MLB Bats Whittled Down To Uneven Playing Field

By Diane M. Grassi
Updated: June 26, 2007

NEVADA — As Barry Bonds comes ever closer to breaking the national pastime’s hollowed home run record, currently held by Hank Aaron at 755, the controversy regarding illicit performance enhancing drug use, which may forever taint Bonds’ entire career, does accomplish taking the focus off of Major League Baseball and its own shortcomings.

The scrutiny which has been paid, in only just the past two years, upon drug use among MLB players, while having been a black eye for MLB, is also convenient as Commissioner Bud Selig need not address myriad other issues which also play their part in preserving the integrity of the game.

For example, MLB has done little exploration into the variations in equipment over just the past 10 years or so and more specifically the wooden bat itself. A number of questions come to mind. Is it just coincidence that Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001 after he switched his bat’s wood from that of ash to a hand-lathed maple?

Is the accelerated breakage of bats over the past five plus years due to an acutely thinning bat handle with a larger barrel and lighter weight or is it the non-discriminate MLB approval process of the making and even storage of bats that makes them more vulnerable?

Is it a coincidence that prior to 2003, MLB welcomed smaller bat makers as suppliers to MLB players but suddenly instituted an exorbitant certification fee with nearly impossible to acquire insurance liability policies for smaller operations, costing thousands upon thousands of dollars?

And is it not worth taking a look at why there is such a difference in the quality of bats Hillerich & Bradsby Co., the manufacturer of Louisville Sluggers, provides only specific big leaguers, but does not do so for others? In fact, the company proudly admits it.

Preserving the sanctity of the game is multi-faceted. Although technology and safety standards over time have essentially been a beneficial reward for players, it is hard to measure the consistency of the game of MLB if issues such as bat manufacture and its own baseball operations are done on a selective and arbitrary basis. And when it ultimately impacts the way the game is played and its future records, it should be routinely examined.

Hillerich & Bradsby, although deemed the official bat of MLB, is not the exclusive supplier of bats for its players. However, it is still the number one provider to MLB with about a 60% share of its bats supply and curries favor and power, due to its longevity and stature in the history of the game, not to mention the power which is bestowed upon it by MLB, which few other manufacturers enjoy.

In 2002, there were 48 MLB bat manufacturers, and surprisingly little thought was put into the verification process in order to become a bat maker supplier of MLB bats other than for the supplier to provide a sample bat made out of a single piece of wood.

But in 2003, MLB went to the other extreme. In a form letter sent to all bat makers in December 2002, MLB stated it would start requiring that they carry $10 million worth of liability insurance, and indemnify MLB, its shareholders, directors, officers, employees and agents attached to various product liability issues.

In addition, the certification fee was increased to $10,000.00 per year, necessary to provide bat makers with the privilege of selling their bats to MLB players. Since that time, although the liability coverage has been reduced to $5 million per year, it still remains prohibitively expensive for boutique manufacturers, or most other domestic suppliers other than Hillerich and Bradsby, to do business with MLB.

Carolina Clubs, a MLB certified bat maker from Florida, was nearly pushed out of doing business with MLB, as to find a guaranteed insurance carrier of any kind in the hurricane-ridden state of Florida.

However, virtually overnight in 2003, bat suppliers were whittled down to a mere 14 for that season. In 2007, there are supposedly 20-25 suppliers, although MLB makes it difficult to even corroborate such information.

According to the head of MLB Baseball Operations at the time in 2003, Sandy Alderson, “The administrative fee was originally intended to help us defray the costs of inspecting bats, approving bats and for all administrative work and testing.” MLB needed $140,000.00 to approve the bats of 14 companies?

In 1862, MLB first restricted the diameter of the barrel, requiring it not exceed 2.5 inches. It was increased in 1895 to 2.75 inches in diameter, as it remains today. 1868 saw the limit put on a length of 42 inches, as it also remains today. No weight requirements, either minimum or maximum have ever been required.

With those parameters, combined with improvements in technology and players’ bat speeds, it could be argued that it is a far different game than even Babe Ruth played. For example, the Babe used a 42-ounce bat as opposed to the average weight of 32 ounces used by today’s MLB players.

Ash bats were exclusively used for decades, after hickory was phased out, until 1997 when Sam Holman of Ottawa, Canada and his Sam Bat caught the attention of then Blue Jays star player, Joe Carter. He then supposedly talked up Holman’s bats which eventually in 1999 found their way into the hands of Barry Bonds.

Bonds went on a tear hitting 374 of his total home runs with the sugar maple bats from Sam Holman and broke Mark McGuire’s 1998 home run season record of 70 by besting him with his 73 in 2001.

Holman’s bats have been used by over 500 MLB players and he is expected to furnish Bonds with the bat used for his number 756. Given the proximity of Holman to some of the best maple tree forests in North America in Ottawa, Holman’s business has thrived over the past ten years, although he is selling his business in order to retire. Ash trees also hail from a northern climate, and are harvested primarily from the New York-Pennsylvania area.

The arguments over the consistency and flight of the ball with either wood are never-ending, but there are distinct differences between the two woods. Ash supposedly has more flex, but is not as heavy a wood as maple, producing a bit less flight of the ball upon impact. Additionally, ash bats have less longevity than maple bats and break more frequently and are more apt to shatter, flake and splinter upon breaking.

Sugar or rock maple, considered the finest maple for bats, are more expensive, and range in price from $70.00 -$130.00 while ash bats range between $50.00 and $75.00, yet need to replaced more frequently than maple. Most players using maple claim that the bat travels farther off of the barrel’s “sweet spot” as opposed to ash.

But because the wood itself is a heavier grade, the barrels are made slightly narrower than the ash bats in order to accommodate a lighter weight comparable to ash. And when maple bats do eventually break, they do so in large pieces as opposed to splinters.

The lack of restrictions on weight or the lack of prescribed storage care of bats by MLB, could have a profound impact on whether or not a bat breaks or explodes upon impact. Such endangers its players and spectators. Players go through an average of 60-70 bats a season.

But the moisture content of the wood upon manufacture as well as in storage, whether the bat is hand-lathed or completely machine made, as well as the bat’s weight and handle diameter, could all alter the bat’s ultimate performance and longevity. Seattle Mariner, Ichiro Suzuki, for example, has his own humidor for his entire bat supply.

And why should a bat maker, such as Sam Holman, who produces several thousand bats each season to MLB as opposed to Hillerich and Bradsby’s 750,000, foot a bill of $65,000.00 per year for liability insurance? The supposed interest in increasing liability insurance fees by MLB for bat makers is an easy way for MLB not to address the incessant breakage of its bats.

Perhaps it is the quality of MLB bat inspectors, or a lack of a minimum quality standard of wood or the non-requirement of prescribed weight ratio of bat barrels to handles. But instead of MLB looking for a better standardization process for its bats, it would rather thrust the responsibility onto the bat makers, and thereby still leaving players and spectators at risk.

Also of note, according to Hillerich and Bradsby’s Chuck Schupp, head of its professional division, “We have a priority list of players. A lot of it is based on a personal relationship. If someone is loyal to us, we’ll take care of them.”

And although players are not required to sign exclusivity contracts with bat makers, as individual teams assume all costs for players’ bats, Schupp says there is a “Louisville Slugger A-List.” It includes Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, Carlos Delgado and Ken Griffey, Jr., among select others.

If star players are treated preferably by Schupp for their Louisville Slugger bats, does that mean that average or up and coming players are at a distinct disadvantage while not getting the best product from the same manufacturer?

Should not MLB perhaps look into that?

And finally, unless MLB and its Commissioner is willing to look at all matters of inequity in its sport, whether it be an issue between players, between equipment manufacturers and its players, between baseball operations and its suppliers or a lack of standardization when it comes to equipment, MLB should not be permitted to point the finger exclusively at the use of performance enhancing drugs as the sole threat to the sanctity of the game. For that is far from the only difference-maker in varying performance results in the game of MLB today.

And if MLB wants to be taken seriously in preserving the integrity of the game, it must do a far better job of it rather than its present lethargic effort. For certainly, they are not fooling the fans and the fans and the players deserve better.