Though it takes a bat, ball, and a diamond-shaped field to play baseball, baseball bats seldom bask in limelight. Not quite surprising as the player who hits the home run is far more important than the bat used to hit that home run. Even people who are well-versed with the origin and history of the sport don't give due respect to the history of baseball bats―an important chapter of the history of this sport.
Origin and History of Baseball Bats
Baseball bats have come a long way from the crude handmade bats of the 1800's, when the sport was in its development phase, to the advanced, machine-made bats used today. During the development phase of the game, the players experimented with their bats, so as to make them more user-friendly.
By the beginning of 1850s, players had realized that using a round baseball bat enhanced their ability to hit the ball. The next helpful discovery was the modification of its shape, with a thinner handle to provide better grip and broad barrel to increase the surface area so as to connect the ball better. Over the years, most of the payers started using rounded bats with a broad barrel, though some still preferred their traditional counterparts. Such experiments pertaining to the shape, size, and wood used to make these bats continued till 1859, when the first rule about the size of the bat came into existence.
First Rule about the Diameter of the Bat
The first proper rule regarding the size of the bat was introduced by the Professional National Association of Baseball Players Governing Committee in 1859. According to this rule, the player was allowed to use a bat of any length, however, the diameter of the bat at its broadest point was restricted to 2.5 inches. This was just the beginning of many rules that followed.
Players continued experimenting with the bat, keeping the 2.5-inch diameter in the mind. In early 1860's, some players started to wrap a coil around the handle of the bat, which resulted in better grip and thus, harder hits. The idea became quite popular and by 1864, most of the baseball bats were customized to suit the rules of the governing body and requirements of the players.
First Rule Restricting the Length of the Baseball Bat
In 1869, exactly 10 years after the first rule pertaining to the breadth of the bat was adopted, a new rule pertaining to its length was introduced. According to this rule, the length of the bat was limited to a maximum of 42 inches. This was one of the oldest rules of baseball, which is in practice even today. The rules pertaining to the length and breadth of baseball bats played a vital role in the present shape of these bats. The only other modification to follow during that period was the introduction of a knob at the handle to provide a better grip.
The Louisville Slugger
The year 1884 saw the introduction of The Louisville Slugger―the famous bat manufacturer, who took the world of baseball by storm by becoming the most sought-after manufacturer in the Major League circles. The entire credit for this goes to John Hillerich, who triggered the wave of fame by making a bat for Louisville player, Pete Browning. What followed was a lot of fame for this 17-year old lad, who made bat manufacturing his family business.
New Diameter and Rounded Base
In 1890's, a couple of new rules pertaining to the size and shape of baseball bats came into existence, while the existing rule of 2.5 inches diameter was modified to 2.75 inches. The new rule added to the rule book also stressed on the requirement of rounded base, contrary to the flat base made by sawing the bottom. Though the first metal baseball bat was patented by William Shroyer in 1924, it took another 50 years for alloy bats to replace wooden bats. The history was re-written when maple wood replaced White ash as the prominent choice of wood, when Barry Bonds hit a record 73 home runs with his new maple wood bat in 2001.
Very few people have witnessed the evolution of baseball bats from crude wooden bats to advanced aluminum bats. Only wooden bats are allowed in professional baseball, while amateur baseball players are allowed to use, both, wooden and alloy bats. Developments will continue as far as the overall sport is concerned and thus, it won't be surprising to come across a few more modifications in these bats in near future.