A hypothetical: What if, while you were at a baseball game, someone came up to you and asked if metal bats would replace wooden ones in the major leagues sometime in the next 10 years? You'd probably consider the questioner a seriously disturbed person, respond no, and then quickly walk away.
Well, guess what: In 1989 Peter Gammons wrote just that for Sports Illustrated, in an article about aluminum bats and the coming "severe wood shortage."
Pressed by economic forces, the low minor leagues are likely to begin playing with aluminum bats within two years. By the turn of the century even the majors will probably have put down the lumber and picked up the metal. Like it or not, the crack of the bat is inevitably being replaced by a ping.
Could you imagine a writer at a respected publication penning this prediction today? The writer would be lambasted on every baseball writer's Twitter, every sports blog in existence and probably on ESPN, Fox Sports and Comcast SportsNet as well. Fire Joe Morgan might need to be resurrected in order to make fun of this idea. The idea of metal bats in the major leagues is so preposterous in 2010 I can't even imagine joking about it.
The article's actually pretty good, despite its thesis being proved incorrect. There's an interesting part about how metal bats change the game -- batters who get jammed can still fist1 the ball into the opposite field for a hit, young pitchers have to throw a lot more breaking balls since so many batted balls fall for hits -- and there's a good discussion on how much more expensive wooden bats tend to be in the long run, since they break.
But the question remains: Why, exactly, did Peter Gammons think the major leagues would be using metal bats by the new millennium? The NCAA legalized their use in 1974, and they had crept into most of the lower levels of baseball as well. But the article also touches on the inability to get good bats in the major leagues (?!) and the coming wood shortage.
"We've been told to prepare for a severe wood shortage over the next few years," says Bill Murray, director of operations for Major League Baseball and chairman of the rules committee. "We may have to start thinking about an alternative to the wood bat."
"I certainly see a time in the not-too-distant future when everyone will be using some alternative bat--aluminum, graphite or some composite," says Jack Hillerich, the third-generation president of Hillerich & Bradsby, which, because of its Louisville Sluggers, has been synonymous with baseball bats for more than 100 years. "A wood bat is a financially obsolete deal. If we were selling them for $40 apiece instead of $14 or $16.50 I the company's prices for minor league and major league bats I. then we'd be making a sensible profit. But we aren't. We can't charge that much. The time will come when even the majors will use aluminum or graphite." [...]
All of the bat companies (H & B, Rawlings-Adirondack, Worth and Cooper) have had trouble filling wood-bat orders this season. "I'm having to stop taking orders," says H & B salesman Paul Shaughnessy, who services several major league teams.
"No one even wants the major league business anymore," adds Chuck Schupp, H & B director of professional bat sales. "We do it but partly because of the 100-year relationship we have had with baseball. When we make a bat, we use 40 percent of the wood, at most. If we sell the billets to other industries, nearly 100 percent is used." [...]
The bottom line on the wooden bat is that the bat companies don't want to make them, and the pros are having trouble getting good ones. The alternative is clear. Says Ash of the Blue Jays, "They should use the aluminum bat in a rookie or low A league next season and see what happens." Adds Murray, "It's a subject baseball has to take a long, hard look at in the next year."
No word on whether baseball did take a long, hard look at switching to metal bats. But, if anything, it's gone in the opposite direction since this article was written. New York City high schools now play with wood. Chicago considered a ban on metal bats but shelved it last year because "[i]t has to be done on a state or federal level," Alderman Frank Olivo said.
Metal bat makers oppose any ban on metal bats for the obvious reason that it would hurt sales. They trot out studies that say the game isn't any different with metal bats, but common sense and some random collegiate paper I found via Google say otherwise. Those against, say, making collegiate players use wooden bats say the college game is boring with wooden bats.
Obviously, baseball was "meant" to be played with wooden bats. There's nothing wrong with using metal bats to play it, but who would possibly want aluminum bats in the majors? Could we have another wood shortage leading to metal bats in the majors? How did Peter Gammons possibly get away with this incredibly incorrect prediction? These, and more questions, will be answered never.