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Ashes of an industry: A Pennsylvania tradition is dying, one baseball bat at a time

As ash bats fall out of favor — a trend that coincides with the ash trees' demise in places like northwestern Pennsylvania — the mills that long supplied them could disappear.

AKELEY, PA: Brian Boltz, mill general manager, inspects a finished ash billet at Larimer & Norton Mill in Akeley, PA. Mills that long supplied the bat-makers will either disappear or convert to woods like maple and birch.
AKELEY, PA: Brian Boltz, mill general manager, inspects a finished ash billet at Larimer & Norton Mill in Akeley, PA. Mills that long supplied the bat-makers will either disappear or convert to woods like maple and birch.Read moreROBERT FRANK / For the Inquirer

AKELEY, Pa. – Alongside the roadways and power-line clearings that weave through the deep Allegheny Mountain forests here, fallen and defoliated trees lie in gruesome heaps like Civil War casualties in a Mathew Brady photograph.

This hardscrabble region, having earlier experienced the departures of its oil and gas refineries, its railroad yards, its steel and iron mills, must once again deal with loss.  This time, the requiem is for the white ash tree, a once-abundant, now doomed resource that for more than a century provided northwestern Pennsylvania with industry and identity.

Like most of the nation's estimated 10 billion ash trees, the species that has flourished in these forests and yielded the bulk of America's baseball bats for so many years will soon virtually disappear, decimated by disease as thoroughly as American elms in the early 1900s.

The killer is a shiny green insect from Asia called the emerald ash borer. That bug, which earlier invaded Ohio and Michigan, has so infested forests here that local landowners are hastily cutting their ash trees and bringing them to mills before the borer can render them worthless. But, in a strange twist, baseball has been rapidly abandoning ash bats — perhaps just in time.

>>READ MORE: The little insect that's a devastating threat to major league bats

At the yard outside the Larimer & Norton mill in this tiny town between Warren, Pa., and Jamestown, N.Y., ash timber was piled high. But many of the logs, which will be made into billets and then into Louisville Sluggers, are only two thirds as round as what not long ago was standard size.

"It's getting worse and worse and worse," said mill general manager Brian Boltz. "There are pockets where [the insect] isn't there yet, but people are still worried. For the last two or three years, they've been going in and cutting all their ash trees, no matter how big and no matter if they're dead or not. We tell people we don't want it, but it still comes in. So we make it into Little League or miniature bats, even low-end amateur. But we won't do any professional bats because we don't really know how dead it is."

White ash bats from Pennsylvania and New York have been as prevalent and familiar in baseball as spikes. But soon, for the first time since at least the 1880s, the major leagues could be without any. And the mills that long supplied the bat makers will either disappear or convert to woods like maple and birch.

This year, only 10,000 white ash billets will be produced for MLB bats at the Akeley mill, down from 25,000 in 2014, 50,000 in 2010.

"And I've told Louisville, if 10,000 is the number in 2019, I don't think we can do it," said Boltz.

Futile efforts to slow the ash borer's advance have been happening here for more than a decade, ever since the insects first appeared in 2009 and began leaving their fatal, meandering scars on the prized trees. Now a rescue mission has become a death watch.

"There are treatments if you have a tree in your yard," said Boltz. "But you've got to do it every year and each treatment is like $50. You can't do that in the woods. We've been lucky to an extent. In 2005, a professor in Michigan told me the ash would be dead in seven years. So we got six to eight more years than we thought."

Change induced by the borers is evident throughout the great forest that straddles the Pennsylvania-New York border. Defoliated ash trees are omnipresent. Where trees have fallen, new-growth maple, cherry and hemlock are poking through the earth. Lumber mills that specialized in ash products are closing or converting as demand drops among furniture makers, tool manufacturers and, notably, major-league baseball players.

Louisville Slugger, the dominant ash-bat manufacturer, once had six mills scattered between here and the Catskills. Now just two – one devoted entirely to maple and birch — feed the iconic company.

"Ash usage has been on the decline for at least 10 years," said Louisville Slugger spokesman Rick Redman. "The majority of MLB players, 75-80 percent, choose maple. Another 10-15 percent are swinging birch. The rest, 10 percent or so, swing ash."

Soon that 10 percent won't be able to find the quality of ash they demand. But baseball's recent abandonment of the wood had little to do with the borer infestation. Instead, players have turned to maple for reasons that range from audible satisfaction to Barry Bonds' example to delamination.

>>READ MORE: Emerald ash borer spotted in Philly in 2016

Louisville Slugger said it supplies no ash bats to the 2018 Phillies – though smaller, niche manufacturers might. That's not surprising since the Phils are among baseball's youngest teams and the ash holdouts tend to be older players reluctant to abandon a lifetime habit. Joey Votto, for example, is 34, Evan Longoria 32, Jay Bruce 31.

It's hard to estimate how many players use ash bats, because a major-league roster is always in flux. But 25 years ago, and for a century before that, virtually every professional hitter wielded white ash bats, the overwhelming majority of which came from trees that flourished in the moist soil and temperate climate of this remote region. Ash was durable, light and had a sizable sweet spot.

According to a Society for American Baseball Research account, that trend began in 1884. After watching Louisville outfielder Pete Browning break his bat, a boy made him a new one of white ash. Browning responded with a three-hit game and a craze dawned.

Things remained relatively static in this "Bat Belt" until in the early 1990s when Toronto's Joe Carter started using maple. Players noticed his contact produced a sweeter, louder, more pleasing sound — "a sharp 'ping' or 'crack,' " Boltz said. Many switched and after 2001, when Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs with maple, the revolution was in full swing.

Not long afterward, the first ash-borers appeared in the Michigan woods.

The brightly colored, one-third-inch-long insect is attracted to sunlight, which is why trees along roads or in clearings were the first to perish. It burrows beneath the bark and lays its eggs. Those larvae then devour the wood, their zig-zag feeding patterns clearly delineated. But while they are extremely effective killers and propagators, experts said, a few ash trees may be spared.

"Some 90 years after the introduction of Dutch Elm Disease, mature American elms can still be found with little difficulty, but they are much less abundant," said Kim Steiner, a forest biology professor at Penn State. "[Ash's] days as a resource for baseball bats are clearly numbered. However, one percent or so of trees are surviving the initial invasion in healthy condition. Once most of the ash trees are killed and suitable hosts for the insect become less abundant, pressure on the remaining trees will diminish."

At the Akeley mill, with its 17 employees, the borer's distinctive markings could be seen on much of the ash that Boltz hoped to salvaged. Once, Larimer & Norton almost exclusively milled ash trees that were 40, 50 years old. Now, amid the panic, it's been forced to accept younger specimens.

"In the good years, we probably wouldn't have taken these," Boltz said, fingering a log with an 11-inch diameter. "But now we're basically taking everything and trying to see what we can get out of it. We can still salvage something from these logs, maybe three billets."

Louisville Slugger is one of the few companies still producing ash bats for amateurs, a market now dominated by metal. Those low-grade billets typically yield bats for less-demanding customers — weekend warriors looking for $30 bats, Little Leaguers, those in low-amateur leagues. Of the 700,000 bats Boltz's mill will produce in 2018, at least 300,000 will go there. At least as many souvenir and collectible bats will be made.

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One of the other reasons major-leaguers were drawn to maple, according to Boltz, was ash's tendency to chip near the bat's sweet spot after considerable use.

"We call it delamination," he said. "It's where the wood between the grain gradually chips away. They didn't like that. Maple was a little harder and didn't do that, although sometimes the whole bat would explode. That didn't bother them. They'd rather just pick up a new bat than have the bat they've been using get soft in the hitting area."

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Then when Bonds set his homer record — "He could have hit 73 with a whiffle-ball bat," Boltz said — the desertion sped up among hitters, many of whom are superstitious.

One superstitious ash bat customer, Boltz recalled, got three hits in a game after his bats were flown to him overnight. After that, he insisted all his bats travel by air, convinced the altitude imbued them with some special quality.

There are some areas of the Northeast the borer hasn't yet reached, like Vermont and Maine. Bat makers, however, are so sure it will, they haven't invested in any mills there.

At some point, if the Akeley mill survives, it likely will switch to maple and birch, as its sister facility in Galeton has. Those woods are also plentiful here and smaller bat-producers have been milling them nearby.

>> READ MORE: MLB needs to stop using ash bats for safety reasons (from 2013)

Louisville Slugger, meanwhile, having anticipated ash's demise long ago, has been experimenting with yellow birch as well as poplar.

"This is the first year we're actually going to sell more yellow birch than we are ash in the major leagues," said Boltz.

But as with ash, the sound of a birch bat striking a ball clearly isn't as mellifluous as with maple.

"The first time we made some birch bats, [ex-major-league slugger] Adam Dunn used them and he hit some bombs. But he gave it up, said it just didn't sound right," Boltz said.

Despite the upheaval, things seemed little changed on a recent morning at the Akeley mill. The big saws whined. The sawdust sprayed. And the smooth round billets of Pennsylvania white ash that emerged were stacked, graded and readied for shipping.

"As long as we can find ash, we're still going to be doing it," said Boltz. "The question is how long are we going to be able to find it?"

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