White ash trees provided the lumber for Major League Baseball’s bats for more than 100 years.

Oct. 20, 2022
CLINTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. — On a glorious autumn afternoon, Rosa Yoo stepped off a road at the Round Valley Recreation Area and plunged into the woods to perform the grimmest task of her job as the New Jersey Forest Service’s health specialist: checking on the status of the white ash trees.

She arrived at a clearing, where a grove of ghostly gray husks cut haunting figures amid the colorful foliage. As she suspected, the trees, whose canopies a year ago painted the landscape in gold and maroon, were dead or hastily dying.

“There’s dead ash trees everywhere,” Yoo said. “It’s hard to find an ash tree anywhere that hasn’t been infested.”

Infested, she means, by an invasive insect called the emerald ash borer, which for years has been munching its way across North America, leaving huge patches of dead forest in its wake.

Among native tree species, ash represents a tiny fraction of the continental woodlands. But there is one arena where ash has historically reigned: in baseball.

Most of baseball history has been written with ash bats, from Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941 to Roger Maris’s 61 home runs in 1961 to Mark McGwire’s 70 homers in 1998.

Babe Ruth was known for swinging an extra-large ash bat in his years of domination with the Yankees.Credit…The New York Times

Babe Ruth swung ash bats weighing 46 ounces. Ty Cobb had his crafted for him by a coffin maker. Ted Williams used to travel to the factory of Hillerich & Bradsby, the maker of the Louisville Slugger, to select the lumber he wanted carved into his bats.

Today, however, ash has all but died out of baseball as the trees face beetle-driven extinction. This postseason, which stretches from early October to early November and began with 12 teams and more than 300 players, may be the first in generations that does not register a single plate appearance with an ash bat.

In 2001, Hillerich & Bradsby was producing roughly 800,000 ash bats a year, with many of them going to scores of major leaguers. Today, the company retains only one ash devotee: Evan Longoria of the San Francisco Giants, whose team did not make the postseason.

It is as if all Major League Baseball stadiums suddenly stopped selling hot dogs. When Jack Marucci started making bats for his son in a backyard shed in the early 2000s, the wood he picked up at the lumber yard was ash. Because what else would he choose?

“That was the staple,” Marucci said. “All I knew was ash bats.”

The company he started, Marucci Sports, and its sister brand, Victus, now make bats for more than half of the players in the big leagues. Only five Marucci customers requested ash this season: Joey Votto, Javier Báez, Kevin Plawecki, Tim Beckham and Kiké Hernández, none of whom made the playoffs.

There may be a handful of others, like Brad Miller of the Texas Rangers. But Aaron Judge’s 62 home runs for the Yankees this season came off the barrel of a maple bat.

Aaron Judge used maple bats, rather than ash, to hit 62 home runs in 2022, breaking Roger Maris’s single-season record in the American League.Credit…Mustafa Hussain for The New York Times

Maple bats became popular with players over the last 20 years because they are hard but light. Ash bats, though, have more spring.Credit…Mustafa Hussain for The New York Times

Pete Tucci, the founder of Tucci Limited in Norwalk, Conn., thumbed through his logbooks trying to pinpoint the last client who came to him seeking ash bats.

“It was Omar Narváez,” said Tucci, referring to the Milwaukee Brewers catcher. “He ordered six ash bats in spring training in 2020.”

And that was it.

The transformation has not gone unnoticed. A former first-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1996, Tucci swung only ash bats during his career. He tried maple, which was gaining ground in the late 1990s. He didn’t like it.

“I kept trying it because other guys were liking it,” Tucci said. “But I’d always go back to ash.”

Baseball hitters are legendarily intuitive, and Tucci was no different. Because ash is a softer wood, with a looser grain structure, it can be more susceptible to splintering or flaking. But in the barrel, the so-called sweet spot, the softer ash bats can flex upon contact, producing a “trampoline” effect on the ball.

“The grain kind of creates a bit of a groove,” Tucci said. “I felt like that groove caught the ball a little bit more and produced more backspin. I felt like I got more performance out of an ash bat than a maple bat.”

When he got into bat making, though, in 2009, it was a different story. Joe Carter was the first notable star to experiment with a maple bat, in the 1990s. But after Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001 swinging a maple Sam Bat from the Original Maple Bat Corporation, a Canadian company, dozens of others followed, opting for maple’s hard-but-light combination.

It is a good thing, too. Because just as maple was gaining popularity, quality ash timber — with the favorable eight to 12 growth rings per inch — was harder to come by.

In her job as the New Jersey Forest Service’s health specialist, Rosa Yoo inspects damage created by emerald ash borers at the Round Valley Recreation Area in Clinton Township.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

The invasive ash borers create a carved-in pathway, known as a gallery, which is just below the surface of the bark of infected trees, wreaking havoc across North America.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

In the state park in New Jersey, Yoo swung her hatchet into one of the dying ashes. She peeled back a section of bark the size of a pancake as if it were Velcro.

“That’s not supposed to happen,” Yoo said.

The emerald ash borer is the size of a grain of rice. But it swarms the forest, penetrating the protective bark of ash trees. It lays eggs in the cambium layer, on which the larvae eventually feed, cutting off the tree’s vital nutrients from the inside. Once satiated, the winged insects burst out of the tree and restart the cycle.

Since the borers were first detected in the United States in 2002, in Michigan, efforts have been made to stop or slow their progress. But they have been spotted as far north as Winnipeg, Manitoba, and as far south as Texas. This summer, they were discovered in Oregon.

More recently, Yoo has been assisting as the New Jersey Department of Agriculture attempts a biological control, releasing parasitoid wasps known to feed on emerald ash borer larvae. But it will take years for the predators to catch on in the numbers required to fight back against the borer, which is native to Asia and most likely hitched a ride to the United States on a container ship.

Meanwhile, trees are dying.

“Nature has a very resilient way of hanging in there,” Yoo said. “I believe there will still be ash, but it will be a long time before it can get back to where it was.”

Bobby Hillerich, a fourth-generation bat maker for Hillerich & Bradsby, admitted the company was late to fully appreciate the impact. Louisville Slugger started in 1884 using ash and hickory, a heavier wood that fell out of favor by the 1940s.

New Jersey hopes to combat the emerald ash borers by releasing parasitoid wasps to feed on the ash borer’s larvae.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

For more than a century, Hillerich & Bradsby sourced its ash lumber from mills dotting Pennsylvania’s densely forested northern tier and across the southern New York border. The woods offered such abundance that 40,000 trees a year could be felled to make Louisville Sluggers, at a cost of just 90 cents per board foot.

“We had this fantasy that it was going to be containable,” Hillerich said of the insect infestation. “It was probably a few years later that we came to realize this was not going the way we thought.”

The company still makes 325,000 to 350,000 ash bats a year, Hillerich said, but they’re the low-end variety that customers might find at a local retailer.

“They’re usually used for protection,” Hillerich said, “or for costumes for Halloween.”

Regardless of the borer, Hillerich thinks maple would still have become the most popular wood wielded by major leaguers because of its firmness and consistency. But the demand for ash would have probably remained strong, he said, if bat makers could have maintained their supply.

“We had to have some hard conversations with some guys,” Hillerich said. “We said we can’t be sure of the supply of ash we were getting. We just can’t guarantee it was the quality wood that they’ve been swinging.”

Birch is another species that has gained a greater foothold in ash’s void. But it has its faults, too.

“Players don’t like the sound,” Hillerich said.

There is hope that if the current crop of emerald ash borers is killed off that the next generation of white ash trees will be able to thrive.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

Jason Grabosky, the director of the Rutgers Urban Forestry Program, retains more optimism than most about the future of North America’s ash trees. Because they are capable of shedding seeds in large quantities, a new generation of ash trees might yet take root after the borer has laid waste to the old.

For baseball, however, it is the end of an era.

“It will probably be at least a generation before we see ash bats come back,” Grabosky said. “But if we have children playing baseball, I imagine we will still want ash bats.”