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