Major League Baseball players are infamous for being particular about their bats and batting rituals. MLB baseball bats have certain rules and regulations bat makers must follow in order to craft bats. Bats are typically made of three types of wood; ash, maple and birch. There is a lot of skill and care that goes into crafting a top-tier baseball bat.
History of Baseball Bats
Early baseball bats came in all shapes and sizes. When baseball was still in its infancy, players made their own bats. Bats were fashioned with whatever scrap wood was lying around. Players experimented with different shapes, sizes and weights including, flat, long, and heavy bats. It did not take long for players to discover that rounded barrels worked best.
In the 1850’s, a rule was put in place that the diameter of a bat could be no larger than 2.5 inches with no limit to the length of the bat. Around 10 years later, another rule was put in place that limited the length to 42 inches, the same length allowed today.
One of the most famous names in baseball bats is the Louisville Slugger. The Louisville Slugger came about in 1884 when Pete “The Gladiator” Browning became frustrated after breaking his favorite bat.
After the game, he was approached by John “Bud” Hillerich, the son of the woodshop CEO of Hillerich & Sons. Hillerich offered to make Browning a new bat.
Browning accepted and went to the shop where he picked a piece of white ash for his new custom bat. Browning supervised the making of the new bat and used it at the next day’s game.
Browning went three for three with the new bat. Word quickly spread among players and the famous Louisville Slugger was born and with it came baseball bat manufacturing.
Woods Used to Make Baseball Bats
Baseball bats are commonly made from ash, maple and birch. White ash is prized for its strength, flexibility, and lightweight. Ash trees for baseball bats are usually harvested from Pennsylvania and upstate New York. While ash is a common wood used to make baseball bats, many MLB players have switched over to maple as their wood of choice. Another less common choice is birch; a small percentage of MLB players now use birch for their bats.
Harvesting Wood for Baseball Bats
Loggers begin by looking for trees growing in dense clusters that are protected from the wind. Trees growing like this are forced to grow straight up to reach sunlight. A suitable tree usually requires forty to fifty years of growth and a trunk diameter of 14-16 inches. One tree of this size can yield roughly sixty baseball bats.
When a suitable tree is found, harvesters will cut it down with a logging machine. The top branches are removed and the trunk is cut into 10-16 foot sections. Each trunk section is loaded onto a truck and transported to a mill. At the mill, the logs will be inspected for grain and knots. Only about half of the lumber cut down in the forest will eventually be made into baseball bats. Logs that hit the mark are cut into 40-inch wedges.
Each wedge is inspected again for grain straightness. An automatic lathe will be used to shave each wedge into a cylinder-shaped billet or blank. The wood is then set aside for “seasoning”. The air-drying process of seasoning helps strengthen the wood and remove sap and gum. The seasoning process takes between 6 and 24 months. Once the wood is completely dry, each blank is inspected and weighed to ensure that it is as heavy and dry as it should be.
How a Baseball Bat is Made
Professional players can choose their own bats for use during games as long as they meet MLB regulations. Each bat manufacturer has models of bats that are typically named after the players who initially ordered them. Each bat is crafted by a master artisan or bat turner that is specially trained for making bats.
Making a Baseball Bat
The blank billet is put on an automatic lathe and shaved into the rough shape of a bat. The bat will be weighed again to ensure it meets specifications. The bat is then added to another lathe with a model of the ordered bat placed on a rack behind it.
The artisan will measure the barrel, knob, and handle of the model bat with a caliper tool. While the lathe is rotating the bat, the artisan will begin shaving the bat until it is an exact replica of the model bat.
The barrel and knob are rounded off and a final sanding is done to get rid of any rough edges. A special tool carves out the divot created by the lathe, making a cup in the barrel. The bat is then measured again to ensure it is a perfect clone of the model bat.
Bats are painted or stained and branded with manufacturer decals, company trademarks, and model numbers. Bats can also be laser engraved or customized for the player with knob stickers or decals.
An artisan will apply varnish to seal the bat and decals and hang the bat to dry. The drying process usually takes 2 to 4 days. Once everything is completely dry, the bat is ready to be packed and shipped to the player or team to complete the order.
Baseball Bat Quality Control
Manufacturers are constantly testing bats for quality control. Air cannons are used to shoot high-speed baseballs at various places on the bat to test for strength. Robotic arms are used to hit balls off tees to help measure how the ball travels off the bat. Repetitive testing is imperative to ensuring a quality product is always being delivered.
The Future of Baseball Bats in MLB
Baseball is a sport that is steeped in tradition. Major League Baseball currently requires bats to be made of one solid piece of wood and it is doubtful that will ever change. The use of metal alloy or composite bats in MLB could be dangerous and may alter the record books considerably.