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The artistry behind a baseball bat

Desert Camo baseball bat
Custom Baret bat, Woodbridge, Virginia, 2018
Gift of Juan Baret
 
Bate Baret personalizado, Woodbridge, Virginia, 2018
Donación de Juan Baret

In baseball, it all comes down to the batter. Will they be the hero, or be faulted for the team’s loss? Will they hit a home run or strike out? We think about the person behind the plate, but do we consider the artistry behind the bat itself?

In January 2020, in preparation for the upcoming ¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues / En los barrios y las grandes ligas exhibition, curators acquired a one-of-a-kind bat, made by an inspiring person.

Desert Camo baseball bat
Juan Baret grew up playing baseball within sight of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. In 2013, after a military career, Baret started a business producing custom bats. This handcrafted bat honors his military tours in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Afghanistan.
 
Juan Baret creció jugando béisbol a pocos pasos del Yankee Stadium en el Bronx, Nueva York. En 2013, al fin de su carrera militar, inició un negocio de bates personalizados. Este bate hecho a mano conmemora sus turnos de servicio en Arabia Saudí, Kuwait y Afganistán.

Made by Dominican American air force veteran Juan Baret, the bat features striking details representing his life. Called “Desert Camo,” the hand-carved white-ash baseball bat was made to be lightweight, strong, and stylish. In this case, the bat’s use is less important than its story. In 2013 Baret designed, carved, and painted Desert Camo as “an expression of who I am.” While painting the brown tones and desert hues of this bat, memories and nostalgia surfaced—both of his time in the service and also his early childhood in the Dominican Republic, where he shaped toys and sculptures out of clay and mud.

Juan Baret working on a bat
Juan Baret in his workshop demonstrating the art of handcrafting a baseball bat, July 2019.
 
Juan Baret en su taller demostrando el arte de hacer a mano un bate de béisbol, julio de 2019.

At nine years old, Baret immigrated with his family to the United States and settled in the Bronx, New York, in the shadow of Yankee Stadium. There he developed a love of baseball. He attended the games whenever a passerby would gift him an extra ticket. He also played on baseball teams in his local neighborhood.

Yankee Ticket Booth
The original Yankee Stadium boasted bright red, iconic wooden ticket booths. Juan Baret recalled passing these ticket booths, painted blue in his day, when attending games as a child. The Yankees played their final game in the original stadium in 2008, moving to their new home, also called Yankee Stadium, just down the block.

Baret grew up determined to find work in engineering, and he knew the military would provide him greater opportunities in the field. In 1998 he joined the air force as an engineer assistant, and after experiencing the trauma and grief of 9/11, he felt that serving in the military was truly his calling—a way to make a difference and help his community. Wanting to continue playing baseball, he joined a recreational league while stationed in Hawai‘i. Baret left the air force with plans to finish college and enlist in the army to train as a helicopter pilot, but grappling with multiple injuries and chronic pain from his service put an end to his dreams of flying and his participation in baseball.

Even if he couldn’t play, Baret was determined to stay involved in baseball. He taught himself how to carve and design baseball bats; he continues to grow his business, Baret Bats, which makes custom bats for use on the field and as art pieces. Each bat is hand-carved and tailored to the user’s needs and aesthetic preferences. Baret inscribes the initials of his family members when naming the model of the bat. AB 110 refers to his second daughter (Alexandra Baret) and the bat’s shape profile. Shape profiles are nuanced: some are a little slimmer than others, some are a little longer than others, and some taper more from base to tip. Experienced players often prefer one shape over another. Baret’s bats serve as a symbol of love for the game, hard work, and dedication to family.

In 2011 Baret served in Afghanistan, this time as a civilian working for the Army Corps of Engineers. Now a husband and father, he saw this deployment as a way to make the world safer for his family. He created the Desert Camo bat to reflect this civilian deployment, painting a unique camouflage design reminiscent of his service in the deserts of Afghanistan. After researching different methods for creating the camo print, he came upon a fish netting to provide the stencil for each of the three layers of brown, tan, and taupe paint.

Robin Morey and Margaret Salazar-Porzio with Juan Baret
Pleibol team members Robin Morey (left) and Margaret Salazar-Porzio (center) with Juan Baret at the National Museum of American History, February 2019.
 
Los miembros del equipo de Pleibol, Robin Morey (izq.) y Margaret Salazar-Porzio (centro) con Juan Baret (der.) en el Museo Nacional de Historia Americana, febrero de 2019.

So the next time you watch a batter hit one out of the park, take a moment to think of what went into the bat itself. Oftentimes bats are mass produced, but in the case of Baret Bats, they can hold special meaning. For our curators, Baret Bats inspire us to see the good in every situation and create opportunities with the gifts we are given.

Juliette Garcia is a former intern of the National Museum of American History and graduated from Saint Mary’s College of California in May 2020

Margaret Salazar-Porzio is a curator of Latina/o history and culture in the Division of Cultural and Community Life

Robin Morey is a curatorial assistant in the Division of Cultural and Community Life

¡Pleibol! has received generous support from the Cordoba Corporation and the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.