It’s a summer evening and I have plans to go out for the next few nights, so tonight is a quiet one at home. The Phillies are in the thick of the pennant race, which means that baseball is on the radio, tv and/or computer.
While our national pastime has modernized it’s playing equipment like most other sports, the bats used in professional baseball are still made of wood as they have been for about 150 years. With rare exception, little leagues up through college baseball have used aluminum bats since the 1980s.
This transition from wood to metal and composite equipment took a number of years and my sports “career” spanned this revolution – I used wooden bats for most of little league, learned to play tennis with a wooden racket (I believe it had Jimmy Connors signature), my first set of golf clubs were hand-me-downs from my father and the “woods” were actually persimmon, I learned to scull in a heavy wooden boat that looked a lot like what you see in a Thomas Eakins painting from the 19th Century.
The goals of most equipment innovation in the last 30 years, aside from corporate profit, have been to reduce the gaps between good, average and bad players, or give wealthier individuals, teams (or nations) an advantage in competition. While having technology replace some amount of practice and hard work is not the most laudable goal, at least the equipment arms race has enabled a lot more people get and stay engaged and feel good about their game. In the interest of full disclosure, I was never an equipment buff, but I’m pretty sure my current racquet and clubs will last forever – I didn’t feel the need to be cool or trendy, but wasn’t looking to be mocked either.
Before there were metal bats, there was a lot of superstition and individual bats of the same weight and length had very different reputations on the neighborhood diamonds. Sometime you knew the good one based on a scar from it’s use or a piece of black or red tape on the handle. Like Robert Redford’s bat in “The Natural,” there really were magic bats, which was great until you broke one and everyone was mad at you for the next couple of games. I now think the magic came from the fact that the bat had been alive before it was milled and might have had a soul – it certainly did when a ball snuck through the infielders or an unlikely hero did something big in the late innings.
When aluminum arrived, we were all seduced by it’s resemblance to a jet plane and it’s aura of invincability. It also made a much cooler sound when you connected on a fastball – at least in the mind of a 12 year old. As the team acquired more metal bats, the Louisville Sluggers and their cheaper competitors spent the season leaning against to fence untouched and unloved except for one of the younger players who had to get them to and from the coach’s car and in and out of the bat bag. The magic was gone.
While it’s possible I used a wooden bat playing pickup ball at the rec center during my teens (the city couldn’t afford aluminum bats and sometimes we had to go with what they had in the rec center closet), I was probably 12 or 13 the last time I used one in a big game in league competition. I don’t remember that at bat and I’m sure I never will, but I’m very glad I got to play baseball the old fashioned way. In the years since, I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment from softball during college intramurals, the lawyers’ league, and playing with the crew from the Pen and Pencil. I’ve reached for bats hoping they had some magic in them, but the assessment was more a rough guestimate about the quality of their engineering than a communion between batter and bat based on a feeling that you can’t explain.
I mostly run and do yoga now, and don’t expect to play competitive baseball again, but I have figured out a way to get back to the wonder years of wooden equipment. When I get married someday, I’ll give my wife a Father’s Day shopping list of wooden sports gear including a tennis racket and a baseball bat (and matching minatures). The list won’t be too long because I still have my mother’s Flexible Flyer (talk about an antique 😉 and a couple of authentic and slightly scarred hockey sticks stored safely in my parents’ basement (the attachment to a goal scoring hockey stick is at least as strong as it is for a magical baseball bat – you use it until it breaks and you keep it lovingly fortified with tape to minimize wear and tare). I’m looking forward to passing the wonders on to the next generation, and to be honest I don’t expect I’ll need the latest and greatest equipment to impress a pre-schooler or little-leaguer (unless I marry a total princess and here genes predominate ;-), and by the time they get to high school I won’t be cool no matter what I’m doing, what I’m swinging, or who’s shoes I’m wearing 😉