The emerald ash borer, an invasive species expected to decimate native ash trees throughout North America, arrived in southwestern Otsego County in May.
Cooperstown, the home of baseball, sits in the same county about 30 miles northeast. Of the 1,935 bats in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s collection, 1,848 are ash.
Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb and Ted Williams all rose to stardom swinging an ash baseball bat.
And Mudville’s Mighty Casey sunk into baseball infamy by striking out with an ash bat. At least he would have, had the poetic Casey been real.
Ash and baseball go together like hot dogs and mustard, peanuts and salt, Cracker Jack and prizes.
Of the 1,935 bats in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s collection, 1,848 are ash, said Sue MacKay, director of collections.
“The fact that so many are ash lends credence to the fact that it’s a very important wood for baseball,” MacKay said.
But a threat to this longstanding tradition has crept into baseball’s backyard. The emerald ash borer, an invasive species expected to decimate native ash trees throughout North America, arrived in southwestern Otsego County in May.
Cooperstown, the home of baseball, sits in the same county about 30 miles northeast along the Susquehanna River.
The green beetles threaten more than nostalgia in Dolgeville where the Adirondack Division of Rawlings Sporting Goods makes wooden baseball bats, many from ash. The factory sits within a state quarantine area to prevent the beetle’s spread.
The company has stopped buying ash from places where the beetles have been found, including Pennsylvania and Western New York, said plant manager Ron Vander Groef.
“We don’t want to be responsible for moving that around, for spreading that,” he said.
Now, Rawlings buys about half its ash from the Northern Tier and half from the Southern Tier, Vander Groef said. But the summer isn’t buying season, so the company hasn’t bought any ash logs since the emerald ash borer was discovered in Otsego and Delaware counties.
“We’re going to have to figure out what this means for us in the fall,” he said.
In the long run, the future doesn’t look good for ash bats.
“I think it’s inevitable it’s going to get to the point where it’s going to limit the supply,” Vander Groef said.
A good baseball bat requires the right mixture of weight, strength, hardness and grain – light enough to swing, strong enough to stand up to a fastball, heavy enough to blast a pitch to the bleachers and straight-grained enough not to explode if the bat breaks.
Ash works well.
“It’s a straight grain, relatively flexible and when they swing, if they break, they only crack. They don’t fly into pieces,” Vander Groef said. “It’s been the quality that they like, the feel that they like for years. Many other species have been tried ... but ash has been around a lot longer.”
Page 2 of 2 - But that doesn’t mean baseball is going to die along with ash trees. Many ballplayers now prefer maple bats, although the major leagues have imposed grain standards to prevent flying fragments.
“Ash is still the predominant wood used in our wood bat making, but maple is a growing portion of it,” said Robert Parish, president and CEO of Rawlings Sporting Goods.
And these days, Rawlings is looking at some other kinds of wood, including birch, that show promise as bat material, Parish said. So baseball will survive the emerald ash borer, he promised.
“I think you’re still going to have plenty of great hitters,” Vander Groef said. “I don’t think the future of baseball is in trouble, but it may not be exactly the same either.”