In any game, the equipment players use determines the way the game unfolds. Tryto imagine a soccer game played with an American football! Or try playing tenniswith the wooden racquets of thirty years ago. Change the equipment, and youdiscover a very different game. As part of my look at baseball, I decided toexamine the tool of the baseball trade: Bats. Perhaps the most crucial andvisible tool in baseball is the bat.
A bat is the offensive weapon, the toolwith which runs are scored. To understand the history and science of bats, Iread a magazine published by Louisville Slugger, in Louisville, Kentucky home ofthe Hillerich & Bradsby Company, Inc. (also known as H&B), themanufacturers of perhaps America’s most famous bat, the Louisville Slugger. Through the reading I learned how the modern bat came to be, and what it mightbecome.Order now
In 1884, John Andrew “Bud” Hillerich played hooky from hisfather’s woodworking shop and went to a baseball game. There he watched a starplayer, Pete “The Old Gladiator” Browning, struggling in a battingslump. After the game, Hillerich invited Browning back to the shop, where theypicked out a piece of white ash, and Hillerich began making a bat. They workedlate into the night, with Browning giving advice and taking practice swings fromtime to time. What happened next is legend.
The next day, Browning wentthree-for-three, and soon the new bat was in demand across the league. H&Bflourished from there. First called the Falls City Slugger, the new bat wascalled the Louisville Slugger by 1894. Though Hillerich’s father thought batswere an insignificant item, and preferred to continue making more dependableitems like bedposts and bowling pins, bats became a rapidly growing part of thefamily business. Just as it was back then, the classic Louisville Slugger batused by today’s professional players is made from white ash.
The wood isspecially selected from forests in Pennsylvania and New York. The trees they usemust be at least fifty years old before they are harvested. After harvest, thewood is dried for six to eight months to a precise moisture level. The bestquality wood is selected for pro bats; the other 90 percent is used for consumermarket bats. White ash is used for its combination of hardness, strength,weight, “feel,” and durability. In past years, H&B have made somebats out of hickory.
But hickory timber is much heavier than ash, and playerstoday want light bats because they’ve discovered that they can hit the ballfarther by swinging the bat fast. So they can’t make the bats out of hickory. Though Babe Ruth, one of the all-time great home-run hitters, used a 42 or a 44ounce bat, players today use bats that weigh around 32 ounces. Even sluggerslike Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr. only use 33 ounce bats because they wantto generate great bat speed.
How do you make a wooden bat you ask. Heres how. The wood is milled into round, 37 inch blanks, or billets, which are shipped tothe H&B factory in Louisville. There they are turned on a tracer lathe,using a metal template that guides the lathe’s blades. These templates are setup to the specifications of each pro player. Then the bats are fire-branded withthe Louisville Slugger mark.
This mark is put on the flat of the wood’s grain,where the bat is weakest. Players learn to swing with the label facing either upor down, so that they can strike the ball with the edge grain, where the bat isstrongest. Hitting on the flat grain will more often than not result in a brokenbat. Finally, the bats are dipped into one of several possible water-based”finishes” or varnishes, which gives bats their final color andprotective coat. Each player selects the finish they desire, while a fewplayers, such as former Kansas City Royals star George Brett, chose to leavetheir bats unfinished. Players today may go through as many as six or sevendozen bats in a season.
(In early years, players used only use ten or twelvebats. ) In fact, one player, Joe Sewell, used the same bat for fourteen years. Joe attributes the increased breakage of bats to the thin-handled,large-barreled design of modern bats, and to the use of ash instead of hickory. A pitch that jams you inside will almost always saw off a modern bat, while analuminum or old-fashioned hickory bat might produce a base hit. Though themanufacturing process for bats has stayed largely the same, the design of thepro wood bat has changed a great deal since 1884.
The early bats had very littletaper, resulting in a bat with a very thick handle and a relatively smallbarrel. The early bats almost look like someone just took an ax handle and usedit for a bat. Modern players want a thin handle and a large barrel, toconcentrate the weight of the bat in the hitting area. By major leagueregulations, bats must be round with a barrel of no more than 2 3/4 inches. Theycan be up to 42 inches in length; there is no regulation about the bat’s weight.
One of the few innovations to the design of the wooden bat is cutting a”cup” out of the end of a bat. Developed by a pro player named JoseCardinal in 1972, this “cup” can’t be more than 2 inches in width, and1 inch deep. The cupped bat allows the bat maker to use a heavier, denser,stronger timber, while still maintaining the desirable bat weight. Recently, TedWilliams visited the Louisville Slugger Company and he said that if he wasplaying today, all of his bats would be cupped. About half the pro bats made byH&B today are cupped bats.
Throughout the history of baseball, players insearch of an edge have doctored, or altered, bats in many unusual ways. The mainstrategy has been “corking” the bat. Players cut the end of the batoff, drill a hole down into the barrel of the bat, and fill the hole with cork,then glue the end back on. This is an attempt to lighten the bat, and give itmore spring or bounce. But really this does nothing advantageous to the bat. Infact, the bat gets weaker, because theyve drilled out the heart of it.
Youmay remember the time when pro player Graig Nettles put a bunch of rubber”superballs” inside his bat, and the bat broke, and all the ballsspilled out. Nettles attributes the persistence of corking more to head gamesbetween the players than to any advantage a corked bat might have. Players havealso been known to rub their bats with ham bones or glass bottles, a processcalled “boning,” in an attempt to harden the bat. However, thispractice doesn’t seem to produce any benefit beyond the psychological either. Inearly days, some hitters would illegally hammer nails into their bats so thatthe ball would strike “iron. ” Even if the bat could be made harder, itwould only diminish hitting.
Solid wood bats “give” very little in theimpact area, and thus they store very little energy. What little they do store,they give back to the ball very efficiently. On the other hand, the balldistorts a lot under impact, and is relatively inefficient in giving the energyback. So a harder bat just results in more deformation of the ball, and a lesserhit. The question that come to us next was, but what about a metal bat? The moststunning change in baseball bats in the past thirty years started in the 1970s,when bats made from tubes of aluminum began to appear. These tubes are machinedto vary the wall thickness and the diameter, and produce bats that are light,strong, and hollow, as opposed to the solid wood.
At first, the aluminum bat wasjust a metal copy of a wooden bat. They were just more durable, so they werecheaper to use. But manufacturers and players soon discovered that there wereother differences as well. Aluminum bats are quite different than wooden ones.
They’re much lighter, more than five ounces. The barrels are bigger, and becausethey are lighter they can be swung faster than a wooden bat. In addition, thehardness and resilience of aluminum can result in much greater speeds when theball comes off the bat. Major League Baseball has required that its players usewooden bats, but the aluminum bat has come to dominate the lower levels ofbaseball, from Little League to American Legion to the college game. The mostsignificant difference between wooden and aluminum bats is that with an aluminumbat, a phenomenon occurs called the ‘trampoline effect.
‘ The walls of the batare thin enough that they deform, or flex when the ball hits the bat. Some ofthe energy (of the collision) is transferred into the bat instead of the ball. That energy is almost totally elastic; it is given back, or bounces back, almost100 percent. The energy absorbed when the ball is deformed is almost 75 percentlost to heat, and thus wasted as far as propelling the ball. Because of thistrampoline effect, you can hit the ball somewhat faster, and somewhat farther.
In fact, when the NCAA approved the use of aluminum bats in 1974, H&Bstarted comparing statistics and found that the team batting averages went upabout twenty points, and the home-run production about doubled. The primaryreason that wooden bats are required in the pros is due to this performancedifference. The pro leagues want to protect their historical records, and theywant the performance of the game to be the result of human ability, rather thanthe technology of the bats. Ever-increasing performance of metal bats has begunto affect the game at the college level and below. Aluminum bat makers have beenexploring stronger and lighter metal alloys.
The results include ever-lighterbats with thinner walls, and consequently higher bat speeds and even greatertrampoline effects. A ball hit by these bats travels farther and faster. Inaddition, H&B has already made a bat called the AirAttack in which apolyurethane bladder is inserted into the center hollow, then filled withpressurized nitrogen gas. The gas pressure in the bladder supports bat walls,pushing them out after they are deformed under impact.
This support allows amuch thinner wall and a greater trampoline effect. H&B has a softball batcalled the Inertia, in which the interior of the bat contains a rolled-up steelspring that does the same thing. Batting averages and home-run production havegone up consistently at the college level as these advances have appeared. Titanium was used briefly, but it was quickly prohibited because that metal’scombination of high strength, light weight, and elasticity was clearly going toresult in shattering all hitting records in all phases of the game. You couldactually grab the barrel of the bat in your hands and squeeze, and you couldfeel the bat give. The trampoline effect was enormous, and though titanium wasbanned, Louisville Slugger learned a lot about how to make aluminum bats achievethe same effect.
Recently, a heated debate has broken out over the widespreaduse of aluminum bats in college leagues. Many in baseball fear that moderntechnology is creating a “superbat,” which will irrevocably alter thegame and endanger players. Indeed, the rules committees are diligently lookingat the performance of bats, and they have already put some limits onperformance; they may well add more. They are not only concerned about theintegrity of the game, the balance between offense and defense, but they arealso concerned about safety. The NCAA rules committee has decreed that manymodern metal bats are dangerous to players and disruptive to the game. The highspeed of the ball coming off the these metal bats has put pitchers in danger, asa line drive hit at them may be traveling too fast for them to get out of theway.
And the energy of a hit ball increases as the square of the velocity, so afast hit can do more damage. As a result, the NCAA has ordered recently that batmanufacturers alter their designs to make bats heavier, with a smaller barrel. And baseball organizations from college to Little League are considering areturn to a “wooden bats only” policy, though the expense of woodenbats may make such a move unfeasible.