Before an arm injury put him on the 15-day disabled list and placed his entire season in doubt, Matt Wieters was terrorizing American League pitchers in April. His slash line of .338/.370/.554 had made some wonder if he has finally figured things out and become the offensive wunderkind so many in Baltimore had originally thought he would be. You may have noticed that Wieters was wielding a bat made of ash. This, in and of itself, is not very remarkable. Ash bats are still a common sight and, as late as the mid-1990s, were the only kind of bat used in the majors.
Player preference for ash dates back to 1884 when Pete Browning, an amazing young star for the Louisville Eclipse, commissioned a young woodworker to make him a bat. The woodworker used ash lumber and Browning’s first game with the bat was a multi-hit game. Browning committed himself to ash and others began copying what he did in hope that they too would be successful. To meet the demand, the woodworker committed himself to making bats and trademarked the name Louisville Slugger.
Over time, the benefits of using ash beyond Browning’s success pushed maple, hickory and white pine largely out of the game. First, ash grows straight, has few knots, and can tolerate living throughout the entire Eastern United States, making it easy and cheap to find a proper piece of lumber to turn. Second, it rarely results in a broken bat, which was quite important when money was not exactly flowing through the game as it is now. Third, ash has a low density, which makes it a pretty light wood to swing. Finally, ash is rather flexible making vibration off the bat less bothersome, a must during a time when no one wore batting gloves.
Recently, some competition has come from sugar maples spawned largely by Barry Bonds’ 73-home run season when he switched over from ash. Maple is now found in the hands of the majority of batters in the majors. This turnback to maple might become more complete over the next couple of decades, but for reasons beyond batter preference with respect to performance. An entity arguably less popular than Barry Bonds is responsible for this: the emerald ash borer.
The emerald ash borer is an invasive insect from Eastern Russia and China, which likely made a successful immigration to North America in the 1990s and was not discovered for about a decade, when natural resource specialists tried to figure out why vast forests of ash were dying out. The organism has a two-year life cycle where it lives in the trunk and branches consuming the tree’s phloem (which conducts most of the tree’s nutrients) and then flies away to lay eggs in other ash. This process will kill a tree within two years.
The great hope this past winter was that the emerald ash borer populations would collapse with the polar vortex. The polar vortex, first described in 1853, is basically a polar cyclone that occasionally dips down to lower latitudes bringing shorts bouts of extreme cold. The emerald ash borer cannot handle temperatures below zero well. In northern Minnesota, a kill-off of 80 percent was noted, but was down to about 40 percent in samples taken from central Minnesota. These levels suggest that ash may be preserved with some difficulty in Canada, but is unlikely to remain a strong American species. Add to this the expected temperature increases of about five degrees over the next several decades due to our current understanding of global warming, and the range of the emerald ash borer will likely entrench the pest deep into Canada’s ash forests.
These concerns have convinced several bat companies to begin finding alternatives to ash lumber. An employee from Louisville Slugger noted that their concerns over the emerald ash borer resulted in them finding suitable species for bats and how to secure supplies. Publically, they have mentioned focus on the yellow birch, but that may simply be misdirection as we mentioned in a recent Camden Depot article. European beech has been an up-and-coming wood that is being used by some of the smaller bat companies. Louisville Slugger had been reported to have a beech supply agreement fall through in the mid-2000s. If a reliable supply can be secured, the game will decided by maples and beech.
The commercial extinction of ash may not seem like much of a calamity. However, I kindly disagree. Beyond the ecological considerations, ash has been central to baseball. An ash bat connects us through time to the pioneers of this sport. When we hold an ash bat, we commune with those who came before us. Our grandchildren will not know this and they probably will not care. Of course, our great, great grandparents probably wonder how rich our lives are without the prevalence of American chestnuts.
Jon Shepherd blogs about the Orioles at Camden Depot. Follow him on Twitter: @CamdenDepot. His thoughts on the O’s appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.