A new ball game; high tech and color are taking over

For decades, the staples of summer sporting equipment stayed basically the same. All baseball bats were made of wood, and so were tennis rackets. Tennis rackets were all the same size, too. So were tennis balls, and they came in one color–white. All golf balls were white, too, and each carried 336 dimples.

All this has changed and the old ball games, it seems, will never be the same. Sporting-goods makers are trying to outdistance and outdazzle one another in exotic space-age materials, colors, and sizes–all to make sports easier and more enjoyable for the average recreational player.

Two of the most recent developments are in baseball and youth fastpitch softball bats. Worth Bat Co., Tullahoma, Tenn., introduced the first graphite-reinforced thermoplastic bat which, it says, combines the durability and light weight of aluminum with the sound of wood.

“Graphite bats duplicate the traditional ‘crack of the bat,'” says President Jess Heald. That “crack” will be welcomed by all those batters who never could get used to the “ping” of aluminum.

Molded of graphite-reinforced resin from General Electric Plastics, these bats might even win the approval of pro baseball, Mr. Heald believes. Because of their “sound distraction” and greater force and impact, aluminum bats haven’t been permitted in professional baseball. The chief advantage of metal bats, of course, is that they last much longer than wood and are less expensive in the long run. The new Worth bats will retail for about $90 each, slightly less than equivalent high-end aluminum models.

Five years ago, wood represented 75% of the U. S. bat market, but last year some 2.3 million aluminum bats were sold compared with 1 million wood in a $30 million retail market.

‘WATER BAT.’ The other new bat is a revolutionary aluminum “Tidal Wave” softball bat from Spalding & Evenflo Co. Inc., Chicopee, Mass. It weighs 32 oz empty (average bat weight) but features a hollow core at the barrel end in which a player can add up to 6 oz of water.

“Adding water shifts weight from the bat’s handle to its barrel, creating a greater momentum transfer at the point of impact. The ‘Tidal Wave’ therefore combines the speed of a lighter bat with the impact of a heavier one,” says Dr. Richard A. Brandt, professor of physics at New York University and an authority on sports physics.

Dr. Brandt calculates that this new Spalding bat ($48 retail) can increase hit distance by as much as 10% over standard aluminum softball bats. Worth says its new bat’s thin hollow shell permits greater flexibility in placing the polyurethane foam filler inside; thus the manufacturer can shift and enlarge the bat’s “sweet spot,” the area where a ball can be hit with peak force.

Stiff, lighweight graphite already has revolutionized tennis rackets. From all-wood in the mid-’60s, they have progressed first to steel, then aluminum, plastics, fiberglass, and now graphite.

“Tennis equipment has undergone monumental changes in the last 15 years or so,” says George Vaughn, chairman of AMF Head Inc.’s Head Racquet Sports Div., Plainsboro, N. J. “Technology changed the equipment, the sport became more popular, and higher-tech companies looked at it and saw they could make a dollar.” He estimates that graphite’s share of the tennis-racket market in the last three years has graduated from 20% to 50%.

In their eternal quest for materials that combine stiffness with light weight, racketmakers have all but abandoned wood, as well as conventional-sized models. These represent, at most, 10% of today’s sales.

BIGGER’S BETTER. Since Prince Mfg. Co., Lawrenceville, N. J., introduced its “Classic” aluminum racket in the mid-’70s, these “oversized” (largest) and “mid-sized” rackets have dominated. Exotic sizes and materials have boosted prices so that most rackets now retail at around $75, and the market has grown to perhaps $250 million.

Tennis balls have changed, too. Most are now a brilliant yellow, easier to see than the former standard white balls which are now used almost entirely on grass courts, most notably Wimbledon.

Some tennis balls are larger, too. In March, Wilson Sporting Goods Co., Chicago–which claims 55% of the $80 million tennis-ball market–introduced its “rally” ball, 7% larger than a regular ball. Easier to hit and to keep in play longer, it’s targeted not at the serious player but at the “recreational players” who constitute 85% of America’s participants, Wilson says.

“People have been leaving tennis because it’s harder to play than they expected, and we’re trying to get the intermediate player to stay with it. We’re also trying to get the beginner,” a Wilson official says. “This ball slows down play and makes the game more enjoyable. A player can play with more confidence.”

AMF Head’s Mr. Vaughn has the same objective with larger and lighter rackets: “We’re trying to get kids and young adults to play tennis. We’re trying to make tennis easier and more enjoyable.”

‘DIMPLE DEBATE.’ That’s the idea in golf equipment, too. Color also has come to the golf ball, but the major news in this $300 million industry has been the manufacturers’ ongoing “dimple debate.” The number, size, depth, and pattern of dimples affect how far a golf ball will fly.

Until the early ’70s, all golf balls carried 336 dimples. Since then the number has risen steadily and now Spalding’s “Top-Flite Plus” and Ram Golf Corp.’s “Golden Ram 492” balls each boast the most dimples–492. Their competitors aren’t giving in, however. Wilson claims its 432 dimples are the “optimum number” as determined by CAD/CAM technology.

What’s the next advance in sporting equipment? In tennis, racket strings will be the next improvement, Mr.

Vaughn believes. “People buy a $150 racket and then have it strung with nylon [as opposed to the better but more costly gut], which doesn’t make much sense,” he observes. “The strings are what you hit the ball with.”

However, he warns, there may be a limit to all these changes: “Probably the consumer is getting ‘over-teched.’ After all, this is still a game. We’re not exactly going to the moon.”

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