September 29, 2004
SWEET SOLID SMASH:
Louisville Slugger: The lumber that still powers our national pastime. (SCOTT OLDHAM, September 1999, Popular Mechanics)
This year, H&B will make 1.4 million wood Louisville Slugger bats for professional and amateur use (and over 1 million aluminum bats). That's 70 to 80 percent of the retail market. Each wood bat is made from white ash grown on 5000 acres of company-owned forest in Pennsylvania and New York. Why ash? Because it has just the proper amount of tensile strength and resiliency. And the weight of ash is also favorable. Hickory and maple have been tried over the years but they've proven too dense.
So how is a wood Louisville Slugger bat made? Pretty much the same as it was 115 years ago. First a tree, usually between 40 and 60 years old, is chosen and cut. Although Major League Baseball rules state that bat size is limited to 42 in. in length and 2 3/4 in. in diameter, nobody uses a bat that long. So the tree is cut into 40-in.-long sections that are then cut into several cylinder-shaped 3-in.-dia. billets. The billets are dried in kilns for six to eight weeks before they are shipped to one of the company's three wood bat factories–to the Louisville site where all the adult-size and professional bats are turned, or to Ellicottville, N.Y., or Troy, Pa., where the company makes its wood youth and softball bats.
At the factory, a billet is placed in one of three types of lathes–a tracer lathe (all professional bats), a backnife lathe (adult bats) or an automatic lathe (all youth and softball bats)–where it is cut down to the bat shape. In the case of the tracer lathe, a flat metal guide, or pattern, in the shape of the bat being made, is placed in the lathe. The cutting tool follows the shape of the pattern as it cuts the wood.
Major league players all have their own bat shape and weight preferences, so each player's bat is different. And most players use several different bats over the course of their careers–or even during the season. Each bat model is assigned a model number. For instance, Babe Ruth's bats, model No. R43, varied over the years from 35 to 36 in. in length and 36 to 47 ounces. The very heavy 47-ouncer was for spring training only. Lou Gehrig's bat, 34 in. long and a fairly heavy 39 ounces, was model No. G69. By contrast, today Tony Gwynn uses a featherweight 33-in., 30 1/2-ounce bat, model No. B276C (the C means it is cupped at the end). Each model number is kept on file forever.
Hand-turning bats without a pattern guide, once the only method used, is too time-consuming, expensive and imprecise. But guys like Danny Luckett still hand-turn occasionally to demonstrate the technique to tour groups visiting the Louisville plant.
Once a bat has taken shape, the bat maker sands down the nub on the bat's thin end with 80-grit sandpaper. Then it is passed on to the brander to burn in the Louisville Slugger logo. Next, the entire bat is sanded and then finished if the bat has been ordered with a natural or flame-burned finish.
Some players want a flashier look and order special finishes. Harry "The Hat" Walker, 1947 batting champion with the St. Louis Cardinals, liked two-tone bats. The treatment is now called "The Walker Finish." The black 34-incher used by New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter goes to the sander first, then to the hand dip line for the coloring and finally to the foil brander where it receives gold lettering. If a bat is ordered with a cupped barrel end, which lightens it, the cupping becomes the final touch.
Jeter, who has used Louisville Sluggers exclusively during his still-young career, sees no reason to try other bats. "I just don't care to switch to another brand," says the 25-year-old phenom. Jeter's teammate, power hitter Tino Martinez, also uses Louisville Sluggers. "I tried other bats," says Martinez between batting practice swings at Yankee Stadium. "But I haven't been able to find the balance I look for in a bat from any other company."
And finding that balance, finding a bat that feels good, is vital. According to Mickey Mantle, the most powerful switch-hitter of all time, "The first step to hitting is to find the right bat." A thought echoed by Ted Williams, a lifetime .344 hitter, when he said, "I'd have been a .290 hitter without Louisville Slugger." During his career from 1939 to 1960, Williams, a man many consider the greatest pure hitter in history, was a frequent visitor to the Louisville Slugger plant, where he hand-picked the timber for his bats.
But even with the perfect stick, hitting is far from easy. "Hitting a baseball is the single most difficult thing to do in sport," says Williams. "It's the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed just three times out of 10 and be considered a great performer."
It's those few times you succeed, however. You read the pitch perfectly, hit that ball right on the sweet spot, and hear that wonderful, crisp crack. That's as perfect a moment as life can offer. George Herman Ruth said, "There's nothing that feels so sweet as a good solid smash."
Some years ago they found a stash of Ruth bats and brought one to an All-Star game so guys could take a few hacks. It was so much heavier than what they use nowadays that they couldn't even swing it. Posted by Orrin Judd at September 29, 2004 9:18 PM