From Gehrig to Bing to Kurt to Matt: A bat, and the story that went with it

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It must have been a scene somehow cut from “Pride of the Yankees.”

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Lou Gehrig, in what would be his last spring training with the New York Yankees, is playing in a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Norfolk, Va.

His muscles are weakening. He can’t keep his balance. But somehow, he hits two home runs in the game, the second of which just clears the short right-field fence.

As Gehrig arrives at home plate, the Yankees batboy named Timmy hands him the Louisville Slugger that he just used.

Gehrig carries into the dugout, looks around, and without much ceremony, gives it to 12-year-old Bing Russell.

Gehrig retired eight games into the regular season at age 36, and died two years later.

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That bat was something Russell cherished forever. It became a family heirloom amidst a generational clan that would include his son, actor Kurt Russell, and his grandson, big-league player Matt Franco.

And now it’s up for auction.

Estimates by SCP Auction, which is handling the sale that ends Nov. 19, put the value north of a half million dollars.

It should be priceless.

The story behind it sure is.

Bing Russell grew up hanging around the New York Yankees’ spring training camp in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in the 1930s and ’40s because his dad ran a float plane service nearby.

He told the tale of how he and some other kids were fighting over a foul ball once, and Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez admired Bing’s spunk. He picked Bing up out of the scuffle, grabbed him by the collar and said, “Kid, you’ll never have to fight for a ball for the rest of your life.”

Bing somehow became a Yankees’ mascot for the next eight years. Gomez and Joe DiMaggio befriended him the most, maybe because Bing’s primary job was to smuggle peanuts and hot dogs to the Yankees players in defiance of manager Joe McCarthy’s rules against having food in the dugout.

Flash forward a decade or two.

After Bing’s attempt at a baseball career ended with an injury, he turned to acting. He moved his young family to Thousand Oaks, and landed roles in dozens of TV and movies in a 40-year career, projects such as “Rio Bravo” and “The Magnificent Seven,” as well as “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza.”

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Baseball never left him. His son, Kurt, while launching his own acting career with a Disney contract, played for the Thousand Oaks Little League, which Bing helped start.

Bing even bought the independent Single-A Portland Mavericks, while Kurt’s minor-league career ended in Double-A.

From Kurt’s older sister, Jill Franco, came Matt, who starred at Westlake High and would play for the Cubs, Mets and Braves as a utility specialist – eight years in the bigs (’95 to ’03), plus three more years in Japan.

But prior to that, during Matt’s minor-league tour, Bing was always nearby.

“He’d bring my grandma and they’d get an apartment where ever I was playing, follow the buses, drive hundreds of thousands of miles, and didn’t miss a game from my second year all the way through Triple A,” Franco remembered the other day. “If I played 1,500 games in the minors, they probably saw 1,400.

“Finally when I got to the big leagues, they said they could see the games better on TV.”

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That Gehrig bat sat in Bing’s closet, then in an umbrella stand. Franco would visit “Pops” and pick up the Gehrig stick, marveling at its size. His mom ended up with the prized possession after Bing decided one day to divvy up some of his belongings. He died in 2003.

The stories that Bing used to tell his family about his days with the Yankees haven’t died. They’re being retold now that the bat’s out there.

“He had hundreds of stories, and we could have heard them a thousand times,” said Franco, living these days in Simi Valley with his wife and two small kids. “He could hold court. Baseball was his pride and joy.”

Now it’s time, Jill Franco decided, with the blessing of Kurt and Matt, to put the Gehrig bat in a safer place.

“Once we realized what it was worth, and finding out that the collectors who buy these kinds of things know how to display them and protect them, we felt comfortable to go ahead and auction it,” Franco said.

And with it, tell the story all over again about Bing Russell.

“It’s really cool, isn’t it?” Franco said of the story. “Unbelievable.”

He said it.

More:
== The SCP Auction site with the Gehrig bat sale update: Lot 620 (linked here)
== Two more Bing Russell bats are part of this auction as well: One that belonged to Joe DiMaggio and is signed by the 1941 Yankees: Lot 621 (linked here), and another owned by Babe Dalghren, who replaced Gehrig at first base with the Yankees in 1939: Lot 622 (linked here).

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== Bing Russell’s Internet Movie Data Base entry (linked here)
== Kurt Russell’s Internet Movie Data Base entry (linked here)
== Matt Franco’s big-league career (linked here)

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