The Good Wood

From corking to Wonderboy, here is everything you ever wanted to know about baseball bats—and then some
From corking to Wonderboy, here is everything you ever wanted to know about baseball bats—and then some
April 14, 1986

Consider bats. In the course of baseball history, they have been light (Billy Goodman's 30-ouncer) and heavy (Edd Roush's three-pounder). Bottled (the Heinie Groh model) and corked (see Norm Cash). Exclamatory (Babe Ruth's, calling the shot) and inflammatory (George Brett's, recalling the rule book). Treated (with everything from linseed oil to tobacco juice) and mistreated (by Juan Marichal upside Johnny Roseboro's head). Short (Wee Willie Keeler's 30½-incher) and long (42 inches, the maximum allowed). Made in America (almost everyone's) and in Japan (Pete Rose's). Taken to bed (by Richie Ashburn, only when they had been good) and hung out in the cold (by Eddie Collins, to toughen them up). They have been old (Joe Sewell is said to have used the same one as his game bat for his 14 seasons, from 1920 to '33), new (Orlando Cepeda discarded his like toothpicks), borrowed (by Mickey Mantle to drive a ball 565 feet) and blue (in unavoidable aluminum).

In short, the bat (stick, shillelagh, mace, bludgeon, cudgel, war club, wagon tongue, Wonderboy) has been the most vital variable in a game that prides itself on constants. Balls are supposed to all be alike. Gloves are so inconspicuous they used to be left on the field between innings. But bats are mythic: Bernard Malamud's novel, The Natural, more or less hinged on a hunk of wood. Bats also are art: Claes Oldenburg sculpted a 100-foot bat for the city of Chicago. Bats are alive: When one breaks on a base hit, the expression goes, "It dies a hero." Bats are also the inspiration for a great many tales.

Earl Torgeson of the Braves had just ended an 0-for-forever slump with a single, but Giant catcher Sal Yvars didn't appreciate it when Torgeson slung his bat so hard it hit Yvars in the foot. So Yvars took the bat by the barrel and smacked it on the plate. Unfortunately, it popped. Only a handful of folks at Braves Field that day in '52 noticed the unsplendid splintering, and so it came as a great surprise when, at inning's end, Torgeson took off, charged across the diamond and commenced flailing at Yvars, who was sitting peacefully on the dugout steps. Two years later Torgeson and Yvars, still feuding, got themselves suspended after a beanball incident.

The first immutable truth about bats is that each batter has a unique rapport with his own. Images linger of Ruth carving notches like eyelashes around his bat's trademark to mark each homer he hit, of Johnny Pesky jabbering to his bats long before Mark Fidrych introduced himself to a ball, of Rose toting his bats to ballparks in customized leather sheaths, like a pool hustler with his cues. Batters can be roughly grouped into three species:

Shillelus umbilicus: This is the player who doesn't leave home without a bat, and would trade his home for a hot one. He hefts and hoards them till death do them part. For instance, when most of Ron Kittle's high school pals were burying six-packs in a cedar coffin to be dredged up at their 10th reunion, the future White Sox slugger interred his homemade bat. Then there is Ashburn, who slumbered with his lumber. "When you're going good, you want to take care of your bat," Ashburn explains.

Rose often punctuates interviews with his bat—handling it, flexing it, examining it for bumps and bruises. He chooses his wood carefully. "I usually use the same bat in batting practice that I use in a game," he explained shortly before breaking the major league hit record last year. "I may just pick one up that feels good to me that night. I might not have had any sleep, or I might have had too much sleep and feel a little stronger. My bats don't have weights on them so sometimes one might feel lighter than the other; other times it may feel heavier." Got that?

Lumberus nurturus: Not content with what nature offers, this player hopes to hype his bats, for whatever Frey-dian reasons. (Cubs manager Jim soaked his in motor oil during his playing career.) One common practice is "boning" a bat; that is, rubbing a bone or Coke bottle up and down the barrel of the bat to seal the pores and toughen the wood. In order to highlight the ball marks on his bats after a game, Dale Murphy cleans them with alcohol. (Yes, kids, alcohol!) Leon Durham has his mother pray over his sticks before each season.

Some have gone to even greater lengths for an edge. During the off-season, Frankie Frisch hung his bats in a barn to cure them like sausages. Eddie Collins buried his in a dunghill to keep them alive. Home Run Baker was said to have used a magical rubbing compound made of ingredients that he never would reveal. But the cake-taker was Jim Kelly, a former catcher in the Phillies' farm system, who once, while he was 0 for 16, not only drew a pair of eyes on the barrel (the better to see you with, my dear) but also a pair of glasses to compensate for the poor lighting in minor league parks. That night he nearly blinded his bat with a pair of homers.

Norm Cash, the king of the subversive splinter group, used corked bats that he believed added up to 50 feet a shot. By boring a hole about eight inches deep at the fat end of the bat and filling the top of it with cork, sawdust and glue, he claimed he could generate more bat speed without sacrificing mass. Stormin' Norman's theory looked terrific when he hit .361 with 41 homers and 132 RBIs for the Tigers in 1961. Would that his tainted wood had worked as well the next year, when he slumped to .243. Hitters have also carved grooves into the bat barrel to create a pocket of air to help push the ball from the bat. Pretty sophisticated, huh?

Instruments indifferentus: Perhaps it is all in the wrists. Willie Stargell, of the old Lumber Company, stipulated only that the model he used have someone else's name on it. Mantle's epic blast at Yankee Stadium was launched with Dale Long's bat. Lou Piniella would hit with anything handy, particularly a Mickey Rivers model. That's because Rivers often roamed the Yankee dugout like a carnival barker: "Hey, I got a lucky bat here." It was Rivers, you'll remember, who slipped Bucky Dent the bat with which Dent smacked the three-run home run that banned Boston from the 1978 playoff. But let history note: Both a borrower and a lender Rivers was. Roy White had earlier supplied Rivers with the very wood Mickey gave to Dent.

Yogi Berra was particular about his bat until he got to the plate, when he treated the stick with scant respect. The trademark is branded on the side of the bat against the grain, so that by pointing the trademark to yourself, the ball will strike with the grain, where the bat is strongest. But by twisting the handle, Berra always wound up exposing the weakest part of the wood to oncoming fastballs. "I'm up there to hit," said Yogi, "not to read." His batmakers, who were Hillerich & Bradsby, eventually managed to outwit Berra by moving the trademark a quarter turn on his sticks, thus probably saving the lives of countless bats.

Al Simmons was not pleased. The Philadelphia A's star of the '30s had returned a shipment of his 35-inch, 35-ounce bats to the maker, H & B. "They're nothing like my regular model," Simmons sniffed. So H & B sent out another batch, and again Simmons rejected them. Exasperated, the craftsmen recrated the first batch and dispatched it to Simmons. "This is exactly what I wanted," he said. "Why couldn't you have sent them in the first place?"

On the one hand, players can't seem to agree on what constitutes a good piece of ash. Is thick grain spaced widely apart preferable to a narrower, tighter grain? Brett, with the majority of hitters, likes wide; Ted Williams, of the school that says tighter grain means older and tougher wood, preferred narrow. Does flame-treating make a bat harder? Probably. Do pin knots in the barrel mean a tougher bat? Well, maybe. Does using a dark bat make a difference? The theory is that balls hit off such bats are harder to read. George Foster has advocated them for esthetic reasons, and more and more hitters are following his trail of bat rack integration. Of course, after Foster's recent seasons, dark bats may strike more fear into Mets' fans than into the opposition.

On the other hand, most hitters today want the same thing: a shortish (34 to 35 inches), lightish (31 to 34 ounces) bat with a broad barrel (2‚Öù inches in diameter) to drive the ball, and a slender handle (one inch) for snapping the barrel around. The surest bat platitude is that as time passes, hitters want punier and punier models. There have, however, always been stubborn individualists like Joe (Unser Choe) Hauser, who, when macho began at 37 ounces, wielded a bat that weighed 32. "You swing the wagon tongues," said Hauser, who hit 69 homers in the minors in 1933. "I'll stick to this buggy whip of mine."

Brickbats about the quality of wood are eternal. With bats breaking more and more—averaging something like one per hit in major league baseball, and at a wholesale cost of $12 to $14 per bat—the age-old lament has some heft to it. Part of the problem is the fault of the players: the microthin handles don't last a lifetime. "Nowadays they all want thinner handles and larger barrels and lighter weights," says Rex Bradley, a VP at H & B. "The good Lord doesn't grow it like that." But the bat industry is also to blame. As aluminum has gained in demand over the past decade, the need for wood has declined; H & B now manufactures one million wooden Louisville Sluggers a year (the company turned out six million in 1972), while Adirondack output has dipped to 500,000 from 1.5 million. The pros still get the pick of the lumber, but with the timber pickings shrinking, the industry's standards have necessarily dropped as well.

It takes Isokazu Kubota 10 minutes to craft a bat for Pete Rose. Kubota, 43, has served as master batsmith for Mizuno for more than 10 years, and it was he who fashioned from northern white ash the bats that cracked hits Nos. 3,165 to 4,204. In the Mizuno factory in the tiny town of Yoro, 2½ hours southwest of Tokyo by bullet train, Kubota taps wood to the floor like a tuning fork, testing its resonance. "To make the bat that sets the new world record," says Kubota quietly, "I consider that an incredible honor." He has never met Rose, though he would like to discuss the bats they've made famous. But without dialogue, how did Kubota know what Rose wanted? "Actually, it wasn't hard," he responds. "I had him send me his bat. Then I listened to it."

While major leaguers have their clubs fill out order forms and pester factories, only a handful see the forest for the trees. The seeds of current pro models were sown in Ruthian times, when northern white ash trees (Fraxinus americana) took root from eastern Pennsylvania to the Adirondack region of New York. While maple is occasionally used for Little Leaguers, it does not have the tensile strength and the springiness for big-time play. (A manufacturer once tried bamboo, with disastrous results.) There is a proud strength to ash that not only earned the respect of players like Collins, Ruth and Williams, but also drove them to the bins and the mills in search of the best lumber.

When the ash trees reach about 16 inches in diameter—about 75 years old—they are felled. The toppling of a tree requires two cuts at the base: first a wedge in the direction that the tree will fall, then another on the opposing side, after which the cutter inserts a small metal piece into the second cut to keep the tree from going over backward. Once he delivers the final blow to the original cut and the tree falls, the logger slips a cable choker around the base of the log and with a tractor drags the wood to a clearing where it can be loaded on a truck.

The truck hauls the logs to the mill, where they're sliced to 40-inch lengths. The wood judged sufficiently smooth and straight-grained by the growth rings and the lack of "cat faces," or knots, is set aside to be split into quarters. Only five to 10 in 100 "splits" will pass the further inspection required for pro bat material. The chosen splits are then hewn into 40-inch-long cylinders, or billets, and dried—in the air for eight months or a kiln for five weeks or a large microwave for three days—until they retain just enough moisture to make them workable. They are graded again, and weighed. A file card tells the batmaker which weight billet he'll need to turn which bat.

Then, after setting a model of the desired bat above his lathe, the batsmith turns the new timber down to match the model. With a caliper, he verifies his eyeball measurements—a good batsmith is accurate to a fraction of a millimeter—along 13 checkpoints. These are the same tools the trade has used for five score and two years, or since John A. (Bud) Hillerich first fashioned a new lance for Pete (Old Gladiator) Browning of the Louisville Eclipse.

(Note: When Browning smacked three hits the next day and word of his good wood spread, the Louisville Slugger was born. By 1960, H & B had sold 100 million Sluggers. While not on the order of Arthur and Excalibur, the story of the birth of the modern bat has become almost as mythic in the grain of American baseball as the instrument itself.)

As it has done since about 1945, H & B labels each bat with the initial of the player's last name and a number indicating how many other bats with that initial have been created. Hank Aaron's A99, with which he broke Ruth's alltime home run record, was similar in style and design to the Babe's R43, though it weighed 10 ounces less than the Bambino's 44-ounce cudgel. The most popular designs today are the K55 of Chuck Klein and Eddie Malone's M110. Brett has won a pair of batting titles with a T85 bat. The T85 was designed for Marv Throneberry, a .237 hitter.

Finally, the player's name is scorched on his bats, either with his autograph (if the company has signed him to a contract) or in block letters. Players can switch batsmiths in midcareer; all they sign away in endorsement contracts is their signatures. Back when Reggie Jackson was named MVP of the '77 World Series, H & B, which had signed him to a contract, and Adirondack, whose bats he was then using, staged a congratulatory ad war in The Sporting News. (Jackson has been known to paint the black Adirondack ring on his H & B bats.)

It's 2019 and the big-time press has teleported to the "Orlando Orb" for what may be a historic game. Pete Rose Jr. will be trying to break the alltime hit record of 4,882 set by his father. The questions have all been posed before but, like Pete Sr., Rose seeks original responses as the fans materialize in their seats and the grounds crew grows the field. How do you feel? "Like I'm getting ready to jump off an eyebrow of the Ueberroth Monument," he says. Does it bother you that it's your father's record? "He doesn't mind. Besides, if there's an injury, he'll be back in the lineup and able to get it back." What about titanium bats? "Well, bats are bats, bases are bases and balls are balls. The big difference is he had to face live pitching. Now, please, excuse me."

On a panel in the Hall of Fame hang bats spanning the past and present, from a scrawny, serpentine toothpick to a gleaming aluminum number. As hallowed as the Hall may be, it can't disregard the impact on baseball of bats that can't be autographed (they go by such appellations as BIG BARREL and THE BASHER instead); that haven't been crafted from nature's finest; that can't be varied except at great cost (H & B has thousands of wood models, mere dozens of aluminum), and that are breeding a generation of one-handed, overswinging, pseudo power hitters inured to that infernal ping.

Since the beginning of time—1905, to be exact, the year the mushroom bat was born ("The knob arrangement at the end of the bat appeals to the up-to-date player," an ad of the time read)—inventors have tried to embellish the basic bat. What scares traditionalists most is that these new alloys really work: The sweet spot, the point in a bat where vibration supposedly is least, is said to be two times larger on an aluminum bat than on a wood one. Aluminum bat handles are nearly impossible to break, and more weight can be distributed to the barrel. When Richie Zisk was with the Pirates, only one ball had ever been cranked into Three Rivers Stadium's upper deck in leftfield. Using aluminum, Zisk deposited three there during one batting practice. Says Toronto batting coach Cito Gaston, "A guy like Dave Winfield might kill somebody."

The prospect of aluminum or magnesium or graphite bats being whipped up by the pros is far from immediate. Recently more and more coaches have been going to bat for wood. The Cape Cod League, a summer showcase for pro prospects, has banned aluminum, a welcome development since aluminum makes scouting more difficult and can retard a hitter's development. (The latter is known as the Jeff Led-better Syndrome, after a Red Sox first-round pick who, with wood in hand, more closely approximated Leadbelly.) The Atlantic Coast Conference coaches have unanimously recommended using only wood bats in conference games. In response to the back-breaking bat-breaking problem that makes alloys so much cheaper in the long run, Adirondack has forged a bat of laminated wood that is supposed to be sturdier than ordinary wood.

But unless the wood bat flame is restoked, the day will probably come when boning is done with Brillo pads. Even now, making wood bats is no longer profitable. But for pride, prestige and promotions, some companies do it anyway: H & B has the largest share of the market, followed by Rawlings-Adirondack, Worth and a few others. Says Bill Williams, vice-president of H & B, "One day we may be playing with something that acts like wood but isn't. Is the future of baseball going to be written in laboratories and on launching pads?"

The story may be apocryphal, but Richie Ashburn, then with the Mets, swears it's true. It's 1962. The Mets are playing at Dodger Stadium. At the plate is lefthanded hitter Ron Fairly of L.A.; behind it, catcher Choo Choo Coleman. (Coleman was known for his deceptive snap throws to first; he would look at the pitcher and try to catch the runner leaning.) Fairly swings at a pitch, misses, and the bat slips out of his hand and goes flying over the Mets' dugout, striking Edna Stengel, Casey's wife, and knocking her cold. She leaves on a stretcher, but isn't hurt seriously.

Two weeks later, the same two teams are in New York. Fairly is again hitting, Coleman is again catching. Once again, Fairly swings and misses and there the bat goes, sailing over the dugout, right at Edna Stengel. With everyone frozen, tracking the flight of the bat, Choo Choo seizes the moment to wing one down to first. The throw zips toward Met first baseman Marv Throneberry who, unfortunately, had turned toward the box seats. The missile conks Throneberry right between the eyes. The ball caroms into right, and Maury Wills, the runner, scores all the way from first....

The windup and the pitch, the swing from the heels and the flight of the ball are so hypnotic that we tend to forget what sets the game in motion. But Marvelous Marv Throneberry had the right idea. Keep your eye on the bat.

FIVE PHOTOSLANESTEWARTThe birth of a bat: Adirondack's John Steciak Jr. fells a tree, then signs a log before it is hauled off to the sawmill. A finished bat is measured and branded at Hillerich & Bradsby, home of the Louisville Slugger (below). PHOTOBILL LUSTERBats have come a long way, Babe: top, from the time of Pete Browning and Ruth; below, the modern wood and aluminum models. PHOTOLANESTEWARTTom Herr, who is under contract to Adirondack, has his signature on a branding die. PHOTONICKOLAS MURAYThe Sultan swatted with a 44-ounce cudgel, an H & B R43, notched to commemorate home runs. PHOTOLANE STEWART[See caption above.] PHOTOLANESTEWARTYou don't throw out Gehrig's bat orders: Here they are on file in H & B's offices. PHOTOEIJI MIYAZAWA/BLACK STARKubota can craft a bat for Rose in just 10 minutes. It may take Pete more time to rub it with a bone. PHOTOLANE STEWART[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSRONALD C. MODRAToo much pine tar on a bat is a no-no, but for Murphy (below) alcohol is a yes-yes. PHOTOBILL LUSTERDurham's mother prays over her son's bat for his game, his safety and well-being.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)