Spring Grove’s Colby Murphy takes a swing with a wooden bat this season. Spring Grove’s offensive numbers took a serious drop this season with
Spring Grove's Colby Murphy takes a swing with a wooden bat this season. Spring Grove's offensive numbers took a serious drop this season with the switch to wooden bats from aluminum bats. (RANDY FLAUM -- rflaum@yorkdispatch.com)

A sound that hadn't been heard in more than three decades returned to American Legion baseball diamonds in York and Adams counties this past summer.

The crack of the bat replaced the ping of the bat as American Legion hitters began swinging with wood, instead of metal, for the first time since the late 1970s.

Pennsylvania followed the lead of five other states (Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, North Dakota and New Mexico) in making the change.

Gene Ness, the president of the York-Adams League, pointed to two reasons why Pennsylvania American Legion officials approved going back to wood.

"They wanted to get closer to Major League Baseball rules (Major League teams use wood bats), and they were concerned about the speed of the ball coming off the (metal) bat," Ness said. "I heard recently about a game where a ball hit off a metal bat hit a pitcher in the chest and threw his heart out of rhythm."

Big drop: The switch from aluminum to maple and ash bats this season caused a huge drop from the previous season in the offensive numbers among York-Adams League teams.

In statistics compiled by league statistician Edward Rohrbaugh, 11 of the 15 league teams finished with lower batting averages and scored fewer runs than they did in 2012. There were a total of 15 home runs hit in the league this year, compared to 33 in 2012. In the 15 games during the 2013 State American Legion Tournament in Boyertown, just one home run was hit.

"The majority of our games were close, and that's a true tale of the wood bats, in that you're relying more on your defense," Spring Grove manager Matt Spangler said. "Early on, we didn't hit. We weren't used to hitting with the wood bats."

Spring Grove's team batting average dropped by almost a hundred points, from .330 in 2012 to .236 in 2013, and its runs total fell from 101 to 69.

The team, though, had just enough hitting to go with excellent pitching and defense. The formula allowed Spangler team's to win its first-ever Region 4 championship. (Region 4 is made up teams from seven counties including York). Spring Grove also finished third in the state tournament.

Spangler said the move to wood changed the way he managed each game.

"You play more small ball (bunting and stealing bases) because you can't count on scoring a lot of runs. And because the ball usually doesn't carry as far with the wooden bats, your outfielders can play in closer and dare the other guys to hit the ball over their heads. With the outfielders in closer, that takes away a lot of the bloop hits that would fall between the infielders and outfielders."

The cost: Spangler thinks using the wood bats brings baseball closer to its roots. So does New Oxford manager Scott Anderson, who used a wood bat in his high school career (at Laurel Highlands in western Pennsylvania).

"The only negative (in making the change) was the expense," said Anderson, whose team is not sponsored by an American Legion post. "Between what the players spent buying their own bats and what we, as a team spent, we probably had $1,000 in bats. We made two purchases, a couple dozen bats each time. We broke quite a few bats, although early on (in the season), it was much worse as everyone made an adjustment. Our guys started focusing on hitting the ball up the middle and taking it the other way and stayed away from hitting the ball off the end of the bat because that's when it breaks."

New Oxford's runs and home runs took a dip, too, going from 101 and four in 2012 to 71 and two in 2013.

Anderson, thinks the production will improve as players become more comfortable using wood bats.

Spangler said his players had fun playing with wood bats, but he agreed with Anderson that the cost factor is a concern. Spring Grove's team is also not sponsored by an American Legion post.

"You can break a wood bat in practice, and now you're out $60 or $70," Spangler said. "We broke a handful of bats, no doubt about it. We included that (the cost of bats) as part of the registration fee."

Spangler said a metal bat can cost $200 to $300, sometimes more.

"Metal bats break, too, but a lot less frequently,"Spangler said. "And if it's still under warranty, you can send it back and get another one."

Safety: The wood-vs.-metal debate involves more than cost. Those who favor wood feel it's safer than metal.

West York head baseball coach Roger Czerwinski said in his 30 years of playing and coaching, he's seen two "very bad, very ugly" instances where pitchers were hit by batted balls.

"In the one instance, the bat split in half, and a piece of metal flew out and sliced the player's leg," Czerwinski said.

The Bulldogs' coach, whose teams won the last two state Class AAA titles, said the metal bats today, though, are much different from the ones introduced years ago.

"The pop sound coming off the old bat is incredibly greater than what comes off the new bats," he said. "At one time, the only requirement for a metal bat is that the length vs. weight difference couldn't be more than three."

Czerwinski said beginning in 2003, bats were tested by The Baseball Research Center for the exit speed at which the ball leaves the bat and for the "trampoline effect." (In a hollow bat, the barrel compresses like a spring when a ball impacts it and the ball loses less energy than when a ball hits a wood bat. By losing less energy, the ball ends up traveling farther after leaving a metal or composite bat.)

"You're never going to get rid of all dangers of the ball coming off the bat," Czerwinski said. "But there has been an attempt to make the game safer with the introduction of the BBCOR (Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution) bats."

The BBCOR standards, adopted by the NCAA in 2011 and by high schools in 2012, were put in to try and insure that metal and composite bats perform more like wood bats.

Czerwinski doesn't see high schools following American Legion's lead in switching to wood -- at least in the near future.

"The NFHSA (National Federation of High School Associations) follows the NCAA," he said "I think we're at least five to seven years from that (switching from metal to wood)."

High schools stick with metal: So metal bats, which originally gained a foothold because of cost and a shortage of wood at the time, will apparently remain the standard in high school and college -- at least for the foreseeable future.

Levi Krause is very familiar with both types of bats. He spent countless hours in the batting cage near the Spring Grove High School field working on his swing.

Krause batted .397 using the metal last spring at Spring Grove. Coaches named him York-Adams League Division I Player of the Year.

Krause then swung the wood this summer for Spring Grove's Legion team and for Stoverstown in the Central League.

In the State American Legion Tournament, he batted .429.

Asked which he prefers, wood or metal, Krause made an argument for both, but finally came down on the side of wood.

"I like hitting with wood, but I like the pop of the metal bat, and the ball travels farther when you hit it," he said. "Personally, I'll go with wood. I've gotten used to it."

-- Reach Dick VanOlinda at dvanolinda@yorkdispatch.com.