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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. Here?s 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, because they?ve drilled out the heart of it. You

may remember the time when [pro player] Graig Nettles put a bunch of rubber

"superballs" inside his bat, and the bat broke, and all the balls

spilled out. Nettles attributes the persistence of corking more to head games

between the players than to any advantage a corked bat might have. Players have

also been known to rub their bats with ham bones or glass bottles, a process

called "boning," in an attempt to harden the bat. However, this

practice doesn’t seem to produce any benefit beyond the psychological either. In

early days, some hitters would illegally hammer nails into their bats so that

the ball would strike "iron." Even if the bat could be made harder, it

would only diminish hitting. Solid wood bats "give" very little in the

impact 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 ball

distorts a lot under impact, and is relatively inefficient in giving the energy

back. So a harder bat just results in more deformation of the ball, and a lesser

hit. The question that come to us next was, but what about a metal bat? The most

stunning 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 machined

to 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 was

just a metal copy of a wooden bat. They were just more durable, so they were

cheaper to use. But manufacturers and players soon discovered that there were

other differences as well. Aluminum bats are quite different than wooden ones.

They’re much lighter, more than five ounces. The barrels are bigger, and because

they are lighter they can be swung faster than a wooden bat. In addition, the

hardness and resilience of aluminum can result in much greater speeds when the

ball comes off the bat. Major League Baseball has required that its players use

wooden bats, but the aluminum bat has come to dominate the lower levels of

baseball, from Little League to American Legion to the college game. The most

significant difference between wooden and aluminum bats is that with an aluminum

bat, a phenomenon occurs called the ‘trampoline effect.’ The walls of the bat

are thin enough that they deform, or flex when the ball hits the bat. Some of

the 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, almost

100 percent. The energy absorbed when the ball is deformed is almost 75 percent

lost to heat, and thus wasted as far as propelling the ball. Because of this

trampoline 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&B

started comparing statistics and found that the team batting averages went up

about twenty points, and the home-run production about doubled. The primary

reason that wooden bats are required in the pros is due to this performance

difference. The pro leagues want to protect their historical records, and they

want the performance of the game to be the result of human ability, rather than

the technology of the bats. Ever-increasing performance of metal bats has begun

to affect the game at the college level and below. Aluminum bat makers have been

exploring stronger and lighter metal alloys. The results include ever-lighter

bats with thinner walls, and consequently higher bat speeds and even greater

trampoline effects. A ball hit by these bats travels farther and faster. In

addition, H&B has already made a bat called the AirAttack in which a

polyurethane bladder is inserted into the center hollow, then filled with

pressurized nitrogen gas. The gas pressure in the bladder supports bat walls,

pushing them out after they are deformed under impact. This support allows a

much thinner wall and a greater trampoline effect. H&B has a softball bat

called the Inertia, in which the interior of the bat contains a rolled-up steel

spring that does the same thing. Batting averages and home-run production have

gone up consistently at the college level as these advances have appeared.

Titanium was used briefly, but it was quickly prohibited because that metal’s

combination of high strength, light weight, and elasticity was clearly going to

result in shattering all hitting records in all phases of the game. You could

actually grab the barrel of the bat in your hands and squeeze, and you could

feel the bat give. The trampoline effect was enormous, and though titanium was

banned, Louisville Slugger learned a lot about how to make aluminum bats achieve

the same effect. Recently, a heated debate has broken out over the widespread

use of aluminum bats in college leagues. Many in baseball fear that modern

technology is creating a "superbat," which will irrevocably alter the

game and endanger players. Indeed, the rules committees are diligently looking

at the performance of bats, and they have already put some limits on

performance; they may well add more. They are not only concerned about the

integrity of the game, the balance between offense and defense, but they are

also concerned about safety. The NCAA rules committee has decreed that many

modern metal bats are dangerous to players and disruptive to the game. The high

speed of the ball coming off the these metal bats has put pitchers in danger, as

a line drive hit at them may be traveling too fast for them to get out of the

way. And the energy of a hit ball increases as the square of the velocity, so a

fast hit can do more damage. As a result, the NCAA has ordered recently that bat

manufacturers alter their designs to make bats heavier, with a smaller barrel.

And baseball organizations from college to Little League are considering a

return to a "wooden bats only" policy, though the expense of wooden

bats may make such a move unfeasible.

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