It seems unlikely that anyone would start a baseball bat factory in rural, southern Illinois during the Great Depression. But the hard times forced people to use every resource available to survive the harsh economic conditions.
Harold G. Baum and his wife Edith moved to the family farm in Monroe City, Illinois during 1931. Harold farmed the small acreage that his mother Lena Baum had inherited from her father Gustav Hirsch. With three children under the age of six and another on the way, he needed more income to sustain his growing family. The farm offered many resources. Harold decided to go into business making wooden items to sell locally. His legacy product was the “HUCKABAY & BAUM” brand baseball bats made from 1933-1937, during the height of the Great Depression.
The steep hills and deep valleys around Monroe City were forested with second and third growth timber. During the early 1800's the woods were clear cut to feed the steamboats that docked at nearby Harrisonville on the Mississippi River. When the railroad came through Valmeyer just after the turn of the century, second growth trees were cut for ties. By 1930, the farm was abundantly populated with healthy ash, oak and hickory trees.
Ash and hickory provide a desirable wood for bats. They are hard woods with long, consistent grains. Harold cut logs from the trees and pulled them home with a team of horses. He sawed “blanks” about 3” X 3” X 39” in size. He converted a chicken house on the farm into a kiln. Inside, a boiler with circulation pipes dried the blanks on racks. The dried blanks were ready to be turned into baseball bats.
Harold set up a complete wood turning shop in a shed on the farm. He installed an overhead drive shaft powered by a Model A gas engine. The shaft ran the necessary equipment including saws, lathes and sanders. Drive belts dropped from the shaft to each piece of equipment. A hand clutch engaged the belt when you wanted to use any piece.
He used two lathes to turn the bats. For rough shaping he re-engineered a lathe used during WW1 to make gun barrels. This lathe roughed out two bats at a time from blanks using a “pattern” bat. A finishing lathe was used to turn the final bat. This lathe is the gray one in Harold R. Baum’s workshop. A rough sander was used to smooth the surface and round the ends after the lathe end blocks were sawed off. A finishing sander removed the last imperfections from the hard wood.
The “HUCKABAY & BAUM” brand was burned in. Shellac with a drop of linseed oil was rubbed on. A sander with a cork belt buffed the shellac which “set” to a hard finish from the heat generated by the cork. Harold made the cork belts from 6” sanding belts that had worn smooth. He covered the belt with glue and spread ground cork across the entire surface.
The finished bat was a high quality item with a professional appearance. It was very smooth with a hard, shiny surface. The shellac brought out the wood grain in a rich golden brown color. The black brand stood out well in contrast. In the batter’s hands, it felt well balanced and quick.
The Front Office
Wm. B. "Huck" Huckabay was the salesman. Harold's mother Lena married Huck after her husband Berthold Baum drowned. Huck also scouted the woods for good trees. According to Alvin Koch, Huck always wore rubber hip waders in the woods because he was afraid of snakes. He sold the bats for twenty-five cents each around the area. There was good demand for bats. In those days, there was a baseball team in almost every town. St. Louis had many club and neighborhood teams. Huck couldn’t drive. Some said the only thing Huck could do was talk. Hank Fults, who lived in the old store across the creek from the farm, was the driver. Huck and Fults would spend a day selling bats, sometimes spending the receipts at a tavern on the way home. Of course, during the Depression every penny was precious. Lena would accompany Huck and Fults whenever possible to make sure the money made it home!
Lead off Batter
“GEARED TO HIT” was the first model. Harold G. made the GEARED branding iron. He formed a plaster mold that accepted impressions of the gear and letters. A casting was produced into which molten iron was poured. The finished iron was flat and round, about 6"in diameter. It was heated with a torch immediately before burning each bat. The first one made was a “mistake” iron. It had the “M” in BAUM turned upside down. He re-made the iron with a correct M. He turned out bats bearing both brands. Harold R. and Rosalie have the original mistake iron, pictured at right. Diane Miller thinks the very first bat was a GEARED TO HIT that carried only the BAUM name and featured a thicker gear. We have not seen any examples of this brand.
The whereabouts of the correct GEARED branding iron is unknown. Harold R. is sure that it was thrown into a sinkhole during the 1960’s when they tore down many of the old sheds on the farm property.
The “WATERLOO WALLOPER” model was introduced later. This branding iron was professionally made. Bats with the WALLOPER brand are much more professional in appearance.
For many years, the whereabouts of the WALLOPER branding iron were also unknown. But Harold R. was certain that it too was thrown into a sinkhole.
In 2006, Mark Baum decided to get rid of the scrap metal pile back in the hollow. He wanted to clean up the mess and make some money from record high scrap metal prices. He hauled several trailer loads away. It was tedious, hard, and dirty work. One afternoon, near the bottom of the pile, he grabbed a chunk of metal and tossed it toward the trailer. It came up short and rolled across the ground. Later as he picked it up to toss it onto the trailer, he saw to his great surprise that it was the WATERLOO WALLOPER branding iron! Remarkably, that’s where his Grandpa Harold R. had thrown it 40 years earlier! Made of brass, the brand itself was in near-perfect condition. The heavy cast iron base was in very good condition. It carried the manufacturer’s name THERMO. The electrical switch was completely intact. The wiring and heating elements were badly rusted but still clearly showed how the brand was heated. The work-rest around the brand and its supports had completely rusted away.
Mark had another surprise in store for me. He didn’t tell me that he found the brand. He and his Grandpa worked in secret to restore and repaint it. They replaced the work-rest and its supports. Grandpa sprayed it with a fresh coat of silver paint. Mark gave it to me as a surprise birthday present in January 2007! Unbelievable!
Each brand bears the address “Waterloo, Ill.” Waterloo is the mailing address at the farm. The entire production was done in Monroe City, about 10 miles southwest of Waterloo. In recent years, collectors of Waterloo memorabilia have become interested in the bats. These dandies occasionally attempt to sell a bat to the family at an exorbitant price. All such offers are, of course, rejected. These scoundrels are well advised to stay within city limits after dark!
Bottom of the Ninth
Harold G. made several hundred HUCKABAY & BAUM bats. Ultimately the mass production techniques and distribution channels of companies like Hillerich & Bradsby put an end to small operations like HUCKABAY & BAUM. He also made tool handles, axe handles, gambol sticks, pulleys, and singletrees. Several singletrees and gambols, which were probably made by him, survived in the shed at his new house in Monroe City. Two pulleys survived in the old grainery. One axe handle and the pattern survived in Harold R.’s workshop. Alvin Wierschem says that whenever they needed a tool handle on their farm near Madonnaville they went to Grandpa's shop.
Post Game Show
Harold went back to full time work when the R.E.A. came through Monroe County in 1937. For a brief period Lyman Monroe made these bats with Huck. Only three bats survived with our family. Two of them are unfinished with the lathe end blocks still attached. The third was finish-sanded but never branded. Our kids played with this bat until it was retired in 1999. The shed and chicken house were torn down in the late 1950's.
Frieda Steinmann owns a farm in Monroe City where Harold and Edith lived during the 1940’s. Her son Kenny says they tore down a shed in the 70’s that had a bunch of the bats stacked in a back corner. They burned the bats with the rest of the shed.
The factual information presented here relies heavily on the firsthand accounts of friends and relatives. This documentary project was started many years after Harold G. and Huck had passed on. As my brothers and I were growing up, we saw the unfinished bats in Grandma's basement. We knew that Grandpa made them but we never knew the full story. It was 1981 before I saw my first, finished HUCKABAY & BAUM bat.
Much of the detail in this story is due to the remarkable memory of Harold R. Baum. His recall of the shop details and the bat making process enables us to put together a complete story. Like any good bleacher bum, his ability to recall the play-by-play is priceless.
In a bleacher bum's best tradition, Diane Miller and Arlene Baum keep all the game-day memorabilia safely tucked away. Their documentation of dates, pictures and stories helps piece together an accurate timeline. Alvin Koch knew Harold G. very well. We spent an enjoyable afternoon in 1999 talking about Huck and the shop. Alvin Wierschem recalls many trips to the shop. It was their first stop anytime they needed a handle or a singletree. We spent an afternoon on his front porch in 2000 talking about the shop and the people who lived around Monroe City. Melvin Sensel remembers Huck and his entrepeneurship. He also has a great memory for people, places and events around Valmeyer and Harrisonville. Brian Johnson and I spent an afternoon in 2001 with Melvin listening to his recollections.
I have been able to collect these few bats from friends and at public auctions. I hope to pass them on to my kids some day, if they are good to me.
William B. “Huck” Huckabay in a galley photo from
St. Louis Globe Democratfeature article circa 1945