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The most poignant telling of this bat’s provenance comes in an accompanying letter from the daughter of Bing Russell, it's former owner. Jill Franco Russell's letter, attested to and signed by her brother, movie actor Kurt Russell and her son, former Major Leaguer Matt Franco reads as follows;
When my Dad was 9 years old, Lefty Gomez, who was like a grandfather to all of us Russell kids, took Dad in to Joe McCarthy's office and said, "This is Bing Russell. He'll be with us from now on." Us, was the 1935 New York Yankees. McCarthy, in his usual grouchy manner, glared at my Dad and grunted. From then on, Dad did his best to stay clear of McCarthy and his strict dugout rule - NO FOOD ALLOWED.
Dad quickly became a master smuggler of peanuts and hot dogs. The guys would give him money and Joe DiMaggio's jacket, because it was so big, and send him out every day. He was scared to death of crossing McCarthy, but he'd do anything for the players. So back he'd come with the jacket stuffed full of bags of peanuts. The team fell in love with this boy who loved baseball, ran around the field shagging balls all day, and tirelessly played pepper with them. They constantly played practical jokes on him and struck fear into him when they imitated McCarthy screaming about how there would be hell to pay if he saw any more peanut shells on the dugout floor.
For eight years, my Dad was a fixture in the Yankees' dugout during Spring Training and the six World Series they played in during that time. He accompanied the team on many road trips, and Lefty used to say that, "Bing was the only person who took it harder than I did when I lost." All of the players befriended him and paid him pocket change to run errands and perform clubhouse duties for them.
Although Lou Gehrig was always very kind to my Dad, and ruffled his hair whenever he walked by, Dad never dared speak to him or joke around with him like he did the other players, because he was in awe of Gehrig above all others.
By Spring Training 1939, every time Gehrig hit, the entire dugout held it's breath. They all knew something was terribly wrong, but nobody ever gave any indication, even amongst themselves, that anything was amiss. I can remember my Dad saying that Lefty would shoot him a terrifying look whenever Gehrig stumbled or dropped his towel in the clubhouse. As if to say, "Don't move a muscle. You did not see that." Dad said the power in Gehrig's body even at that time of his life was mesmerizing, he said he was massive and moved like a panther.
But Gehrig was having a great day in one particular pre-season game in 1939. When he hit his second home run of the day, the team was ecstatic, they all wanted so desperately for him to do well. My Dad ran to the dugout steps in his excitement to watch Lou run the bases. He saw the bat boy pick up the bat where Gehrig had dropped it and show it to him when he crossed the plate. It was broken at the handle. Lou Gehrig handed the bat to my Dad when he got back to the dugout, "Here, Kid."
Lou Gehrig never hit another home run. My Dad showed that bat to hundreds and hundreds of ballplayers and baseball fans who visited him through the years. It was always known as "Lou Gehrig's last home run bat." We have since learned that it was one of the last four bats Gehrig ordered in 1938 during his last full season as a Yankee.
I can still see my Dad's Yankee bats leaning against the corner of his closet. He would bring them out when he was telling his "Yankee stories." Everyone would pass them around and marvel at how incredibly heavy they were. We'd read every signature on the '41 DiMaggio bat that Joe had given him, and listen again to the stories full of all those great Yankee names, Frankie Crosetti, Phil Rizzuto, Red Ruffing, Bill Dickey, Joe Gordon, George Selkirk, Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller, Babe Dahlgren. My Dad had a story about all of them. We never got tired of hearing the Yankee stories and it was even better when Lefty was in town, because he had a never ending supply of funny baseball stories. My brother and sisters and I would sit and listen and laugh for as long as they would talk baseball. But the best was when Dad would tell the story of how Gehrig gave him the bat, with barely a word, and Lefty would say quietly, "Lou loved Bing." And it was plain that Lefty loved both of them.
The Lou Gehrig bat that accompanies this letter is the same bat my father, Bing Russell, received from Gehrig himself in 1939, after Lou used it to hit his last home in a Yankees uniform.
JILL RUSSELL FRANCO
October 10, 2011
Presented is arguably the finest Lou Gehrig bat ever offered at public auction: One of the last professional models made for him by the craftsman at Hillerich & Bradsby, it was used by baseball’s Iron Horse during the 1938 season as well as Spring Training of 1939. Furthermore, in an exhibition game prior to the start of the 1939 season, Gehrig, in rapid decline from the insidious disease that now bears his name, utilized this very bat when he valiantly mustered the strength and form to hit his last two home runs in a New York Yankees uniform.
Lou Gehrig began the 1938 season as he had for the previous thirteen summers, never missing a game—and seldom failing in RBI opportunities. Unassuming and humble—almost to a fault—"The Iron Horse" simply blended as an element of a bigger picture, content with second billing to a youthful Joe DiMaggio, as he had been in the sizable shadow of Babe Ruth. For months he sustained more than adequate numbers, but the statistics temporarily masked an undeniable truth. His physical capabilities were deteriorating ever so slowly...and only Gehrig, himself, had even the slightest grasp on his tragic decline. At the midpoint of the 1938 season, Gehrig's diminishing performance revealed itself. At the end of that season, he said, "I tired mid season. I don't know why, but I just couldn't get going again." Although his final 1938 statistics were above average, they were significantly down from his 1937 season. In the 1938 World Series, he had four hits in fourteen at-bats, all singles.
When the Yankees began their 1939 spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida, it was obvious that Gehrig no longer possessed his once-formidable power. Even Gehrig's base running was affected, and at one point he collapsed at Al Lang Field, then the Yankees' spring training park in St. Petersburg. Bing Russell, the Yankees errand boy, made a move from the dugout to assist Gehrig when the firm hand of Lefty Gomez quickly halted him out of reverence.
On April 14th, 1939 the Yankees played an exhibition game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Norfolk, Va. just prior to the start of the regular season. In an unexpected flash of his former greatness, Gehrig hit two home runs, the second of which just cleared a short right field fence. When Gehrig stoically crossed home plate after this final clout, a Yankees batboy named Timmy handed his bat back to Gehrig. Gehrig carried it into the dugout, looked it over briefly, and then unceremoniously gifted it to Bing Russell.
The legacy of this Gehrig bat has endured for three generations in the Russell family. Bing’s regular retelling of its provenance is carried on by his daughter Jill, his famous son Kurt Russell and his grandson (former major leaguer) Matt Franco, all of whom grew up with the bat and have documented their remembrance. The physical characteristics of this bat more than live up to its heritage. Used during the last and most trying days of his epic career, this bat is the single finest Lou Gehrig artifact we’ve ever handled.