Maple Slugs It Out With Ash

It’s not often that we’re presented with an editorial angle that lets us segue into the world of sports, but the rising furor over maple bats in baseball presents just such an opportunity.

For those of you not up on baseball, here’s a brief history lesson:

While there have been a variety of woods used to make baseball bats throughout the ages, far and away the most common is ash, or, was ash. We’ll get to that part. Ash works well because it grows fast, is sufficiently dense, and has straight grain. It became the industry standard and prompted poetry from not just baseball types but tree types as well.

Here’s Donald Peattie in A Natural History of North America Trees:

“Every America boy knows a great deal about White Ash wood. He knows the color of its yellow-ish sapwood and the pale brown grain of the annual growth layers in it. He knows the weight of White Ash not in terms of pounds per cubic foot but by the more immediate and unforgettable sensation of having lifted and swung a piece of it, of standard size. He even knows its precise resonance and pitch, the ringing tock of it when struck.”

Ash’s ubiquity was challenged when a Canadian company, Sam Bat of Ottawa, started making bats out of hard maple. Their first major league client was a guy named Joe Carter. (Toronto Blue Jay fans will know Carter as Touch ‘em all Joe, the larger-than-life catalyst of the 1992-1993 back-to-back World Series winning teams, teams that stand among the finest that baseball has ever produced. You’ll have to forgive this authorial segue here – I’m a Blue Jays fan and it’s rare to the point of non-existent that I have a chance to crow about anything these days. While I’m crowing, I may as well remind folks that this later championship came at the expense of the Philadelphia Phillies, a fine thing for us beleaguered fans to remember as we endure the sight of our former ace, Roy Halladay, mowing down NL batters like they’re little leaguers in his shiny new Phillies uniform.)

Despite the fact that Carter crushed the game winning, series winning home run in 1993 with a maple bat, they didn’t really take off until Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs with his in 2001. After that, everybody wanted one. MaxBat, an MLB-licensed manufacturer out of Brooten, Minnesota uses the slogan: “Our maple kicks ash.” Twenty other bat makers sell maple bats to the big leagues as well. Today, about 50 percent of players use them.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the maple bat’s popularity that is exploding; the bats themselves are, too. Both anecdotal and scientific evidence seems to point to the fact that maple splinters in a way that’s much more dangerous than ash; you may have seen this on your woodlot, where the hinge on a hard maple tree will often break cleanly while ash, being more fibrous, will tear. Anyway, check out this well-written story by Yahoo Sports writer Jeff Passan on the subject of breaking maple bats, a story that gets right to the point with the lede:

Someone’s going to die at a baseball stadium soon.

While many baseball players swear that maple bats perform better, this may not be true. According to Passan:

In 2005, alarmed by the increasing number of broken bats, baseball gave $109,000 to a man named Jim Sherwood and asked him to compare maple bats with the ash ones that used to be the norm. Sherwood runs the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and the conclusion of the study did not jibe with the hundreds of players who swear maple leads to better performance.

“We found that the batted-ball speeds were essentially the same for the two woods,” Sherwood said. “Maple has no advantage in getting a longer hit over an ash bat.”

The study also found something evident to anyone watching baseball: Ash bats crack while maple bats snap.

In the interest of full disclosure it should be pointed out that there’s also a counter-argument floating on the web that maple bats have larger “sweet spots” than ash, and that breaking bats can also be attributed to the players shaving the handles down. I’m in no position to know anything about the validity of such claims.

What I do know is that baseball finds itself roiled in a wood-species controversy. On the anti-maple side are people like Pittsburg Pirates coach Don Long (who almost died recently when a shard of maple lodged in his cranium), Yankees catcher Jorge Posada (probably all catchers are non-to-fond of maple shrapnel, but Posada is one of the more outspoken ones) and Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon, who calls maple bats the claymore mines of baseball.

On the other side are the pro-maple baseball players who, like most baseball players, are looking for an edge. Any edge. This spring, MLB banned maple bats in the minor leagues. Stay tuned to see if a major league ban will follow.

Dave Mance III is the editor of Northern Woodlands.

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Discussion
  1. David Buck → in Peru, Maine
    Apr 30, 2010

    If I’m not mistaken, the growth of bat-quality ash has been compromised by the emerald ash borer, as well, providing maple another opportunity to gain a foothold in the marketplace.  The future of baseball bats may lie in composites, as long as bat manufacturers can provide the same aesthetic as solid wood bats.

  2. Carolyn Haley → in East Wallingford, VT
    May 04, 2010

    Paddling is another sport where wood properties matter, both in the paddles and the boats. Here, too, composites are making inroads on tradition.

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