Insect could be latest threat to ash bats

Emerald ash borer
Emerald ash borer
Posted: June 30, 2014

AKELEY, Pa. - The bats Ted Williams demanded, with their 25 growth rings per inch, came from the Allegheny Mountain forests that unfurl in all directions from this flyspeck Warren County town. So did the wide-grain models Pete Rose preferred and Dick Allen's 40-inch, 40-ounce wagon tongues.

This vast and remote region, straddling Route 6 along the Pennsylvania-New York border, has long been the mother lode of baseball bats. For a century or more, nearly all those used by major-league hitters came from the white ash that grows and is milled in this bat belt.

Rolling terrain, moist soil, and temperate climate created a variety of ash trees whose weight, density, and flexibility were ideal for bats.

"A little north of here, the ash doesn't grow quite as much," said Brian Boltz, general manager of the Larimer & Norton mill here. "South of here, it grows too much and gets too soft."

But mighty ash's dominance has been seriously eroding in the last few decades because of a variety of forces, most recently the threat of a diabolical insect able to destroy a tree in two years.

And if, as some foresters and entomologists fear, the emerald ash borer reaches the local ash, a long-standing baseball tradition could disappear as quickly as the trees that have sustained it.

So far, 51 Pennsylvania counties have reported sightings of the burrowing green beetles. Most have been in residential or shade trees, not in the timber-rich forests that drive the economy here.

According to Boltz, only one infected tree has reached Larimer & Norton's three northern Pennsylvania mills - nearly 200 miles to the east in Bradford County. And the only tainted stand of ash to be uncovered near here was at a truck stop in Randolph, N.Y.

Even if the borer never arrives, however, ash bats appear to be an endangered species.

Endangered bats

Aluminum, more durable and economical, already has supplanted ash and other woods at every baseball level but the professional. In the 1960s, Louisville Slugger produced seven million ash bats annually. In 2013, it made barely a million.

Not long ago, Massachusetts ended a brief youth-league ban on aluminum bats after it was determined that every youngster was breaking between eight and 12 wood bats a season.

Even in the shrunken wood-bat market, maple, more prone to shatter but with a harder surface than ash, has become the preferred variety. In the major leagues, where everyone once used ash, an estimated 65 percent of hitters now swing maple. Some, according to Louisville Slugger spokesman Rick Redman, are even experimenting with birch.

Larimer & Norton, which once had 11 regional mills feeding ash billets to Louisville Slugger, now has three, one of which processes only maple. The Akeley mill annually supplies the world's leading bat-maker with 25,000 ash billets.

And just as the maple surge has reduced ash's market, maple trees are squeezing ash out of these thick and ancient forests.

In heavily wooded areas, where maple, oak, and cherry prosper, ash has difficulty taking root in their shade. Boltz estimated that less than 5 percent of the surrounding forests' trees were ash.

Spooked by the borer and tempted by the wood's historic high price, timber growers in Pennsylvania, where 84 percent of wooded land is privately held, have been flooding the market with ash.

"All of a sudden, the floodgates opened," Boltz said. "People want to get rid of it before the borer gets into the ash."

Despite the glut, bat-quality ash is now selling for $1 or more a foot, 15 percent higher than a year ago, Boltz said, and up 25 percent from 2012.

"It used to be that when we'd send in crews to cut trees, we'd see 25 percent ash," Boltz said. "Now these same people are telling us, 'I've got 400,000 feet of ash and 20,000 of the other species.' "

Superior wood

Early in the 20th century, when pitching improved, ash bats began to replace traditional hickory. The wood from here, hard and remarkably flexible, quickly proved superior to ash from Southern states, Yugoslavia, Japan, and elsewhere.

"The difference between it and, say, maple is like the difference between graphite and metal," Boltz said. "But maple is denser, and its surface is harder, and that's what a lot of today's players want."

The ideal ash bat, Boltz said, comes from a tree that's 60 to 80 years old, 40 to 60 feet high, and with a chest-high diameter of 16 to 18 inches. A log like that might yield eight big-league bats.

Those kinds of trees grow most frequently on north-facing slopes. There, the soil is wet but relatively well-drained. And there the ash grows in clusters, meaning a tree's growth isn't diverted to long branches.

Mills such as the one in Akeley split and mill the logs into three billet varieties. The best grade, generally from the three inches closest to the bark, goes into big-league bats. The next-best ash is used for those sold in sporting-goods stores or for souvenirs. The poorest quality typically is turned into furniture or tool handles.

Those still swinging ash are looking for ever-lighter bats. Where the 34-inch, 34-ounce model long dominated in the majors, today's big-swinging hitters prefer 34-inch, 31-ounce bats.

That weight loss has led to a shattered-bat epidemic. Though some ballplayers blame the trend on weaker ash, tests conducted by Penn State contradict the theory.

"The ash is as strong as it's ever been," said Paul Blankenhorn, a retired Penn State professor of wood technology. "But you've got muscular, 6-foot-5 guys swinging narrow-handled bats at 95-m.p.h. pitches. That's the difference."

Meanwhile, at the Bradford County mill, the U.S. Department of Agriculture traced the borer-tainted log to a lot sold by a neighbor. The origin was never determined.

The New York truck stop, the USDA found, got the bad wood from Michigan. The area was quarantined and contained after the 2009 discovery.

"There were like 40 or 50 trees they found it in," Boltz said. "The USDA goes back every year, and they haven't found any more. It seems like they eradicated it here. But you never know."

Occasionally, ash sales briefly surge, usually after complaints about the potency of aluminum bats.

"If you see a lot of 11-9 games in this year's College World Series," Boltz said, "you'll hear people complaining about aluminum bats again, and we'll see more ash bats. But whenever the aluminum people reengineer the bats, things return to normal."

So ash endures in the baseball world of 2014, though in a diminished role that legends such as Williams could never have imagined.

"Williams was so obsessive he studied the ash," said Jack Norton, a retired Larimer & Norton executive. "He used to travel down to Louisville, survey all the wood, and pick what he wanted for his bats."


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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