Louisville, Ky. — Baseball is a hard, rules-bound game. And one of those rules is that there is plenty of folksy baseball lore lying around. Pick it up, toss it around, and you're instantly at home with talk of RBIs (runs batted in) and ERAs (earned-run averages). Not adept here, and you may feel like an outsider.
But who among us has not hoisted a bat in a neighborhood sporting goods store? Most people would probably give it a swing if they weren't afraid of knocking over the running shoes display. A few may feel the urge to go out and do battle with a credible pitcher. But Ted Williams said it straight: Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things in all of sports.
Pitches have names - slider, curve, knuckleball, and the All-American fastball. But pity the batter who stands there with a piece of finely honed northern white ash about as long as a man's thigh and does nothing to that 90 -mile-an-hour white flash except swing at it. One cannot hit that ball even 50 percent of the time. A .350 hitter is doing well. When Williams broke .406 in 1941 it was a moment in history.
No wonder that those 30-plus ounces of solid wood have earned such mystique and respect. It is a batter's best friend when he heads to the plate to battle the odds and the pitcher. And the players know it.
Ted Williams babied his bats like infants. Babe Ruth carved notches on his bats where they struck the ball (he said it gave extra distance to his hits). Other players put their bats in the sun to dry or in a barn to age like hams. Others rub them with oil or bathe them in alcohol. Ty Cobb never changed his bat style. Others change all the time. Myths and superstitions aside, over 90 percent of those bats carried to the plate also carry a particular diamond-shaped brand on them. Inside the diamond, the words ''Louisville Slugger.''
There is something reassuringly solid about the name. Louisville Slugger. Packs a lot of oomph without sounding nasty. Just the kind of image we might want for the national pastime. Mitts may be stitched in the Orient, and the balls hail from Haiti, but the Louisville Slugger is all-American.
It is the country's oldest and most popular bat. Its maker, the Hillerich & Bradsby Company (H&B), is the largest and most senior batmaker in existence. Every year it turns out over a million wood bats and, over the years, several of them worked their way into the hands of such slugger greats as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, and Rod Carew. Even such unlikely devotees as Buster Keaton and rock star Alice Cooper have fallen in love with the famous stick.
The Louisville Slugger is the Jell-O brand of bats. Talking about it is a little like talking about the virtues of sliced bread. It has survived periodic shortages of wood, labor problems, and the onslaught of more durable aluminum bats. Only professional baseball still outlaws the metal bat, which, by any estimate, is king of the hill in retail sales. Only 1 million wooden Louisville Sluggers are carved today. Ten years ago, 6 million were made. Today, only three companies still bother to make wood bats. Hillerich & Bradsby freely admits it loses money on every wood bat it hand carves (hand-turned wooden bats make up only 1 percent of H&B's business; the rest are machine-made). In an age of million-dollar ballplayers, the homely $9 bat somehow survives, a bit of real Americana in an Astroturf world.
Of course it wasn't always like this. Before the turn of the century, baseball was an unformed and fledgling sport. Players wore mutton-chop sideburns and unabashedly took shortcuts from first to third if the umpire wasn't looking. They also swung bats that looked more like wagon-wheel spokes or tree limbs. Teams only owned about eight bats. Break one, and you simply nailed it back together and played ball. That's what Pete (the Old Gladiator) Browning did when he was the best hitter for the Louisville Eclipse baseball club. That is, until the summer of 1884.
Who knows how it happened, but during a turn at the plate, Pete's favorite bat broke beyond repair. And as history has it, Bud Hillerich, the son of a prominent woodworker, was in the stands. The senior Mr. Hillerich was already making a good living having his company turn out wooden bowling balls, bedposts, and a swinging butter churn. He saw no need to make a product for a mere game. But Bud saw things differently. And when Pete Browning's bat broke, the junior Hillerich took the ballplayer home and together they carved the first custom-made baseball bat on a steam-driven lathe.
The clincher came in the next game: Pete, armed with his hand-turned bat, went three for three - getting a hit every time he was a bat. The Louisville Slugger had been born.
Such was the bat's reputation that when John L. Hillerich III (Bud's son) decided to relocate the company's plant from Louisville, Ky., to Cementville, Ind., back in 1972, some unsavory taunts sprang up. ''Going to call it the 'Cementville Slugger'?'' some crowed. This, of course, was the unthinkable. Nineteen eighty-four would be the 100th anniversary for the No. 1-selling bat in America. Indiana lost out, and ''Louisville Slugger'' was staying.
Good thing, too. Players like ordering up their season's selection carved to their specifications. Like a good steak, Louisville Sluggers come any way the players want them.
''We have baseball bats in the tens of thousands,'' says Bill Williams, a vice-president at H&B, pawing his way through the bats stacked like cordwood here in the Master Model Room. ''And we keep them just like dental records. That's how we keep 'em straight. Of course, they're all on microfilm today. But a pro player can order his bat any way he wants it.'' Mr. Williams is hunting around for a replica of Babe Ruth's famous bat. ''In fact, we could tell you what bat Babe Ruth used on any given day of his career.''
While amateur ballplayers order their bats from a glossy list - ''Big Daddy, '' ''High Velocity,'' and ''War Club'' for softball bats, ''Johnny Bench,'' ''George Brett,'' ''Craig Nettles'' for hardball - professional players order their bats by number: S250, C263M, S234, and so on.
Williams explains: ''Take, for instance, an A112 bat. It's simply a turning model number, that is, the 112 model for a last name that begins with 'A.' '' Ted Williams used to come in and pick out not only his style, but also the wood for his bats. Usually a player will simply select one of the existing models and order up more of the same.
Beyond length and weight there are a number of aspects to be considered when custom ordering the Slugger, such as shape and finish. A player can order his bats with nothing on the smooth-sanded bat, for the raw look favored by Rod Carew, or with a clear shellac finish - the most common type. Or there is a flame-tempered finish Mike Schmidt uses, although H&B will tell you it's for appearance only and does nothing to strengthen or weaken the bat. There is also a dark, hickory-colored finish called the Hornsby Finish, after Rogers Hornsby, who preferred this dark brown bat. And finally there is a two-tone Walker Finish , named after Harry Walker, who was touring the plant and pulled a bat out of a vat of stain and insisted on having all his bats made this way.
Shapes are something else again. Big barrels are out; thin, whippetlike handles are in. But a player can get his bat with any number of variations. ''Here is a cone-ended bat favored by Paul Molitor,'' says Williams, pointing to a peculiar-looking knobless bat. ''You can really get your hands all the way down on the handle with it. Here's a cup-balanced bat,'' he adds, pointing out a bat whose end has been whittled out like a doll-size teacup. ''Willie McGee favors those.'' Williams points out that aluminum bats come in only nine models. ''If the pros ever went to aluminum bats, the players would have to gear their game to the bat, instead of finding the bat that's right for them.''
Such is the virtue of northern white ash, which is grown predominantly in Pennsylvania and New York, and only on the tops of hills that have Eastern or Nothern exposure.
''Ash has the strength, resiliency, and weight that is just right for bats,'' Williams explains. ''There used to be some hickory, but that was too heavy. Oak is too heavy. Ash is lighter than oak and hickory. . . . The Louisville Slugger is a 100 percent all-natural product and you can never guarantee the wood, never get two pieces of wood the same. You can break a bat the first time you use it. Babe Ruth went through 170 bats one season. The record for least number of bats used during a season was two.''
It's a good guess that when the Oakland A's Ricky Henderson steps to the plate he doesn't think about Art Boyle. (Henderson broke the stolen-base record last year.) But Art Boyle doesn't seem to mind. Not on this afternoon, anyway.
Far from home plate, inside the cavernous Hillerich & Bradsby factory, Boyle wears his ''King of the Bluegrass'' cap and crunches wood chips underfoot as he turns again to his clattering lathe. Brushing a meaty forearm across his wood-dust-coated forehead, Boyle lays his rough-out knife against the whirling round of wood. A small explosion of wood chips erupts. Boyle's gouge has smoothed an imperceptible ridge on Ricky Henderson's about-to-be bat. With his beefy, precise fingers, Boyle will chase down and destroy the ridge. Fifteen minutes later, Henderson's bat in perfect H256 shape (31.5 ounces and 34 inches) will tumble off the lathe, ready for play.
Art Boyle is a turner, one of only three such craftsmen now employed by H&B to carve the 10,000 or so custom-made Louisville Sluggers that will go to the professional ballplayers. (H&B had seven hand turners at one time, but now calls the craft a ''dying art.'' Mass-market wood bats are carved by machine in eight seconds.)
With the precision and patience of jewelers, Boyle and Wally and Freeman Young (father and son) can turn about 120 or so bats a day. Right now, they are hustling in a precise sort of way. Opening Day is just around the corner and the orders, little piles of bat rounds, sit at their ankles on wheeled dollies. It will take Boyle most of the afternoon to work his way through Henderson's order - a repetitive and exacting process of gouging, measuring, gouging and measuring , again and again. With his trained hands, Boyle can tell by touch when a bat is off by an eighth of an inch.
''This isn't as hard as it looks,'' he says. It's easy to be fooled by his good-old-boy charm, but Boyle has been doing this since he was 19. ''The critical area is up by the head. I can only be off by an ounce; shellac-finish puts back about an half ounce. And the players are pretty particular.''
Boyle avidly follows baseball players' progress through the bats they order throughout the season. ''U. L. Washington is ordering a bat now that is smaller than a 30-inch Little League bat. He keeps talking about control, but I look for him to go up another inch before the end of the season. The other day he ordered a 31-inch, so I know he is having a problem with that little bat.''
This kind of free advice is exactly that. Other dollies around the factory hold more orders - some at the trademark branding station, others ready for individual dipping into shellac, but all to be talked over and discussed in light of their future owners. Here, a cart of bats for Frank Robinson. Address: Candlestick Park. Over there a dolly of bats for Steve Garvey, San Diego Padres. A visitor might feel like scratching on a little message: ''Keep swinging, Steve.''
But this is not possible: The only thing going on those bats is the Louisville Slugger trademark, Garvey's autograph and maybe some stain. Players who sign a contract with H&B get their bats autographed with their own name. Players who do not sign just get their name printed. But everyone gets his name on his bat. Used to be that small boys would flock to sporting goods stores to pick up their favorite ballplayer's bat - an exact replica. But the popularity of aluminum bats has done away with a lot of that grass-roots hero worship.
Better to gauge the modern-day response to the Slugger by traveling to Boston's Fenway Park on a chilly day with a stiff east wind and the players lined up at the batting cage.
''Come on, Yaz,'' yells Red Sox second baseman Jerry Remy to his teammate Carl Yastrzemski. ''Put something in 'em.'' ''Captain Carl,'' as he is known, takes a few swings with his Hornsby Finish Louisville Slugger and then starts hitting shag balls again and again and again.
Over in the stands, Johnny Pesky, the Red Sox batting coach and former .300 hitter, is cozy in his satin baseball jacket and spring training tan. He is keeping an eye on the batters and commenting on their bats.
''Oh, others have tried to compete, but 95 percent of all the players today use Louisville Sluggers. It seems like they've been making bats for a thousand years. Most players get a dozen or two dozen to start with, and they keep them in two categories: one and two. One for practice times, and two for game conditions. I remember when I was playing, you got eight bats for the entire season. Twelve if you were a star. Nowadays players like Jim Rice order their bats two dozen at a time. And every player likes his own model. I always liked a small bat myself. And I sure never cared for aluminum. If you get a bat you really like, you stay with it.''
Somehow it has become the first inning. The Red Sox are at bat, two men are already on base. Yaz steps to the plate and on the first or second pitch pounds out a strong single to left field. He isn't saying what he thinks of his chocolate-colored Louisville Slugger or the game to which it is wedded. The fans , thousands of them, hollering after that ball's white flight, do it for him.