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Honoring Elston Howard on National Doughnut Day

Today is National Doughnut Day, a day when batters in on-deck circles from Albuquerque to Winston-Salem will take an extra warmup swing in homage to Elston Howard, creator of the weighted baseball bat ring.

Actually, National Doughnut Day is named for the confectionery glazed, powdered and sprinkled treats that may be served in lieu of Wheaties on Prince Fielder’s personal training table, and also probably contributed to Terry Forster’s transformation from a relatively svelte 200-pound relief pitcher coming up with the White Sox, to a fat 270-pound tub of goo after he signed with the Braves.

But it still seems like a good day to discuss the baseball doughnut, and other ancillary equipment favored by today’s players.

You still can get an official Elston Howard On-Deck Bat Weight in the original packaging on eBay. I found two versions, the larger red doughnut, a “rare find,” though you could Buy It Now for $27.50.

They also listed one of Ellie’s smaller blue bat weights, also rare, but cheaper at $17.50. This is the doughnut I used in Little League.

I’m told chicks dig the larger red doughnut.

Modern players use bigger weights, which look less like doughnuts and more like French loaves with a hole drilled through them.

According to a 2011 Wall Street Journal study, warming up with a weighted bat actually decreases bat speed at home plate. But almost everybody, even Mario Mendoza when he played, uses bat weights in the on-deck circle. One supposes it’s easier than swinging three bats and spitting sunflower seeds at the same time.

Elston Howard, a 12-time All-Star and the 1963 American League Most Valuable Player, died in 1980 when he was only 51. So I decided to ask Duke Sims about it.

The longtime Las Vegan was one of the Yankee backstop’s contemporaries — Ellie was sort of on the way down when Duke was on his way up. Sims played 10 years in the bigs, primarily with the Indians; he is the all-time leading home run hitter born in Utah (though he grew up in Idaho) with an even 100.

He was a catcher, or at least mostly a catcher. Catchers are the smartest guys on the diamond.

And so I knew Sims, who incidentally turns 74 today — he still looks like he could catch the second game of a doubleheader, if you needed him to, and if there still were doubleheaders — would have something to say about swinging a bat with a weighted doughnut.

I was right. When I caught up to him Wednesday afternoon, he and some golfing buddies were playing the 19th hole at Rio Secco Golf Club in Henderson.

He said he didn’t know if swinging a bat with a doughnut on top was an advantage or a disadvantage. All he knew was that when he tapped his Louisville Slugger on the ground and the weight fell off, his bat felt lighter.

Psychologically, that was an advantage. You would take any edge you could get when facing Denny McLain and Dean Chance and Dave McNally and Catfish Hunter, et al, during 1968, the Year of the Pitcher.

“You know, I’ve always questioned some stuff,” said the Duke of Cleveland, and of Los Angeles, Detroit, New York and Texas toward the end of his career. “For example, the people who run studies are scientists. So they’ve never sweated, or had a wet jock in their lives.”

Those are brutal, especially in St. Louis when the humidity is up.

Plus, those scientists never faced McLain in ’68, when he was 31-6.

Sims, who is extremely well read for a catcher, then went into a discourse about baseball swings and golf swings and big muscles and drag coefficients that would have blown Yogi Berra’s hat right off.

So this old catcher is adhering to the notion the weighted bat ring is a decent piece of ancillary equipment. Ditto for the pine tar rag and the rosin bag. Sims also wore a golf glove under his catcher’s mitt, because they didn’t have batting gloves when he played.

The rest of it — eye black and wristbands and compression sleeves and plastic sunglasses that grip your cap, instead of the flip-down, flip-up kind that players in his day wore — are mostly style accessories, he said.

But when we were talking about the Tools of Ignorance, which is what they used to call catcher’s equipment, he shared a great story.

Instead of a little circular sponge or pad to help cushion the repeated pounding of catching 95 mph high, hard ones, which is what my American Legion catchers did, he preferred using a woman’s brassiere pad.

It was curved and fit his hand better. And because it was made of latex, it would hold up during a long pennant race, even in St. Louis when the humidity was up.

Yes, Duke Sims caught with a falsie inside his big mitt, although to paraphrase Ol’ Casey Stengel, you couldn’t look it up.

He said he would go shopping for them himself, that he would ask the woman at the lingerie counter for a 36C. She would ask if he wanted that with a nipple or without.

I suppose it all depended on whether Sam McDowell was pitching, or whether it was Sonny Siebert or Steve Hargan’s turn, because Sudden Sam could really bring it, and you’d want all the protection you could get.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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