SPORT July 2001

Field of Tin

A rediscovered baseball toy gets a retired player back in the game

Frank E. Darnulc, of Suffern, New York, wrote,

I also was the happy owner of that game, and I regret that I didn't keep it. My mother was great on getting rid of things not used every day, and I suppose the game went down the dumbwaiter.

The last letter was postmarked Booneville, Arkansas, and I could hardly believe the name on the envelope: Wolverine Toy Company. It was from William W. Lehren, the vice-president of sales. He wrote,

By the time I reached the third paragraph of your article, I couldn't help thinking, "If only he had seen our Pennant Winner baseball game." I was covered with gooseflesh as I read the remainder of the piece.
Wolverine is a medium-sized toy manufacturer with a low profile. We made the Pennant Winner from 1929 to 1950. When I joined the company in 1948 it was considered a rather high-priced carriage-trade item. Anyone who liked baseball loved this game, but unfortunately it required demonstration, and the product was dropped. After reading your article we dug around in our museum and found that we had one game in our inventory. Needless to say, it will not be allowed off the premises. However, if you or Charlie Willis ever happen to be wandering around the South, I'd love to take you on for a few games.

That was the same game that the same Bill Lehren had just unwrapped in my office; he had bought it from the company when he retired and moved back home to Connecticut. He told me that Wolverine was founded in 1903, in Pittsburgh, by Benjamin Franklin Bain, a die maker and metal fabricator from Michigan, who named his company for the University of Michigan football team. The business thrived by making products such as pie tins and stovetop toasters for America's kitchens.

Around 1910 Bain was asked to make dies for a gravity-action toy to be called Sandy Andy. It consisted of a cart that was pulled by a counterweight to the top of an incline, where it received a load of sand from a hopper. Its weight then took it back down, and it dumped its load. After Bain's dies were made, the inventor went broke. Bain decided he might as well go ahead and manufacture Sandy Andy in his own factory—a decision that would result in one of the most enduring American toys. Wolverine made Sandy Andy well into the 1950s and even sold a box of sand to go with it—an accessory that parents may not have appreciated having around the house.

In 1914 Bill Lehren's father, James Lehren, a young immigrant from Holland, got part-time work as a demonstrator of Sandy Andy at Gimbel's department store, in New York. He did so well that he was hired by the company to come to Pittsburgh as its only salesman. After Bain died, the company faltered and was near collapse in 1928, when James Lehren took over as president. He steered Wolverine through the Depression and World War II, when the factory was converted to making military equipment.

"I joined Wolverine as a salesman— and became vice-president in the mid-1960s," Bill Lehren told me. "At that time it was called the Wolverine Toy Company. In 1968 it was sold to a private conglomerate and moved to Booneville, Arkansas. I remember that we shipped a whole bargeload of punch presses and other metalworking machinery there from Pittsburgh—down the Ohio and the Mississippi and up the Arkansas River. Later the woman who was president of Wolverine decided it was improper for a toy company to be named for such a vicious animal and changed it to Today's Kids. Of course, they're completely out of metal now. Today everything is plastic."

As for who invented the Pennant Winner, nobody seems to know. Obviously the inventor was both a baseball nut and a mechanical genius. Possibly he worked for Wolverine. More probably—in the grand tradition of industrial America—he was a lone tinkerer who took his patent to Wolverine around 1928. Just how skillfully the company realized that inventor's dream I was now reminded as Bill Lehren placed the game on my desk. It was a thing of beauty, its shiny metal field in perfect condition, without a dent or a scratch.

Lehren unwrapped the nine blue defensive players and put them in their slots. (The three base runners were red.) Then he unwrapped the ball and placed it against the pitching prong. I could still feel in my fingertips the fast and slow buttons that controlled that ball. I could also still feel the bat as I used to hold it back, waiting for the pitch, trying not to release it too soon or too late. Two fingers were best—one was too weak, three lacked finesse.

"Do you want to play a game?" Lehren asked me. Of course I did. We took our positions on opposite sides of my desk and tried a few practice pitches and swings. But something was wrong—the ball rolled just a little unevenly. There was only one thing to do, and we both knew it. Lehren lifted the game down onto the rug.

The office where I write is in a commercial building on Lexington Avenue. I rent space along with other freelancers, in fields such as advertising and fashion and graphic design. I've never closed my door, and I wasn't going to start now. Anyone who happened to pass my office that afternoon would have seen two men in their seventies down on all fours—not an everyday spectacle in the American workplace.

Lehren batted first, and I positioned my fingers against the two control buttons. He said he was ready, and I fired a fast ball. The bat swung and the ball shot into the outfield, beyond the center fielder and into the slot marked "home run." I tried a slow ball. Boom! Another home run. I tried to mix my pitches. They all came rocketing back: double, triple, home run. Finally a ball landed in the pocket in front of the left fielder with a satisfying plonk. One out. But it was a disastrous start. The decades had left their residue of rust.

After two more outs we switched sides. As I held the bat back, I felt as if my brain and my two fingertips were in perfect neurological rapport. Suddenly I heard the familiar click of the pitching prong being released and the equally familiar thomp of the ball in the catcher's metal pocket. I hardly saw it go by. Priming myself for another fast pitch, I released the bat quickly and saw the ball dawdle toward the plate. The moment had lost none of its ignominy.

That was a bad inning. But then the old reflexes began to return, and we settled into a game that stayed close, obedient to the odds and probabilities of real baseball. Outside, the sun went down and the sky over Manhattan turned dark. We didn't notice; we were twelve-year-old boys again, getting up and down from the rug every few minutes to change sides. Finally Lehren said he had to catch his train back to the suburbs, and he packed up the game.

When we said good-bye at the elevator, I had one last question for him: "Can you come back tomorrow?"

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