A major issue of concern that arose during this past baseball season was the frequent incidence of shattering baseball bats, particularly shattering maple bats. In fact, the issue was of such concern that baseball’s Safety and Health Advisory Committee was convened to study the problem and issue recommendations, including, if deemed appropriate, banning the use of maple bats.
After studying thousands of broken bats and hundreds that shattered into multiple pieces, the committee concluded the cause was the poor-quality “slope of grain” and ruptures caused by excessive bending. It was concluded that there was no inherent weakness in using maple wood for bats as opposed to ash, although it was found that under any circumstances, maple bats were three times more likely to break into two or more pieces than ash bats.
“Slope of grain” is a wood-industry term that defines how straight the grain runs along the edge and flat faces of a piece of wood. The more it runs diagonally, the easier chance it has to splinter across that line. If it runs straight through the bat from handle to barrel, the less chance it has of coming apart at all. Ruptures tend to produce cracks in the bat. From July to September 2008, 2,232 bats broke during Major League games — including both cracked bats that stayed in one piece and bats that broke into multiple pieces — and were subsequently collected and submitted to the experts for analysis. Of the 2,232 broken bats, 756 shattered into multiple pieces.
Baseball’s Safety and Health Advisory Committee made nine recommendations, all of which were adopted, as follows:
1. All bats must conform to specific slope-of-grain wood-grading requirements which apply to the two-thirds length of the bat that constitutes the handle and taper regions of it. All manufacturers must identify and grade the handle end prior to production of the bat to ensure that its slope of grain satisfies the grading requirement.
2. All manufacturers must place an ink dot on the face of the handle of sugar maple and yellow birch bats before finishing. Placing an ink dot enables a person to easily view the slope of grain of the wood.
3. The orientation of the hitting surface on sugar maple and maple bats should be rotated 90 degrees (one-quarter turn of the bat). The edge grain in maple that is currently used as the hitting surface is the weaker of the two choices. To facilitate such a change in the hitting surface, manufacturers must rotate the logos they place on these bats by 90 degrees.
4. Handles of sugar maple and yellow birch bats must be natural or clear finish to allow for inspection of the slope of grain in the handles.
5. Manufacturers must implement a method of tracking each bat they supply — like a serial number — so that each can be linked back to the manufacturer’s production records.
6. Representatives of each authorized manufacturer should be required to participate in an MLB-sponsored workshop on the engineering properties and grading practices of wood as they relate to the manufacture of solid-wood baseball bats.
7. Manufacturers should be visited on a regular basis by MLB or its designated representatives to audit each company’s manufacturing processes and recordkeeping with respect to bat traceability.
8. Audits should be randomly conducted of bats by MLB or its designated representatives at the ballparks to ensure that the new bat requirements are being followed.
9. A formalized third-party bat certification and quality control program should be established to certify new suppliers, approve new species of wood, provide training and education to bat manufactures and address issues of non-compliance.
The research for this study has cost MLB approximately $500,000 so far, which is to be paid for in part by doubling the administrative fees from $5,000 to $10,000 charged to each bat producing company sanctioned by the sport. Liability insurance requirements placed on these companies for possible injuries caused by a shattered bat has been increased from $5 million to $10 million an incident.
Shattering maple bats causing injuries this past season include on April 25 at Dodger Stadium, when a bat used by Colorado’s Todd Helton shattered. The barrel spun into the stands behind the Rockies’ first-base side dugout and struck a fan in the face, breaking her jaw. About 10 days earlier in the same dugout, Pirates coach Don Long was struck below the left eye by a bat splinter, leaving a bloody gash in his cheek that needed 10 stitches to close. Last year, Mike Coolbaugh, coaching first base in the Rockies’ Minor League system, was killed when he was hit in the head by a line drive. This year, MLB mandated that all base coaches at the Major and Minor League levels wear protective helmets when they were in their positions on the field.