Steve Baum has invented a wood composite bat that is being well received among baseball people, especially those who hate aluminum bats. Baum’s bat has a plastic core surrounded by fabric reinforced resin with a white ash wood outer shell. They hardly ever break.
Steve Baum set out to fashion a baseball bat that had a heart of plastic and a soul of wood.
He may wind up helping to save the soul of baseball, not to mention a lot of timber.
Baum’s wood composite bat, a shell of white ash wrapped around a core of foam plastic, preserves the genuine crack of bat meeting ball. But it almost never cracks. Or chips. Or breaks.
It sounds like wood, hefts like wood and, most importantly, reacts with the same dynamics as wood, punishing the batter with a sharp sting if he doesn’t meet the ball on the sweet spot.
The bat is the first non-wood bat to win over traditionalists in professional baseball. No one, least of all Baum, wants to see it replace Adirondacks or Louisville Sluggers in major league games. However, as a cost-saving alternative in the minors, the bat has been a smashing success.
With the approval of farm-system directors, several thousand players in Rookie, Rookie Advanced and Dominican summer leagues used the bats in games last season. Many teams also made the bat available to minor-leaguers for practice. The experiment will continue in the upcoming season, and if the universal raves continue, the bat could ascend the ladder into Class-A games in 1995.
“I’m a firm believer in woods bats, but of all the gimmicks and gadgets that have come along, this one works pretty well,” says Ken Higdon, major league equipment manager for the California Angels. “I didn’t hear any negatives all.”
Roy Krasik, supervisor of baseball operations for Major League Baseball, says Higdon’s opinion is widely shared. “All the reports from our farm directors came back very favorable,” he says. “Eventually we’d like to see the bat used in all of amateur baseball: high schools, Little League, all the way through, so those players would have an easier transition to wood bats.”
Baum, 54, an inventor from Traverse City, Mich., is pleased at the bat’s reception on the professional level. But, like Krasik, his most fervent wish is to see it replace aluminum in the college and high school ranks, where a handful of programs now train with wood composite bats and use them in exhibition games.
“An aluminum bat is a terrible tool to use to learn to hit a baseball,” Baum says. “It eliminates the problem of breakage, but it also eliminates the sting. Kids pick up bad habits, and then major league baseball can’t evaluate them. The scouts are going crazy.”
Former major-leaguer Don Leppert, director of Florida operations for the Twins, concurs. “Hitting with a wood bat is the single biggest transition a high school or college player has to make when he gets into our organization,” he says. “The game with an aluminum bat is just as different as if you asked the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame to use a round football.”
Baum, who coaches two American Legion teams, says his mission extends beyond pro prospeccts.
“Kids are not getting the benefits of baseball as they should,” he says. “Their hearts are hung out this far over baseball, and they can’t make it because of bad habits. And aluminum bats are the biggest monkey of all. My bat gives them a controlled instrument they can get used to.”
Hitting gurus agree that because aluminum bats are more forgiving, yielding hits all the way from the fists to the end of the barrel, young players don’t learn to extend their arms fully.
The effects of aluminum swings ripple outward. Pitchers don’t learn to throw inside, because doing so brings no special rewards. Fielders don’t learn to read the ball off the bat as accurately. But hitters are the ones really being led down the primrose basepath.
“Players can get by with poor hitting technique and not only be successful, but be stars,” Leppert says. “They’ll hold their hands up by their ears and swing with a short, chopping motion. With aluminum, you’ll get a hit that way, whereas with wood, it would be a fourhopper to the second baseman.”
Hal Smeltzly, athletic director at Florida Southern College and outgoing chairman of the NCAA Rules Committee, says he has seen many experimental bats, but this one stands out. “The Baum bat, in my view, is ahead of the others in terms of its ability to maintain the integrity of the game.
“Some kids will catch fire and have a 30-home-run season, and then they can’t do the same thing with a wood bat even after trying for a year or two. The talent shouldn’t be so moved by the equipment that it distorts the game.”
However, Baum’s bats will have a much harder time getting a toe-hold in college baseball, though they meet all standards set by the NCAA. College coaches and players alike have grown accustomed to the ping! of aluminum, which was legalized in 1974. Bloops and dinks off the mens asa softball bats of marginal players win games. And many coaches now are under contract to one of two giant aluminum-bat manufacturers: Easton and Louisville Slugger.
Baum never though he would be elbowing his way into that market five years ago, when his son, Chasen, then a skinny 11-year-old, made a request born of struggles at the plate.
“He said, ‘Dad, can you make a bat that would be light enough so I could handle these mammoth pitchers?'” Baum says.
Baum, who holds 50-odd patents in composite technology, started tinkering with prototypes. As he went along, he became more and more intent on making the bat “as wood-like as possible.” He developed a molded foam-plastic core, which can be made to any weight specifications. Over it he slipped a cloth tube, woven from the same fibers that are used to reinforce jet-fighter wings. He painted the creation with epoxy resin and fitted around it a wooden shell, formed in two equal halves, a fraction of an inch thick. Last, he glued the knob and the end (both plastic) and left it to dry in a mold for three weeks.
Baum assembled several Rube Goldberg-like contraptions to test the bat’s flexibility and strength. Finally, he arrived at the right formula.
Baum’s primary product is the AAA Pro Model. It’s a standard 2/1/2 inches in diameter and comes in lengths from 32 to 35 inches. Its weight varies from a reed-like 29 ounces to a Howitzer-sized 55 ounces.
Last year, Baum began to produce a bat called “The Rocket” for collegiate programs. Several schools have picked it up, along with an accompanying training video. Its barrel is a quarter-inch bigger than a wood bat, and it again ranges from 32 to 35 inches long, with weight set at 5 ounces under length. The light, powerful bat is designed to help increase bat speed and get batters to hone in on the elusive sweet spot.
Baum and his crew of five have turned out about 3,000 bats — a maximum of 50 a day–operating out of a 4,000-square-foot warehouse in Traverse City. Each bat is stamped with serial number so it can be tracked. One bat that has taken on mythical status is reported to have survived 25,000 swings (as in, swings making contact) in the Athletics’ system.
“It started in out instructional league and then we sent it down to our team in the Dominican Republic,” says Ted Polakowski, A’s administrative assistant for player development. “We kept track with a hand-held counter, but after 25,000, we decided to stop.”
Major League Baseball insisted that the bat break under certain conditions, to continue to reward pitchers for well-placed heat: the high inside pitch that comes in just above the fists and the low outside fastball that catches the end of the bat. Baum obliged them and built in the physics. But if, say, Bo Jackson tried to snap it over its knee, “He’d need another operation,” Baum says.
Wood bats, compared with Baum’s bats, break at a ratio of between 50-100 to 1, Baum says. The pros’ experience appears to bear him out. “On any given day in spring training, we probably break a minimum of three dozen wood bats,” says Jim Hickman, an outfielder for four National Leagueteams who is now a minor league hitting instructor for the Reds. “We didn’t break any of these.”
The Twins now use Baum’s bats not only in Rookie League play, but also up through Triple-A. “In the cages, in B.P., every opportunity the rules allow,” Leppert says. “This summer alone, it probably saved us $10,000 in bats.”
So, the advantage for the pros is clear: economics. Wood bats even discounted for the pros, cost somewhere between $12 and $24 apiece; Baum’s bats are about $80, which is competitive with aluminum.
It’s a harder sell to colleges. Baum tells coaches their players will profit by learning to hit with his wood-like bat, then transferring those skills to aluminum in game situations. Plus, the few who are drafted into pro organizations won’t have as much culture shock when they’re handed their first Louisville Slugger.
Andy Baylock, a 30-year head coach at the University of Connecticut, was among Baum’s early converts. He began using the bat in the fall of 1992, and attributes the Huskies’ success – a 29-19 finish, good for second in the Big East and a trip to the NCAA regionals — to the bat.
“Mentally, we were better,” he says. “I had one guy hit .431, which is only the second time I’ve had a .400 hitter in 25 years.”
Chris Pedretti, coach at Merced College, a junior college near Sacramento, had his players using the Baum bat in exhibition games this fall despite the potential competitive disadvantage. “It took awhile for the kids to get used to it, because they’re heavier than aluminum bats,” Pedretti says. “But we’ve really started learning how to get the bat head to the ball. We’ll know for sure in the spring, I guess.”
Ball State University Coach Pat Quinn says training with a woodlike bat “has benefited all aspects of our game.”
“Our pitchers get more of an idea about pitching inside,” Quinn says. “Our outfielders and infielders read the ball into the strike zone and react. And hitters learn to use their hands. Guys basically muscle the ball with the aluminum bat because it’s so light.
“I wish our conference would use it in league play, but I know I’m fighting odds.”
Baum’s bat is already used in summer college leagues, such as the Cape Cod League, which are supported by the pros. But Smeltzly predicts it’ll be a long time, if ever, before it’s widely used in NCAA games. “Coaches and players are always going to want to use the liveliest bats they can,” he says.
The NCAA rules committee has been considering, for some time, a change in bat specifications. It currently dictates that bats may weigh up to 5 ounces less than their length; in other words, a 34-inch bat can be as light as 29 ounces. That made sense in the early days of non-wood bats, Smeltzly says, but with today’s thin-walled, big-barreled bats, the ball is traveling at a dangerous velocity when it leaves the bat. Forget about inflated statistics — Smeltzly’s worried a pitcher is going to be injured…or worse.
“I’d like to see the (length-weight) differential reduced to three and the barrel size regulated,” Smeltzly says. “Once the committee says that, everyone’s going to have to do what the Baum bat does. And the market will take over.”
For now, however, Smeltzly says it’s difficult even getting enough coaches to serve on the committee who don’t have a conflict of interest because of bat contracts.
Though Baum says he feels the keen stares of his competitors, they profess not to be worried. “I think it’s premature to call this a threat,” says Bill Williams, vice president of advertising and public relations for Hillerich & Bradsby Co., the parent firm of Louisville Slugger, batmakers since 1884. “We’ve seen a lot of things come and go. But it takes someone with new ideas to keep the game going, and if it’s good for the game, great.”
Baum has a few projects to occupy him this winter. He is adding several new models. He has the rough tooling completed for a softball bat. Down the line, he holds patents for a golf driver and a hockey stick with similar technology.
The sky, he says, is literally the limit on bat design: “We could make them in team colors if they want.”
That may sound a tad Charlie Finley-esque, but Baum says he draws his inspiration from the game’s basic blueprint.
“I’m using technology to make the game the same, not to improve it,” he says. “I want to make it the same as Abner Doubleday.”