Find a League In Your Area
(Part 1 of a Series)
This article first appeared on HardBall Magazine online in 2005
From the beginning, the game of baseball was played with
wood bats. Specifically, they were made of ash.
Baseball bats in those days were very heavy and sported big
thick handles. In the 1850’s most players made their own bats. There were no
restrictions on size or shape; in fact, some players actually used a bat with a
flat surface when they were bunting.
Restrictions on bat shapes and sizes first appeared in 1859, when a rule
was made that the diameter of bat barrels could not exceed 2.5 inches. This was
followed in 1869 with a rule that restricted the length of a bat to 42 inches
(the same maximum length allowed today). The next time bat dimensions were
addressed by the baseball rules committee was in the 1890’s. The end of a bat must now be rounded rather
than flat, and the barrel size was increased to 2.75” in diameter.
The basic shape of wood bats has not changed very much since
those early days. The biggest difference in the wood bats being used today is
the size and weight. Babe Ruth was
reported to swing a bat that weighed 46 ounces. Today most pro's swing a bat
with a thin handle that is 34 inches long and weighs 32 ounces. A few
throwbacks still remain however. Mo Vaughn swings a 36-36 and Alfonso Soriano
swings a 35-35, but these are exceptions to the rule.
In my opinion, the biggest change in the game of baseball started back
in 1924, when William Shroyer was issued a patent for the first metal bat. But
it wasn’t until 1970 that the first metal bats appeared in a game. They were
intended as an economical and ironically, safer alternative to wood. The
thought process was they would not break as easily as wood, thereby reducing
the cost of replacing broken bats, as well as eliminating the possibility of a
player or fan being injured by a piece of flying lumber.
Not a bad thought at the time, but we all know the sequence
of events that followed: bat manufacturers tapped heavily into modern materials
and manufacturing processes to produce ever more powerful and dangerous metal
bats. The game was changed forever as routine fly balls turned into home runs
and balls hit two inches up the handle became bloop singles. More importantly,
pitchers and third basemen became human targets for baseballs traveling in excess
of 100 mph.
THE SAFETY ISSUE As
metal bats became more powerful year by year, injuries rose dramatically, until
things finally came to a head in 1999. The NCAA decided to stop the madness and
began testing aluminum bats. Specifically, they tested the speed at which a
baseball exited metal bats under very strictly controlled conditions. Their
goal was to develop a performance standard in metal bats that mirrored that of
the best northern white ash wood bats. This standard became known as the BESR which
stood for Ball Exit Speed Ratio. They determined that metal bats could not
exceed 2-5/8” in barrel diameter, must be no more than -3 in length to weight
ratio, and must meet the BESR standard for ball exit speed. The result was a
bat that was less lethal than its predecessors. We will discuss the differences
between today’s modern metal and wood bats in a future article, but it was a
big step in the right direction. The National Federation of State High School
Association adopted these standards for all high school participants in 2001.
WOOD MAKES A COMEBACK Just about the time high school teams made the switch to the BESR
standard, wood bats began to make a comeback.Most people attribute the surge in wood bat popularity to the
introduction of hard maple as a viable alternative to ash. Barry Bonds was the
first big-name player to make the switch, and the rest is history.
Soon, major leaguers were jumping on the maple bandwagon,
spawning a huge increase in the number of bat manufacturers producing maple
bats. Small companies like my own (Pro Bats) sprung up across the country.
Modern technology was applied to the manufacturing process of wood bats, making
it possible to produce an extremely high quality product. For the first time,
we were able to put the exact bat used by the big-name pro's into the hands of
amateur players at an affordable price. This was not the case with ash bats,
where the best quality went to the major league players, with the rest
filtering down through the minor leagues. The bats we purchased at the local
sporting goods stores were not very good at all. They broke easily, and you
never knew how much they weighed.
So there you have it. That’s how we got to where we are
today. I hope you gathered a little
knowledge and insight that will come in handy down the road. Please check back
for future articles on "The Differences between Wood and Metal Bats”, "How to
Choose a Wood Bat”, and "How to hit with a Wood Bat”