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END OF AN ERA
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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KNOCK ON WOOD

When the Cape Cod League switched from aluminum to wood in 1985, hitting stats for both average and power immediately showed a steep decline.

BATTING AVERAGE

HOME RUNS PER GAME

With Aluminum Bats

1981

.284

1.83

1982

.278

1.81

1983

.278

2.21

1984

.273

2.08

With Wooden Bats

1985

.253

.91

1986

.245

1.49

1987

.249

1.07

1988

.252

.80

A hot, sunny Cape Cod Sunday was giving way to the softness of evening. The visiting Cotuit Kettleers began their batting practice as a few fans settled into the stands at McKeon Field in Hyannis, Mass., for the season opener of the Cape Cod League, an amateur summer league for leading pro prospects. Rich Juday, a Kettleer outfielder who plays for Michigan State, took his first round of eight swings. He hit a couple of line drives and a few grounders and sent one ball to deep leftfield.

Juday finished his turn and walked behind the wire batting cage to await his next round. "The ball just doesn't seem to go anywhere," he said to teammate Greg Haeger, a University of Michigan first baseman. "It still feels as if the bat's dead."

Haeger shrugged and said, "We'll get used to these things. That's what we're here for."

These things were the bats—wooden baseball bats—and on this night, for the first time in either of their lives, Juday and Haeger would step to the plate in an official game with a wood bat in hand. Both had played Little League, youth league, high school, American Legion, summer league and Big Ten baseball, and until now, as 20-year-olds entering their junior years in college, they had always hit with aluminum bats. "We've been working out for four or five days, trying to get used to wood," said Juday. "There have been a lot of broken bats, sore hands and blisters. The coaches are telling us, 'You have to hit with the label this way—either up or down.' Most of us didn't know what the label on a wooden bat meant."

For more than 20 years. Major League Baseball has helped fund eight amateur summer leagues, including the Cape Cod League. This season, baseball gave the league $74,000 to offset the costs of balls, umpires, scorekeepers and—most costly of all—wooden bats. Because it is one of only three of those amateur leagues to use wood, the Cape Cod League attracts some of the nation's best college players. "It's like a professional internship," says Central Michigan second baseman Darin Dreasky. "You know scouts are watching because they want to see how you make the adjustment from aluminum to wood. We all want to play pro ball, and pro ball is a wood game."

For now it is, but it won't be for long. Pressed by economic forces, the low minor leagues are likely to begin playing with aluminum bats within two years. By the turn of the century even the majors will probably have put down the lumber and picked up the metal. Like it or not, the crack of the bat is inevitably being replaced by a ping.

Some 70 miles up the road from Hyannis, the day after the Kettleers' season debut, Boston Red Sox outfielder Mike Greenwell was sorting through his bats. "I ordered mine the second week of spring training and finally got the shipment the first week of June," said Greenwell. "I've used Dwight Evans's bats, Ellis Burks's bats, Jody Reed's. I guess it's just not as simple as saying, 'I need two dozen bats,' and having them delivered a week later."

"Greenwell is a .326 lifetime hitter, the [1988] MVP runner-up," says Toronto Blue Jay assistant general manager Gord Ash. "And he's having trouble getting bats. Imagine what it's like for guys in the A leagues and kids in rookie ball, who are using wood for the first time and breaking a bat a day. The problems are acute in the minors, in terms of cost, availability and quality."

Cost is the biggest reason the wooden bat is an endangered species. Wood bats break; metal bats don't. It's as simple as that. The college game came to grips with this harsh reality in 1974, when the NCAA approved the aluminum bat. "I wish we were all subsidized by the major leagues and could have wood throughout the game," says North Carolina coach Mike Roberts. "But it's economically unfeasible. In college, each player gets an aluminum bat [cost: $70], and most of the players use that one bat the entire season. Over the course of the fall and spring seasons, we'd probably use more than 50 dozen wooden bats." At $14 per bat, that's a difference of about $7,500 a year, a figure no college athletic director can afford to ignore.

Los Angeles Dodger hitting coach Ben Hines is concerned about the availability of wood for bats. "If good wood is getting harder and harder to find for the top major league hitters, then you see what minor league players have to use. College, high school and Little League teams would be getting sawdust glued together if they still used wood. You're going to see aluminum creep farther and farther up the professional pyramid."

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