The Mystery of the Dangerous Flying Bats

Broken baseball bats are becoming so commonplace that Major League Baseball has undertaken a study to determine what’s behind this growing phenomenon.  The concern, of course, is the busted barrel-end is hurtling into crowds , not to mention million-dollar players , and posing a serious safety hazard. Baseball czar Bud Selig wants to know what’s going on so he’s collecting every chipped, broken and cracked bat and shipping them off to the University of Wisconsin’s Forest Products Laboratory to have them studied.

Reading news reports on the subject can be entertaining for people who’ve been around and worked wood for a while. For example, I learned the problem is due to the increased use of maple instead of ash. Maple bats break clean in two while ash bats just crack or splinter. OK, I can buy that. We all know ash is a good choice for bending while maple would be avoided. But when players and other clubhouse types weigh in on the “why,” it seems maple has no “grain” while ash does. I thought all wood had grain. Here’s another: switch to beech, which I read is a hybrid between maple and ash that’s imported from Europe. Learn something new every day!

Hitters are notoriously superstitious about their bats as they seek every advantage to improve their stats. The move to maple got serious after Barry Bonds made the change and hit 49 homers in 2000 and 73 in 2001 (and we all thought there were other factors at play!). Today, some 48 percent of MLB bats are maple with a typical bat fetching $58; ash bats are significantly less at $45. That adds up when you figure the team buys 11 to 12 dozen bats for each player each season.

So is the broken bat mystery merely a question of maple vs. ash? As a woodworker, I doubt it. I will concede that the safety question is best answered with the choice of ash over maple because I’d bet the ash will be far less likely to break in two and send a hurtling projectile. More likely, ash will just crack or splinter.

No, I believe the scientists at the Forest Products Laboratory will conclude the breakage epidemic is due to the shape of bats today and the relationship between its weight and length. Players’ preferences today are bats that are longer and weigh less with a thinner handle and bigger business end.  This preference is a result of the widespread use of aluminum bats on the college circuit that have this shape, and lots of MLB players are from the college ranks. Used to be, most bats were made with weight about equal to the length; a 32″ bat usually weighed close to 32 ounces. Today’s bats are often longer, 34″ inches, and weigh between 30 and 32 ounces. And to make the handles thinner, some players are shaving them. Can’t you imagine the MLB clubhouse equipped with a Brian Boggs shavehorse and set of spokeshaves?

Given these guys probably lack much woodworking know-how, I have this mental image of the rookie hearing about shaving the handle to improve his performance. I see this kid with his bat all lathered up and his razor stropped and ready to shave. That cracks me up!

,Steve Shanesy, publisher & editorial director
  photos courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

26 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Dangerous Flying Bats

  1. David G. Scott

    Please change my address FROM:

    David G. Scott
    9117 Montana Street
    Joshua, TX 76058

    TO:

    David G. Scott
    7220 Routt Street
    Fort Worth, TX 76112

    Thank you,
    David

  2. Michael J. Dykes

    The main reason bats break is that the makers cut them too thin: angled grain and hollow ends don’t help either. To make bats the way I do here is to:
    1. Use either mountain ash or red oak (stop laughing).
    2. Coat the bat from knob to barrel with either hand-lashed twine and vinyl glue or (preferably) heat-shrink tubing.
    3. Fire harden the wood, and assure that at least part of the char survives on the barrel. Rationale: once charred, red oak (not white oak) and mountain ash tend to absorb humidity VERY slowly, preserving the strength we gained in the drying process.
    4. Cease the ruinous practice of cutting the handle and barrel too thin. Supposedly, athletes have big enough hands to grip something bigger than a pencil.
    5. Do as we do: "frap" the handle and barrel with cotton twine, and soak the whole works in nitrocellulose lacquer 3-4 hours, then allow to SLOWLY air dry — at least 45 days — before use.

    Just spraying a freshly turned bat with lacquer will not give it a decent grip, but that cotton twine and rough lacquer finish will give it a grip that nobody can break.

  3. Arthur F Morrison Jr

    I don’t have too much to say,but I’ve been saying for the last two years that the broken bat problem would almost stop if they would go back to "ASH" for the bats.

  4. C Ed Wright

    And I DO NOT think that old-growth/new-growth has anything to do with the density or strentgth of any hardwoods — that distinct difference applies almost exclusively to softwoods such as spruces, pines, firs and even douglas fir & yellow pine. If there is any difference in most hardwoods it is usually negligable. I don’t see or feel any difference between old & new ash or hickory tool handles, for example. BIG difference in softwoods, however: Old douglas fir is more like solid hardwood, while new doug fir is like alternating layers of hard & soft; old pine is close & dense and cuts well, while new is almost like balsa wood.

  5. C Ed Wright

    Without being able to examine any broken bats, it’s impossible to be sure what the problem is, other than the obvious change from ash to maple. There is good reason that ash and hickory are used for tool handles that can take hard abuse; same for baseball (and softball) bats. I remember all (ash) wood bats had a factory-stamped label, and that the batter absolutely MUST hit the ball with the label facing UPWARDS at the moment of contact to avoid SPLITTING not breaking the bat in case of a hard solid hit by a strong batter. It occurs to me that it may be hard or even impossible to determine where such label needs to be on a maple bat, ash opposed to ash & hickory that have a very pronounced grain with open pores like red oak. But I really think the problem is just that maple doesn’t have the break-resistance of ash & hickory or we’d see tool handles of maple. Perhaps it has to do with maple grain not being as straight as the others, so that the same layers of the wood (the annular rings) don’t go from end to end. Again, I’d havee to see the nroken bats to be more sure.

    Anyway, if maple isn’t working (i.e., unsafe to use) for whatever reason, go back to ash & hickory.

    Personally, I hate metal bats — they don’t "feel right" and definitely sound bizarre: They don’t go "C-RACK!!!" they go "BOINK!"

    What’s virtually unknown is that the weight of the bat, weilded properly, is far secondary to whether the handle fits the batter’s hands correctly. A correct diameter for the batter’s hands allows the bat to roll much better as it comes down from the near-vertical "waiting" position, allowing the batter to develop full power & speed during that portion of the swing without fighting his own wrists. Developing full power will drive the bat faster, while so many batters select for lightness to regain the speed they lose to a too-large handle. Add the common awkward hold while awaiting pitches further hinders development of power & speed; the bat should float not rest or nearly rest on the soulder, then swing down with a quarter roll in an almost explosive acceleration plus added full-body power at the instant of contact — that WILL destroy even the strongest hickory bat if the grain is misaligned. On the other hand, improper hold and a too-large handle will render even the strongest power-hitter unable to split even a weak bat with the grain misaligned, because that explosive power cannot be developed.

    The more I think about it, the more sure I am that maple is simply too brittle for ML baseball bats.

  6. Bill, Johnson City, TN

    I agree with Joe Mc. During my youth, I was taught that the best bats were made of hickory. Not much splintering there.

  7. Frank

    I have to agree with Big John (judi_andjohnAT NOSPAMyahoo dot com) He hit the nail right on the head. We were always taught that the label on the bat was to face UP at the point in your swing where the bat met the ball. ALL bats used to have the label branded on the flat side of the grain. If the ball strikes tha bat on the edge grain it is MUCH less likely to break. No one seems to be taught this any more.

    Just think about all those Karate guys breaking the pine boards. If you try to hold a board for them by the end of the board, instead of the sides, they will show you the PROPER way to hold a board real quick.

    The same thing goes for batters… It looks much more impressive if you break a bat once in a while.

    Frank
    Florissant, MO

  8. Hank Gillette

    I don’t know about the old vs. new growth issue (although it sounds as though it could be a contributing factor), but since Babe Ruth made the home run popular, bats have continually gotten lighter to maximize bat speed. The handles have gotten thinner to maximize the size of the area of the bat that actually strikes the ball.

    The force of a bat hitting the ball is a combination of the bat’s mass and speed. Players have gradually come to realize that with a lighter bat they gain more from the increased bat speed than they lose from the reduced mass. That’s also why almost all bats are "cupped", that is having a semi-circular depression in the large end of the bat. This allows the bat to be slightly lighter without losing length.

    I don’t think aluminum bats have much to do with it, except perhaps the players have gotten used to being able to hit an inside pitch near the handle without breaking the aluminum bat.

    Bats back in the dead ball era were much thicker in the handle, since most players were more interested in making contact than hitting the ball extremely hard.

    Today, a really strong batter can break a bat on a checked swing! Some players break their bats over their knee after striking out. If they had tried this with the dead ball bats, they would have had a very sore knee.

  9. L. C. Woodhouse

    I’m way dated, but whatever happened to hickory bats? I grew up in Louisville, home of Hillerich & Bradsby Louisville Sluggers. A VP there was a friend of the family. He would bring me a bat each year. In those days, hickory ruled and white ash was just starting to be used.

  10. Simon Reed

    With an interest in Archery and native American equipment, I read about the use of Osage Orange in their bows, with tremendous qualities of storing and releasing energy; anyone tried it for baseball bats? (or isn’t it cricket?)

  11. chuck

    Actually you guys have it all wrong. This is a closely guarded secret. The have figured out how to make the bats brake more readily therby giving them something else to sign and sell on ebay. (lol)
    chuck

  12. Les Moore

    I visited the Louisville, Kt baseball bat factory. They use CNC lathes to produce Major League bats per the Players specification. The bats aren’t modifyed in the club house.

    louisville.bats.milb.com

    new Wood and player preferance to more weight at the bat end is a factor in the breakage.

  13. Stace

    One could conclude that some portion of the monster salaries paid to the stars of baseball, custom bats fitting both the league standard and the players preference would be the preferred option. However, given that hammer, shovel, etc, handles take years of beating, a marriage of a woodworker and a bat maker could turn in to a very lucrative business.

  14. Big John

    I have to agree with Joe Mc and Tom O’Brien about using hickory. I’ve always liked the feel and heft of a good hickory hammer handle, but grain orientation was always paramount. As Chris Friesen notes, the bat in the picture broke on an angled grain line, a big no-no for hammer handles and one would assume for bats as well. Also the split is at right angles to the logo. One of the first things taught in Little League before aluminum bats was to have the logo pointing toward you so the grain would be oriented in the proper direction, decreasing the likelihood of breaking the bat. Obviously the fellow who burnt the logo into that bat either didn’t care, or more likely isn’t old to have used a wooden bat in Little League, or remember Connie Mack or the Polo Grounds. As for oval bats Brent, cricket anyone?

  15. BLZeebub

    I vote for the riven vs. sawn issue. The broken bat is surely split along the grain and there’s the evidence. Bat manufacturers are more concerned with yield than efficacy of individual bats. Besides, how can you continue to make $$$ if your bats never break?

    always,
    The Dark One

  16. Halteclere

    The dimensions of major league bats are strictly specified, with anything outside the bounds not tolerated (anyone remember George Brett charging the umpire after having his bat declared illegal due to too much pine pitch on the handle?).

    And it used to be thought that a heavier bat lead to more power, while now most batting experts say that the speed of the swing (lighter bat) is what develops the power.

    So for a thorough analysis of the debate of maple vs. ash vs. hickory vs. whatever, the mechanical properties (density, elasticity, etc.) of the wood also must be considered. For not only how fast a bat can be swung or how it reacts when contacting the ball need to be considered, but also how the shock is transported down the handle to the batter’s hands.

  17. Tom O'Brien

    If the problem is splitting, why not try Elm? It is reputed to be nearly impossible to split. Or try the folks in Tennessee who make axe handles out of Hickory?

  18. Wood splitter

    When I saw this on a TV special they showed the bats being sawn out of blanks of wood. If they were hand split they would be much stronger. None of the broken bats had grain running parallel to the length. I smell a business opportunity out there.

  19. Joe Mc

    Rather than maple or ash, I’d say they should go back to hickory. A bat used by Joe Jackson–named by Joe as Black Betsy–was auctioned off a few years ago and it was hickory. This one lasted for most of his career in the majors and afterwards playing in semi-pro leagues.

    Contrast that with today’s batters going through a few a week. And Black Betsy was heavy, supposedly weighing in at 40 ounces…but I think it was also longer than today’s bats. This leads me to believe that it’s the difference in density between old growth and fast growth and, to a certain extent, the wood species.

  20. Jim Bob

    I vote for a review of the changing design of bats over the last 100 years. We’ve got them in the Baseball Hall of Fame for all periods. I speculate that today’s bats are not strong in the same way as past bats, because the shape has changed significantly over the decades, especially over the last 20 years.

  21. Dave Selden

    I wonder if part of it also has to do with the changing nature of wood today. Old-growth forest wood has very tight growth rings, where newer commercial wood has very broad growth rings. When you clearcut a forest, the trees that are replanted have a very vigorous adolescence due to easy access to sunlight (no competition), with bigger, weaker growth rings as a result. Look at a new 2×4 vs. a 100 year-old one and you can see the difference quickly. This difference has changed construction codes (now 2×12 joists vs. 2×8 in olden days), and I can’t see why it wouldn’t affect baseball bats as well.

  22. Chris Friesen

    If the bat blanks that I bought at Lee Valley are any indication, they’re sawn.

    Looking at the broken bat in the picture, it sure looks like it broke off along angled grain.

    The other side of this issue is that due to the diffuse pore structure the maple bats don’t show accumulated damage as well as ash/hickory (which tend to "flake"). So players are using the maple bats longer, past the point where they should be chucked.

  23. David

    So – Does anyone know whether the stock for bats is riven rather than sawn? That’s a key functional and strength aspect of a windsor chair spindle, and the same priciples would apply to a bat.

  24. coolsisters

    Very entertaining. I don’t know a thing about wood or baseball but I read this from top to bottom and now have lunch conversation with my buds who know both!

  25. Brent

    I wonder if an oval design of the handle would allow for increased strength leading towards the pitch? I understand this would be difficult to construct, but it may make the handle thinner, stronger and lighter. You see reinforcement like this in Carbon Fibre designs, I wonder if a machining process could be created for wood forms?

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