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Making bats the Louisville Slugger way

For any fan of baseball, the name of the bat says it all. But getting a chance to watch how they're made is a treat to be savored.

A stack of billets--cores of maple or ash that have yet to be cut down to the shape of a baseball bat--await that fate at the Louisville Slugger factory in Louisville, Ky. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

LOUISVILLE, Ky.--The other night, I found myself watching the College World Series on TV, the first time I'd seen any amateur baseball in some time.

But there was something wrong with it: Every time someone hit the ball, there was a loud pinging sound when an aluminum bat connected with horsehide. If you're a baseball fan, you know what I mean.

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Contrast that, however, with the pure sounds I was treated to Thursday when I stopped on Road Trip 2008 at the Louisville Slugger factory here and spent a couple of hours on a behind-the-scenes tour of this, the largest maker of wooden bats for professional players in the world.

In the old days, according to my host, Bill Dellinger, most players' bats were made from white ash. And Louisville Slugger certainly still does use ash. But in 2001, when Barry Bonds broke the single-season home run record using maple bats, many other major leaguers followed Bonds' lead. And today, Dellinger said, more than half of all the major league bats the company produces are maple.

"We happen to think that the maple is too brittle," Dellinger told me. "But whatever the players want, the players get."

Louisville Slugger began making bats in 1884. Over the years, the factory has moved several times, including spending 23 years across the river in Indiana. In 1996, the factory moved to its current location, and shows no sign of moving.

Outside the factory building--which also houses a museum--there's a giant bat that towers over the building next door, and is a popular place for photo opportunities.

Outside the Louisville Slugger museum, there's a giant baseball bat that dwarfs everything around it. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Today, the factory makes about 1.83 million bats a year. But they're not just for major leaguers. That number includes bats for minor leaguers, other amateur players, and tons and tons of them for souvenir or corporate promotional use.

But, as can be expected, the major league bats are still the flagship product, and they are made on a special computer numerical control (CNC) machine, operated by the most experienced bat makers.

During my visit, that happened to be Danny Luckett, whom Dellinger called the best bat maker in the world, though he also said that, using the CNC machine and after a little training, anyone could make bats for the big leagues.

Luckett told me that Louisville Slugger began using the CNC in 2002, mainly because it was the most modern technology available.

Prior to that, the company used specialized lathes, several of which are still in operation at the factory for making bats for lower levels or for souvenirs.

At the major league level, however, Luckett can make about 300 bats a day, each taking about 50 seconds, and making up a wide variety of weights and lengths.

The bats are carved out of what are called billets, which are cores of ash or maple that are 37 inches long and 2.75 inches in diameter. But they can have a variety of weights, and that's what makes them different.

The computer that runs the computer numerical control machine, which shapes the major league bats made at the Louisville Slugger factory in Louisville, Ky. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

After the bats come out of the CNC or the lathes, they must be branded. The company uses special coding, such as "G174," which would mean that it's the 174th model of bat made for a player with a last name beginning with G.

If a player has a contract with Louisville Slugger, his signature will be branded onto the bat. But the company does make bats for players without contracts, and their names are applied in block lettering.

After the branding--which is done by a burning-on process for light-colored bats, and by pressure-applying silver or gold-colored foil onto dark-colored bats--they must be sanded down to a very smooth surface. Running your fingers along one of these bats is a very pleasant experience.

A worker at the factory dips freshly made baseball bats in black lacquer. That gives the bats a shiny surface. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Then, the bats are dipped in lacquer--either black or clear--to give them a shiny surface.

One of the coolest things in the factory was a bin against one wall that had the signature plates of the more than 8,000 players the company has had under contract over the decades.

Dellinger called it a "mini museum of baseball history."

I asked him if he felt that the skill was being lost in the bat-making process, especially because of the use of machines like the CNC.

He said yes, but added that the CNC makes precision bats that are the same every time.

He related a story about how bats used to be made by hand, and that one time, the great hitter Ted Williams sent one of his bats back saying that it was too thick.

When they measured it, they found that it was five one-thousandths of an inch too thick.