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Baseball bats passed down through generations in Vermont, from a stockbroker who wanted to spread joy

Henry Bjorkman carved custom baseball bats, all given to needy or local children, at his Barton, Vt. wood shop.
Henry Bjorkman carved custom baseball bats, all given to needy or local children, at his Barton, Vt. wood shop.Crystal Lake Falls Historical Association

BARTON, Vt. — The wood is ash, from trees cut on nearby mountains. The name branded on the tight-grained, deeply oiled wood reads: “Champion Bats, Barton Vermont.”

But to locals — the ones who remember, anyway — it’s a “Bjorkman” bat, the handiwork of the late Henry B. Bjorkman, a successful Manhattan stockbroker, World War II intelligence officer, son of Swedish immigrants to Massachusetts, captain of Dartmouth’s baseball team in the 1920s, and one-time coach of Georgia Tech’s football team.

In some cases, the bats crafted with devotion have been handed down from father to son — or daughter — for three generations in or near Barton, tokens of the past that somehow affirm that this old town — hard-used, bordering on scruffy — is better and possessed of a nobler character than outsiders might perceive.

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“Those bats were all over Barton and beyond. Some still are,” said Earl LaClair, 93, who logged the ash and provided raw sections for Bjorkman’s woodshop. The sections were cut into billets, bat-length oblongs of wood that could be shaped by lathe, sander, and polish.

“Hank” Bjorkman, as everyone knew him, “was awful particular, when it came to wood,” recalled LaClair. “But generous, good-natured, outgoing, always a man of his word.”

Spring comes late to northeastern Vermont. No buds, yet, no blossoms. But the air is redolent of warming earth, the promise of rebirth. This year especially, the season seems to bring a purity that gentles, if only briefly, the dark fears and red angers of the pandemic.

As the ice loosens its lock on streams and lakes, the Great American Game is also stirring to life. In a horse pasture down by the Barton River, an older kid is hitting fly balls and sizzling grounders to a younger boy and two girls. One girl wears a preposterously outsized fielders’ mitt that keeps slipping off. They run, they catch, they whoop. The horses snort surprise.

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It was youthful love that first drew Bjorkman to this town 20 miles south of the Canada border; his future bride was a Barton girl, Elizabeth Cutler, the daughter of the man who owned Barton’s bank. The couple returned in the late 1930s to have their infant son baptized at the Congregational church.

They spent most summers in the town. And soon after coming home from World War II’s European theater, Bjorkman would discover another passion: crafting fine baseball bats.

Starting in 1948, using that good local ash, he made bats — thousands of baseball bats — partly as hobby, partly as philanthropy. Many of the bats were distributed to needy children in reform schools, orphanages, “corrective” farms, and tough city streets of the mid-20th century, according to Bjorkman’s 1974 obituary in The New York Times.

Included with every bat — you’d almost say mandatory — was a 24-page tract written by Bjorkman titled “Inside Baseball.” It barely mentioned actual rules and regulations. It was about attitude and sportsmanship, with a peppery dash of playing strategy.

“Die hard when caught between bases; the more throws the opponents must make, the more chance for an error,” he wrote. “Take your time and think. Never quit — be confident.”

Bjorkman’s son stressed that making bats was not a business for his dad.

“I think he wanted to spread the joy and mental discipline of the game with every bat,” said the son, soon to turn 87, in an interview from his home in suburban Boston. He requested anonymity for reasons of family privacy.

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“He purely loved baseball, and making fine bats was a way he could stay connected to hitting balls.”

Bjorkman donated bats to nearby schools — including one-room schools so poor they hardly had chalk — or handed them out to local kids, needy or not. Darlene Young’s “A History of Barton, Vermont” states that any town lad, upon his 12th birthday, could receive a free bat from Bjorkman’s wood shop. “To personalize his gift, he burned the name of its owner into each bat,” she writes.

Over 70-plus years of action on small-town ballfields, schoolyards, and village greens, Bjorkman’s bats have hit solid singles, whiffed air on groaning third strikes, popped fouls, and occasionally whacked that grand slam home run that even today brings a glow of happiness to a weather-beaten, middle-aged face.

“We won the local championship,” said Richard LaClair Jr., 48, hefting his Bjorkman and recalling that glory season when St. Paul’s Catholic School in Barton cleaned the clocks of town schools in southern Orleans County. “I wasn’t any kind of great player, but I swung this bat.”

LaClair Jr. — an excavator whose bat comes down from his grandfather, Earl — spoke standing by Crystal Lake, whose outflow waterfall crashes through the lifeless heart of the town’s former industrial zone. Once it was a nucleus of manufacturing and employment, where ladies bloomers were made, and the iron horse-plows that stopped selling as John Deere pushed old Dobbin out to the retirement pasture. Today: brick ruins.

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Gone, too, is the modest woodshop where Bjorkman shaped and hand-finished his bats. His worn lathe remains on display at the Crystal Lake Falls Historical Association’s Owen-Pierce House Museum, a source of local pride.

There’s disagreement as to where, exactly, Bjorkman’s shop stood. Probably not more than a stone’s toss from the museum on Water Street.

“It was right over there,” said Richard LaClair Sr., 71, who drives a truck for the Town of Barton, pointing a Bjorkman bat toward a patch of scrub brush and concrete pylons near the river.

“It was a nice little workshop that somehow made our town seem better,” he said.

When LaClair Sr. gave possession of his own Bjorkman bat to his son, he told him: “This isn’t just some old wooden thing. This is a piece of our history. Always remember this was made right here — something to be proud of.”

Barton can’t boast a lot of local baseball lore. But there’s some. Babe Ruth’s stepdaughter Julia spent a summer or two at Camp Shanewis on Crystal Lake. That’s fact. Harder to verify are still-told tales of the Bambino disembarking with Julia at Barton’s once-bustling train station and jocularly clapping shoulders, lighting cigars, and cussing Boston, which had recently traded him to the Yankees.

Out behind the historic yellow Pierce Block (with its Kinney drugstore and otherwise empty storefronts), Barton has its own tidy little ballfield: backstop, bleachers, night lights, an electronic scoreboard, the whole shebang.

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The diamond is the scene of intense summer games. So it’s conceivable that a few Bjorkman bats remain in hot play. However, the ones that could be traced seem to occupy the status of semi-heirlooms, albeit more probably stashed in a closet or basement than hanging above the hearth.

One townswoman has special-purposed her Bjorkman: “I keep it handy by the door,” said Nancy Durivage, 60ish, a former produce clerk who now cares for an elderly relative. “Any intruder is going to get a good bop on the head — pow!”

Henry Bjorkman was born in 1901 to Swedish immigrants who’d settled in Waltham, Mass. His 1974 obituary described him as a “husky, ruddy, smiling man with blue eyes.”

He was a jock to the quick. But smart enough to earn a good living on Wall Street. He served during the war as a major with Army Air Force combat intelligence.

Long before that: Dartmouth, Class of 1925. A star at baseball and football. He was named College All-American football player and worked two years as assistant football coach at Georgia Tech. He palled with Lou Gehrig. Until it was time to grow up and join the New York investment firm Spencer Trask & Company.

And there were those grand summers with his wife’s people in Barton.

“He loved fly-fishing; he loved to pull a fat brown trout out of the Barton River,” said his son. “But he was always thinking of baseball.”

It was probably in 1947 that Hank Bjorkman assembled a lathe and woodworking tools, and rented a small workshop. He would have studied the craft and it probably wasn’t until the next summer that he determinedly set to making bats.

His son recalled the shop’s “clean smell of wood, the curl of shavings, the sawdust flying everywhere.”

Bjorkman died in 1974 and is buried in Barton’s Welcome O. Brown Cemetery. Take almost any given passage from his quirky tract on baseball — the one that new bat owners were supposed to commit to heart — and it might serve as his epitaph: “Never give up … play hard and clean,” he wrote. “Keep a stout heart in defeat; keep your pride under in victory.”

Colin Nickerson can be reached at nickerson.colin@gmail.com