Rules Of Baseball: The Bat

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The bat may not be longer than 42 inches or more than 2 3/4 inches in diameter. Each bat is to “be a smooth, round stick not more than 2 3/4 inches in diameter at the thickest part and not more than 42 inches in length. The bat shall be one piece of solid wood.”

Like those of the ball, standards for the bat have remained largely unchanged in this century, but the nineteenth century saw several versions. In 1862 the first restriction was introduced, as the bat was to be not more than 2 1/2 inches in diameter. In 1895, the present maximum of 2 3/4 inches was established. The length was limited in 1868 to 42 inches, as it is today.

Big Bats, Little Bats

No weight requirements for bats have ever been specified, and it’s probably a good thing, since fashions seem to change when it comes to bat weights. Babe Ruth used a fifty-two-ounce bat. “It’s not only heavy but long,” Ruth told Baseball magazine. “Most bats weigh under forty [ounces]. My theory is the bigger the bat, the faster the ball will travel. It’s really the weight of the bat that drives the ball, and I like the heavy bat. I have strength enough to swing it, and when I meet the ball, I want to feel that I have something in my hands that will make it travel.” It wasn’t until about thirty years later that “bat speed” became the key term in bat-chat.

Another believer in the heavy bat was Hack Miller. In 1923, he hit a then-impressive twenty home runs using what he claimed was a sixty-five-ounce bat. Though he played in portions of others, that was his only full major league season. Perhaps he was just plain tuckered out after a year of swinging that giant club.

By the 1950s, lighter bats had come into favor. Mickey Mantle used a bat in the range of thirty-two to thirty-four ounces; Willie Mays liked a thirty-three or thirty-four. As a spokesman for Spaulding said then, “Our normal assortment of a dozen bats used to range from thirty-six to forty-two ounces [but] we can’t even give away the big bats anymore.” The trend has continued as Mark McGwire, who designed his own bat in 1987 and hasn’t switched since, uses a bat that’s 34 1/2 inches long and weighs thirty-three ounces (that’s 1 1/2 inches shorter than Roger Maris’s and nine ounces lighter than Babe Ruth’s). Its label says “BIG STICK,” which McGwire can get away with, even though his bat is close to the average size of thirty-four inches, thirty-two ounces.

If you like to get technical, talk about bats with Al Campanis, he of blacks-can’t-be-managers fame. Here’s what he has to say: “It has been proven that energy or force is equal to mass times velocity squared. In applying this formula to batting, the significant factor is velocity, since it is squared.

“In other words,” Campanis continued, “the faster swing you can make with the lighter bat more than compensates for the reduced weight.” If Einstein had spent more time at Ebbets Field and less at Princeton University, he might have come up with E = mc2 a little sooner.

Bat-Making

Major league bats are made by either the Hillerich and Bradsby Company of Jeffersonville, Indiana (across the river from Louisville, Kentucky, where the company began and from which it took its famous product name, “Louisville Slugger”); the Adirondack Bat Company (owned by Rawlings) in Dolgeville, New York; or Worth (manufacturers of the “Tennessee Thumper”), of Tullahoma, Tennessee.

White ash has long been the preferred wood (Fraxinus americana, if you’re interested). Most of it comes from New York and Pennsylvania, and the most suitable ash trees are sixty-to-seventy-five years old and roughly twelve to fourteen inches in diameter. The best part of the log is the butt, or base, of the trunk. The bats you buy at the sporting goods store are made by automatic lathes, but pro bats are shaped on hand lathes.

Colored Bats

The dark bats you see have a so-called “Hickory Finish”; the tan ones have a light brown stain, named the “Hornsby Finish,” after Rogers, whose lifetime .358 batting average suggests he knew a thing or two about bats. The two-tone bats date from a visit that Harry “The Hat” Walker made to the Hillerich and Bradsby plant. The only bat they had in stock that day that fit his needs was being used to stir stain. He took it anyway and got four hits that evening. The two-tone bat became his trademark, and to this day, it is known as having a “Walker Finish.” More recently, there was the (George) “Foster Finish,” for the black beauties he used. Tony Gwynn’s favorite design has a black barrel with a white handle, while Andy Van Slyke chose a rose-colored barrel with a natural handle. These natural shades are allowed, but Rule 1. 10d prohibits “colored” bats.

Metal Bats

Professional baseball has for years been the last bastion of the wooden bat: Metals bats are not allowed in the majors but aluminum accounts for some ninety percent of bat sales. Since 1974 metal bats have been legal in college play and it has long ceased to be news when a team signs up a prospect who has never used a wooden bat. Not so many years ago, Sports Illustrated decreed the wooden bat on the verge of obsolescence.

The tide may be turning, however, as the NCAA passed new regulations in 1998. Bat makers were required to make their bats heavier and with a smaller barrel, to slow bat speed and reduce the velocity of the ball flying off the bat. Injuries–especially to pitchers–is the primary explanation, but cost is a factor, too. (Some aluminum bats cost $300 or more.)

Illegal Bats

The sharp “pinging” sound a metal bat makes when it comes in contact with a ball is a dead giveaway, so it simply isn’t possible to get away with using a metal bat in the majors. But a number of other illegal bats do get put into play.

The flattened bat is one variety. Bobby Bonds recalled, “When I was a rookie, I spent four hours flattening one side of the bat where I made contact . . . In my first at-bat it broke. I never doctored a bat again. But a lot of guys use cork and other things.”

To doctor a bat with cork requires only a little woodworking skill. The end of a regulation bat is sawed off, and a hole roughly 6 to 10 inches long and about an inch in diameter is drilled and packed with cork. The end is glued back on and, presto, The Natural‘s magic bat comes to life. (Wonderboy, the bat Roy Hobbs used in the Malamud novel, wasn’t corked, but it was made from a tree split by lightning.)

Some say that corking adds as much as fifty feet to a long ball and gives a grounder added zip to carry it through the infield. It isn’t the cork that adds the oomph, by the way. It’s probably more a matter of bat speed. The cork (or rubber or whatever is used) merely deadens the sound the bat makes on contact, since a hollowed out bat will make more of a boom! than a crack!

Just ask Albert Belle about corked bats. He knows more than most of us, and the confiscation of one of his corked bats resulted in one of the more intriguing now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t events of recent baseball history.

On Friday evening, July 5, 1994, the White Sox and Indians were playing at the new Comiskey Park. A rumor was making the rounds that Belle’s bat had been corked. Pale Hose manager Gene Lamont strode to home plate and challenged the bat’s legality. Umpire crew chief Dave Phillips promptly confiscated the bat and locked it in his dressing room for later inspection.

Along with other members of the Indians, Jason Grimsley knew that Belle’s bat was illegal and, worse yet, that an illegal bat meant an almost certain suspension for Belle, the team’s best hitter. The White Sox and Indians were in a tight playoff race and Grimsley recognized that they needed any edge they could get. He took matters into his own hands.

While the game was going on, Grimsley headed back to the dressing area, removed a ceiling tile in his manager’s office, and clambered on top of an eighteen-inch wide cinder block wall. Guided by a flashlight and with a legal bat in tow, he made his way in secret to the umpires’ locker room, where he switched the bats.

Grimsley’s escapade quickly became no more than a footnote to history. The umpires knew immediately upon examining the bat in their locker room that it had been switched. It bore the name of Belle’s teammate Paul Sorrento. (Every one of Belle’s bats was corked, so Grimsley had been hard pressed to find a legitimate one, choosing Sorrento’s by default.) The enraged umpires made various threats and there was even talk of calling in the FBI. On Sunday, after immunity had been promised for the culprit who’d purloined the corked bat, the Indians handed it over. An X-ray subsequently showed it had indeed been “treated with cork.” Just to be sure, the bat was sawed in half, revealing that a hole had been drilled in its end, a cork plug inserted, and the end plugged, sanded, and stained. Grimsley’s role remained unacknowledged until April of 1999, when he came clean. The New York Times ran the story on page one.

It isn’t only cork that makes its way into the barrel of illegal bats. There’s a story of a minor leaguer who managed to insert a tube of mercury inside his bat, believing that its shifting weight provided him a power boost.

Rule 1.10 rules out some other bats, too. Laminated bats or other “experimental” bats are forbidden, except when the manufacturer has received official Rules Committee approval. On the other hand, cupped bats are acceptable. (A cupped bat has a curved indentation at its end up to an inch deep.) Also called a “teacup” bat, it has been used by, among others, Keith Hernandez. When George Foster was mired in one of the slumps that characterized his career with the Mets, he borrowed a teacup bat from Hernandez and got four hits in a game.

Toby Harrah had his bat confiscated in 1982–he’d sawed off the handle and then refastened it with glue and a wooden peg. However, American League president Lee MacPhail declined to take further action against Harrah, apparently believing Harrah’s explanation that he hadn’t doctored his bat to produce more power; he had simply shortened it because a new shipment of size thirty-fours hadn’t arrived.

The Pine-Tar Incident

When talk turns to bats, the brouhaha over George Brett’s pine tar bat invariably comes up.

The event in question occurred on July 24, 1983. Brett came to the plate in the visitor’s half of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium. He and his Royals teammates were down 4-3, and there were two down and a man on. Brett, with the simple efficiency of a man who was arguably the best hitter in baseball at that moment, hit the ball out of the park.

Billy Martin, then in his umpteenth (but not his last) tour of duty with the Yankees, emerged from the Yankees dugout and played the card he had been saving for just such an occasion: he complained to the umpire that Brett had used an illegal bat.

Craig Nettles had observed two weeks earlier that Brett’s bat was practically awash in pine tar. Brett, you see, was one of the last players in the majors to hit barehanded rather than using batting gloves. “I like the feel of raw hands on raw wood,” Brett said. Apparently, word got around the Yankees dugout. “I had known about the tar,” said Rich Gossage, the Yankees relief pitcher who gave up Brett’s homer. “But when I watched that ball, all I could think of was a two-run homer.”

But more conniving minds prevailed, at least that day. Martin made his case to the umpires: the pine tar was too far up on the bat. He referred to Rule 1.10c, which then specified, “The bat handle, for not more than eighteen inches from its end, may be covered or treated with any material (including pine tar) to improve the grip. Any such material, pine tar included, which extends past the eighteen-inch limitation, in the umpire’s judgment, shall cause the bat to be removed from the game.”

Then there’s Rule 6.06d: “He [who] uses or attempts to use a bat that . . . has been altered or tampered with in such a way to improve the distance factor . . . [shall be] called out [and] the player shall be ejected from the game.”

Ergo, concluded Martin, there’s no home run, and Brett is outta here.

After some discussion, the bat was duly examined. Home plate umpire Tim McClelland, lacking another suitable measuring device, laid the bat on the plate, which is seventeen inches across. The tar extended quite a bit more than another inch.

“I was laughing at the umpires when they were deciding what to do,” Brett said later. His smile disappeared when, after the umpires huddled, he was declared out. The Yankees were the winners, 4-3.

Brett went berserk. He actually made contact with the umpires and, in his words, told them “everything my father used to tell me when I brought home my report card.” He ended up with his head locked under the arm of umpire-in-chief Joe Brinkman.

That’s not the end of the story, of course. The Royals filed a formal protest with American League President Lee MacPhail. Even they probably didn’t think much of their chances, given that in MacPhail’s ten years in office he had never upheld a protest. Five days later he did the unexpected and reversed the umps’ decision.

“It is the position of this office that the umpires’ interpretation, while technically defensible, is not in accord with the intent or spirit of the rules and that the rules do not provide that a hitter be called out for excessive use of pine tar. The rules provide instead that the bat be removed from the game. The protest of the Kansas City club is therefore upheld, and the home run by Brett is permitted to stand. The score of the game becomes 5-4 Kansas City with Kansas City at bat and two out in the top of the ninth inning.” Thus, Brett’s homer was restored and the game was completed (final score: 5-4).

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