Maple bats became a hot button issue in baseball last season because of the way they break. Rather than simply cracking, maple bats exploded, which raised fears that shards could be a health hazard for players and fans. That sent players rushing back to the traditional ash bats, made famous by Louisville Slugger, in droves.
Thanks to a species of beetle, those players may need to make another switch. An article in Men's Journal points out that beetles have laid waste to ash trees across the midwest, and have drawn close to the Pennsylvania crop used to make Louisville Sluggers. According to Frank Lowenstein of the Nature Conservancy, it's only a matter of time, though.
"At the turn of the 20th century, many bats were made of elm and chestnut," he says. "Now we’ve lost nearly all of those trees. Of 16 species of ash in North America, we’re looking at the loss of all 16. Anywhere in the country you are looking at an ash tree, those will be gone."
It's premature to consider at this point, but could this lead down the slippery slope to non-wood bats? You'd have to imagine that baseball would explore and exhaust every other possibility before making that decision, but the simple fact is that baseball bats aren't a particularly sustainable good in a world that's seeing drastic changes in the variety and availability of trees.
Let's hope it never comes to that. The sound of the crack of a bat is one of the purest sounds in all the world, and indistinguishable from the spirit of baseball. More than night World Series games, domed stadiums and the designated hitter combined, the loss of wood bats would signal a break from the past that would have a serious impact on the way baseball is played, watched and enjoyed.