Adirondack’s Big “Sticks”

by Sharon Brown | History

Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. Sharon Brown wrote about the Rawlings Adirondack Co., in Dolgeville, in 1981, before the invasive emerald ash borer threatened to wipe out the white ash trees used to make many baseball bats. Today, Brown works for the Dolgeville nonprofit organization Beavers: Wetlands and Wildlife.

When big Dave Winfield
stepped into the batter’s box for his first official appearance as a New York Yankee, most of the 55,123 spectators at the Yankees’ 1981 opener wondered whether he could justify his much-publicized $1.3-mil­lion-a-year contract with a hit. But at least one baseball fan in Dolgeville, New York, had a more personal con­cern: if Winfield connected, would his bat be up to the task?

Winfield walked that first time up, and not until the fifth inning did a single off Texas pitcher Jon Matlack provide the answer: both Winfield and the bat were doing just fine. That was good news to Bill Steele, a skilled craftsman who hand-turns bats for Winfield and dozens of other major-­league players whose “lumber” comes from Rawlings Adirondack Co. of Dolgeville, makers of “Adirondack”­-brand baseball and softball bats.

Four hundred models of profes­sional ballplayers’ bats line Steele’s workroom at the plant. To make the new Yankee star’s “Big Stick” he picked out the DW-20 model, which is exactly 35.5 inches long and weighs 33 ounces, and placed it in a copy lathe alongside a high quality ash billet. Steele, a lik­able fellow with black hair and a rusty­-colored beard, has been custom-mak­ing bats for nine years. From his years of experience at the craft, Bill knows just how heavy a billet to use in order to produce a copy of the desired weight. The rough copy must then be carefully shaped with hand tools as it rotates in another machine until caliper meas­urements show it to be identical to the original. The exact match is important: hitting a major-league pitch is difficult enough without the added distraction of a bat that has an unaccustomed feel.

After sanding and branding with the Adirondack “Big Stick” logo and the player’s signature, Winfield’s bats are usually stained a dark walnut shade. But this year he has also ordered some distinctive, bright blue bats. The handle area, below the trademark “Pro-ring” stripe, is usually left natural and always left unlacquered on professional bats because players often use pine tar compounds on the grip. Only the barrel or business end of the bat is lacquered. Most athletes prefer a “flamed” finish which accentuates the natural grain of the wood, but others prefer dark stains. Lately, for exam­ple, Reggie Jackson has been partial to black-stained bats.

Last fall, when Steele put on a bat-­making demonstration at the New York State Museum in Albany, he brought along samples of his craft­manship for famous major-leaguers. “I had to guard those bats with my life,” Bill said. “A boy who was about nine years old came up to me and asked which was Reggie Jackson’s bat. I pointed it out to him and before I knew what was happening he’d grabbed it! I chased the kid halfway across the room before I could catch him.”

Adirondack craftsmen sometimes travel to Boston, New York City or Montreal to meet their customers and determine their needs. Steele recalls a tense moment when he visited Mont­real two years ago at the time of a Pirates-Expos game. Before the game began he asked to see Dave Parker. “The great slugger from Pittsburgh came walking out of the locker room. He filled the doorway and he said ‘Who’s the guy that makes my bats? I ought to poke you because I’m only batting .290.’ ” Bill bravely answered “I do,” but as they talked he quickly realized that the big Pirate was only kidding. Parker said “The bats are fine,” and even suggested that the presence of the Adirondack repre­sentative would bring him luck. Sure enough, Steele said, “the first time Parker was up to bat he hit the ball out of the park for a home run.”

Bill Steele has also traveled to Florida in his company’s “Bat-mobile.” The Bat-mobile is a 31-foot Airstream double trailer fully equipped as a self­-contained, miniature bat factory on wheels. As the Bat-mobile travels around the major league training camps in Florida each spring, its skilled passengers are able to turn out “Pro-ring” bats to each professional player’s exacting specifications. Bats are produced at the rate of one every 30 minutes. The Bat-mobile has been quite successful, according to Bruce Mang, general manager of Rawlings Adirondack. “A player would come in and say ‘Could you sand down here or make this heavier?’ “In half an hour the athlete would have his new bat.

The players themselves or their pur­chasing agents often call the company with orders for a new design. “They’ll say ‘Make a little bigger handle or a different weight or length,'” Mang ex­plained. “They might change from week to week. A major league player uses a lot of bats in a season. Out of a dozen they might select two that they like. A major league player won’t use every bat that he gets. There are a lot of limitations to working with wood.”

Mang draws a sharp distinction between his company’s professional business and the production of bats for general amateur use. “In the pro­duction operation we can make 8,000 bats per day compared to 8,000 per year in the professional operation,” he says. Bats are made in sizes varying from 26 to 37 inches long, with increments of one inch or half an inch. Rawlings Adirondack makes over a million bats a year, and it is a multi­million dollar business, according to the general manager.

Baseball bat manufacturing in Dolgeville began in 1946 at a small company that Edwin McLaughlin had started before World War II. Later that year “Prince Hal” Schumacher, recently retired after a successful pitching career with the New York Giants, took over the firm’s profes­sional and dealer sales; soon the business called McLaughlin-Millard was well on its way toward becoming a major manufacturer of bats.

Successive shifts in ownership changed the name of the company to Adirondack Industries, Inc., then to Adirondack Division of Rowan In­dustries. During the late 1960s busi­ness grew rapidly after Willie Mays endorsed the “Big Stick” and the Bat­-mobile was first created. A-T-O, Inc., a major corporation with annual sales of three quarters of a billion dollars, ac­quired the business in 1971. Since 1975 the company has been named Rawlings Adirondack, a division of Rawlings Sporting Goods Co. of A-T-O.

The factory used to make wooden toboggans as well as bats, but the high costs of the workmanship and mate­rials resulted in a hefty price tag which hurt their salability, as did the grow­ing popularity of other winter sports such as skiing and snowmobiling. At present the bat factory also makes vinyl footballs and football jerseys for children. The sawmill part of the operation produces dimension stock used in furniture manufacture as well as bat billets.

“We bring logs in with our own trucks,” the general manager said. “The trees have a 15-inch diameter on the average. Ash is used for top grade bats because it’s stronger and has flex­ibility. The fibers have enough tensile strength to allow the wood to bend in­stead of break. Maple is used for some of the lower grade bats for kid’s or girl’s softball teams where the ball isn’t hit as hard, but a lot of softball bats are still ash.

“Ninety percent of our wood is from New York State and most of it comes from within 200 miles. Down south the ash is not as good. We’re local, and being right here where the wood grows is an advantage.” Dolge­ville is indeed an ideal location for a bat factory because the woods sur­rounding this quiet foothills town are richly populated by tall, straight north­ern white ash trees.

Once trees have been felled and trucked to the sawmill, they are debarked and cut into 40-inch sections called bolts. Each bolt is then split lengthwise into wedge-shaped pieces called splits. The splits are turned on a lathe to make 3-1/8-inch diameter billets, which are then stacked on pallets to dry in drying kilns.

Drying usually takes abut six weeks and it is monitored by testing samples with a moisture meter. Once their water content is down to 10 percent or less, the billets are cut to a standard length of 37 inches and rough-turned to a diameter of 2-¾ inches. A billet of this size can be used to make any­thing from a major league to a Little League bat.

Terry Williams, Adirondack’s pur­chasing agent, took me on a tour of the main plant. As we entered a very large room, the strong, fragrant smell of ash was almost overpowering. Thousands of pale, cylindrical billets lay waiting on carts holding 600 each. “The billets are trimmed here and the knots are cut out,” Williams said. “If they are too short after this, they are cut back to shorter lengths and sold. for furniture components.”

There is about a 50 percent loss of wood from the logs used to make bats. The rest if used for other purposes or it is discarded. Bat wood must be free and clear of any knots, blemishes or cracks. The grain must be straight and there must not be too many growth rings. The number of growth rings per inch indicates the strength of the wood because these rings contain pores which are weaker than the sur­rounding fibers. So a tree with fewer, larger growth rings will make a better, stronger bat.

“The billets are trimmed to length for different model bats with trim­-saws,” Terry said. “All are inspected and graded from the top of the line to the lower grades.” Those billets which survive inspection are turned on a lathe to the desired length and shape. It takes only 24 seconds to change the long cylinders into recognizable base­ball bats. “It takes 20 seconds to make a Little League or softball bat. Every one then goes through two machine sandings,” Williams said.

“The first is with 80-120 grit sand­paper and the final sanding is with 120-180 sandpaper.” He held up a bat for my inspection. It had a smooth surface, but it without any finish it still appeared naked, and there were extra knobs on both ends. Terry said that the knobs, called “dead wood,” had been used to hold bats in the lathe. Nearby, a worker fed bats into a saw to cut off the “dead wood.” Once the
ends are sanded, there is a final inspec­tion before finishing.

Most of the baseball bats are burned with a gas flame to harden the surface and create an attractive dark grain in the light-colored ash. Next they go to what Terry calls “the antique room,” the only room in the production oper­ation that is not automated. Here the bats are clipped by hand into wood filler that seals the pores. After drying for 15 seconds, each is wiped with a piece of burlap to remove the excess filler.

“After the filler they come here,” Williams said as he pointed to a brand­ing machine. “Each receives the Adi­rondack logo and an end brand that is personalized with a player’s signature. It is very important that the trade­mark be stamped on the flat side of the grain so the bat, when held properly with the trademark up, will make con­tact with the ball on the edge grain where the bat has maximum strength. ‘Pro-rings’ are painted partway up the bat in the team’s color (except that dark-stained bats generally get a white stripe). These stripes are easily seen and distinguish an Adirondack bat from all others.

“Next, all the bats are hung on a conveyor belt to be lacquer flow-­coated,” he said as we entered the long finishing room. “Look up.” Overhead I saw the conveyor belt which carries the bats to the lacquering and painting machinery; it extends the whole length of the room along the ceiling and doubles back again. “1,434 bats can be on the belt at once,” he said. “They dry for an hour to an hour and a half.”

After the massive production capa­bility of the plant, the professional operation seems small. Terry took me to a room holding racks full of hun­dreds of bats, each the specific design required by some professional player. This is where Bill Steele hand-turns the “Big Sticks.” For the last year and a half he has been joined by Stanley “Junior” Grassel. Grassel was hand­-turning a bat as we entered. He wore a mask to avoid inhaling the sawdust that flew from the hand lathe as he worked.

Steele took a break from his review of new orders, including one for 21 dozen bats for the Yankees, to talk about his work. “We always break our necks here at All Star time and before the World Series,” he said. “The league playoffs often go until the day before the World Series starts. It’s the last day before we know who will need bats. Three years ago the Yanks were playing the Boston Red Sox the day before the World Series was to start. First the Red Sox started to win so I began making their bats. Junior yelled ‘Hold up on Boston! The Yankees just went ahead on a home run!’ The Yan­kees won and l was making their bats until 10 o’clock at night. They were rushed to the Syracuse airport to be
flown into New York in time for the game.

Professional players usually ask for bats of specific weight. For example, Dave Collins likes a 30-ounce bat, while big Dave Parker uses a 36-ounce club. “I’ve made 46-ounce bats for use before the season, when the players are getting the feel of the ball,” Steele said. “Then they will drop back down on the weight.

“Some bats are cupped out at the bottom to decrease the weight. Other players like a cone-shaped handle at the knob. Willie McCovey liked a flat knob so he could wrap his little finger around it.”

In his spare time, Bill likes to go through stacks of books containing American League and National League records. “I never was in­terested in baseball until l started working here,” he admits. Now he plays on several different softball teams and follows the major league standings closely. He also enjoys meeting ballplayers during the spring Bat-mobile expeditions and at sta­diums during the season.

Like most of the other 174 em­ployees of Rawlings Adirondack, Bill Steele is proud to be making quality wood products out of native timber. So the next time you watch a profes­sional baseball game, look for the “Pro-ring” stripe on the bats. What­ever the team, the chances are good that at least some team members will be using a “Big Stick,” grown in the Adirondacks and turned by Rawlings Adirondack.

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