Modern materials putting the ax to wood in sports

The crack of a Little League baseball bat today is more likely a dull clang. Four out of five bats in Little League are now aluminum, says Tim Hughes, director of public relations at Little League national headquarters in Williamsport, Pa.

Indeed, outside the major leagues, aluminum bats have become the norm and those made of wood the exception.

''There's no question about the reason: the economics,'' says Lee Eilbracht, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association in Champaign, Ill. Aluminum bats don't break as often as wooden bats, outlasting them ''10 or 20 to 1,'' he says, which is why they have been generally accepted in the past seven or eight years.

And the trend away from wood has not been limited to baseball.

In the decades since World War II, wood sporting goods have been increasingly harder to find, a fact that has been noted but not studied, says Thomas B. Doyle , director of information and research at the National Sporting Goods Association in Mount Prospect, Ill.

''There aren't a lot of [sporting goods] being made of wood any more. There is less and less wood.''

The exception appears to be at the professional level in sports, where there is still a strong preference for wood. To some extent this may be due to tradition, but some officials say the main reason is that wood is still better than anything else.

Bill Murray, administrative officer at the Baseball Commissioner's office in New York, says studies have shown that aluminum bats extend the distance a ball is hit, and that if aluminum bats were allowed at the major-league level, it would affect the record standings of players. So American and National League batters are required to stick to wooden bats.

In hockey, ''players find they get the greatest performance from sticks made of wood,'' says Gary Meagher, assistant director of information at the National Hockey League headquarters in Montreal. One manufacturer adds that this is because players prefer the strength and response of wood.

But outside professional sports, wood has been edged out in favor of various new substances, as manufacturers of sporting goods over the years have taken advantage of advances in the aerospace and petrochemical industries.

Today fiberglass is widely used for snow skis, fishing rods, and canoes. There are high-strength glass basketball backboards, ping-pong tables made of composite board, polyurethane skateboards, bows and arrows of high-strength metal, backpacks with aluminum frames, and steel tent pegs.

A decrease in experienced woodworkers and the high labor costs of woodworking have been important factors in the shift away from wood.

High-quality wood is ''a more costly resource'' than the modern alternatives, says Sebastian DiCasoli, director of marketing for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in North Palm Beach, Fla. It has become hard to sell wood at a profit, he says.

Other reasons for wood's lower profile are that sporting goods made from metals and plastics are, as a general rule, easier to shape, cheaper to make, lighter in weight, and better able to withstand the stress of play than their wooden counterparts.

Tennis rackets, for example, come in aluminum these days. Another wood substitute in racket handles is composite board.

Composite board is made by passing fiber, which looks like yarn, through a bath of epoxy. The fiber then ''cures,'' or hardens. (Three commonly used fibers are graphite, boron, and fiberglass.)

To make a tennis handle, a mold is placed around the board. Pressure applied from the inside makes the board into a tube. When this process is completed, the racket handle can then be finished and painted.

Graphite is gaining prominence. Products made from it are prestigious - and expensive. Manufacturers and players say that a graphite tennis racket, golf club, or fishing rod is durable, elastic, lightweight, and stronger than wood.

But graphite sporting goods are also a boon to manufacturers. They are more profitable than wood, Mr. DiCasoli says, and graphite's esoteric quality makes it easy to market in a highly competitive field.

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