What does a bright green metallic beetle have to do with the most popular and most significant baseball bat in American sports culture? If you’re Larimer & Norton (L&N), the timber and sawmill division of Hillerich & Bradsby (H&B) and the manufacturer of the Louisville Slugger, it cuts to the core of a centuries-old tradition. Historically, wooden baseball bats have been made from the forests of white ash since the game’s inception in 1849. White ash wood was the primary material for both baseball and softball bats. This flexible and straight-grained wood dominated wooden bat manufacturing until the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the introduction of aluminum bats took away a large portion of its market share. At the present time, wooden bats now comprise less than 10 percent of bat production and sales. Already at a dangerous crossroads with a decreasing market share due to aluminum and maple bat production as well as a deep recession, the use of ash in wood bat production may reach its final toll with the presence of a new threat called the emerald ash borer that promises its extinction.
Along an extensive corridor nestled between the borders of New York and Pennsylvania in the stretch of the Alleghany Mountains is where you find the sturdy ash trees that the Larimer & Norton Mill of Akeley, PA uses to make the famous Louisville sluggers. These remote forests of ash trees that stand majestically amongst cherry, maple and aspen now face a new foe in the form of an exotic beetle first detected in 2002 in the Detroit area of Michigan. Since that time, the emerald ash borer beetle has systematically killed 100 million of these trees as it has moved across 14 states and into two provinces of Canada.
For the makers of the Louisville Slugger, the ash tree has a distinctive pattern and long fibers, which give it its flexible and durable attributes that 60 percent of professional Major League players trust. Through the Larimer & Norton Pennsylvania Mill, 650,000 bats a year are made from harvested ash trees that are between 60 and 80 years old. Bats made from ash trees run for about $60 retail.
Louisville Slugger Billet Production
The first sign that the emerald ash borer beetle or (EAB for short) was a threat to the baseball billets and blanks manufacturers was in July of 2009, when its presence was located in southwestern New York. Strategically, all ash trees harvested for the baseball bat market stretch from the north to south corridor along the state borders of Pennsylvania and New York. Perceptions among industry professionals is the ash found in the north of the corridor is too heavy in weight for major league baseball players, while the ash trees located to the south are too soft. Only 6 to 7 percent of the billets produced from select ash logs located in this New York-Pennsylvania corridor meet the rigorous, high-quality standards of Major League Baseball. The best quality ash logs that can be produced into MLB bats are of a straight-grain with a horizontal grain deviation along the bottom 20 inches of the bat (this is the handle portion, which is most susceptible to breakage) that must not offset by more than 1 inch. High quality ash logs must also have a consistent width found in their growth rings with an industry preference towards 8 to 9 growth rings per inch.
The Larimer & Norton plants in northern Pennsylvania ship 62,000 billets a month to the Louisville Slugger factory in Louisville, Kentucky for the production of adult, softball, youth and professional grade bats. On average, an ash log 40 inches in length produces eight or more billets, 10-foot logs produce 24-inch billets and 14-foot logs produce 32-inch billets, all with a 3″ diameter. These billets, stacked without air passages, are dried to a moisture content range of 10 to 12 percent using mild temperatures for 28 to 30 days. After the drying process, the billets are then processed to a 2.75″ diameter and a length of 37 inches.
Why Maple Can’t Compare
In 2008, the Major League Baseball’s safety and health advisory committee met to discuss the safety and future of baseball bats made from low-density maple wood. Approximately 2,200 bats had broken and shattered sending shards of wood flying in every direction in 2.5 months of the 2008 season, subsequently banning maple bats from the minor leagues. Not only does maple break more easily, it also costs more to harvest and produce. According to the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, recoveries, defined as the volume of usable billets produced, are much lower for maple than for ash due to their internal defects, and as a result a higher percentage of maple is removed from production.
If the Emerald Ash Beetle has its way, there will be a fundamental change in the baseball bats and billet industry from ash wood to other possible species. Many suggestions have been discussed, such as returning to maple, but other species such as beech, yellow birch and red oak all have those same durable and sturdy attributes. If infestations prove the downfall of ash, it certainly will not be the end of wood baseball manufacturers.
Regardless of which species of wood baseball manufacturers select in the future, the drying of the wood billets for America’s most popular sport will need to be revisited. With Wagner Meters’ long line of products from hand-held meters to stack probe sensors to advanced in-kiln moisture measurement systems, determining with accuracy the appropriate moisture content range throughout the entire milling and lumber operation is easier than ever. Periodically spot-checking can now reduce waste from over-drying or under-drying your stock. Built to last, these devices are specifically constructed for use on mill and wood manufacturing floors. Consider these moisture meters as an investment in the improvement of your wood drying and quality control when efficiency and high standards count.