Inside the Bat Vault: Swinging the Limb of a Family Tree with Zeke Pinkham
Touring the Bat Vault inside the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory it is so easily said that "behind every model, there is a story". The P72 is a favorite in this vault of 3,000-plus Louisville Slugger models, where a tour offers hands-on access of priceless value for baseball fans.
Zeke Pinkham, catcher for the University of Louisville, enters the room -- the "Fort Knox of Baseball" -- as if to prove the point. He has been here before and needs no prompt to reach into the 'Ps' to fetch down a piece of family history and baseball lore.
In a state where greatness is predicted by bloodline, Zeke Pinkham has a thoroughbred pedigree. His grandfather, while not exactly a household name in Major League Baseball, sired the idea that became one of the most successful bats in this uncommon room.
Zeke’s player bio says he is 6-feet, 200 pounds. The massive wall of baseball bat models defines stature on a different scale, the shadow of which casts the 21-year-old senior as less Division I athlete and more backyard kid.
As if taking a favored book from a shelf to re-read new meaning into a familiar story, the ballplayer connects to the bat in a meeting that begs cliché:
Like father-son. Like grandfather-grandson.
Like swinging from a limb of the family tree.
Like swinging the limb itself...
The P72 model Louisville Slugger was a 34(ish)-inch catapult to the National Baseball Hall of Fame for, at times Cal Ripken Jr., Ivan Rodriguez, Robin Yount and, always, for Derek Jeter.
For the Leslie Pinkham family of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, the bat has for 65 years linked their name to sport fortune that for the Pinkhams themselves remains unrealized.
Zeke Pinkham refers to his grandfather, Leslie, as "Papa Les". Baseball Reference records Leslie Wayne Pinkham this way: In his fifth year of Minor League play, Les reached Triple-A for the St. Louisville Cardinals, where he hit .289 (522 at-bats).
He was 22 years old and there is no 1955 or after. "After" was a successful car dealership in Elizabethtown, brought about because in the 1954 off-season, Les severed a nerve in his catching thumb while installing windows, his winter job.
The first Pinkham family catcher's career was cut to an end, but in 1970 Les' son Bill, 17, was drafted by Cincinnati, and used his daddy's bat for nearly three seasons. He was a catcher also, but so was Johnny Bench...
The Reds put Bill in the outfield, where he injured his shoulder, becoming the second Pinkham family catcher to ponder the "what ifs?".
Bill Pinkham used his daddy's bat. Zeke Pinkham uses his daddy’s bat. And his granddaddy’s, Papa Les. Sort of...
The bat Zeke Pinkham has used in the first month (so far) of U of L’s season is the LS 716, 33 inches, 30 ounces. It (of course for college ball) is metal. It is the closest proximation in metal he can find to match the P72, and he has used it to hit .327 in 37 games (through April 17) with .946 OPS, 1 HR and 10 RBI.
The bat Zeke uses is like one a kid named Jeter used in his amateur career. And when it came time for Jeter to turn pro, he looked for a wooden Louisville Slugger to match his metal one. He chose the P72. Jeter thought the model was named for Reds great Tony Perez.
Zeke Pinkham needn’t be told who the model honors. Papa Les may not have Jeter’s fame, but Derek Jeter had Les’ bat when he used it – and only that model – through a career of 12,602 At Bats and 3,465 hits.
Jeter brought honor to the P72 and, upon the Yankee Captain’s retirement, Louisville Slugger honored the future Hall of Famer by retiring the P72 and renaming it the DJ2.
All of which comes around to the cozy rectangle that is the Louisville Slugger Museum Bat Vault, where on a February morning Zeke Pinkham completes the circle.
If anyone is to ever again use the P72 it will be Zeke Pinkham. Only a Pinkham family member with a pro contract would be allowed to toe the plate in a professional game holding a P72.
It is a future Zeke still aims to fulfill, against the extraordinary odds of sport similarly faced by father Bill and “Papa Les”. (Les Pinkham died in 2009. Bill Pinkham passed in 2012 when Zeke was 13. The father coached the son right up until cancer took him, sometimes skipping chemotherapy to attend Zeke’s baseball games.)
“When I step in here I get to see a piece of my family history that I only get when I hear it from you guys at Louisville Slugger,” Zeke says. “I get to step closer to my father and grandfather and make a connection that’s going back around.”
And if there are to be more pieces, that fate is, literally, in Zeke Pinkham’s hands wrapped around the P72.
At home in Elizabethtown he has P72s made for his father, one of which is autographed by Jeter. He uses P72s sometimes during U of L hitting practice and in wood-bat leagues during the summer.
He uses it for sentiment, of course. For connection. For completing the circle. But the loyal son and grandson speaks as the ballplayer to explain what nostalgia can’t achieve:
“If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t use it.”