Tool of the Trade Tool of the Trade In any game, the equipment players use determines the way the game unfolds. Try to imagine a soccer game played with an American football! Or try playing tennis with the wooden racquets of thirty years ago. Change the equipment, and you discover a very different game. As part of my look at baseball, I decided to examine the tool of the baseball trade: Bats. Perhaps the most crucial and visible tool in baseball is the bat. A bat is the offensive weapon, the tool with which runs are scored.
To understand the history and science of bats, I read a magazine published by Louisville Slugger, in Louisville, Kentucky home of the Hillerich & Bradsby Company, Inc. (also known as H&B), the manufacturers 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 might become. In 1884, John Andrew “Bud” Hillerich played hooky from his father’s woodworking shop and went to a baseball game. There he watched a star player, Pete “The Old Gladiator” Browning, struggling in a batting slump.
After the game, Hillerich invited Browning back to the shop, where they picked out a piece of white ash, and Hillerich began making a bat. They worked late into the night, with Browning giving advice and taking practice swings from time to time. What happened next is legend. The next day, Browning went three-for-three, and soon the new bat was in demand across the league. H&B flourished from there.
First called the Falls City Slugger, the new bat was called the Louisville Slugger by 1894. Though Hillerich’s father thought bats were an insignificant item, and preferred to continue making more dependable items like bedposts and bowling pins, bats became a rapidly growing part of the family business. Just as it was back then, the classic Louisville Slugger bat used by today’s professional players is made from white ash. The wood is specially selected from forests in Pennsylvania and New York. The trees they use must be at least fifty years old before they are harvested. After harvest, the wood is dried for six to eight months to a precise moisture level. The best quality wood is selected for pro bats; the other 90 percent is used for consumer market bats.
White ash is used for its combination of hardness, strength, weight, “feel,” and durability. In past years, H&B have made some bats out of hickory. But hickory timber is much heavier than ash, and players today want light bats because they’ve discovered that they can hit the ball farther 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 44 ounce bat, players today use bats that weigh around 32 ounces.
Even sluggers like Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr. only use 33 ounce bats because they want to 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 to the 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 set up to the specifications of each pro player. Then the bats are fire-branded with the 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 up or down, so that they can strike the ball with the edge grain, where the bat is strongest.
Hitting on the flat grain will more often than not result in a broken bat. Finally, the bats are dipped into one of several possible water-based “finishes” or varnishes, which gives bats their final color and protective coat. Each player selects the finish they desire, while a few players, such as former Kansas City Royals star George Brett, chose to leave their bats unfinished. Players today may go through as many as six or seven dozen bats in a season. (In early years, players used only use ten or twelve bats.) 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 an aluminum or old-fashioned hickory bat might produce a base hit. Though the manufacturing process for bats has stayed largely the same, the design of the pro wood bat has changed a great deal since 1884. The early bats had very little taper, resulting in a bat with a very thick handle and a relatively small barrel. The early bats almost look like someone just took an ax handle and used it for a bat. Modern players want a thin handle and a large barrel, to concentrate the weight of the bat in the hitting area.
By major league regulations, bats must be round with a barrel of no more than 2 3/4 inches. They can 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 Jose Cardinal in 1972, this “cup” can’t be more than 2 inches in width, and 1 inch deep. The cupped bat allows the bat maker to use a heavier, denser, stronger timber, while still maintaining the desirable bat weight. Recently, Ted Williams visited the Louisville Slugger Company and he said that if he was playing today, all of his bats would be cupped. About half the pro bats made by H&B today are cupped bats.
Throughout the history of baseball, players in search of an edge have doctored, or altered, bats in many unusual ways. The main strategy has been “corking” the bat. Players cut the end of the bat off, 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 it more spring or bounce. But really this does nothing advantageous to the bat.
In fact, the bat gets weaker …