It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing

Vintage bats                                                                     Public domain

Vintage bats                                                                     Public domain

You wouldn’t think that plants and horticulture had a lot to do with major league baseball, but you would be wrong.

What is it those batters are swinging, anyway? Bats, wooden bats. A tree grows right there in the heart of the great American pastime, which in its finest form righteously avoids soulless thingies of aluminum and fiberglass. What’s a “ping” when you can have a stadium-stirring “craacckk!”?

Most of the heavy hitters are bashing balls with the traditional item of Northern white ash. It takes thousands of trees each year to keep up with the demand for baseball bats, and there are many who believe those trees have not been harvested in vain.

Sadly, many stands of white ash are now threatened by the emerald ash borer, an imported pest. It has killed 50 million trees already and bat manufacturers are worried about future supplies. If the ash trees all die, so does a tradition. Fortunately, effective treatments are now in play and may hold the answer to saving these stately trees.

White ash has been called “the all-American wood,” and has a long history in the annals of our nation. It was a favorite tree of George Washington, who planted it extensively around Mount Vernon, his Virginia estate. These many decades later, his original trees have reached the end of their natural life span, but modern science has come to the rescue with clones of noted ash trees.

The durable lumber of the white ash is hard, strong, straight-grained, flexible and shock-resistant — all qualities that make it ideal for not only baseball bats, but for pool cues, garden tool handles and oars, especially for larger vessels. (Owners of dinghies and other small boats mostly have defected to the lighter-weight sitka spruce.)

The white ash, Fraxinus americana, is the most common of our native ash species, and once grew in large numbers along streams and lower mountain slopes in the eastern half of the country. Today its range stretches from Nova Scotia west to Minnesota and south to Florida and Texas, with the largest stands chiefly in the northern states and Canada. Not a tree for small back yards, these guys generally go to 60 or 80 feet, but can reach 120, with a crown spreading 75 feet or more.

White ash                                        mightyjoepye/flickr

White ash                                        mightyjoepye/flickr

An interesting fact about white ash is that the trees have gender — they are either male or female, and obviously it takes two to tango. If the windblown courtship is successful, small, whitish flowers blooming from April to June give way to clusters of flat, winged seeds. These are rather small, and generally don’t constitute a litter problem; the refined shape of the tree and its excellent fall color make it a great shade tree, providing you have room to spare.

The very first Louisville slugger was fashioned from a hunk of white ash in 1884 in one mad overnight binge. Picture it: 14-year-old woodworker John “Bud” Hillerich at the lathe and Pete “The Old Gladiator” Browning, a player for the Louisville Eclipse team, watching over Bud’s shoulder and taking periodic practice swings until dawn’s early light.

Browning declared it perfect, and went on that very day to hit three for three in a game of the then two-year-old American Association. It was all thanks to a baseball-smitten teenager, whose daddy owned a woodworking shop shortly to find its own place in history.

Intuition and experience may have been the key ingredients in the perfect bat at the outset, but today, science and technology can explain everything in terms of structural dynamics, deflection and modes of vibration.

The electrifying sound of direct contact between a ball and the bat’s “sweet spot,” the part of the barrel where the bat delivers the maximum power, is a thrilling noise, and differs perceptibly from a hit near the end of the barrel or closer to the handle. We like this noise — providing it’s made by our team, and not those other bums.

At the start of a swing, the tip of the bat actually bends back slightly, like a diving board ready to catapult a swimmer into the air. That bending creates low-frequency vibrations in the flexible ash (about five oscillations a second). Slightly slowing the swing as the ball approaches contact allows the end of the bat to snap forward, releasing energy that will send the ball over the plate — maybe into the stands.

Electrical engineering techniques can measure precisely the vibrations and deflection of a given bat, feedback that helps refine bat design with scientific precision. But it still starts with lumber cut from the heart of a tree, capable of transforming sunlight, water and earth into the stuff from which World Series victories are made. Let’s hear it for the mighty ash! Play ball!! 