Special thanks to WSU Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections

 
 

 
Click arrow to see video.
 
 
 
1944 – Eri B. Parker (left), former WSC

 mechanical
engineering professor, watches

Wally
Friel try out a prototype aluminum bat.
PULLMAN – Sunlight sparkles on the metal barrel of a baseball bat as a teenage boy tries it out for size. Nearby, a well-dressed gentleman watches him – a smile of approval edging out from the shadow of the fedora set jauntily on his head.
 
It was 1944 – wartime at Washington State College – and the image in that long-forgotten photograph tells a tale of foresight and innovation a quarter century before its time.
 
It wasn’t just any bat that clean-cut, 13-year-old Wallis (Wally) Friel was holding that day in front of Bohler Gym. It was a prototype of a hollow aluminum bat, engineered at the old WSC foundry, – and something most people had never heard of at the time.
 
Sixty-five years later, the WSU Sports Science Laboratory resides – ironically – near the location of the original foundry. Directed by Lloyd Smith, associate professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, the lab is one of three in the nation – and the only one in the West – that test performance characteristics of bats and balls.
 
Smith – who came to WSU in 1996 and is known among baseball/softball engineers worldwide – had never heard of the university’s venture with aluminum bats until Friel offered to donate the photograph to WSU Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections. It was a piece of campus history that had all but disappeared from memory.
 
Wartime opportunities
Washington State has long been a major player in the aluminum industry. With bauxite-rich soils and close proximity to cheap and abundant hydroelectric power, the Pacific Northwest became a national leader in aluminum production during WWII.
 
An unusual spinoff from that enterprise is described in the book, “Middle Innings – A documentary history of baseball, 1900-1948,” edited by Dean A. Sullivan.
 
“In 1944, businessmen in Washington State … planned postwar uses for their state’s abundant resources (aluminum) when they would no longer be needed for the production of aircraft,” wrote Sullivan.
 
“One product discussed was a metal baseball bat” – more than 25 years before its entry into amateur baseball in 1970.
In 1924,William Shroyer was issued a patent for the first metal baseball bat. Despite this early patent, aluminum bats were not seen in the game of baseball until Worth introduced them in 1970.
 
Reprinting an article from the Spokesman-Review, July 20, 1944, Sullivan reports that Jack Friel, WSC athletic coach, had presented the idea of creating aluminum baseball bats to A. E. Drucker, dean of the School of Mines. Consequently, the bats were in production at the light metals laboratory in Pullman – and, the article promised, “Magnesium baseball bats with a metallic ping will be on the market this fall ….”
 
Wally Friel, now 78, (WSC, 1953) is the son of Jack Friel, (WSC, 1923) renowned basketball coach from 1928 until 1958.
 
Friel confirmed the story saying, “During 1944, my dad was head basketball coach at WSC – and, because of the war and Buck Bailey’s absence, he was also baseball coach. With so many males off at war, he also helped out in the WSC foundry in the summer – and they were working on an aluminum bat.”
 
Arthur B. “Buck” Bailey was WSC baseball coach in the era spanning 1927 through 1962.
 
Friel said he doesn’t know what happened to the prototype bats or why the program languished. But Smith ventured a guess as to why the bats did not gain popularity.
 
“The aluminum they use for bats today is a high-strength aluminum made from aluminum tube,” he said. “I don’t think they could get the strength properties out of a cast aluminum bat that they can from tubing. So I’m guessing that – once you had a stronger player hitting the bat – they didn’t hold up as well.”
 
 
Baseballs and cannons

 

Lloyd Smith
Smith is an authority when it comes to the strength of bats. In the Sports Science Lab, he and his team conduct bat and ball performance testing for ASA – the Amateur Softball Association – and the NCAA – National Collegiate Athletic Association.
 
Although the University of Massachusetts at Lowell does the bulk of NCAA testing –– Smith’s lab recently has become NCAA certified – and expects to take on more of the action. A third independent agency, near New York University, does the testing for USSSA – United States Specialty Sports Association.
 
In the lab, Smith perpetuates the Friel spirit of baseball innovation through the use of an extremely powerful air cannon which he designed and built for shooting a variety of balls at high speeds.
 
Blasted at speeds up to 140 mph, the balls slam into bats attached to a swivel at the end of the cannon. As a bat flies backwards, its performance is measured in qualities like batted ball speed – which, for softball bats, is up to 98 mph.
 
Ball parameters are measured in separate tests – using light gates, high-tech cameras and computers. For example, the coefficient of restitution (COR) measures how much energy a ball loses during impact with a bat. 
 
Beyond baseball, Smith has pioneered test procedures for other sports equipment – such as measuring ice hockey stick performance. He and his colleagues also measure cricket bat performance.
 
“There has been very little laboratory testing of hockey pucks at speeds or temperatures representative of play,” he said.
 
To that end, Smith has adapted the cannon to shoot frozen hockey pucks as well as golf balls and leather-bound cricket balls.
 
With a smile, he admitted he likes his job.
 
“I feel lucky to have fallen into this line of work – and I couldn’t think of anything better than to go to work, build cannons and shoot things at high speed.”
For in-depth information on the Sports Science Laboratory, see online at http://www.mme.wsu.edu/~ssl/