Gone Batty: The History of the Baseball Bat

Picture this: You are walking up to home plate. You glance at the mound and spot the hulking figure of Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals glaring at you as you make your way to the batter’s box. The crowd is hushed with expectant anticipation as you dig your back foot into the dirt. Gibson comes set and you do the same, but something is wrong. Your hands don’t feel the weight of your weapon. Where is your baseball bat? Gibson goes into his windup and your heart starts to pound. You try to call time, but your hands are frozen together. His windup slows and your pulse quickens and after what seems like minutes of torture he finally reaches the release point. The ball comes at you so quickly that you barely have time to blink. You are helpless. You are batless. There is nothing you can do.

Imagine baseball without bats. It wouldn’t be baseball, that’s for sure. When you think about it, there are only two things that you need to play baseball. The first is a ball. The second is a bat. One is arguably just as important as the other. Take everything else away–even clothes–and you can play baseball in your birthday suit with just a bat and ball. It is a simple game that is not simple. A bat is a simple tool that is not simple. But where does the bat come from?

Welcome to the Baseball Bat Lane

In the beginning, it was the wild west. Bats came in all shapes and sizes. They were long, short, rounded, and flat. They were curved, straight, and jagged. But it didn’t take very long for those playing the new popular game to realize that a rounded bat worked the best. At that time, during the mid-19th century, there was a consensus reached that to bring balance to baseball there needed to be some regulations on the bat. And in 1859 a decision was made. Bats could be no larger than 2 1/2 inches in diameter, but they could be any length. Imagine walking up to the plate with a six-foot-long bat! Ten years later, in 1869, it was decided that a length of 42 inches was the maximum length, decreasing the plate coverage by a few inches. But, there was still no regulation on shape.

Louisville Slugger

Pete Browning played in Major League Baseball for thirteen years, from 1882 through the 1894 season. Nicknamed the Gladiator, Browning was one of the premier offensive threats in the early professional game. He finished his career with a lifetime batting average of .341, which is still one of the highest in MLB history. He was also the inspiration for the Louisville Slugger.

A seventeen-year-old by the name of John Hillerich was attending a baseball game in Louisville in 1884 in which Browning was playing. Hillerich witnessed Old Pete break his bat. Browning grew frustrated and Hillerich knew just what to do. After the ballgame, John approached Pete and offered to make him a new bat. Thrilled with the prospect of some new lumber, Pete accompanied John to his father’s woodworking shop. Browning told Hillerich what he wanted in a bat and John did just as he was instructed. The bat was created and now it was time to game test it.

The following game, with the new bat in hand, Browning went three for three. And you know how baseball people are. If something works, then you have to keep with it or face the consequences of screwing up a good thing. Word spread and so did the desire for these new bats that were soon marked with the label of Louisville Slugger. The rest, as they say, is history.

Baseball Bat Regulations Continue

Even after the birth of the now famous Louisville Slugger, regulations on bats continued through the end of the 19th century. Two of the most memorable regulations were the banning of the flat-ended bat, which became required to be rounded (or eventually cupped), and the widening of the maximum diameter to 2 3/4 inches. And while a brief look at the bats of old might conjure up thoughts of, “how could they ever use such archaic clubs?”, there is really little difference to the modern wooden bat. One difference is handle size, with the modern bat having a much thinner handle. The second variation is the weight of the bat. The modern bat is much lighter and points to the old adage that things were much tougher in the old days.

The Darkness Creeps In

Messing with a good thing is a bad idea, but somebody always has to do it. In this case it is a combination of one man and two companies. We’ll start with the man. His name was William Shroyer. Mr. Shroyer patented the first metal bat in 1924. That’s it. He didn’t sell it to millions of “ping” hungry little leaguers, he just patented it. The millions came later in 1970 with the birth of the aluminum bat by Worth. The 70s dragged on and a company named Easton came into the picture. They created a “better” aluminum bat and popularity increased to astronomical proportions. The evolution of the metal bat has continued to include titanium, double-walled, and scandium-aluminum bats. And while the metal bat is widely used in all levels of the national pastime, it is still banned in professional baseball.

The Sun Also Rises

The metal bat has a hold on the game that will likely not be lifted anytime soon, although there has been a resurgence of wooden bat companies. Ballplayers young and old are returning to the “crack” of the bat and not the nails on the chalkboard “ping”. Companies like Pillbox Bat Company, Warstic, 805 Bats, and Z Stick Baseball Company, to name just a few, are producing well-made, beautifully crafted bats.

The baseball bat continues to evolve along with the game and who knows what it will be 100 years from now, possibly constructed of an unknown material found on Mars. But one thing is for sure, regardless of construction, nobody wants to step up to the plate without a bat in their hands, especially not against a pitcher like Bob Gibson.

“Main Photo”
Embed from Getty Images

 

Players Mentioned:

Bob Gibson, Pete Browning


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