Meet the beetles . . . that kicked American ash and our longest-serving baseball bats.

IBWAA

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Giant bat guards entrance to Yankee Stadium.Tdorante10, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0

By Jeff Kallman

That was then: the Beatles singing and playing before a mammoth audience in Shea Stadium, the still-embryonic home of the New York Mets, in August 1965. (John Lennon, after the concert, to one of the group’s road managers: “We’ve been to the mountaintop. Where can we go now?”) 

This was almost 40 years later, according to The Athletic, in an article led by Stephen J. Nesbitt: Not too long after Barry Bonds became the maple bat’s Johnny Appleseed (after being turned on to the wand by late-career Giants acquisition Joe Carter), Michigan State University etymologists discovered a barely-known insect of Chinese origin and unknown musical predilection, but having a particularly troublesome taste for a particular type of wood.

Biologists and etymologists alike agree. He can fly, he can hide, but for now it’s easier to contain nuclear fallout than to contain him and his.

Meet the beetle. The ash beetle. Compromiser of enough of North America’s ash forests that the long-classic ash bat is going the way of the hourglass, the outhouse, the typewriter, and the Pontiac. 

Well, okay: the typewriter survives (barely) as a niche product for some stubborn writers. So will the ash bat, possibly.

Cincinnati’s Joey Votto hoards ash bats as Jack Benny (the radio character, not the man) once hoarded his money. The Athletic says Votto bought out the remaining major-league ash bat inventory of maple bat maestros Marucci. He stores his reported 50-70 bat stash in a dark room at home. Nobody knows whether he has an armed guard at the entrance. Yet.

The month the Reds first drafted Votto (June 2002) was in the year the ash beetle was first discovered finding a sea of greens in Michigan ash trees. Michigan State’s etymology crew couldn’t figure out what was doing to the state’s ash trees what Bonds and his maple were doing to baseballs. 

Then, they couldn’t figure out the culprit—until a Slovakian expert on wood-gorging beetles told them about a Chinese forest researcher who’d first found the ash beetle’s way of life. That researcher, Yu Cheng-ming, proved no help: he’d been forced to common labor during the infamous Cultural Revolution, The Athletic says, and whatever he’d isolated about the ash beetle was lost.

A year before the ash beetle’s Michigan discovery, Bonds and his maple wands re-smashed the single-season home run record. Under suspicion that he had a little help from his actual/alleged performance-enhancing substance friends, Bonds’ fellow batsmen paid closer attention to his new lumber. In due course, Michigan’s and other ash beetle newcomers determined scientifically that the little bug’s moveable feast went back a few decades.

The ash beetles made their way to northeastern Pennsylvania and western New York around 2008. They found their own beetlemania, the white ash forests from which baseball’s harvested its bats for about seven-eighths of major-league history. While they feasted, the Louisville Slugger people found themselves staring at the pending end of the ash industry.

Maple is prized for producing syrup and for making among other things high-end furniture, flooring, and Gibson guitars. (Fair disclosure: your correspondent is also a guitarist, whose instrument of choice is the maple-topped, maple-necked Gibson Les Paul model.) Since Carter gave Bonds the word and the wood, it’s become most batters’ best friend. Perhaps forever, pending the advent of a maple beetle wanting maple to provide its ticket to ride.

“Maple is the hardest wood used for a modern wood game bat,” says Phoenix Bats, a Columbus, Ohio bat maker, “as evidenced by the tight grain structure. More energy is transferred to the ball, and the extra power that comes from maple bats versus ash bats translates into about 10-15 extra feet of distance.” Maple bats have shorter sweet spots than ash bats, but hitters in constant self-study learn soon enough how to work with that one shortfall on behalf of the long reward.

Well. While examining the wherefores of still-uninvestigated Ballgate (MLB providing differing baseballs for assorted game sets last year, one with less travel and one with more), I was reminded that the staffers at Baseball Prospectus—in their book Extra Innings—offered splendid evidentiary supposition that the era of actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances might have been at least as much the era of actual/alleged performance-enhancing baseballs. Perhaps the latter part of the era could also be, as much as anything, the era of actual/alleged performance-enhancing bats?

“Thank God maple came on when it did,” Pete Tucci—once a first-round baseball draft pick (outfielder, Blue Jays, 1996) who never saw action in the Show; today the chief of Tucci Lumber, a bat maker—tells The Athletic, “because the ash trees that are left wouldn’t be able to support the demand of baseball as a whole right now.”

Hillerich & Bradsby lingered behind the maple curve until several years after Bonds mapled Mark McGwire to one side. Now, the Louisville Slugger makers thank God and Bonds (not necessarily in that order) for making players want their maple—and anyone else’s available.

“We really, really fell behind,” the company told The Athletic. “If Bonds hadn’t done what he did, I think a lot of companies would have been struggling. But it made for a way for other bat companies to get into the market, and—I’ll just flat-out say it—they helped make us a better company, and the players have one hell of a product to swing today because of it.”

They’ve caught up to maple the way baseball once needed to catch up to Babe Ruth’s home run prowess. In 2001, 95 per cent of Louisville Sluggers were ash. Just over two decades later, 87 per cent of Louisville Sluggers are maple, twelve per cent are birch, and “whatever’s left is ash.” 

Thanks mostly to one particular slugger taking a teammate’s suggestion downtown on occasions too numerous to confine to one paragraph. And—with the little carnivore now in 35 states, a few Canadian provinces, and the District of Columbia, plus five of six ash species on the endangered list—to the pestiferous beetle that’s been kicking American ash since about a decade after the Beatles stopped kicking the world’s musical ass.

Jeff Kallman, a life member of the IBWAA, writes Throneberry Fields Forever. He has written for the Society for American Baseball Research, Sports-Central, and other publications. He is also a Met fan since the day they were born—and a Beatles fan since they hit The Ed Sullivan Show running in February 1964.

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