According to Nathan Stalvey, Exhibitions Director and Curator at the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, about 60% of all big leaguers use bats with a concave end — what is known in the business as a "cup-balanced" bat. Despite the popularity of the feature, the origins of the cupped-end bat are still a bit of a mystery.
Many sources state that José Cardenal was the first player to introduce the bat style to the big leagues. According to an article at the Cardboard Gods Web site:
Cardenal borrowed a bat from coach George Altman that was made of a yellowish wood. What intrigued the outfielder was that he noticed that the Japanese-made bat didn’t have marks where the contacts were made. So he bought the dozen of bats from Altman for $100. A few hits later, complaints were filed about the unique lumber, but the Commissioner’s Office gave an okay to Cardenal to use the bat, as he went onto hit in the .290’s. 'It had a little cup at the end and good balance,' [said] Cardenal.(Former major leaguer George Altman played baseball in Japan from 1968 to 1975.)
But an article in The Sporting News of September 11, 1971, gives a different twist to the story, with Cardenal quoted as stating that "Lou Brock got a dozen [of the bats] from a player on the Tokyo Giants [likely Sadaharu Oh] and he gave me four. Somebody stole three of them, and I have only that one left."
In fact, another article in The Sporting News from three months earlier (June 12, 1971) also gives credit to Lou Brock as the major leaguer who introduced what the St. Louis Cardinals assistant general manager Jim Toomey called a "teacup" bat: "Brock has used one of the Japanese bats at infrequent intervals. 'I think I'm 2-for-6 with it,' said Brock."
So how far back does the cupped-end bat go? Cardenal? Brock? Japanese players? Actually, a few years ago, bat historian Dave Bushing uncovered the fact that the Hanna Batrite company was selling cupped-end bats decades earlier. In an article authored by Bushing, he noted that the Georgia-based company sold their "OK'd Cup Bat" in the early 1940s.
Here's an advertisement for the bat as found in a Hanna Batrite catalog from 1942:
According to a Dick Young article in The Sporting News of January 15, 1972, "The cupped-end bat, now approved by the major leagues, is not a Japanese innovation. An American company has been making them since 1936." No doubt Young was referring to the Hanna Batrite company, suggesting that the bats were introduced back in the 1930s.
But now, new research has uncovered an even earlier reference to the cupped-end bat. The following note appeared in an article in the October 16, 1897 issue of the Philadelphia-based Sporting Life, a weekly sports newspaper:
NEW BASE BALL BAT
By a simple method of their own, the Robert Reach Company have succeeded in making a bat of such perfect balance, that, while retaining the weight and driving power of the best second growth white ash owing to the perfect balance, feels much lighter and, therefore, easier to swing. This result is obtained by simply concaving the large end of the bat. By doing this is [sic] taken away one ounce and a half of absolutely useless wood, which in itself does not weigh much, but placed on the end of a 34-inch bat weighs considerable. This is an undisputable [sic] law of physics. Taking advantage of this fact they have secured a patent on the article in question, and offer the ball players a scientifically constructed bat of such perfect balance that they are enabled to use a much heavier bat than heretofore, thereby securing greater driving power, without requiring any more effort to swing it. Every bat is guaranteed to be straight grain, split, second growth white ash.
Despite the information noted in the article, research has failed to track down a contemporary patent for the new design.
A few months after its initial mention, the cupped bat was offered as a premium for selling subscriptions to the Sporting Life. And a week later, on January 15, 1898, the following advertisement was prominently placed in the same publication:
While it is unknown if any professional ball players used Robert Reach's "bat with the concaved end," it is clear that the idea of a cupped-end bat is much older than previously thought.