"We've been told to prepare for a severe wood shortage over the next few years," says Bill Murray, director of operations for Major League Baseball and chairman of the rules committee. "We may have to start thinking about an alternative to the wood bat."
"I certainly see a time in the not-too-distant future when everyone will be using some alternative bat—aluminum, graphite or some composite," says Jack Hillerich, the third-generation president of Hillerich & Bradsby, which, because of its Louisville Sluggers, has been synonymous with baseball bats for more than 100 years. "A wood bat is a financially obsolete deal. If we were selling them for $40 apiece instead of $14 or $16.50 I the company's prices for minor league and major league bats I. then we'd be making a sensible profit. But we aren't. We can't charge that much. The time will come when even the majors will use aluminum or graphite."
Hillerich, whose company's bat production is now more than 50% aluminum, says that the availability of wood isn't the primary cause for concern—at least for H & B, which grows its own timber. But other batmakers do experience shortages. And all of them, Hillerich says, have found wood bats to be an increasingly inefficient proposition.
"While once we were making seven million wood bats a year for all levels of baseball, now we're making a million and a half, 185,000 of which go to the major leagues," says Hillerich. "Major leaguers want specific orders, so we make three orders [one dozen bats per order] for one player, then shut down the operation. Then we make three more for another player, and shut it down. That's impractical, and it's highly expensive."
All of the bat companies (H & B, Rawlings-Adirondack, Worth and Cooper) have had trouble filling wood-bat orders this season. "I'm having to stop taking orders," says H & B salesman Paul Shaughnessy, who services several major league teams.
"No one even wants the major league business anymore," adds Chuck Schupp, H & B director of professional bat sales. "We do it but partly because of the 100-year relationship we have had with baseball. When we make a bat, we use 40 percent of the wood, at most. If we sell the billets to other industries, nearly 100 percent is used."
Meanwhile, major league players have raised a chorus of complaints about the quality of the wood in the bats they're getting. "You can get an order of 12 bats, and only one or two of them have the good grain," says Kansas City Royals outfielder Willie Wilson. "No matter how good you are, it's hard to get enough quality bats," says Texas Rangers outfielder Pete Incaviglia, who goes through nearly 40 dozen bats a season.
Hillerich refutes the players' claims about the quality of the wood. "Most of them don't know what they're talking about," he says. "We can come up with the best white ash you'd ever see. Players do a lot to break bats. They shave the handles, for instance. That destroys the product." At the same time, major leaguers have shown an increasing affection for the lighter, thinner-handled big-barreled bats, which break more easily (witness the exploding bat in the hands of the Mets' Gregg Jefferies on the cover).
The bottom line on the wooden bat is that the bat companies don't want to make them, and the pros are having trouble getting good ones. The alternative is clear. Says Ash of the Blue Jays, "They should use the aluminum bat in a rookie or low A league next season and see what happens." Adds Murray, "It's a subject baseball has to take a long, hard look at in the next year."
Anyone who's thirtysomething or older and grew up playing baseball remembers the Louisville Sluggers and Adirondacks that were the staples of the game. Every young ballplayer imagined swinging the bat hard enough to duplicate the gunfire crack that Mickey Mantle and Frank Howard produced when they smacked the ball just right, the crack you could hear on the radio above the din of 40,000 fans. Today, though, on sandlots across America, that sound has given way to the metallic ping reminiscent of a golf ball ricocheting off a flagpole, an aesthetically inferior experience, to be sure.