In the ninth inning of his life, Leonard Smalley needs a hit.
Frankly, he’d settle for a foul ball, even batting practice. The 86-year-old Garden City Beach inventor simply wants a league, team or player to give his baseball bat a swing.
“Just try them out,” he said. “They don’t have to use them in a game or anything. See how they hold up and how they like them.”
When a shard of bat seriously injured a woman at Fenway Park last month, the accident rekindled discussions about broken bats and ways to make America’s pastime safer.
For Smalley, the conversation is one he’s been having for more than a decade.
“So far, nobody can tear it apart,” he said of his bat. “They’ve tried.”
A safety concern
Smalley started thinking about baseball bats in the early 2000s after reading stories of young players who had been injured by balls flying off of metal bats. He also read about the pros’ wood bats shattering, sending projectile pieces at other players or into the stands.
A longtime carpenter, he decided to design a wood bat that wouldn’t splinter the way others did. He bought a Louisville Slugger at a sporting goods store and brought it to his daughter’s cellar. He then cut small grooves in the bat and filled the slits with monofilament fishing line to hold the wood’s grain together. He kept tinkering with bats and plastic. Eventually, he found an Ohio bat manufacturer who was willing to make about 20 bats for him.
Over the years, Smalley refined the process — he received a patent for the bat in 2008 — yet the premise hasn’t changed: he believes reinforced bats are more durable and safer than traditional wood bats.
The octogenarian is right, said Ravi Ravindra, a physicist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Ravindra made headlines in 2007 for an experiment that involved freezing baseballs in liquid nitrogen and hitting them with aluminum and wood bats. He found metal bats hit the ball harder than wood ones.
That research was conducted as many communities grappled with whether to require youth leagues to use wood bats. Some believed them to be safer than metal because the ball doesn’t come off of wood bats as fast as their metal counterparts. New York City made its high school leagues all-wood in 2007.
After stories about Ravindra’s experiment appeared in the media, Smalley, a New Jersey native, contacted him. He explained the purpose of his bats and the professor was intrigued.
Starting around 2010, Ravindra began testing Smalley’s patented Swing 7. As part of his research, he provided the university’s baseball team with reinforced bats to use in practice.
“These bats never shattered,” Ravindra said. “That’s what the NJIT team liked about this.”
What made the bats stronger, the professor said, were Smalley’s tiny band-like incisions that ran perpendicular to the length of the bat. By filling those with a polymer, Smalley controlled the damage done by a pitched baseball. And when his bat cracked — because all wood bats do — it remained in one piece.
But are Smalley’s bats safer?
“Absolutely,” Ravindra said. “My sincere feeling as a scientist is that indeed the MLB and the NCAA and other agencies should give serious thought to Leonard’s bat. Leonard indeed has a strong case that will support the American spirit of playing baseball with wooden bats.”
Last year, Smalley moved another 90 feet toward his dream when the Swing 7 was approved for college and high school play by the Washington State University Sports Science Lab.
“He definitely got the certification,” said lab manager Jeff Kensrud. “I can’t speak at all to whether or not it’s more durable or does what he’s saying it does.”
For a modified wood bat to be used in an NCAA game, the WSU sports lab must examine it to ensure it meets all the standards for college play. If the bat fits the guidelines, Kensrud said, no performance test is necessary.
Although most college teams and youth leagues use metal bats, WSU has certified more than 140 wood ones, including some from independent bat makers.
“A lot of the smaller guys do end up producing wood bats,” Kensrud said. “They tend to gravitate toward those.”
The recent interest in making wood bats stems from an increased demand for the product, said Brad Lightfoot, owner of MDS Baseball Bats in Ohio.
“All of your college players and your better high school players, they all train with wood,” he said. “It makes them a better hitter. ... You’ve got to finish your swing. You’ve got to drive through the baseball. Fundamentally, you’ve got to do everything right.”
MDS manufactured Smalley’s bats before Lightfoot bought the company in 2011. Since then, the owner said, MDS hasn’t worked with him.
“Right now, there currently really isn’t a market for what he’s doing,” Lightfoot said.
Yet he acknowledged that demand could change, especially with all the recent discussions about safety.
For years, baseball enthusiasts have debated the vulnerability of maple bats. Ash bats were the standard for decades, but maple became popular in the 2000s because players liked the harder wood, particularly after Barry Bonds crushed a record 73 home runs with maple in 2001.
The downside of maple is that it’s more likely to break apart, severing the bat from the handle.
In 2008, Major League Baseball began working with the U.S. Forest Service to study thousands of shattered bats. Researchers found inconsistent wood quality was a problem. They also noticed that bats with straighter wood grains tended to break less frequently. Five years later, they announced that bat manufacturing changes had led to a 50 percent decrease in broken maple bats.
But the Fenway Park incident has revived talks about additional regulations on maple bats.
Perhaps the time is right for Smalley’s bat, Lightfoot said.
“To me, there’s really no reason MLB shouldn’t allow it,” he said. “The big thing it prevents is the bats flying apart, and Major League Baseball is concerned about that.”
One last shot
One afternoon this spring, Smalley loaded several bats into his car. The heat hadn’t set in yet, and a steady breeze streamed through the parking lot outside his condo. He talked about how he’d like to stop by a nearby diamond and smack a few balls around to showcase his prized invention.
“It’s a nice day today,” he said. “Baseball weather.”
Smalley never fancied himself an inventor.
The son of a carpenter, he grew up around beams, hammers and lathes in Chester, New Jersey. His father often took him to watch the Newark Bears, a farm team for the New York Yankees, and in high school he knew the batting average of every player in the Bombers’ lineup. He played left field in high school and once tried out for the Yankees, though he never had the athletic ability to make it to the big leagues.
After school, Smalley started doing carpentry work like his father and uncle. He built bridges, tunnels and homes. He switched careers in 1964 and spent 26 years with the Morris County Park Police, retiring as a captain.
But Smalley never completely got away from woodworking. For a while, he split time between police shifts and construction jobs. With his father and uncle, he built his own house, a five-bedroom source of pride complete with shuffleboard and table tennis in the basement.
Smalley moved to Garden City Beach in 2004. He said trying to build a safer baseball bat was a reaction, not a quest for glory.
“It just come up in my head,” he said. “I was always fooling around with wood. I’ve been in the carpenters union. ... I said, ‘There must be a way of making a wooden bat stronger.’”
Now that his bats are certified for college and high school play, he hopes someone will give them a chance. Like every baseball diehard, he’d love to see his bats in the big leagues, but he’d be content with a high school squad picking them up.
“I’m 86 years old,” he said. “I don’t have much time left. I’d just like to see somebody use them before I go upstairs.”