Emerald Ash Borer May Soon Strike Out Baseball's Ash Bats

Thursday, August 4, 2016

There's a voracious little bug destroying forests across the eastern U.S. Scientists say emerald ash borers, exotic beetles imported accidentally from Asia, have killed as many as 50 million trees.

They're now threatening groves in New York's Adirondack Mountains that are used to make an iconic kind of baseball bat.

On a sweltering day, at the Rawlings plant in Dolgeville, a humble little sawmill about an hour's drive west of Albany, workers sort chunks of pale white wood veined with brown. About 40 people work here. They've handcrafted baseball bats made from ash wood for more than a century.

The home run in 1951 — the famous "shot heard round the world" — that lifted the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the pennant race was hit with one of these bats. The bats are still a favorite with major leaguers.

Ron Vander Groef, Rawlings' plant manager, flips through his current roster of players, which includes Andrew Romine, Rob Refsnyder and Manny Machado.

He says ash is popular because these bats don't shatter as easily as other woods. A lot of the famed Louisville Slugger bats are also made from ash trees cut in New York and Pennsylvania.

But now an emerald-green invasive bug that looks sort of like a fancy grasshopper is threatening forests from Michigan to New York. The larvae chew layers of healthy bark into pulp.

"If the ash borer is not controlled, it'll wipe out the entire species of white ash," Vander Groef says. "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."

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