Hercules at the bat

A Bat Wants to be Swung. Grip its handle with both hands, hold it out in front of you, and feel the tug of its top-heaviness. Lift it up, and right away you want to bring it down. Hard.

A bat tempts you to test your strength. “Step right up, don’t be shy, swing the mallet and ring the bell!” The bat is begging you to smash something, bash something. Ah, yes, a bat has an atavistic appeal. It speaks directly to your inner caveman, your inner Bam-Bam, in a language it instinctively understands.

With a bat in your hands, you are Hercules with his club. One of the earliest legendary heroes in the West, Hercules connotes a kind of reckless, almost monstrous strength. His Hulk-like rages call to mind the chthonic giants with which he wrestled. His legendary labors happened before the epic clash of civilizations that was the Trojan war. In fact, tradition credits Hercules with clearing the wilderness for civilization’s first growth. The constellation of Hercules depicts him wielding his club. His stars are best viewed from late spring to early fall, during baseball season.

Before swinging a bat was legendary, it was natural, as natural as war. At the oldest archeologically verifiable battlefield in Europe, in the Tollense Valley in Northern Germany, approximately 5,000 Bronze age combatants once clashed. This melee occurred 3,250 years ago, in other words, sometime between the labors of Hercules and the war at Troy. Among the weapons found was a 72-cm wooden club to which German archeologists have applied the more technical term “the baseball bat.” Like most Louisville Sluggers, it is of hard ash wood and nicely tapered at one end for better grip and handling. The bat thickens where it might meet someone’s skull. 72 centimeters is short for a baseball bat. Tony Gwynn used the shortest bat in the Majors at 81 centimeters, though sometimes he chocked up. Imagine fighting in the cold muck of Germany’s North woods. You might content yourself with keeping alive by fouling off anything that came close and, when you could, put good wood to head. Bronze-Age Germans went to battle with Little League equipment. Nevertheless, some of the skulls dug up at Tollense are clearly dashed open, indicating cause of death as blunt force trauma, i.e., having been hit with a bat.

We can imagine swinging a bat to be evolutionary. In “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Stanley Kubrick dramatized the eureka moment when one of our precocious prehistoric ancestors discovered the first tool, — cue the brass section for Strauss’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” — an implement with which one may more readily and effectively hit, hurt, and destroy things. The tool was a ready-made, a found object — the sun-bleached femur of a large pig — but transformed into a supremely useful implement when wielded as a weapon, helpful when playing that earliest of games, survival of the fittest. According to Kubrick’s jump cut, that ape-ancestor’s skull-shattering club would be the original of all technology, of satellites, space travel, and interplanetary thermonuclear war. (Can you see the constellation of Hercules in the background?)

The bat with which we’d once hunted animals and made war upon one another, we now use to play a beautiful game. We’ve gone from fighting with sticks and stones to playing with bats and balls. Our instinct to hit is sublimated into myth and play. Now Hercules is at the plate.moonwatcher.jpg

Note: On the Tollense Battlefield see https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/03/slaughter-bridge-uncovering-colossal-bronze-age-battle

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