Wood Bat Origins
For over 100 years, the lumber of bats has been crafted from Northern White Ash, a wood that is durable, flexible, and instantly recognizable; but in the 21st Century, the advent of maple bats has quite literally altered the playing field. The recurrence of injuries resulting from broken bats in 2008 culminated in a controversy that changed the game of baseball through the modification of its rulebook’s bat specifications. These new regulations forced the production of higher quality bats that break less often, but, in 2013, the problem of broken bat related injuries persists.
Today there are about 30 licensed companies providing bats for Major League Baseball players. Ballplayers are granted an unlimited supply of bats made from the finest wood these companies have to offer. Although top-grade maple and ash wood populates ball fields today, before 1900, bats were crude, heavy, and cut by the players themselves from almost any type of tree they could find, including cherry, walnut, and willow. Ash baseball bats took precedence in the late nineteenth century with the rise of the Louisville Slugger company, but for the first 60-odd years of their existence they contended with hickory for dominance of the batter’s box.
“Old” Hickory and Early Ash Bats
In baseball’s early days, hickory established itself as the wood of choice due to its availability, strength, weight, and durability. Not only did the ball rocket off of hickory bats, but their large weight and density meant that players, who were often poor farmers on a budget, rarely worried about breaking them. Hitters then believed more weight would add to the strength of their swings. Babe Ruth swung hickory for the duration of his career, and evidence shows that up until his final years in the majors, his bat never weighed below 40 ounces, a full 10 ounces heavier than most modern ash bats (Taube and Malta). But as the skill and dominance of pitchers increased, players gravitated toward lighter, faster bats, and hickory was eventually deemed too heavy to swing.
After the demise of hickory, and up until maple bats saw the light of day in the 1990s, ash bats were the only bats used in the major leagues for 50 years. Although the original ash bats were made in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the 1930s and 40s that they fully began to resemble the bats we see today. The great Ted Williams was largely responsible for this shift to lighter-weight wood. In 1938 he requested a 33 ounce bat from Louisville Slugger, permanently switching to lighter bats and spearheading a trend that helped shape the baseball bat into its current form (Walker).
In addition to their light weight that allows batters to swing the barrel faster through the strike zone, there are several reasons why ash bats have stood the test of time in Major League Baseball. Ash can be characterized as durable, flexible, and inexpensive compared to other types of wood, averaging at least twenty dollars less per bat than maple wood. Many hitters prefer ash because, due the wood’s flexible nature, it produces a small but perceivable “trampoline effect” on the ball. This means that when the ball strikes the wood, the bat bends to compensate for the impact, leaving the ball in contact with the surface area of the bat for a comparatively long time, much like the effect of a tennis ball on a racket.
Another important characteristic of ash wood is the way it breaks. Northern White Ash is a ring-porous wood. This means that the vessels in the wood grow in inconsistent patterns throughout the course of a year, creating identifiable weak portions in the growth ring of the wood. This phenomenon is responsible for the “flaking” and separation of ash bats when they break; rather than split into two pieces, ring-porous species are more likely to have relatively small sections splinter off of the wood. Players will often notice this flaking or splintering, and before the bat breaks more dramatically, they will switch to a new one.
Maple Bat Beginnings
Although ash bats have proven their worth through years of home run hits and World Series wins, there are aspects of this type of wood that some players dislike. For instance, the flexible, vibrating nature of ash means that a ball hit outside of the sweet spot will shake the bat, stinging and wearing on the batter’s hands. In the mid 1990s, the first new alternative to ash wood was introduced when Bill MacKenzie, a scout for the Toronto Blue Jays, asked carpenter Chuck Holman to make a maple bat for his team. In 1997, Joe Carter, longtime right fielder for Toronto, employed the first maple bat ever in a Major League game (Nelson). By the next year, Louisville Slugger had begun production on maple bats.
Although Joe Carter was the first man to wield maple, Barry Bonds would be the one to determine the new direction of wood bats. Like Ted Williams before him, Bonds would enact a heavy influence upon other players through his association with a lumber said to enhance hitting ability. Using only maple bats in 2001, he blasted an unprecedented 73 home runs in a single season, setting the stage for what was to be a league-wide push for greater numbers of maple bats. Coincidentally, reports surfaced a year later that a beetle known as the emerald ash borer was destroying large portions of ash tree forestation in northern states. In 2007, it arrived in Pennsylvania, severely damaging the premier source for ash wood production supplies. Following the events of the last decade, half the bats in Major League Baseball are now maple, as are 65% of Louisville Slugger bats produced for the majors, with names like Albert Pujols, Chris Davis, and Dustin Pedroia all swinging them.
Characteristics of Maple Bats
Maple wood has a number of traits that appeal to ball players. The surface hardness of maple is 20% greater than that of ash, a property which players claim gives the ball more “pop” when struck. Theoretically, this increases toughness, allowing the bat to last longer. Maple is also denser than ash, largely due to its tendency to absorb moisture. In fact, until technological advancements were made to kiln drying methods in the early 90s, maple was not a feasible choice for baseball bats due to the sheer weight caused by moisture.