As every gym period approached, the sweaty palms and fluttering stomach butterflies would start. Would I fall from the balance beam? Would I smack the water after my dive? Would I get tangled up in the dreaded climbing net? I won’t even mention the horrors of softball.
But if I would have swung a Black Betsy, I’d have been a celebrity on the athletic field at Columbus School for Girls.
Black Betsy was what made Shoeless Joe Jackson, a Major League outfielder during the early 20th century, a legendary hitter. The circa-1910 baseball bat was huge (36”), hulking (2 ½” barrel diameter) and heavy (48 oz.), made of hickory and stained by juice from chewing tobacco.
A handsome replica of the Black Betsy is one of the dozens of wooden baseball bats that Phoenix Bats of Plain City crafts for professional players, weekend warriors and creative collectors. If you didn’t know that big-league bats are made right in our own backyard, it’s time to take a tour of this unique business that produces more than 15,000 bats a year.
Phoenix has been around since the early 1990s, when Charles Trudeau combined his love of history, baseball and woodworking and started making this unique product. Some of his first customers were his fellow players with the Ohio Village Muffins, the Ohio History Connection’s vintage base ball team that plays with the rules, equipment and uniforms of the 1860s, but without gloves, in keeping with tradition. To supply the Muffins with the wooden bats they needed to play a historically accurate game, Trudeau researched 19th-century woodworking equipment. Then, he started hand-turning his bats to make them resemble the ones depicted in historic photographs that he had studied. He also crafted vintage baseballs like those from the 1860s, which were made with one piece of banana peel-shaped leather and are slightly larger than modern-day baseballs.
In 1996, Trudeau decided to go full-time with making bats, christening his company Phoenix to reflect the fact that he was bringing back 100-year-old bats from the ashes of history. His wooden bats were approved for use in the Big Leagues in 2000.
The unmistakable crisp, loud “pop” when a wooden bat strikes the ball is music to the ears of ball-players who choose a Phoenix bat. But all wooden bats are not created equal. Each hitter has a different requirement for the weight and dimensions of his or her bat, different swing mechanics, and has different needs for their bat. That’s where Seth Cramer, Phoenix’s general manager, and his fellow bat-crafters can help.
If a baseball-player mishits at the end of the bat, a northern white ash bat is better because it is more flexible and forgiving. If mishits occur further down the bat, rock maple is preferable because it’s the all-around strongest, most dense wood. If a player hits all over the place, the combined flexibility and strength of yellow birch is a good choice, especially for those new to playing with wooden bats.
All three types of wood come from the dense forests of New York, Pennsylvania and the upper East coast, creating create fast, durable bats.
Phoenix bats begin life as billets, miniature telephone poles of wood that are sorted and stacked on bright red shelves according to their weight, which is usually around six pounds. Ash billets are stored in a temperature-controlled room, where their higher moisture content is pampered and coddled like cigars are treated in humidors. All billets should have a straight grain, since wavy-grained bats have a tendency break faster.
The bat-cutting process takes place on a high-tech, big-ticket machine made by Locatelli of Italy, the most advanced in the industry. Design work is done on a desktop PC, loaded into the Locatelli’s hard drive, and then the computer tells three blades and a sander how fast to go, finding the perfect balance between speed and quality.
The billet is placed inside a windowed metal box, where a lathe turns it about 40 times a second. It takes one minute to form the bat’s knob, handle and barrel, and one minute to automatically sand it.
The six-pound billet is transformed into about a two-pound bat, resulting in about four pounds of waste. But our thrifty friends at Phoenix have found a use for what’s left. Excess pieces at the end of the bat are cut off and given to a Plain City business with a woodburning furnace to burn. Leftover sawdust is given to a farmer in Bucyrus to use for livestock bedding.The bats are finished with a tedious process that involves dipping the bat in PVC tubes filled with finishes. When they’re dry, some bats go into another machine made by Epilog Laser, where they are engraved. The engraving descends only 1/8” into the bat, so it doesn’t affect the bat’s structural stability. Trophy bats and vintage bats can be engraved with personalized text and a logo can be added for a nominal fee. Engraving is important in play, because a player should hold the bat so that the logo faces the sky. That way, when you strike the ball, you’re making contact with the ball on the strongest side of the bat.
The Phoenix showroom contains plenty of models from which to choose. There are bats for softball, bats for use by high school baseball teams, bats swung by Major League players, and bats used by a team of Dublin eight-year-olds. After all, if you learn how to hit with a wooden bat, you can see improvement in your game, even if you end up playing with a metal bat.
And then there are the vintage bats, which are larger, heavier and thicker than modern bats. They don’t have a definite taper, they hit the ball differently, and the sound that results from hitting the ball is unique. Phoenix’s vintage bats include those patterned after circa-1920s Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig models, a “Wonderboy” like Roy Hobb’s circa-1930s bat in The Natural, and those favored by Mickey Mantle in Roger Maris in the 1950s. A “Throw Back” bottle bat from the 1950s, with a huge barrel and a long handle, is popular with the Cleveland Scrappers, a team of visually impaired players of a neat sport called beep baseball. The Lajoie, a 1909 model popularized by Napoleon Lajoie, has a double knob to force the hitter to choke up and improve his control.
There are bats with nifty handles wrapped by hand by a gentleman in Michigan,
and even a replica night stick, an old-style wood policeman’s baton that is a perfect commemorative piece for special occasions.
Expect to spend anywhere from $55 to $115 for a Phoenix bat. If that’s out of your league, you can bring home clothing, hats, vertical bat displays, glove conditioners, baseball mallets, wax grip sticks and and clever logo items.
For more on Phoenix Bats, check out “Plain City Company Makes Bats For World’s Best Players,” Steve Brown’s story that aired on WOSU on August 7, and “History Hits Home: Woodworker Draws on History to Create Vintage Baseball Bats,” an article I wrote for the April 9, 2004 issue of Business First.
Phoenix Bats offers one-hour tours on Mondays and Fridays at 1:30 p.m. and Wednesdays at 6:00 p.m. The $10 admission fee includes an 18” engraved mini bat to take home as a souvenir.