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How Baseball Bats Work


The History of the Baseball Bat

Early amateur baseball players carved or whittled their own bats, or hired carpenters to fashion them from slabs of various hardwoods, but in a pinch, they were known to improvise. When the Philadelphia Athletics broke all their bats in a high-scoring 1865 game, they resorted to using a shovel handle to finish their at-bats [source: Kerr]. It wasn't until the late 1800s that sporting goods manufacturers, picking up on the game's rising popularity, began to mass-produce bats.

In 1884, J.A. "Bud" Hillerich, an apprentice woodworker in Louisville, Ky., went to see his local team, the Louisville Eclipse. When star slugger Pete Browning broke his bat during the game, Hillerich invited him back to the shop and spent all night making him a personalized one. After he used it the next day to get three hits, the famed Louisville Slugger brand was born [source: Morrison].

Roughly a decade later, professional baseball rule-makers, standardized the bat, deciding that it had to be:

  • Round
  • Not over 2 3/4 inches (6.9 centimeters) in diameter
  • Not more than 42 inches (1 meter) in length
  • Made entirely from hardwood, except for an 18-inch-long (45.7-centimeter) section at the handle, which could be wrapped with twine or coated with a granulated substance.

They didn't specify a maximum weight. That led some early would-be power hitters to heft bats resembling tree trunks [source: Hill].

The type of wood used in bats evolved over the years as well. Initially, bat makers sometimes used hickory, but they eventually gravitated toward white ash, which was lighter but still durable. In 2001, after the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds used a bat made of maple to hit a single-season record of 73 homers, that wood became very popular. By 2013, about half of players had switched to maple [sources: Dewey, Roberts, Morrison].

Maple bats are more flexible than ash and create a whipping action that drives the ball farther, but there's a downside: They have a greater tendency to shatter, sending dangerously sharp shards of wood into the field. (While Shoeless Joe Jackson used a single bat for 13 seasons in the early 1900s, today's players seldom get more than a month out of their bats [source: Dewey].)

In an effort to reduce the risk, Major League Baseball has banned softer, lower-density varieties of maple that are most likely to break, and reduced the width of the bat's barrel to 2.61 inches (6.6 centimeters) in diameter, to limit bat makers from producing thick bats with disproportionately thin handles [source: Roberts].