The History of the Wooden Baseball Bat - From Stick to Slugging Machine

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Phoenix Bats got our start building wooden vintage baseball bats for Columbus vintage ball teams – a passion still found in our woodshop. Recently, we sat down with baseball history expert Tracy Martin to piece together the interesting, and sometimes quirky evolution of the wooden baseball bat throughout the 1800’s.

The Days of Self-Made Flat Bats

In the 1840’s, decades before governing bodies and bat manufacturers, players had to fashion their own sticks.

During the early days of baseball, players used whatever scrap wood they could get their hands on. Most used their own hand tools to transform an old ax handle or wagon wheel spoke into a “striker’s stick”. Soon, the majority of players were fashioning their bats solely from wagon tongue wood.

Wagon Tongue Wood and Round Bats

Wagon tongue wood is exactly what you think it is – taken from the spokes of freight wagon wheels used during the mid 1800’s. A player would simply shape a wagon wheel spoke into a flat hitting stick, slightly tapered at one end to allow for a more solid grip. Made mostly of hard hickory wood, the bats were resilient and rarely needed to be replaced against the underhand pitching of the day.

Soon, players began to realize that rounder bats provided a better point of contact than flat bats. For the next twenty years, as baseball began to build momentum across the country, players would experiment with all kinds of bat shapes and sizes, but one thing would remain constant: round bats were here to stay.

Experimenting with Bat Shapes and Sizes

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With no governing rules in place to dictate the size, length, and width of baseball bats, players freely experimented with all kinds of combinations. Some players preferred bats that were short in length, and heavy on the hitting end. Other players preferred bats that were long, slender and light. During this time, bottle bats became popular – a quirky style of bat with a very large, round hitting surface.

Bats in the early days were prone to frequent splintering as pitching developed to a faster overhand style. Too poor to make or buy a replacement bat, many players began placing a nail thread in the splinter and wrapping string around the area to literally pull splintered bats back together. The fix had an unexpected benefit: a much better grip.  Soon, players were experimenting with wrapping bat handles with tape, cord and string looking for any competitive edge they could get their hands on.

The Rules That Changed Bats Forever

In 1859, a rule was passed to limit the size of bats for the very first time. The Professional National Association of Baseball Players Governing Committee agreed upon the new dimensions, described as “round, not be more than two and one-half inches around in its thickest part, and to be of any length, to suit the striker.”

Ten years later, in 1869, the Governing Committee would once again act to further define the limitations of baseball bat size – this time setting their aim on agreeing to a maximum length of a baseball bat. The rule was stated as “Length limit on bats, maximum 42 inches long” – and is still enforced under today’s league rules.

The Rise of the Professional Bat Maker

To cope with the new rule changes, especially the 2-1/2 inch barrel restriction, players in the 1850’s and 1860’s began seeking the help of professional woodworkers for the first time to build their bats. Woodworkers were able to use professional lathes to shape baseball bats, and were also keen to find a better source of wood and better dimensions to build the best possible bat.

While players were adjusting to these new rules, woodworkers were racing against each other to manufacture the most popular bat. In 1879, it was said that “long and slender’ was the common style of bats. In addition, the handled had a carved knob for better control.  They also believed that the best hitting surface would be produced by a wood with a good grain – which could only be found in quality wood, not in wood used for ax handles and wagon wheels. Over the years, ash wood, hickory wood, maple wood – even bamboo – would be used to create durable hitting sticks for players.

The Slender Bat - 1880's to the Twentieth Century

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In 1893, the Baseball Rules Committee added two important improvements to the game. First, it was no longer permissible to use bats sawed off at the end or flat bats for bunting. Secondly, the pitching mound was moved from 50 feet to 60 feet 6 inches from home plate. In addition, in 1895, the diameter of bats was increased to 2 3/4 inches, from 2 1/2 inches. The length of the bats remained the same at 42 inches – a rule that is still enforced to this very day.

The early decades of American baseball history prove to be an interesting look into the resourcefulness and craftiness of players looking for a competitive advantage. Throughout the turn of the century and beyond, professional bat builders would turn a side project into a multi-billion dollar industry, transforming the “striker’s stick” into a slugging weapon poised to rocket balls out of the park. That’s a story that we can get behind at Phoenix! View our vintage baseball collection.

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