You see it all the time. The pitcher rears back and throws, the batter swings, and a bat snaps in a shower of splinters. One man finally did something about the rampant mortality rate among wooden clubs, and in the process created a powerful weapon with which Major Leaguers could crush cowhide.
It started when Colorado Rockies scout Bill MacKenzie issued a challenge to out-of-work Canadian carpenter Sam Holman to make a bat that wouldn't break as easily. So the barrel-bellied stagehand at Canada's National Arts Centre with a penchant for overalls went to the library, read up on bats, then learned how to carve. But it was his medium of choice—sturdy maple—that ultimately made the difference. Holman figured that hard maple would endure the pounding of major league cut fastballs better than traditional northern ash, a much softer wood. He was right. It's difficult to even dent his bats. He also theorized that the denser material would transfer more power to the ball.
The club, which Holman dubbed Sam Bat, quickly made converts of Joe Carter, Carlos Delgado and Ed Sprague when it was introduced in 1997. Then Carter, a particular zealot, showed one to San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds, who cemented the reputation of the Sam Bat with 73 home runs in 2001, breaking Mark McGwire's single-season record.
"They're harder," Bonds gushed about the bats in a CNNSI.com article. "Ash wood is softer wood—it tends to split and crack. Maple gives you the opportunity—if you have one bat you're comfortable with—to keep it for a while."
With baseball's mightiest slugger wielding his distinctive two-toned bats with their large, flared knobs, their popularity surged, and Holman couldn't keep up with demand. "We've been behind ever since," he says. His company, The Original Maple Bat Corp., now has a dozen workers making the bats in an eight-step process, topped off with a coat of paint and a bat logo. Last year, the company made about 28,000 Sam Bats, and Holman recently inked a distribution deal with Wilson Sporting Goods.
For as little as $119 (the Bonds model, pictured, sells for $165) you too can swing a Sam Bat. It can still break—any wood bat will, says Holman—but it should last considerably longer than the ash model you're used to swinging. And with enough "flaxseed oil," you might be able to set some records of your own.