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Hey, Batter Batter: Alcoa's alloy development hits Little League homeruns 50 years ago

08/24/2021

Twelve-year-old Jim Liput hit four home runs with this Alcoa-developed aluminum bat during a July 1971 baseball game outside of Pittsburgh. It was the first time an aluminum bat was used in a Little League game.

Fifty years ago on a warm July day outside of Pittsburgh, a young baseball player stepped up to home plate clutching the first aluminum bat to be used in a Little League® game anywhere in the world. Four homeruns later, an American baseball icon developed by Alcoa was born.

The story of the aluminum baseball bat, like many items from Alcoa’s history, is one of innovation.

Prior to that history-making day, the Little League standard required wooden bats. Word of an aluminum softball bat that debuted a couple years earlier started burning up the youth baseball grapevine. Such a bat would be a financial grand slam for Little League teams, which spent much of their miniscule funds replacing broken wooden bats. Aluminum bats were also lighter and had a larger “sweet spot”—both of which resulted in players hitting balls farther.

“Alcoa soon began developing an aluminum bat with the long-term goal of supplying bat manufacturers with the aluminum tubing used to make them,” said John Liput, an Alcoa retiree who was instrumental in testing the early bats. “We initially produced and sold an Alcoa-branded bat while helping bat companies develop their own versions to ensure everyone was making a quality bat. We stopped making bats once our customers had marketable products but continued supplying the tubing.”

Today, Alcoa continues to develop and market numerous proprietary aluminum alloys that help our global customers score “home runs,” whether it be for electronics, vehicles, airplanes or soda cans. For example, Alcoa has developed foundry alloys for the automotive industry that allow components to be used in their "as-cast" state, eliminating two costly process steps while producing parts more efficiently and cost effectively.

For the baseball bats, our researchers’ initial challenge wasn’t the shape of the bat, which matched the wooden bat standard exactly, but its aluminum alloy. They homed in on Alcoa 7000 series alloys used in the aerospace industry for its high strength, adjusting its heat treatment to eliminate potential cracking when the bat struck a high-speed baseball.

Andrew Schnitgen, Alcoa Breakthrough Technologies Director, (left) and Alcoa retiree John Liput reminisce over the first aluminum bat made by Alcoa

“We put our prototypes through a battery of accelerated tests, including total immersion in boiling 6 percent salt solution and accelerated immersion in 3.5 percent salt solution,” said Liput. “We also conducted atmospheric tests, placing bats in exposure sites at the Alcoa Technical Center (ATC) outside of Pittsburgh, on a rooftop in Los Angeles and at the Alcoa Seacoast Test Site in Point Judith, Rhode Island.”

At the conclusion of the accelerated testing, one manufacturer requested to see an aluminum bat used in an actual game.

“Norm Flemm, an Alcoa employee who worked at ATC, was an official administrator for Little League Baseball,” said Liput. “After evaluating our bat and determining it was the same size as the standard wooden bat, he gave approval for its use in an official Little League game. My son Jim was playing in the league at that time and used one of our prototype bats in a game on July 15, 1971.

“He went crazy with it, hitting four home runs. He used an aluminum bat for the remainder of the season, with his batting average rising to .647. Word got out, and orders for the bat started flowing in from Little League teams around the country.”

Our researchers continued refining the bat, helping muffle the sound it made when striking a ball, experimenting with different alloys, thicknesses, coatings and colors.

Fifty years later, Little Leaguers around the world continue to unleash their power using aluminum bats—an innovation sprung from within the labs of Alcoa with the help of a 12-year-old boy.

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