I can’t imagine how hard it would be for a family to have devoted decades to something and only have it to be lost to the ages. I am specifically referring to the Kren Family of Syracuse NY and the company founded by Joseph G. Kren in the early part of the 20th Century. According to local lore, Kren was working as a lathe operator when he noticed local youths attempting to play baseball with some sort of misshapen wooden object…Kren turned them a bat, and as the cliché goes, the rest is history…sadly a rich history that has been largely ignored.
But why is this? I found an article written by Sean Kirst for The Syracuse Post-Standard on Wednesday October 25th, 1995 to be very informative and compelling. Kirst suggests that the lack of legacy can be attributed to a couple of factors. First being that Kren’s was without the marketing ability by way of endorsements as compared to Hillerich and Bradsby. It’s tough to get a player to openly promote the use of your product when he is under contract to another manufacturer. But the players of the day did swing Kren products and this fact was confirmed by Lou Gehrig as he testified in the 1930s case involving Hillerich and Bradsby competitors use of players names on bats they had under contract.
Kirst also sites a 1932 article that related “how great hitters like Babe Ruth would crack a bat, tape Kren’s address to the barrel and then throw it in parcel post for Syracuse. The Kren’s would size up the bat for a replacement.” Additionally, Kirst offers that his research showed “old newspaper accounts noted Kren’s made bats for Al Simmons, Pepper Martin, Wagner and other immortals.” According to Joseph Kren (the son) there were some 2,000 bats like this that were discarded when the factory closed it doors in the late 1950s. Those surviving bats would have gone a long way in confirming the pedigree of the Kren product, especially in today’s often skeptical collecting environment.
I would hope that even today’s most skeptical and discriminating collector or researcher would have to consider that Kren’s “Hand-Turned” products were used by prominent major league hitters. As early as 1918, Kren was advertising that his product was “a superior bat used by leading players in the American, National, and International Leagues as well as the leading college teams throughout the United States.”
All of this should not be too hard to conceive given the factor of proximity. By this I mean that a bat manufacturing facility located in Syracuse NY was both in proximity to the source of premium raw material (Adirondack Ash) as well as the ball clubs themselves. This of course makes sense, but does it put a Kren’s bat in the hands of a notable major leaguer? No it does not.
Earlier this year, Troy Kinunen of MEARS provided these examples of Kren model bats as having been found in the individual player records of Hillerich and Bradsby:
2/4/28 Hack Wilson ordered bats listed as “off Kren Model Sent”
7/21/33 Rabbit Maranville ordered bats listed as “his 7/21/33 off of Frank Frisch Kren Special Model-round end (model 108)”
1934 World Series Charlie Gehringer ordered bats listed as “Krens model, use Bing Miller 34 oz.”
What these men all have in common is that they are all Hall of Fame caliber players who at one time appear to have used or had a preference for Kren products. The earliest of which, (Hack Wilson in 1928), comes a decade after Kren’s advertising claim that they did in fact provide bats “used by leading players in the American, National, and International Leagues.”
Art Jaffe at Left Field Collectables has offered a number of Kren bats over the years. Many of which are thought to have come from his bulk buy of template bats once owned by Hillerich and Bradsby.
Consider this bat:
Player: (walsh ?)
Era: circa 1915
Teams: Philadelphia A’s Yankees Red Sox
Teams Side Written:
Comments: J.W. stamped on knob, only J.W. living in Syracuse at time was Jimmy Walsh
I found this example particularly interesting given that the Kirst article also mentions that “Syracuse natives Jimmy Walsh and Bill Kelly used Kren’s Specials while playing for the Buffalo Bisons in the mid 1920s” and there is photographic evidence to confirm this as well on page 119 of “The Ashes of Lou Gehrig and Other Baseball Essays” by Sean Kirst.
Kirst wrote a follow up piece in 2005 were he mentioned contacting a local North Syracuse baseball historian named Ron Gersbacher who was said to have “old catalogs and documents that detail how the Philadelphia A’s and New York Giants-teams who later moved to different cities-bought bats from Kren.” The Maranville bat mentioned above was made off of a Frank Frisch Kren model bat. Frisch began his career with the New York Giants in 1919. Prior to that he played his college ball at Fordham. Remember the 1918 Kren advertisement: “a superior bat used by leading players in the American, National, and International Leagues as well as the leading college teams throughout the United States.” Could it be that Frisch found Kren’s bats to his liking either in college or with the New York Giants? Both are plausible given proximity and the claim that Kren provided product to the New York Giants. Al Simmons played in Philadelphia (one of the cities cited) and is also one of the players previously mentioned in contemporary accounts as having used Kren bats. Once again, Simmons is another Hall of Famer and his Kren bats are known to exist today along with fellow Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett.
The Bushing and Kinuen MEARS for Sale Site has listed a “Bing Miller” Kren bat. This may not seem important in its own right, but then again Bing Miller and Kren also appear connected to the 1934 Gehringer World Series bat order. They also have listed an Emil “Irish” Meusel bat. Kirst’s 1995 article mentions that “Asked to describe under oath any bats he’d seen used, Gehrig spoke of several major leaguers who preferred Krens. Indeed one of the New York Giants mentioned by Gehrig was Emil “Irish Meusel.”
Previously sold Bushing and Kinunen Kren bats include those of Hack Wilson, Joe “Ducky” Medwick, and Joe DiMaggio. What I find interesting about the Medwick model is that Joe was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals famous “Gas House Gang” teams of the 1930s. Kirst’s article of October 1995 includes “The Kren’s also had ties to the St. Louis Cardinals. Some of the players of the “Gas House Gang” started off with the Syracuse Stars, which for a time was the St. Louis farm club”.
The Syracuse Herald of 15 January 1927 features an article titled Babe Ruth Homers Are Born Here. In this article it is mentioned that, “last year, the Beecher Street shop turned out nearly 10,000 bats. Big league players come to him (Kren) to have their favorite bats duplicated or they send the old ones and get him to make others.” We know that Ruth, by his own admission, ordered and used non Hillerich and Bradsby products. According to an article that appeared in the January 19th 1929 edition of the Syracuse Herald which is an excerpt from Babe Ruth’s Own Book of Baseball, Chapter 12, Ruth goes on to mention that: “a few years ago, Sam Crawford the old Detroit outfielder and slugger, sent me a sample bat from the coast. It was one of those trick things made out of four separate sections, pasted and fitted together. Sam wanted me to try it out and see how it worked. The first time up I hit the ball over the fence for a home run and during the entire game, I got myself two doubles and single in addition to the home run. Naturally, I was tickled pink. In the clubhouse that night, I had Woodie send Sam an order for six of these bats. They came along a few days later and Colonel Ruppert happened to be in the clubhouse when they arrived. He took a look at the bill and threw his hands up in the air. Those bats were listed as six dollars each.
These accounts are not simply confined to local Syracuse natives or the local Syracuse media. A picture of Joseph G. Kren was published showing him at his lathe under the heading of “ He Makes Home Run Swat-sticks” in the Rushville, Indiana Daily Republican on June 15th 1923. The caption under the picture states “Joseph G. Kren in a little shop in back of his home in Syracuse, NY makes bats with which many of the home runs of the big leaguers are poled out. Among his patrons are Babe Ruth, Heinie Groh, Rogers Hornsby, Irish and Bob Meusel and Curtis Walker.” My question is why would Kren not be seen as a likely candidate as well for Ruth bats? All of this would seem to support the claim made by the Kren family that Ruth and other players would come by and have the Kren’s make bats for them.
Besides looking at the product furnished by the Kren family, I was also curious as to when this effort of making bats began in earnest. Joseph G. Kren’s was inducted into the Syracuse Hall of Fame as a member of Class of 2000. His bio as listed for this occasion states:
An immigrant from Germany in the late 19th century, Joe settled in Syracuse and worked as a woodworker on many downtown landmark buildings. Joe began manufacturing baseball bats in the late 1920’s. By the forties, he was turning out over 100,000 baseball bats a year. Clients include baseball Hall of Famers, Ruth, Gehrig, Ott, Hornsby, Foxx and others.
Many major leaguers in the first half of the 20th century used Kren’s Specials, made from a factory on Bear Street in Syracuse, NY founded by Joseph Kren. Kren learned his craft by working on an industrial lathe in the 1890s. He founded his own company which produced baseball and softball bats plus police billy clubs. His four sons never expressed interest in the art of making bats and the business ended with Kren passing in 1953. Recently, entrepreneur and baseball enthusiast Bob Ross purchased the Kren logo and has begun to reproduced bat racks based on original designs. To spot a Kren, look for the distinctive diamond logo in the middle of the bat. Joe Kren died in 1953. His beloved bat company was sold a year later, and another Syracuse sports endeavor became legend.
Today, Kren bats are highly prized collectors’ items. Last year, an original Lou Gehrig Kren Special sold for over $ 20,000.00.
Kern was honored by Holy Trinity Church as Man of the Year.
The dating statement of “Joe began manufacturing baseball bats in the late 1920’s” is not consistent with period information. Period newspaper advertising can be found as early as 1918 and we know that Kren published product catalogs as early as 1917. Although Kren appears to have been well established in the bat making trade before the 1920s, information contained in the US Censes for years 1900,1910, 1920, and 1930 may indicate he was not sure of how viable of a profession this would become.
Occupation Information for Joseph G. Kren, Syracuse New York
1900: Census and Occupation Listed: Wood Turner
1910: Census and Occupation Listed: Furniture Manufacturer
1920: Wood Carver (Piano Factory)
1930: Owner, Base Ball Bat Manufacturing
My research seems to indicate a more likely timeframe for Kren’s work as a bat maker as spanning the period of 1901-1953. I base the beginning of a couple of factors. Joe Kren (the son) signed a few baseball’s for long time Kren collector Bud Ransom and Bud was more than gracious enough to provide me with one of these. Although the dates are blurred given the hand writing of the then 90+ Kren, one example I saw appears to say “190001 1958”. I found a couple of Syracuse Journal Herald newspaper accounts that appear to support this as early dating as well. The 11 May 1933 edition features an article on a trade show featuring local Syracuse manufactured products. One such line of products were the bats made by the Kren bat company. The article goes on to recount that “the baseball bats exhibited by Joeseph G. Kren of the, maker of the “Kren Special,” used by many famous big leaguers and thousands of other players in schools and sand lots each year for over 30 years. Carefully aged northern white as is air seasoned two years before it is hand turned, oil tempered, and polished into a Kren bat. The Kren line runs from 25 cents for a playground bat to the “Kren Special” for heavy duty use. About 50,000 bats a year are turned out by this Syracuse industry, and are sold throughout the nation and in Canada.”
This short article provides insight on to the longevity of the Kren Bat Company as well as their annual volume. It also gives some insight into the manufacturing process as well. The “oil tempered” may refer to having the bats treated in creosote. You will find examples of Kren bats from this period with “Creosote Treated” stamped onto them.
The second Syracuse Journal Herald article from 1951 is dated May 29th 1951 and was written to announce the fact that Joseph G. Kren was to be honored by the Holy Trinity Church as their “Man of the Year.” This article goes on to mention that “Mr. Kren has been manufacturing bats in Syracuse for more than 50 years.” The article further states that “One of the first major leaguers to tote a Kren bat to the plate was Frank “Wildfire” Schulte. Most of the good ones have swung a Kren model all or part of the time ever since. Only Louisville Slugger compares to the Kren in the matter of time and tradition behind it.”
I am not sure about the end dating being 1958 as inscribed on the ball. Joseph G. Kren died in 1953 and according to Sean Kirst in one of the essays in his book “The Ashes of Lou Gehrig”, Kirst states that after his death in 1953, the Kren sons sold their rights to the business to and donated their fathers tools to Cooperstown in 1954.
Most of what we know about early manufacturers and the history of those companies comes to us in the form of information provided by them in the form of product catalogs and period advertising. Of all the early bat manufacturers I have looked at, Kren product information is the most scarce and rare. To date, I have only been able to acquire two original Kren catalogs (at some great cost I might add, but well worth it), those being from 1917 and 1933.
The 1917 catalog lists the Kren location as being only Syracuse NY. No printed date is on the catalog, but faint pencil on the cover appears to read 1917. The period player endorsements letters on the back page date from 1915-1916 and are a delight to read. They include this letter from Jack Berry (Philadelphia AL 1908-1915, Boston AL 1915-1919):
“Dear Sir:- I received the bat you sent me and it is o.k. I ant you to make me up a half dozen more of the same model and weight, and send them in care of the Boston American Baseball Club. Thanking you for the favor, I remain yours truly, Jack Berry”
Additional player specific references include:
“Mr Frank Schulte of the “Cubs” and H.H. Gessler of the Federal League, who were users of my bats in 1911, made the longest hits ever made. Mr. H.H. Gessler then played for the Washington Club of the American League.”
This 1917 edition also includes this language:
“We are showing in this catalog only a few of the popular models which we manufacturer. We have hundreds more of individual models used by players in all leagues. Should you not find a suitable model in this catalog, we can duplicate any bat which you are using. As all our bats are hand turned, we can make any desirable changes in weight, shape and length, on any bat you have or have seen in the catalog.”
In looking at the catalog in its entirety, I am left with no doubt that Kren was established in the major leagues by this time.
The 1933 catalog is year dated and lists the 112-114 Beecher Street address, but with no phone number. It provided the names of some 18 current signature model bats and another 14 some prominent major leaguers “of bats made by use for these players.” All of this later grouping are listed by model number, player (Made For) length in inches, weight in ounces, barrel style, handle style, and knob style. There are also listing for some dozen youth bats. Additionally, the back page shows that the center brand bearing the words TRADE MARK REG. U.S. PAT OFF. This is helpful on dated document as it helps to date bats as being at least from this time if this information is present.
Veteran Kren collector Bud Ransom also provided me some information with respect to the location of Kren Bat Company. The phone numbers were obtained from other period products and listed here as well.
The Kren Bat Company
112-14 Beecher St
Syracuse New York
I was curious as to why the change of location after almost 40 years? At first I thought it may have been due to a desire or need for a larger workspace. This would make sense, but I think a better reason can be found in an article that appeared in the 20 January 1939 edition of the Dunkirk (NY) Evening Observer that notes:
“Syracuse-A potential barrage of home runs for the 1939 season went up in smoke today when fire of undetermined origin destroyed the Henry Kren baseball bat factory here.”
Henry Kren was Joseph Kren’s oldest son and would have been 41 at this time. His dad would have been 71 and Henry may have been running the operation by 1939. Henry Kren’s obituary of 4 June 1956 lists him as the President of the Joseph G. Kren Bat Company.
The Kren Bat Company
717 N Clinton
Syracuse New York
The Kren Bat Company
212 Bear St
Syracuse New York
The first address is likely to have started out as the “workshop in the back of the family home” we have come to associate with the Kren Company. The obituary for Mrs. Joseph Kren, dated August 21st 1953 lists her residence as being 114 Beecher Street, Syracuse NY. In addition, in an add that Joseph Kren placed on May 18th 1929, you will see he also references the Beecher Street address:
WHITE ASH WANTED
3-INCH SECOND GROWTH WHITE
ASH, SELECTED STOCK. MUST BE
WELL SEASONED. ANY QUANITITY
111 BEECHER STREET PHONE 3-3519
This add implies a growing business and strong desire to purchase raw materials. Maybe this is indicative of the success that Jospeh G. Kren that finally compelled him to have himself identified as the owner of baseball bat manufacturing facility as seen in the 1930 census information. It also appears that this growth would continue in the decades to come. Kren’s products were also sold through dealers outside of his own direct offerings. I know of Kren bats that show the markings of:
The WM N. Gregorie Co
The Johnny Evers Co
By the mid 1940s, Kren was clearly an established presence on the national scene and would soon go world wide with his product. The Syracuse Herald Journal from 27 April 1944 reported that “Baseball bats are being gathered by the military services and shipped overseas to “our boys” in such large quantities, a scarcity of them may be felt in the United States later in the season. A certain branch of the service procured all available bats from Joseph Kren, Syracuse manufacturer of national reputation.”
I couldn’t help but think that some of the very bats made by Joseph Kren were now en-route back to where his life began on the European continent, so I decided to do some additional searching through government documents that included the immigration records from Ellis Island. I found no record for a Joseph Kren, however a “Joseph Krenkles” is listed as having arrived in December 28th of 1889 with his final destination as listed as NY. His ethnic origin is shown as German and his age at immigration was listed as 31. The records indicate he paid his own transportation and at the time had $30.00 with him.
Previously mentioned Census data information shows that Kren listed his place of birth as being Austria and that his arrival date in the United States as being 1888 (1900 Census), 1886 (1910 Census), or 1889 (1920 Census). This would not be the first time a family name was changed, shortened or “Americanized” upon immigration. My own grandparents, ethnic Germans living in Austria-Hungary, modified the spelling and pronunciation of our name upon arrival in 1911. All or any of this of course has no bearing on the bat manufacturing enterprise, but it was something I noted in my research that I thought was worth a mention.
Additionally, as part of this project, I did something I have been doing for a long time as part of working in the intelligence profession. I started to sketch the various bits of information out on something referred to as an Association Diagram. This is nothing more than an analytical tool used to identify and highlight associations and connections. I have provided some samples for your own consideration and possible use in the projects you may undertake in the future. For “ease on the eye,” I have broken these down for player specific reference, but as an analytical I would still recommend using a common diagram at first.
In doing research on bats and bat manufacturers, reoccurring comments from collectors on their willingness to accept any theory seems to be grounded in a couple of points. The first being they want to see a picture and the other justification is “that’s what I have always been told.” I suspect much of what folks think or believe about the professional use of Kren bats is tied to these two issues. I recently found a photograph of Hack Wilson with what I believe to be a Kren bat from the 1930s. Based on the center brand logo, it is clearly not a Hillerich & Bradsby product, nor do I feel it is either one from a Hanna, Zinn Beck, Reach or Spalding model bat. This seems well in line with the other associations we can see with respect to Hack Wilson and Krens. The image provided of Irish Meusel highlights a point I have often made, that being that in looking at photographs in order to discern a bat’s manufacturer, the majority of images available don’t permit a determination to be made.
The image provided of St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Billy Southworth shows once again what I believe to be a Kren bat. This photograph also offers a Billy Southworth Kren signature model as a point of comparison. The center brand is not a Hillerich & Bradsby oval, nor do I think it to be a Zinn Beck diamond. The dark two word image and the shape of the outline lead me to believe this is a Kren “Kren’s Special” bat.
I have also provided is a picture of Boston Braves player Johnny Cooney (c 1940-1942) holding a grouping of nine bats. Five are known to be Kren bats, two are Hillerich and Bradsby products, the other two are of a manufacturer that can not be discerned from the photograph. The Cooney picture is important in its own right. It confirms that Kren continued to provide bats to major league players well after the decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in November of 1935. The case centered around a suit brought against Hanna Manufacturing by Hillerich and Bradsby over the use of the names of players that Louisville Slugger had under endorsement contract. According to an article that appeared in the November 26th 1935 edition of the San Antonio Light, the court “refused to review a lower courts decision against Hillerich and Bradsby of Louisville that the Hanna Manufacturing Company of Athens, GA, could use those names provided they stuck to the facts.” Additionally, “The circuit court held that a “Babe Ruth” bat might mean a certain type and allowed the company to use the name if it added “style or shape” even those the Louisville firm had the players under contract for use of their names.”
My take on the use of “Type” or “Style” with respect to players name was intended to apply to marketing and not the marking of bats. Block player names without the words Type or Style that were under endorsement contract with Hillerich & Bradsby have been produced since this time. This also includes the practice of Hillerich and Bradsby doing the same thing with players under contract with other bat manufacturers such as Willie Mays who was signed by Adirondack even before he made the New York Giants major league roster. On a personal note, I would caution collectors from simply relying on dimensional comparisons between “Style” or “Type” and known player bats when looking to add them to their collections. The reason I feel this way is quite obvious. For instance, a “Smith Style” or “Smith Type” bat should be expected to match the dimensions of a known “Smith” bat since this is what was used to actually create the “Smith Style” or “Smith Type.”
This brings me to my next point on relying solely on photographic proof. In looking at “The Image of Their Greatness: An Illustrated History of Baseball from 1900 to Present” in an “empirical manner”, one thing becomes very clear. Consider that this book devotes some 221 plus pages to cover the period from 1900 to 1950. Of that:
Of those 221 pages,194 feature pictures…
Of those 194 picture pages,79 of them include bats…
Of those 79 bat pictures, they contain approximately 168 bats…
Of those 168 bats, only 30 permit you to discern a manufacturer by the label…
What this means is that only about 18% of the available data provides any relevant information. The converse is that we don’t know what brand or manufacturer is found on 82% of the bats we can see.
In my article on early Spalding bats, I showed how the size of the lettering made a Spalding bat empirically less likely to be identified than its Hillerich & Bradsby counter part. In my article on Reach bats, I showed how easy the Reach center brand and Hillerich & Bradsby product could be confused. The later point being, just because the center brand appears to be in the outline of an oval, you can’t assume it is a Hillerich & Bradsby product. If you look at the Meusel image, even when product is identified in the caption as a Kren bat, the style of “non-template” branding makes this difficult to discern.
The point I am trying to make, and maybe a bit more long winded than required, is that just because you don’t have a photograph of something doesn’t mean you should dismiss the body of the other supporting data. In the case of Kren bats and their use by Hall of Fame caliber players, I think that body of work in its totality is rather convincing. The three images provided span the period of roughly 1922-1942 based on a combination of player/uniform styles. This places Kren products in the hands of major league players for portions of three decades at a minimum.
Why do I spend so much time on this since I have no personal stake in this issue? I have never owned a Kren bat nor am I dealer looking to increase the value of them. I have no connection with Syracuse or the Kren family. First and foremost, this is another area or topic that I feel has not been adequately researched and written about. Second and more importantly, I was touched by Sean Kirst’s articles as he worked to helped re-convey a well deserved public legacy on Joseph G. Kren and his descendants. There is something very real and heartwarming about the story of an immigrant that comes to this country, embraces our National Pastime, applies his trade as an artisan, and builds a successful business for his family. To reduce this story to a topic of debate centered on the current collectable value of a Kren bat is sad to say the least.
Whether the Kren bat you have displays the name of Babe Ruth or was one used by a ten year old girl named Ruth, it was made by the same family and in the same manner. It was hand turned from lumber they selected with the user in mind. The early models where created in a workshop in the back of the family home, at least at first. The end product and the story behind each and every Kren bat is something to be cherished and embraced. Out of fairness to the Kren family, please look at this issue through the filter of what I think is now a more refined picture that now includes:
-Hillerich and Bradbsy Records
-Surviving Examples of Kren Bats
-Contemporary Media Accounts
-Manufacturer’s Advertising and Catalog Information
-Consideration of the Issue of Proximity
These 11 pages of information actually represent only Phase I of my research into Kren bats. In Phase II, I will look to identify a list of player that are likely to have used Kren bats and why. Phase III will focus on trying to narrow manufacturing dates for various bats as well as trying to establish ways to distinguish between retail and professional products in some detail.
As always, collect what you enjoy and enjoy what you collect.
MEARS Auth, LLC
For questions or comments on this article, please feel free to drop me a line at DaveGrob1@aol.com.