm-up what he will do in the game – same weight, same motion,” said Coop DeRenne, of the University of Hawaiiside.  DeRenne believes that the slower a swing in the on-deck circle is, the slower it will be in the batter’s box. He studied hours of video to prove it.

Of course, batters are creatures of habit – as long as they are going well.  Making changes alters what got them to the big leagues in the first place, so they would say.  (And it is why few hitters try to “beat the overshifts” by changing their hitting style).

More recently, there is The Home Run Hitter, introduced in 2012 by SwingRite and its founder Charles Whitney, which has an adjustable knob at the head of the barrel featuring nine different settings to vary the velocity of a practice swing.  It is implanted in the actual model bats used by players, of which there are eight currently or recently using it at the Major League level. One of the eight is Scotter Gennett of the Cincinnati Reds, who earlier in 2017 made history by hitting four home runs in a game.  Alas, he did not use it the day he hit the four homers; what a boost to the product that would have been! (At this writing, five teams have ordered them – Milwaukee, Cleveland, Baltimore, Detroit and Houston).

There is little doubt that the psychological and legitimate “feel” of a lighter bat, will always be a part of the game.  And there is no doubt that the end of the century of dual bats has led into a creative period still being toyed with.

What’s next?