An Insect Could Make Ash Baseball Bats a Thing of the Past

The invasive emerald ash borer is threatening the forests where Rawlings and Louisville Sluggers come from, putting the bats in jeopardy

Johnny Evers
Library of Congress

In just a few years, the crack of the bat at the baseball park might be just that—the bat cracking to pieces. That’s because bats made of maple wood have a tendency to shatter. Bats made of white ash, however, are less brittle and are the choice of about 25 percent of major leaguers and thousands of amateur baseball players. But according to Brian Mann at NPR, ash bats may soon become part of baseball nostalgia, like Cracker Jack and tobacco cards.

That’s because the invasive emerald ash borer, is getting very close to the forests where bat producers source the white ash used to produce the bats. The insect, a native in Asia, was first identified stateside in Michigan in 2002. Since then it has spread to almost every state east of the Mississippi and a few to the west. If left unchecked, the bright green beetle will kill every ash tree in an affected area within ten years. So far, it has killed 50 million trees in North America.

Now, it is on the doorstep of the ash groves in New York’s Adirondack region that the Rawlings company uses to produce hundreds of thousands of ash bats each year. “If the ash borer is not controlled, it'll wipe out the entire species of white ash," Ron Vander Groef, manager of Rawling’s sawmill tells Mann. “We will not be able to make any more pro bats or retail bats or anything out of white ash because it will be gone.”

The borer is also threatening another iconic bat brand, the Louisville Slugger. Brian Boltz, a general manager at Hillerich & Bradsby Co. which produces the Louisville Slugger, tells Brian Bienkowski at Scientific American that the forests they use in Northern Pennsylvania will almost surely be infested soon. “We haven’t seen it affect our ability to get logs yet, but it's knocking on the doorstep,” Blotz said. “It’s pretty established both 50 miles north and south of our main harvesting areas.”  

Brittany Patterson at ClimateWire reports that the beetles typically don’t move very far on their own. But moving the wood as firewood or ash logs have helped spread the invasive insects across the continent. Researchers are trying to combat the beetles by brining in parasitic wasps from China. An insecticide that can be injected into the trees is also effective, but costs several hundred dollars per treatment. Another option is girdling one tree in a grove, which means making a cut around the base of the trunk. The cut attracts the beetles, who like laying their eggs in stressed trees. This "trap tree" is then chipped along with the beetles.

None of those solutions, however, have done much to slow the spread of the beetle. “If we didn’t do anything, it’s likely 100 percent of ash trees would die,” Deborah Poland, a Forest Service entomologist tells Patterson. “By using some of [these] techniques, we’re hoping to give ash a chance.”

Major League Baseball, in the meantime, is hedging its bats. In 2008 it began working with the Forest Service's Forest Products Laboratory to investigate new bat technologies. The lab helped manufacturers learn to source better maple, which has led to a 50 percent decline in shattered maple bats. Two other types of wood have also been approved by Major League Baseball, reports Patterson. European beech bats are now available and five percent of major leaguers now use bats made of yellow birch, which pro player and reviewer Doug Bernier says combines the flexibility of ash with the durability of maple.

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