Bats, which sell for as little as $8, are second only to guns as the favored weapon in aggravated assaults in the city's East Police Division, which comprises the neighborhoods of Kensington, Hunting Park, Bridesburg, Port Richmond, Fishtown and parts of North Philadelphia.
Yesterday, Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham - joined by a detective from the Philadelphia Police Department and the chief of Albert Einstein Medical Center's trauma-critical care unit - asked the state Senate Judiciary Committee to change Pennsylvania law to add baseball bats to the list of "instruments of crime."
They want to make possession of a baseball bat, when the intent is to use it criminally, a first-degree misdemeanor offense, punishable by prison.
State Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), who is sponsoring the legislation, said that when he introduced the bill in the spring, many colleagues were unaware that baseball bats "were a serious problem."
Greenleaf said yesterday's public hearing, held at the Sheraton Valley Forge Convention Center, was aimed at increasing the public's awareness.
"It's been suggested by opponents of this bill that police will be locking up Little Leaguers on their way to softball practice," testified Abraham, who led off the testimony. "Nothing could be further from the truth. This is specifically directed at people who employ a baseball bat to commit a crime."
"Pennsylvania courts have refused to hold that baseball bats are instruments of crime," Abraham said. "Since courts will not include this weapon, in order to deter and punish the baseball-bat-wielding attacker, it is up to the legislature."
At Einstein Medical Center, doctors in the trauma unit noticed a "steady increase" in baseball-bat assaults, with 80 percent of the injuries to the head or face. In 1989 and 1990, a hospital study found that baseball-bat assaults were behind gunshot and stabbing injuries but ahead of injuries from burns or motorcycle accidents.
"Drug dealers use bats to punish competitors and delinquent clients," testified Stanton F. Carroll, chief of Einstein's trauma-critical care unit. ''Gangs use bats to drive away rivals, and husband and wives - and friends - use them to finish arguments often fueled by drugs and alcohol. The baseball bat is cheap, legal and often readily available in the home environment."
Baseball-bat assaults are not limited to Philadelphia, according to Abraham, whose office suggested the proposed legislation. She cited recent beatings in Bucks County, Camden, Cherry Hill, New York and Huntsville, Ala.
"It's a phenomenon all over. Two weeks ago, in Philadelphia, a 21-year-old man was beaten with a baseball bat outside a shelter," the district attorney testified.
Not everyone favors the legislation, which proposes to add tire irons, stun guns, common burglary tools and baseball bats to the list of instruments of crime.
Peter Rosalsky, a chief at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, testified that baseball bats in Pennsylvania are lawfully used "thousands of times" while incidents of criminal use "are extremely rare."
"Forgers use pens. Drug addicts inhale cocaine by using straws. Drunk drivers use cars," Rosalsky testified. "People use a lot of instruments in committing their crimes."
But to prohibit items "not inherently criminally used" is both ''unneccessary to protect society and a needless proliferation of the
criminal law," Rosalsky said. "What about broomsticks? What about hockey sticks?"
He suggested that if the prosecution proved that a baseball bat had been used as a weapon, appellate courts would uphold such findings and "there'd be no reason to change the law."
But Abraham countered that, as a former trial judge, she knows that ''judges don't allow the district attorney to prove that bats are an instrument of crime."
In the 1990 murder trial of Sean Daily, a Port Richmond youth who was beaten by a baseball bat before he was fatally shot, Abraham said yesterday that she found that a baseball bat "was an instrument of crime."
Later, a three-judge Common Pleas Court panel, deciding post-verdict motions, reversed Abraham's ruling and said "a baseball bat was not an instrument of crime because the legislature didn't address it."