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MLB players love their Louisville Sluggers

From CNET Magazine: Ballplayers have been swinging Louisville Sluggers for generations. Here's how the legendary bats make their way from a forest to the playoffs.

The batter hunches over home plate, the bat held high and behind him. The pitcher throws, the batter uncoils and -- thwack -- bat meets ball in one of the most famous sounds in sports.

Have you ever really looked at a baseball bat?

It's an elegantly simple spindle of wood that fits batters' hands as if it were made for them. For many Major League Baseball players, it was -- becoming an extension of the players' arms and a conduit of their power.

More than 30 companies make official MLB bats. Some, like Marucci Sports, have been on the scene for a little over a decade while others, like Rawlings, Spalding and Louisville Slugger, have been part of "America's pastime" since the late 19th century. Today, Marucci and Louisville Slugger both claim to be the No. 1 bat used in the majors. Even the MLB can't say for sure because it doesn't have an exact breakdown.

That's one big baseball bat.

Chris Monroe/CNET

What's not in dispute is the fact that no bat is more iconic than the Louisville Slugger. Its name is as synonymous with baseball as the legends who favored it, from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter. For sure, players will be swinging it throughout this month's playoffs and into the World Series.

The bat's legend can be traced to John Andrew "Bud" Hillerich's love of baseball. An apprentice in his father's thriving woodworking shop in Louisville, Kentucky, Hillerich made things like bedposts, bowling pins and something called a swing butter churn. And when he had a chance, he also made baseball bats for himself and a few friends.

One day in 1884, Hillerich watched a game where local baseball star Pete Browning, nicknamed the Louisville Slugger, broke his favorite bat. According to company history, the 17-year-old Hillerich volunteered to make Browning a new bat.

With Browning beside him, Hillerich worked at the lathe until the ballplayer said the bat felt just right. Browning got three hits with that bat in his next game.

That's about all you need to start a legend in baseball.

Seeing the trees for the forest

No other place looks like the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, in downtown Louisville. That's because no other factory boasts a 120-foot-tall, 68,000-pound replica of Babe Ruth's favorite baseball bat leaning against it. If Godzilla ever has batting practice, he's coming for that bat.

Can't see the bats for the forest of dowels? Give it time.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Making a bat these days involves a lot more than standing at a lathe with a ballplayer by your side, ready to gut check the feel of the bat.

The fundamental philosophy, though, is simple: Make a really hard bat.

"Harder means farther," says Rick Redman, spokesman for Hillerich & Bradsby Co., which still makes bats at the factory despite selling the Louisville Slugger brand last year to Wilson Sporting Goods.

For Louisville Sluggers, the process of making hard, sturdy bats starts about 500 miles away in a forest along the New York-Pennsylvania border, where timber experts look for straight-growing maple and ash trees with the makings of a good bat. Those experts concentrate on north-facing slopes because the colder, shorter growing season packs the trees' growth rings closer together -- making the wood harder.

In olden times (before the 21st century), players preferred bats made from ash. But ash tends to separate at the growth rings, causing bats to break and splinter. Maple got a boost in 2001 when Barry Bonds hit a record 73 home runs in a single season.

"It could be attributed to something he was doing besides swinging a maple bat, but since he broke the record with a maple bat, the general consensus was, 'Hey, maple's got to be great!'" says Bobby Hillerich, director of wood bat manufacturing.

Now, three-quarters of all major league players use maple bats.

The best wood is used for MLB Prime bats, which the pros use and amateur players can order online. Wood that doesn't meet Prime quality can end up as bats sold by retailers, or as souvenir bats found in baseball parks and not intended for actual use.

Five years ago, the company worked with Sherwin-Williams to create a low-emissions, proprietary finish that adds an extra layer of hardness to the bats. It also gives the player another layer of confidence.

Turn, turn, turn

As the lathe turns.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Computer numerical control lathes have transformed bat-making. The machines are easy to program, easy to control and fast. Turning a bat by hand at a lathe can take about 30 minutes. With a CNC lathe, it takes about 45 seconds.

I watch Bud Hillerich's great-grandson Brian roll a wooden, bat-length dowel into the lathe. Two metal arms grip the dowel and hold it in place. Two other arms -- each knife-sharp and equipped with vacuum tubing -- descend onto the spinning dowel, sucking up sawdust and wood chips that a farmer in southern Indiana will later collect for animal bedding. About 2,500 rotations later, a bat emerges as if carved out of butter.

CNC lathes are precise, too. When a professional player orders a new bat, he specifies its exact length and weight. Louisville Slugger has been keeping track of those bat profiles for a while now.

That standardization has contributed to the Slugger's popularity with major leaguers, says John Thorn, official historian for the MLB. "If a bat cracked or needed to be replaced, they could give a player the model that he was used to, rather than the player getting used to a new bat," he says.

Before 2003, every bat the Louisville Slugger factory ever made had a steel version, kind of like a master recording accurate to 20-thousandths of an inch. The company ended up with about 2,300 of these models it had to store somewhere.

That changed with CNC lathes.

"To be able to have a player hand you a bat, digitize it and start producing it in less than an hour and having it plus or minus three-thousandths of an inch is really cool," Hillerich tells me.

Any color you like

Sure, blond wood is the classic look, but bats can come in a range of colors, styles and purposes, including personalized commemorative bats.

"[Ballplayers] want to make a statement that this [bat] represents who I am," says Redman.

On an April afternoon, I watch as factory workers spray racks of retail bats black and red. Elsewhere, people are hand-branding blond wood bats with the Louisville Slugger logo.

Heeeere, batter batter!

Chris Monroe/CNET

Other bats are getting lightly toasted to bring out the grain. Some will be bone rubbed -- a new take on an old practice of rubbing a cow femur over a bat to compress the wood even more. Others are sprayed pink and stamped with foil for Mother's Day. This past May, 150 players on all 30 MLB teams played with those pink bats, which the MLB then auctioned off to help fund the Susan G. Komen and Stand Up to Cancer organizations.

Game of failure

If you think about it, baseball is a game of failure.

Someone with a .333 batting average -- meaning he had 150 hits out of 450 times at bat -- is considered a great player. Achieving that takes talent, practice and a healthy dose of confidence.

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Michael Muller

That's why players want bats that feel and sound right. That idea is pretty much shared wherever people play baseball, from the major leagues down to high school ball.

Curtis Granderson, an outfielder for the New York Mets, started using Louisville Slugger bats when he was in high school. "All the models I've ever used are based on the original Louisville Slugger models," he says.

In fact, Granderson's maple M110 model bat was first developed in 1944. It's now available with a black matte finish as the MLB Prime Maple M110 Granderson GM model. Amateur players can buy it for $150.

Early Slugger bats featured famous players' facsimile signatures and faces at a time when celebrity culture was starting to boom. That link connecting players' star power with their bats hints at the notion that we can absorb those same mad skills just by using their bats, says Thorn.

"It's all some belief in a magical transference of power from the adored one to puny little you," he says.

Regardless of whether the Babe did (or didn't) pass along his mojo, you can still hear the power when bat meets ball. All good bats make that perfect sound -- thwack.

First published October 7, 5:30 a.m. PT.
Correction, October 14 at 11:20 a.m. PT: Fixes the batting average definition.

This story appears in the fall 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.