There may be disagreement over its origins, but anyone who’s ever charged a ground ball during baseball practice is familiar with the fungo bat. Love it or hate it, the chopped-down practice bat has become a ubiquitous part of the game, for both players and fans.
While you probably won’t see one in the hands of someone like Miguel Cabrera, the renewed interest in vintage baseball leagues and specialty bat making means that the funny little bat is most likely here to stay. But there are as many opinions on its history, even where its name comes from, as there are thoughts on its place in the game.
A Cross Between a Bat and a Broomstick
For starters, we should clarify just what we’re talking about when we say fungo bat. Longer, lighter and thinner than a regulation bat (but a larger barrel), a fungo bat is typically 35 to 37 inches long, and weighs between 17 and 22 ounces. As David Allison wrote in the June 1978 edition of Country Journal, “A fungo bat looks to be a cross between a baseball bat and a broomstick.”
Fungo bats are typically only used by coaches, to consistently place grounders and pop flies to their fielders for practice purposes. And with a fungo bat in their hands, some coaches can pull off wicked accuracy – as one story goes, the late California Angels player and coach Jimmie Reese once shot an 82 on an 18-hole golf course using nothing but a putter and a fungo bat.
What’s in a Name?
“My guess is that the word, which is baseball slang, may be explained through the elements of a compound word, fun and go,” David Shulman wrote in the February 1937 edition of American Speech.
Numerous theories abound on where the little bat’s name comes from. Some historians point to the Scottish verb ‘fung,’ meaning ‘to pitch, toss, or fling.’ Others, like Mr. Shulman, assert that the name is a mashup of ‘fun goes,’ or warmup swings before the start of a game.
While the specific origins of the bat (and its name) seem to be a regular point of contention among fans and historians, mention of the word goes back to at least 1886.
To Fungo, or Not to Fungo?
Even in those formative years, authorities on the game warned the practice of hitting fungoes should be limited to coaches. Henry Chadwick, one of baseball’s earliest proponents, claimed “The weakest batting is shown when the batsmen indulges in fungo hitting,” according to the Art of Batting. Others agreed that the practice was bad for training a batter’s reflexes: “While watching some of our freshmen practicing ‘fungo’ batting the other afternoon it occurred to me that it was about the worst kind of practice a batsman could imagine in training his eye in batting,” a writer claimed in the March 3, 1886 edition of The Sporting Life. “It trains the eye to meet the ball in batting it in a manner which never occurs in actual play. It ought to be prohibited on every well regulated ball field.”
Regardless of where you fall on the advantages and disadvantages of practicing with fungo bats, a few things are certain – they’ve definitely earned their place in the history of the game.