Stanley Russell lifts the slender billet of northern white ash and eyes the grain. There, he says, see that squiggle? It's OK, within tolerances, but it will have to go at the barrel end of the bat.
He slips the piece back into the stack. All of the 37-inch-long square billets look the same. But they range widely in weight and quality. Some register just 77 ounces; others a hefty 97 ounces. Russell knows that one stack, marked 88 ounces, is the right raw material for the 31-ounce model used by Ken Griffey Jr. of the Cincinnati Reds. Another stack marked 91 ounces, will become the 32-ounce model swung by Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees.
At Hillerich and Bradsby's plant in Louisville, Russell's job -- his art, really -- is to match what Mother Nature provides with what a Major Leaguer demands.
From the upper deck of a stadium, bats may appear to be different only in hue. Don't be deceived. Each player's war club, as they were called in another era, is created to specifications measured in the thousands of an inch.
Other than golf clubs, wood bats may be the most customized piece of equipment in sport. Unlike golf clubs, they remain remarkably low-tech, a romantic link reaching back through the history of the game.
They have inspired any number of myths and tales. Bernard Malamud's novel, "The Natural," centered around Wonderboy, the lightning-tempered bat swung by Robert Redford in the movie version. Richie Ashburn, the slap-hitting outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1950s, slept with his bat when he was hot. Ty Cobb rubbed his bats with tobacco juice to keep out moisture. Babe Ruth carved 21 eyelash notches in the Louisville Slugger that swatted 21 home runs during the 1927 season.
Of course, you can overestimate the value of a custom bat. Mickey Mantle's 565-foot-rocket shot off the facade at Yankee Stadium, the longest home run ever measured, was hit with teammate Dale Long's cudgel. Bucky Dent, another Yankee, hit his shot into the netting at Fenway Park in 1978 to defeat the Red Sox in a playoff game with a bat handed to him by teammate Mickey Rivers. And Rivers earlier had borrowed it from Roy White.
The models for those bats -- and their tales -- have a home in a room just off the Hillerich & Bradsby plant floor. Each has a distinctive shape and balance. Ask for it and the guys can work up a model R43, the same bat Babe Ruth swung to swat balls into the short porch at Yankee Stadium. In fact, Dante Bichette, a Boston Red Sox player of Ruthian proportions, uses the R43 today (though his is ten ounces lighter than the Babe's 42-ounce monster).
Out on the plant floor, though, giving birth to those potential Wonderboys hasn't gotten any easier for Russell, who at 55 has been making bats for 37 years. The supply of white ash (Fraxinus americana) from the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania and Adirondack Mountains of New York has dwindled. Meanwhile, major leaguers have asked the magicians at Hillerich & Bradsby's plant to work increasingly spectacular feats.
Russell slides out a billet from a stack marked 82 ounces. "This one will be a big barrel bat because of the weight range," he says. "Maybe a C243."
C243. That's Louisville Slugger lingo for the bat created in the Sixties for Jim Campanis, a career .147 hitter with four home runs who played only 113 big league games. But since then it's had a distinguished career. Rod Carew wielded it while winning seven batting titles during a Hall of Fame career. Today, it's one of the more popular models, used by major leaguers like Paul O'Neill of the New York Yankees and sometimes Gary Sheffield of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
If made for Sheffield, that 37-inch, 82-ounce block of wood will be transformed into a 34.5-inch, 31-ounce bat. The billet costs Hillerich & Bradsby $6. The bat costs a player's team $29 (The company makes only a fraction of its revenue selling wood bats. Last year, for instance, it sold 1.5 million aluminum bats to the public, but only 39,453 for use by major leaguers).
The size and weight of Sheffield's club is typical of what ballplayers demand these days. Weaned on light, whippy aluminum bats in high school and college, they want the wood equivalent in the pros. The problem is nature can't match technology. And lately, Mother Nature has been supplying wood that's heavier, while players want their bats lighter.
"The funny thing about nature is you can never depend on it," Russell says. "The last four or five years the tendency has been towards getting wood that's a heavier weight. That makes it hard for us."
"Still, we try to get them the best we can."
That's what they've been doing at Hillerich & Bradsby since 1884 when J.A. "Bud" Hillerich, an apprentice woodworker, sneaked out of the shop to watch a baseball game. Pete Browning, the star slugger of the Louisville Eclipse, broke his bat that day and Hillerich, 18, invited him back to the shop to create a new one. They worked through the night with Browning periodically taking a practice swing to check the evolving model. The next day, he smacked three hits with it. The Louisville Slugger was born.
Today, about sixty percent of major league players use Hillerich & Bradsby bats. The H&B plant incorporates the well-designed Louisville Slugger Museum, which features a nice collection of memorabilia, high-tech displays and a plant tour.
Even in the early days, players looked for lighter bats. In 1915, Bud Hillerich sent a letter to a player trying to convince him to stick with a heavier bat. "It makes it a very hard proposition to get good driving wood in the weights that you now ask for," Hillerich wrote. The player was Shoeless Joe Jackson, the legendary hitter. Of course, Jackson swung a 36-inch, 40-ounce bat, a tree trunk compared to the toothpicks players swing in modern times.
What the artisans on the plant floor are trying to do is create the same bat from an ever-changing variable -- wood. What they want to recreate each time a player unpacks a new shipment is something as elusive as a grand slam -- the right feel. Two bats may be the same length, the same weight and the same shape yet feel entirely different.
"I pick 'em up and if they feel good, then I use them. It's all feel," says the recently-retired Wade Boggs, who was known to be one of the more persnickety players when it comes to bats.
The creation of feelgood lumber begins when a load of wood, dried for six weeks to reduce its moisture content, comes into the plant. Russell grades it and weighs it. He also checks the grain -- the growth rings. For major leaguers, it has to be wide, the kind produced by faster-growing trees. Three to ten grains per inch means the billet goes into the stack for the major leagues. Ten to sixteen grains per inch means it's ticketed for the minor leagues.
Why wide-grained wood? Because that's what players want. Walk into any clubhouse and players talking bats say they look for wide grain whenever they get a shipment of a dozen bats. "You pretty much got a feel. You just go on hunch," says Eric Young, the all-star second baseman of the Chicago Cubs. "I know the less grain the better the wood. Somebody told me that. I don't know where I got that from."
Paul Molitor, formerly of the Minnesota Twins, a lifetime .308 hitter headed to the Hall of Fame, admitted he looked for the wide grain. But he also was skeptical. "It looks better, feels better," he said. "I'm not sure how much better it really is."
At the H&B plant, they're sure it really is *not* better. "A small-grain piece of wood is stronger than a wide grain because the tree grows slower," Russell says.
Science backs up Russell's assertion. Paul Blankenhorn, a professor of wood technology at The Pennsylvania State University, recently completed testing Louisville Slugger bats. Those that were the strongest, had the most whip and endured the longest had about 12 growth rings per inch -- just the kind of wood big leaguers disdain.
Actually, not everyone disdains wide-grained wood. Ron Bryant, the floor supervisor and another 37-year-veteran, notes that Ted Williams dropped by the plant to pick out billets for his bats. He liked finer grain. And Williams knew a little about swinging a stick; he was the last player to hit .400 and slugged 521 home runs.
Of course, players have always had their quirks. Carl Yastrzemski of Bryant's beloved Boston Red Sox liked knots in the barrel of his W215 model, the bat created for Williams. Boggs used black-lacquered bats at night because he thought it was harder for fielders to see a ball come off the bat. Bichette holds his Ruth models up to his ear and pings them. "The higher the pitch, I think it's more solid wood," he says. "Some bats have a dead tone to them and I just don't use them."
On the plant floor, though, Russell doesn't check how tunefully a bat sings. He's guided by weight and grain. Once he matches wood with models, the billets go to Danny Luckett, who runs the automatic tracing lathe. When Luckett, who is 49, started at the plant 28 years ago, bats were still turned by hand. Each one took 20 to 30 minutes. During busy periods, six men worked the day shift and another three worked the night shift. Now, with the tracing machine he's used for more than two decades, Luckett can turn a dozen bats quicker than he could do one by hand.
Near his lathe is a priority list of players who get quicker service and the best wood because they're loyal to Louisville Sluggers. The list is a who's who of major league's brightest stars: Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, Tony Gwynn, Brady Anderson and David Justice are among those on it.
Today, athletes get megabucks to endorse ginseng or milk or deodorant. But not to endorse their Louisville Sluggers. Chuck Schupp, a former minor league pitcher for the Twins, is the company representative who signs players and keep customers happy by visiting locker rooms. But he says all they get in return for a contract to use Louisville Sluggers is a few bucks or a free set of golf clubs from H&B's links line.
In the old days, Louisville Slugger created bats for nearly any player and signed most major leaguers to autograph contracts -- putting a brand of their autograph on the barrel of a bat. That's done less these days. Partly because Schupp has a tight budget. And partly because Little League and high school players use anonymous aluminum bats with model names like TPX YB5. There's no chance they'll be influenced to buy a wood model endorsed by a Ken Griffey Jr. or a Tony Gwynn.
In the plant against the wall near Luckett's lathe is a cabinet with the thin-metal templates for about 245 models, though only 30 are used regularly. Luckett takes out the template for the B349, a model H&B made for Boggs a decade ago. Tops on his priority list this morning is a dozen bats for the Yankees' Tino Martinez, who uses a 34.5-inch, 32-ounce version of that model. Luckett screws the template to the lathe and slips a billet into the machine. Sawdust flies and within seconds, forty-eight small knives have created a bat. He checks the weight on a digital scale. It's more than an ounce heavy, but will be on the mark when it is sanded and the handling knobs are cut off each end.
Seconds later, he's completed a second stick for Martinez, who this day happens to be one of the hottest hitters in the American League.
When Luckett has finished a batch of bats, they move down the line to the branding and sanding machines. On light finish bats, the famous Louisville Slugger trademark is branded. On dark finish bats, it's created with a shiny silver stamp, the better to show up on television.
The trademark goes on the side of the bat against the grain. So by pointing the trademark to yourself, the bat will hit the ball with the grain, where it is strongest. Unless your name is Yogi Berra, the Hall of Famer and unintentional wit for whom even the laws of physics are twisted. Berra somehow twisted the handle during his swing exposing the weak side, resulting in numerous bats dying heroes (a bat that breaks on a hit).
''I'm up there to hit,'' Yogi said, ''not to read.'' So the boys in the plant devised a simple solution: they moved the trademark on his bats a quarter turn.
In Berra's day, players had a choice between natural finish and "flame-treated," which raises the grain and some think makes bats harder. Today, they choose from a rainbow of finishes. There's the Hornsby finish, a dark, almost black, brown. There's the Walker finish, named for Harry "The Hat" Walker, a batting champion for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1947. Walker plucked a bat from a vat of dark lacquer on a plant trip, liked the look and feel and a new finish was born. And there's the Galen finish, named for Paul Galen, a former plant worker. It's essentially a mistake. One day, Ron Bryant mixed the lacquer too light, making the bats a pinkish rose color. "The ballplayers really liked it," Bryant says. "If that's what they like, that's what we give them."
The latest craze is the Smith finish used by Ken Griffey Jr., who favors a black bat with a hard polyurethane coating on the barrel. It was created about four years ago by Ira Smith, who workes in H&B's research department. The bat barrel is dipped in a black polyurethane lacquer. Then it dries overnight. The next day, it's sanded, dipped again and allowed to dry for two days. Not surprisingly, as other ballplayers have watched Griffey chase Roger Maris' home run record, orders for the finish have increased dramatically, according to Bryant.
At the end of the line this day, Joe Magruder and Calvin Ferguson, each of whom have worked for 28 years at the company, are dipping bats for Jason Kendall, the Pittsburgh Pirates young catcher, in the soft red of the Galen lacquer, then hanging them on hooks to dry.
On shelves off to the side sit finished bats waiting to be boxed for shipment. There's also a stack of black beauties with the autograph of Ken Griffey Jr. stamped on the barrel.
I pick one up, something I've been dying to do all day. It's finely balanced. And a chance to dream. I play that eternal fan's game of "What if?" What if this is the bat Griffey takes to the plate on the last day of the season with a chance to break Mark McGwire's record?
It could become a piece of history, an enduring relic of our love affair with the national pasttime.
On the other hand, it could end up nothing more than a practice bat destined for some fan's cellar. It all depends on the feel.
Each Bat a Story
When Babe Ruth slammed 60 home runs in 1927, he named his bats Big Bertha and Beautiful Bella. The Sultan of Swat hit his last home run nearly sixty years ago, but the progeny of Bertha and Bella still send baseballs high over stadium fences.
The specifications for his bat -- and those for 300 other players -- remain on file at the Hillerich & Bradsby Co. plant in Louisville, awaiting an order from a major leaguer who wants to take a bit of the Babe to the plate. Just ask for model R43. Moose Skowron of the New York Yankees did during the 1950s. So did Frank Howard of the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 1960s. These days, Dante Bichette, the Ruthian-sized Boston Red Sox outfielder, often grabs an R43 from the bat rack.
The story of the Babe's bat is typical; name a modern major leaguer and there's history in his hammer. Each player customizes the weight and length, but the model -- the shape -- is a piece of the past. The most popular bat swung by major leaguers today is the C271, a model of exotic pedigree. Ken Griffey, Jr. of the Cincinnati Reds, Fred McGriff of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Will Clark of the St. Louis Cardinals and Gary Sheffield of the Los Angeles Dodgers are among those who favor it.
What legend swung it first? Jose Cardenal, a lifetime .275 hitter with nine teams who recently served as the New York Yankees' first base coach. Cardenal discovered his Wonderboy as an outfielder with the Chicago Cubs in the early 1970s thanks to George Altman, a journeyman .269 hitter who brought a dozen bats back from Japan for Lou Brock. Brock didn't use them. Cardenal picked one up and liked the feel -- as well as the smashing results.
Opposing pitchers didn't. They threw fastballs inside on him, breaking one bat after another. As his dozen dwindled, a worried Cardenal sent one to Louisville where Hillerich & Bradsby created a knockoff of the Japanese import.
Twenty five years later, Cardenal tells the story, fondly remembering the original. "It was an ugly bat, yellow. The color was terrible," he says. "But that wood was hard, very hard. You'd hit the ball and you'd never see a mark."