The Evolution of The Bat

In any sport, the equipment can define how the game is played. It determines how fast the players can move, how they interact with each other, and ultimately, how you win the game. Although you may have a single mental image of what a baseball bat should look like, you may be surprised to learn that in the first days of the game, baseball bats came in many different sizes and shapes. The players used to make their own bats, experimenting with a variety of shapes: flat, heavy, long or short. Many of them would not be easily recognizable as bats by our modern eyes.
In order to minimize the advantage of some experimental shapes, it was decreed in 1859 that bats couldn’t be any thicker than 2.5 inches. After much play and experimentation, the players eventually came to the conclusion that bats with round barrels are the most effective.
Another ten years passed before another rule came into play, this time limiting the bat to a maximum length of forty-two inches. Still, there was no rule restricting the shape of a bat; players had the freedom to use whatever they felt most comfortable with. As a result, some players chose a flat surfaced bat for bunting (a strategy we will discuss more fully later on).
The first bats were made from hickory wagon spokes, but as the balls started coming in faster and the batters began hitting harder, it became obvious that a stronger and lighter bat was needed. Companies experimented with different woods, but two woods–ash and maple–have consistently won out as most durable while still light enough to swing and control.

Enter the Louisville Slugger
Among bats, few names are as famous as the Louisville Slugger, first crafted in 1884. It all began at a game in Louisville where a player named Pete Browning became increasingly frustrated with his bat, eventually breaking it in two. In the stands was a 17-year-old named John Andrew “Bud” Hillerich. Hillerich had learned woodworking from his father. After the game, Bud walked up to Browning and offered to make a bat that would work much better for him. Browning agreed, accompanying the teen to his father’s shop, where–after much consideration–they selected a section of white ash. Browning watched as the youthful Bud turned and shaped the new bat.
It was a smashing success, no pun intended. Browning hit three home runs the very next game and word quickly traveled about the success of his new bat. Soon the Hillerich family was the go-to business for baseball bats and demand grew extremely quickly. The white ash had to be specifically picked from forests in Pennsylvania and New York, from trees that were at least 50 years old. Even after they were harvested, the wood would be dried for up to eight months, to reach a precise level of moisture. The Hillerich team eventually added a Louisville Slugger trademark to each bat, so the public could recognize the genuine article. In 1900, Honus Wagner, a star player at the time, was the first to burn his autograph into one of the Louisville Slugger bats. Today the Hillerich firm, now known as Hillerich & Bradsby Company, Inc. (H&B), is known as one of the best baseball equipment manufacturers. To learn more about how bats are made, check out a YouTube video by Hillerich entitled “How to Make the Best Bat in MLB Baseball.”

The Well-rounded Bat
Professional rules changed in the 1890s, outlawing bats with “sawed off” or flat-ends; since that time, all professional bats have borne rounded ends. At the same time, the maximum diameter was increased slightly to 2.75 inches. In the century since that ruling, bats have continued to evolve within those specifications, becoming lighter and thinner over time.

New Materials
Until 1924, bats were predominately made of wood. This changed when William Shroyer received a patent to create the first bat on the market made of metal. However, it was almost fifty years before a metal bat, produced by the Worth Company, was used in a game. Worth also introduced the first aluminum baseball bat, a perfect tool for younger players in Little League. The popularity of these bats grew steadily, only boosted in the late 1970s by Easton’s release of a much stronger model. In 1993, the bat reached another evolutionary stage; both Easton and Worth introduced bats made of titanium. Today, double-walled bats and scandium-aluminum bats are common sights in sporting goods stores. When you compare these to the bats of the 1880s, it’s easy to appreciate the impact of science and engineering on the game.

Wood is Still Alive
Even though metal bats have become popular with amateurs, Major League officials continue to restrict professional play to wooden bats.
2001 was a huge year for baseball and the baseball bat. You may have heard of a player named Barry Bonds. Bonds broke records that almost everyone considered unbeatable. He hit an insane 73 home runs in one season. People automatically questioned both his skill and his equipment. How was this possible? How was he doing it? As it turns out, Barry was using a bat made from maple wood. Maple bats immediately became a phenomenon amongst both amateur and professional baseball players. Today, maple bats are as common as the earlier standard of northern white ash.
We now live in a baseball environment where players strive for the lightest possible bat. They feel a lighter bat will allow them to wind up and swing much faster. Fortunately, today’s technology enables manufacturers to come as close as possible to the minimum allowed weight of 30 ounces.
Given the evolution of a seemingly simple piece of wood over the past century, one can only imagine what will happen over the next fifty to one hundred years.

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