Answer Man: What makes a perfect baseball bat?

News-DemocratJune 16, 2014 

I've been told most baseball bats are either ash or maple. Is this true? Why don't they make bats out of something harder like oak or hickory? What about weight and length? Are there limitations? -- Bill Craft, of Fort Russell, Ill.

When they dubbed Babe Ruth the "Sultan of Swat," they weren't exaggerating.

Legend has it that Ruth started his hitting career with hickory clubs that weighed 47 to 54 ounces, which is more than 50 percent heavier than the average bat used today. Even while he went on his 60-homer binge in 1927, he was terrorizing pitchers with a 40-ounce bat, according to Daniel Russell, a Penn State professor.

But decades ago, he wasn't the only one loading up on the lumber. According to Russell, Rogers Hornsby swung a 50-ounce stick while Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio jolted the opposition with 42-ouncers. And get this: St. Louis Browns' star George Sisler reportedly hammered Victrola needles into his bat to make it heavier while even in the '50s Cincinnati's Ted Kluszeski pounded 10-penny nails into his.

As it turns out, your idea was quite in vogue in the early days of baseball. Hickory, an extremely hard, strong wood, was popular, according to www.baseball-bats.net. And, at first glance, it seems a logical choice. The heavier and stronger the bat, the faster and farther you'd think the ball would pop off it.

The trouble, experts say, is that it takes more energy and muscle to turn those heavy monsters around on the ball. So unless you're Rambo or the Incredible Hulk, you'll probably want something a little lighter to find that perfect mixture of weight, length and bat speed.

As a result, most wood baseball bats today are made from Fraxinus americana -- the white ash, usually from Pennsylvania or New York. Its mixture of toughness, durability, weight and "feel" make it the most popular for the pros. Of all the ash harvested, the top 10 percent is saved for pro bats, according to baseball-bats.net.

So for the past half-century, most batters have been using lighter weapons, says Russell. Ted Williams, Rod Carew and the beloved Stan "the Man" Musial all favored 31- to 33-ouncers. Mark McGwire stuck with a 35-ouncer in his 70-homer season in 1998. Even Detroit's Norm Cash later admitted to "corking" his bat to make it lighter when he won the batting title in 1961 with a .361 average.

Need more proof? The year after he hit 61 home runs in 1961, Roger Maris reportedly conducted an experiment. With five different bats weighing between 33 and 47 ounces, he drilled five long fly balls and correlated the distance with the bat weight. Yet even though it produced the shortest fly balls, Maris preferred the lightest bat -- the same 33-ouncer he had used to set his home run mark.

Barry Bonds then added a new wrinkle. With new curing methods, bat manufacturers have been able to take some of the weight out of maple bats, which are stronger than ash. Bonds used maple to crush his 73 home runs in 2001, and, of course, the wood immediately caught on in some circles. Still, most major leaguers reportedly stick with a bat between 31 and 35 ounces.

They don't have to. Major League Baseball rule 1.10 states only that bats cannot be more than 23/4 inches in diameter at its thickest part and no more than 42 inches in length. In addition, an indentation of up to an inch in depth and 1-2 inches in diameter at the end of the bat is permitted, and batters can treat the first 18 inches of the handle to improve grip. There is no rule governing weight.

If Einstein had played baseball, the game might look a lot different. Using strictly theoretical bat-ball collision analysis, scientists have determined that the optimum bat weight is between 15 and 18 ounces, according to articles in New Scientist and the American Journal of Physics. Of course, you can't make a durable wood bat that light.

So after extensive tests, Russell, a Ph.D. in acoustics, has come up with these recommended bat weights (in ounces): For amateur baseball players, divide your height by 3 and then add 6. For fast-pitch softball, divide height by 7 and add 20. For slow-pitch, divide height by 115 and add 24. No guarantees that this will make you a .400 hitter.

As for aluminum bats, they made a big splash starting in the 1970s as a popular alternative at the high school and college level both for their lightness and durability. But they have lost some of their luster because some say the balls fly off the bats harder and faster and wind up seriously injuring younger players unable to react quickly.

Such bats are prohibited in pro baseball, so you still hear the crack of the bat rather than a ping when you to Busch Stadium. Find all of Russell's many studies at www.acs.psu.edu/drussell/baats.html.

Today's trivia

It seems a little unbelievable today, but Michael Jordan was actually the third pick in the 1984 NBA draft. Which teams passed up His Airness and whom did they pick instead?

Answer to Sunday's trivia:

In the late 1600s, French botanist Pierre Magnol cemented his place in scientific history by becoming one of the developers of the current botanical classification system. He is thought to be the first to use the concept of plant families, in which groups of plants with common features were described. In 1703, French botanist Charles Plumier named a flowering tree on the island of Martinique after his famous colleague -- the magnolia.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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