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Baseball bat maker still hitting home runs

The famed the Louisville Slugger isn’t just a hunk of wood. For major leaguers, having your name burned on one of these storied baseball bats is the ultimate stamp of success.
/ Source: CNBC

If you ever find yourself hanging around the batting cage at Yankee Stadium, chatting with five-time all-star Jason Giambi, listen carefully. Because when you get around to discussing the tools of his trade, you might need a code book.

“When I first started out in major league baseball, I started swinging a T141. And now I swing my own, which is a G174. But, you know, a lot of guys will order that model because it's kind of patterned after C243 and an H238.”

No matter how many bat models he’s used, the numbers don’t hide the fact that, for Giambi, his Louisville Slugger isn’t just a hunk of wood. He considers it a stamp of success.

That's when you know you've made it,” he said. “When you get in that first bat order and your autograph's on it, you know you made it to the big leagues."

That stamp of success is created in Louisville, a proud city of gracious old homes and award-winning modern architecture.

One unusual bit of architecture, a 120-foot-long, 68,000-pound bat made of carbon steel, dominates the entrance to the home of the premier professional bat, the Hillerich & Bradsby Co. There more than 2,000 Louisville Sluggers are made each day. About one in five earns a place in the major leagues. And those are made to the exact specifications of the individual players who get them.

According to Hillerich and Bradsby executives, if you want great wood for bats, you have to go to northern Pennsylvania where they own Larimer & Norton, a lumber company. Every day about two truckloads of maple or ash arrive at the Larimer & Norton mill. They’re laid out on the ground where each log is measured and examined to see if it’s bat-worthy, according to Brian Boltz, the company’s general manager

“After the logs are graded for bat quality, they are sawed into 40-inch blocks,” he said. “A 40-inch block could yield from eight to 25 bats.”

The wood then makes its way into the mill where Larimer & Norton’s laser-guided boring machine cuts the blocks into three-inch wide cylinders called billets. After a drying process in huge kilns, the billets are ready for their transformation into bats. For that step, they have to head to Kentucky.

Some 8,000 billets show up in Louisville every Monday. Danny Luckett, a 38-year Hillerich & Bradsby veteran, turns billets into Major League bats according to the exact weight and dimension specifications of individual players. A computerized lathe called a computer numeric control machine ensures the pros get what they want, according to Anne Jewell, the company’s museum and factory executive director.

About 2,000 pro bat models are programmed into the hard drive of the machine, she said. “Any difference between the specifications for a bat and the actual bat produced will be less than the thickness of two sheets of paper.”

The next step for most ash bats is to get their pedigree: burn-branding with the Louisville Slugger oval. If called for by the player, wood is scooped out of the end of the bat to make it lighter. Then the bats are dipped into a lacquer or stain and air-dried before moving on.

The maple bats get their Louisville Slugger oval trademark at the end of the process. “An ash bat can be burn-branded or foil-branded,” said Jewell. ”But a maple bat will get a decal put on it because maple is a more brittle wood and we don’t want to put too much stress on it.”

The origin of the Slugger is a bit hazy, lost in local lore. But Bill Williams, the company’s retired head of public relations and unofficial historian, offers the most cited version.

“The business actually started with a broken bat,” he said. “In 1884 Bud Hillerich, who was a 17-year-old apprentice in his dad’s woodworking shop, went to a local baseball game. And the star of the team was Pete ‘The Old Gladiator’ Browning — he had the handlebar moustache just like you see in the movies. He broke his bat and young Hillerich went up to him after the game and invited him to his dad’s shop and said, ‘I’ll turn a bat for you.’ ...  So Browning went down and, at least according to company legend, he went four for four.”

When players began to flock to his door, Bud’s father, John Frederick Hillerich, was not thrilled.

“John Frederick was really against us making baseball bats because at the time it was really associated with gambling, womanizing and drinking,” said his great great great grandson, also named John and now the CEO and president of the company. “John Frederick didn’t like any of that stuff.”

Besides, the company’s hot product — the swinging butter churn — was doing very well, thank you very much.

But in time it became clear that the bat business was too profitable to ignore, and it slowly became the company’s mainstay. Bud eventually took over from his father, and soon the company allowed customers to buy individual models favored by players such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig. It was a breakthrough marketing tactic.

When the U.S. entered World War II, women manned the lathes at Hillerich and Bradsby and along with the production of bats came the production of M-1 carbine stocks.

In the following decades, the company did confront one seismic shift. Following consumer demand, it entered the world of aluminum bats in the '70s, buying a plant in California for their production.

For John Hillerich, his family’s success can be measured in how well they maintain the brand’s iconic status.

“We’re a family who’s been part of America,” he said. “We certainly didn’t make the game of baseball great, we didn’t make the company great, but we’re part of it. And our legacy will always be, ‘What did we do to leave this company better? What did this company do to make baseball a better game?’”

In Giambi’s mind, that legacy is already assured.

“It’s synonymous with the greats (like) Babe Ruth,” he said. “Those guys were all swinging the same bat. You look in Cooperstown — you go there and it's all Louisville Slugger bats.

“Some guys, they might even treat 'em better than their wives probably,” he added with a laugh.