SI Vault
Peter Gammons
July 24, 1989
What would the Babe think? The crack of the wooden bat is being replaced by the ping of aluminum. And by the end of the next decade, the ping is likely to be heard in the majors
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July 24, 1989

End Of An Era

What would the Babe think? The crack of the wooden bat is being replaced by the ping of aluminum. And by the end of the next decade, the ping is likely to be heard in the majors

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In a sport as steeped in romance as baseball, that ping alone is enough to make purists resist the aluminum bat. More important, however, wooden bats and aluminum bats are very different beasts, and the evolution from one to the other is changing the game in significant ways.

How different are the two bats? Seattle Mariners rookie Ken Griffey Jr. was recently asked to name the biggest difference between high school baseball and the majors. "The wooden bat," he quickly responded. Says Dodger slugger Kirk Gibson, "Wood bats drove me crazy at first. I must have busted hundreds of them." And Boston's Greenwell says, "It took me two years to adjust to wood. My hands ached. I had a bone bruise the shape of a horseshoe on my palm that I couldn't get rid of."

"If you hit a ball right with a wooden bat, it'll go about the same distance as a ball hit with aluminum," says Seattle catcher Scott Bradley, who wielded aluminum during his college days at North Carolina. "But with wood you have to hit it right. You have to use your hands, get the bat head out and hit it on the sweet spot. If you get jammed or hit it off the end of the bat—unless you're Bo Jackson or Jose Canseco or Kevin Mitchell—the ball doesn't go anywhere, you often break the bat, and your hands hurt.

"With aluminum, you can make contact most anywhere on the bat and get the ball through or over the infield. Watch a college game and see how many hitters get jammed and still hit flares into the opposite field. The center of balance is different, and when you've been swinging one kind for 20 years, there's a big change."

When Texas Rangers general manager Tom Grieve was managing a rookie league team in 1982, he used to hand all his players a wooden bat and take them to a nearby telephone pole. "I had each kid tap the bat against the pole until he found the spot on the bat where he couldn't feel any vibrations coming down to his hands," says Grieve. "That's the sweet spot, and on an aluminum bat it's larger than on a wooden one. By finding the spot on a wood bat where he has to hit the ball, a kid can see what he's dealing with before he starts the adjustment process. With an aluminum bat most kids can take the same swing at every pitch. When they see that they have to hit the ball on a certain spot on a wooden bat, they find out they have to swing differently, according to the pitch."

"What you see with the aluminum bats are a lot of long, sweeping swings because you can hit the ball most anywhere on the bat and drive it anywhere in the ballpark," says Oakland A's player-development director Karl Kuehl.

Aluminum bats have still another advantage over their wood counterparts. "The weight difference between aluminum and wood bats makes it a lot easier to generate bat speed with the aluminum, and bat speed is what determines power," says Oakland hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. "Most 34-inch aluminum bats weigh 29 or 30 ounces [while a standard 34-inch wood bat is two to four ounces heavier]. That's a big difference."

In their debuts with wood on Cape Cod, Juday and Haeger each went hitless as Cotuit lost the opener to Hyannis 3-1. "The scores are pretty low for the first few weeks," says Cotuit manager Pete Varney. "Most of the kids make the adjustment in four or five weeks, but anyone who doesn't think there's a difference should look at the before and after stats in this league."

In 1984, the last year of the aluminum bat in the Cape Cod League, the league batting average was .273 and the ERA 4.86. Games averaged 11.74 runs scored and 2.08 homers. Last summer's figures: batting average .252, ERA 3.68, runs scored 8.98, homers 0.8 (chart, page 23).

When hitting is altered, pitching is sure to follow, and the aluminum bat has dramatically affected the styles of the pitchers who face it. "Because of aluminum bats, pitching has become an outside game," says Toronto scout Tim Wilken. "Pitchers don't want to pitch inside because, even if they jam a batter [using an aluminum bat], he can dump it to the opposite field for a hit."

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