Even in those formative years, authorities on the game warned the practice of hitting fungoes should be limited to coaches. Henry Chadwick, one of baseball’s earliest proponents, claimed “The weakest batting is shown when the batsmen indulges in fungo hitting,” according to the Art of Batting. Others agreed that the practice was bad for training a batter’s reflexes: “While watching some of our freshmen practicing ‘fungo’ batting the other afternoon it occurred to me that it was about the worst kind of practice a batsman could imagine in training his eye in batting,” a writer claimed in the March 3, 1886 edition of The Sporting Life. “It trains the eye to meet the ball in batting it in a manner which never occurs in actual play. It ought to be prohibited on every well regulated ball field.”
It is not clear why pregame infield fell out of favor in the majors. Today, coaches hit balls to infielders and outfielders during batting practice. Most players go at it leisurely, lobbing balls back in or across the diamond. That rankles old-school players like Jerry Kindall, a former major league infielder who coached Arizona to three N.C.A.A. titles before retiring in 1996.
Fungo bats typically weigh between 17 to 22 ounces and may be as long as 37 inches, making them longer than most bats used for hitting. According to Pro Bats, a typical professional baseball player uses a bat that is about 34 inches long and weighs about 32 ounces, although there is considerable variation. Fungo bats not only are longer than regular bats, they also are skinnier. Like regular bats, fungo bats can be made of metal or wood.
Players can be very particular about their bats. Ted Williams cleaned his bats with alcohol every night and periodically took them to the post office to weigh them. "Bats pick up condensation and dirt lying around on the ground," he wrote, "They can gain an ounce or more in a surprisingly short time." Ichiro Suzuki also takes great care that his bats do not accumulate moisture and thus gain weight: he stores his bats in humidors, one in the club house and another, a portable one, for the road. Rod Carew fought moisture by storing his bats in a box full of sawdust in the warmest part of his house. "The sawdust acts as a buffer between the bats and the environment," he explained, "absorbing any moisture before it can seep into the wood."
Chris Coste, a former catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies who coaches at Division III Concordia, in Moorhead, Minn., agreed. “When baseball is every single day, you’ve got to do things differently,” he said. “In the big leagues, they get so many ground balls during batting practice that infield is more for the fans and more for the scouts and things like that. At this level, we need it, and we love doing it.”
For starters, we should clarify just what we’re talking about when we say fungo bat. Longer, lighter and thinner than a regulation bat (but a larger barrel), a fungo bat is typically 35 to 37 inches long, and weighs between 17 and 22 ounces. As David Allison wrote in the June 1978 edition of Country Journal, “A fungo bat looks to be a cross between a baseball bat and a broomstick.”