How Maple Became Wood Of Choice For MLB Bats

Baseball, the game of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays, is known worldwide as America’s pastime. Kids round the bases and chase fly balls every summer from California to Maine and Florida to Washington state. It’s as American as apple pie. While you might do some betting on the World Series online, chances are if you were asked to wager on which country was responsible for changing the wood used in the bats swung by the majority of Major League Baseball players, you wouldn’t be backing the Great White North in that bet.

Yet that’s the absolute truth. The country of the maple leaf and the world’s leading producer of maple syrup has also come to dominate the baseball bat market at the elite level of the game. Today, estimates are that more than 70 percent of MLB players are swinging at the baseball with a bat made from maple. And it was a Canadian company that brought about this seismic change in the way that the bats used by baseball’s best players were manufactured.

Going Up In Ashes

Maple wasn’t always the go to wood for MLB bats. For decades, ash was the wood of choice preferred by the game’s best hitters. In fact, ash reigned over the baseball bat empire from the 1930s nearly through to the end of the 20th century.

mlb bats

Ash is considered to be a much more flexible wood than maple and it is a much lighter wood in terms of density. Many baseball players like the feel of an ash bat, and were of the belief that the wood’s flexibility would give them more whip through the barrel of their bat.

They felt that this factor would enable them to generate more bat speed and thus they’d be capable of driving the ball harder and further with an ash bat. MLB players were infatuated with this unique combination of speed and forgiveness. 

The problem with the ash bats was partially due to an issue that plagues all of society when it comes to their tree cover. Over the past two decades, the rampant spread of the invasive Emerald Ash Borer species is steadily decimating the population of ash trees in North America. 

First detected near Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario in 2002, this strain of beetle has spread to more than 30 states and five provinces since then. When the presence of the Emerald Ash Border arrives in an area, up to 99% of all ash trees are killed within 8-10 years.

Shattering A Legend

There was another issue with ash bats that MLB players were discovering was becoming an issue in the mid-1990s. They were shattering with increasing frequency. 

Bill MacKenzie was a scout with MLB’s Colorado Rockies. He was friends with fellow Canadian Sam Holman, a carpenter by trade who lived in the Canadian capital city of Ottawa. Alarmed by the sudden rash of broken bats, MacKenzie queried Holman as to whether he had any thoughts or notions on what could be done to rectify this problem. In fact, the conversation took place while sipping that Canadian staple of beverages, a beer.

baseball bat

His curiosity piqued, and Holman began researching the physics of baseball. He looked into patents on baseball bats. He began experimenting. Holman first tried hard, high-density ironwood. Eventually, though, he settled on maple as his wood of choice for a bat design.

Holman manufactured his first 33-ounce maple bat in his basement, using the wood from a staircase banister. MacKenzie arranged for Holman’s bats to be tested out by the Ottawa Lynx, a team in the triple-A International League. 

Sam’s Club Arrives

In the spring of 1997, Holman first brought his maple bats to the show. He visited with the MLB Toronto Blue Jays, displaying his wares to Blue Jays players Joe Carter, Carlos Delgado and Ed Sprague Jr. 

They were an immediate hit, both literally and figuratively. Carter actually snuck one of the bats into a game, even though it wasn’t an MLB-licensed bat. He hit a home run with Holman’s maple bat.

“When you first use them, it’s a totally different feel from a normal bat,” Carter told the New York Times of his maple bat. “After you use them you don’t want to go back (to ash).”

Sam Bat, as Holman would name his company, was on its way to bigger and better things. Amazing things, as a matter of fact.

By 1998, Sam Bat was officially licensed by MLB. Before long, some of the best hitters in the big leagues were swinging a Sam Bat. 

San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds used a Sam Bat model to slug an MLB-record 73 home runs in 2001. It was Carter’s arrival to play in San Francisco in 1998 that put Bonds on the path toward maple. 

Detroit Tigers star Miguel Cabrera, the most recent MLB player to clout 500 home runs and knock 3,000 base hits, won the American League Triple Crown in 2013 using a maple bat. He led the AL in batting average (.348), home runs (44), and RBI (137) using a Sam Bat. In 2016, Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton smashed 64 homers and won the Home Run Derby at the MLB All-Star Game with his Sam Bat. 

In total, 13 most valuable players, four rookies of the year, and 83 recipients of the Silver Slugger garnered those honors while swinging a Sam Bat.

“The bat doesn't split like regular ash does,” Carter told the Ottawa Citizen. “When you use an ash bat for practice, after one day, really, it starts to splinter and split on you and become soft. 

“Maple is a much harder wood. It doesn't dent and it doesn't splinter. They're going to be around for a long time.”

Soon, all of the 32 licensed bat manufacturers, including the legendary Louisville Slugger, were leaning into maple production. Carter was correct. It’s certainly here to stay.

Seven out of every 10 MLB players say so.

Author - Nurlana Alasgarli
Nurlana Alasgarli           

Content Specialist

Nurlana Alasgarli is a professional copywriter with more than 6 years of creative writing experience. Having lived and experienced all over the world, there are many writing genres that Nurlana follows, including nature, arts and crafts and the outdoors. Nurlana brings life to content creation, captivating her readers.


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