To a Tee

A triumph of American design, in rubber and plastic.

A child in a pink helmet bats off a tee.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.

There are a lot of technologies out there that make things easier. Keychains make it easier to carry around your keys. Washing machines make it easier to clean your clothes. Elevators make it easier to move vertically through space.

The hitting tee is different. A simple rubber post upon which a ball sits in the game of T-ball, the hitting tee doesn’t just make it easier for kids to hit balls they would otherwise lack the hand-eye coordination to hit. It transforms them, if only for a few glorious seconds at a time, and gives them a chance to feel like superstars. It is the American dream in rubber and plastic, and a triumph of design.

Credit for inventing the hitting tee—aka the batting tee; I’m not sure if usage is regional—tends to get assigned to one of several guys. One theory holds that it was Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey. Another says it was a pair from Mississippi, Dr. Clyde Muse and W.W. Littlejohn. Another still says it was Jerry Sacharski from Michigan. I don’t really need to know the truth; I just like to picture the eureka moment—the exact instant when one or all of these baseball-loving adults solved the problem of how to make it so kids who can’t hit a ball can hit a ball.

Maybe they tried some methods that didn’t work at first. Standing over the kids and dropping the ball from up above. Suspending the ball from a tree somehow. Rigging up a vacuum-based system of some kind. Then they arrived at an elegant and perfect solution: A tall rubber egg cup that allows tiny, clumsy children to experience the pleasure of winning.

My exposure to the tee came when I was 5, after my Russian family arrived in the United States of Baseball from Moscow. My mom signed me up for a T-ball class as part of an effort at assimilation—a regimen that also included pottery and piano.

I was skeptical and pessimistic when I stepped up to the plate for the first time. And rightly so: The hitting tee did not help me at first. I remember during the first class the coach—who, I realize now, couldn’t have been older than 15—kept saying to me, as I swung and missed, “Nice try.” Walking home with my older sister afterward, I asked her—in Russian, I didn’t speak English at this point—whether I was misunderstanding the word nice. Didn’t it mean good? I hadn’t done anything good.

I know I got better, though, because the feeling of making contact with the ball is burned vividly into my brain. I can still envision it: approaching the rubber pole, aiming at the ball with my bat, leering at it, swinging wildly … and then feeling the crunch in my palms. I don’t remember how far the ball went that first time or how many bases I ran. But I remember the crunch, and the gratitude I felt toward the tee, and thinking, “Now, that was a nice try.” I felt like a star.

(There’s only one time in my adult life I can think of when I experienced a similar rush, and it was when someone taught me the high-five elbow trick, an elegant maneuver that allows two people to consistently hit perfect high-fives by looking at each other’s elbows as they touch hands.)

The hitting tee is a simple device. There are some pretty fancy ones you can buy now if you’re a real baseball player trying to improve your swing (read the reviews before you buy), but for the most part it isn’t that different today from the simple tee invented by those guys in Brooklyn or Mississippi or Michigan or wherever. It is an unimprovable solution to a maddening problem, and a gift to childhood.