Walking softly and making big sticks
The Bat Man of Denmark, Maine
|Bob Logan of Denmark, Maine, has followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, Rupert Johnson, in many ways. Both have been coaches, teachers and baseball bat makers. Upon his grandfather’s death, Logan took over his business of producing professional quality baseball bats. Each bat is hand-turned one at a time on a special lathe, and the results have earned a great following among amateur and pro ballplayers since 1928. Steve Caming. (click for larger version)|
May 29, 2009[In perusing the Mountain Ear's archives of stories published over the past 34 years, we often pull one up with a certain timeless quality to it which seems to be pleading for a second printing. Such was the case with the following story, originally written by Steven Caming and published in The EAR in 1989. There's just something about a story which talks of baseball, baseball bats, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox that brought a grin to everyone's face. Talk about timeless...]
In a world of mass production it becomes an increasingly rare experience to hold something in your hand that was created by a master craftsman…someone who learned their trade one elemental step at a time, over many years from a loving teacher.
The end result of these efforts is something more than just an item that serves a purpose; it is a tangible embodiment of the values and workmanship of its maker. It can imbue an inanimate object with something beyond just its component elements…and it is that little something extra that one needs when facing certain situations in life.
It's the bottom of the ninth inning and your team is down by one run. There are two outs, two men on base and you're coming up to bat. Grabbing your special bat, you approach the plate…
Many players, both professional and amateur, have been in this situation and others like it over the years. For some, the bat of choice at this moment is one that has been handcrafted by Bob Logan of Denmark, Maine.
Logan's grandfather, Rupert Johnson, began the business in 1928 as a small side line to his career as a high school principal and major league scout for the Atlanta Braves. Johnson was also the baseball coach at Standish High School, and during his tenure he led the team to state championships 32 out of 36 years. Making baseball bats was just a fun diversion.
Logan worked at his grandfather's side for many years, slowly learning the techniques needed to turn out professional quality bats. In many ways, Logan's life path has closely paralleled that of his late grandfather. He had been a schoolteacher at the Sacopee Valley High School for the past 19 years and a coach of both the varsity soccer team and girl's softball team when we first met.
Logan, then 41, never aspired to be a major league scout, but had branched out into owning a sporting goods store in Bridgton. Additionally, he coached a Babe Ruth league in Denmark, helped run the Fryeburg softball league, and played in the North Conway league. In many ways, the all-American pastime of ball playing has been thoroughly woven into the tapestry of Bob Logan's life.
"I remember as far back as 1957, when I helped my grandfather make baseball bats for the New York Yankees. My job was flame-treating them, which I thought was a big step up from shoveling wood shavings off the floor of his shop. Back then, he was making, maybe, 500 bats a year. We're doing about 3,000 now, which is a lot of hand-turning," Logan said.
Besides making bats according to a customer's specifications, Logan can refer to prototypes of bats used by many of baseball's greatest players. If someone wants a replica of Mickey Mantle's bat (Logan's personal favorite), Logan can make an exact duplicate with the hand-tracing lathe his grandfather built. "Every pro player's bat is an individual. We have people who send us specific bats they want duplicated," he said.
While many manufacturers do produce machine-made bats, Logan's small company is the only one in the United States that still turns them by hand, one at a time. "There's no substitute for having a person inspecting the quality, grade and tone of the wood as a bat is being turned, especially for the pros," he observed.
It was never really part of the plan for Logan to take over the business from his grandfather, it just kind of happened that way.
"In 1969 I was on the University of Southern Maine baseball team, and my coach had placed an order for bats with my grandfather. Well, my grandfather took sick and the team needed the bats, so I got a couple of friends to help, went into his shop and started turning them. While I was there, I noticed some other orders that had been piling up, so I made those bats, too. My grandfather never really did get completely well again, and little by little I took over," Logan explained.
From the little boy who started shoveling wood shavings, to the young man who helped fill back orders, Logan's real reason for working with baseball bats was to spend time with his grandfather. "I really do enjoy making them, but it's not the same without him," Logan said.
There are many steps involved in producing a top quality bat, and there's no manual to check along the way. The process itself is fascinating, and requires some unique tools. A hand-turning lathe, gouges, a hand-tracer lathe which holds different bats as models, and a host of lesser implements are all used with precise care. But it all begins with the forest.
"White ash is really the only wood that works. We've tried others like oak and birch, but they don't work. Really, one of my biggest concerns is finding quality wood. A lot comes from landowners with just one or two good trees," he explained.
A "good" tree is one 12 inches or more in diameter. Assuming it's straight, about 40 bats may be produced from that one tree.
"It's getting tougher and tougher to find these trees, as a lot of these wide-scale chipping operations are arbitrarily eating up high-quality white ash, which could have a much higher value than just for paper," Logan lamented.
Once the trees are found and cut into what look like square posts, the process begins. Working on the lathe, Logan gives a rough shape to the bat, while inspecting the wood's grain and tone. A preliminary sanding is completed, followed by the fiery branding process, which burns the "Made By R.G. Johnson, Denmark, Maine" legend deeply into the wood.
This is followed by rough sanding and finished sanding on Logan's flexible belt sander, then the knobs that allowed the wood to be fastened to the lathe are cut off both ends.
"I can tell how it will finish up when I'm turning a bat. If it fights me, I know the grain is tight. I may cuss a bit, but I know it's a winner," he noted.
Finally, looking very much like a bat, the piece moves into the finish room, where it is dipped in two coats of sealer, and a finish coat of polyurethane. The bat-making process takes about two hours from start to finish.
In that amount of time, a bat Logan had made can become the stuff of legends when put into the hands of the right hitter. Apparently, many professionals feel that way: Logan's bats are used by New York Yankee slugger Dave Winfield and various members of the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres. "I was watching a ball game on television one day and there was a rain delay.
One of the Boston players was complaining about how he's down to two "special" bats. I was thinking that maybe I could turn a few "special" bats so I wrote a letter to [Red Sox vice president] Heywood Sullivan. He asked me to send a few samples, and I ended up making bats for three different players," Logan said.
Logan gets certain thrills from his baseball bat side line that go well beyond monetary rewards
"We were invited down to a game in Boston and were there early watching batting practice. It's quite a thrill to see your bats being used and lying around the dugout," he said.
Picking a bat is a very individual process. There is no science or established method for what one person should or shouldn't use.
"The pros are all real superstitious about their bats. If they go into a slump they always blame the bat, not themselves. But, you'd be surprised how well they take care of a bat they feel is 'lucky' for them. Remember Robert Redford in 'The Natural?' It's not much different than that in real life," Logan noted.
Surrounded in his workshop by actual bats that were used by the likes of Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, Roger Marris and Hank Aaron, Logan goes quietly about his business.
"I never had a clue that baseball bats would play this kind of role in my life. Now, I can't imagine my life without them," he said. "In general, though, baseball has experienced a big resurgence. It can teach us a lot about life. It's a team sport where individual achievement can win the day and create a hero," he observed.
After his "retirement," which allowed him to really, as he puts it, "go full swing" into the bat business, Logan's legend only grew. He wants to do it for himself, and for the memory of his grandfather. "I feel as though I've followed in his footsteps in many ways — as a teacher, a coach and a baseball bat maker," Logan noted proudly.
As he stands over his one-of-a-kind lathe, hand-turning a bat the same way his grandfather did, it's easy to see the respect Logan has for the legacy he has inherited.
"I think about my grandfather a lot," he said. "In a way, making these bats still keeps me close to him, the way it did when he was alive."
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