Rest In Pieces

In praise of the Louisville Slugger

by Andrew Santella
from GQ

I don’t remember much about my first baseball bat. Not its make, or its weight, or even what ballplayer’s name was branded on the barrel. That stuff didn’t register with me when I was eight. What I do remember is that the bat was a gift from my parents and that I immediately took it across the street to Kilbourn Park, so I could use it in a pickup game with my friends. And I remember that my friend Kenny led off the game and used my new bat and broke it on the first pitch, before I even got to use it.

I remember also how we laid that bat to rest--after I’d finished chasing Kenny around the park and regained some self-control. Besides being a playground, Kilbourn Park was also a burial ground. All around the park’s two backstops you could find little half-submerged disks of wood just barely visible above the hard-packed dirt. These were the knobby handles of baseball bats that the youths of Kilbourn Park had broken in competition and then buried, with honors. It was our ritual, and I have no idea where we learned it, or why we did it. Having broken a bat, we’d stop, grab another bat and hammer the shattered bat into the ground, jagged and pointy edge down. The sound of wood against wood was sharp and percussive and we would keep hammering until the bat handle was all but invisible beneath the dirt and the sound of the last few hammer strokes would be different—the dull thumping of bat against black dirt. It was like a little memorial service in the middle of a game—a memorial to our inability to get the sweet spot on the ball.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were probably the last generation to bury our bats at Kilbourn Park. This was the early 70s and the aluminum bat was even then sweeping across the land. One day, two aluminum bats—one gold and one bright blue—appeared suddenly in the equipment bag of my Little League team. From that day forward, my teammates reached only for aluminum, but I kept going back for wood. Even as a Little Leaguer, I affected a resigned nostalgia.

Most kids now grow up playing with nothing but metal bats. This is a shame, because learning to hit with a wood bat is the best way to learn; wood won’t let you get away with shabby mechanics, the way metal does. Besides, just handling a wood bat is a more satisfying experience than handling a metal bat. The feel of the sanded wood. The classic Louisville Slugger trademark. The deep, sonorous rustle of wood bats jostling against each other in a canvas equipment bag. Maybe someone somewhere has deep feelings about the ping of a ball on a metal bat, but I don’t want to know them.

The fact is, metal bats are high-tech hitting weapons that pervert the game. People have finally noticed that baseballs bounce off metal bats at higher speed and pose a greater threat to pitchers and third basemen than do wood bats. So, since the original point of metal bats was to save money, some of our greatest minds have set to work developing laminated wood bats that
won’t shatter.

But there is something unnatural, even a little chilling, about a wood bat that won’t break. Breaking a bat is, in certain ways, like losing a loved one. I wouldn’t wish either experience on anybody, but they are part of life’s learning process. Wood bats teach important lessons about valuing one’s tools and using them properly. When we mess up and break a bat, the memory sticks like pine tar and so do the lessons learned.