Tools of the Trade

n any game, the equipment players use determines the way the game unfolds. Try to imagine a soccer game played with an American football! Or try playing tennis with the wooden racquets of thirty years ago. Change the equipment, and you discover a very different game. As part of our look at baseball, we decided to examine the tools of the baseball trade: bats, balls, and gloves.

Perhaps the most crucial and visible tool in baseball is the bat. A bat is the offensive weapon, the tool with which runs are scored. To understand the history and science of bats, we traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, home of the Hillerich & Bradsby Company, Inc. (also known as H&B), the manufacturers of perhaps America's most famous bat, the Louisville Slugger. There, we learned how the modern bat came to be, and what it might become.


The early days...

In 1884, John Andrew "Bud" Hillerich played hooky from his father's woodworking shop and went to a baseball game. There he watched a star player, Pete "The Old Gladiator" Browning, struggling in a batting slump. After the game, Hillerich invited Browning back to the shop, where they picked out a piece of white ash, and Hillerich began making a bat. They worked late into the night, with Browning giving advice and taking practice swings from time to time. What happened next is legend, according to Rex Bradley, H&B's Vice President of Softball/Baseball Relations.

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"The next day, Browning went three-for-three, and soon the new bat was in demand across the league. We just kind of grew from there." First called the Falls City Slugger, the new bat was called the Louisville Slugger by 1894. Though Hillerich's father thought bats were a frivolous item, and preferred to continue making more dependable items like bedposts and bowling pins, bats became a rapidly growing part of the family business.

Just as it was back then, the classic Louisville Slugger bat used by today's professional players is made from white ash. The wood is specially selected from forests in Pennsylvania and New York. The trees they use must be at least fifty years old before they are harvested.

After harvest, the wood is dried for six to eight months to a precise moisture level. The best quality wood is selected for pro bats; the other 90 percent is used for consumer market bats. According to Bradley, white ash is used for its combination of hardness, strength, weight, "feel," and durability.


For an in-depth look at how bat weight and bat speed affect hitting, check out  
"How Far Can You Hit One?"
 

"In past years, we made some bats out of hickory. But hickory timber is much heavier than ash, and players today want light bats because they've discovered that they can hit the ball farther by swinging the bat fast. So we can't make the bats out of hickory." Though Babe Ruth, one of the all-time great home-run hitters, used a 42- or a 44-ounce bat, players today use bats that weigh around 32 ounces. Even sluggers like Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr. only use 33-ounce bats because they want to generate great bat speed.

 


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