The real bat man

Still turning lumber for major league baseball stars.

Quality over quantity works for this Ottawa manufacturer of maple bats.

A lot has changed since we looked in on the Original Maple Bat Corp. in 2003.

Founder Sam Holman catches us up by putting what’s happened at the maple baseball bat manufacturing plant in Ottawa modestly.

“Well, there’s a few more tons of sawdust,” quips Holman, about one of professional baseball’s favourite pieces of crafted lumber, the Sam Bat.

No need to be humble.

The former carpenter for the National Arts Centre has turned the Sam Bat into one of the most desired bats in the world, changing an industry norm in a game that typically holds true to tradition that says the wood of choice is ash. He now equips major leaguers with custom, handmade weapons of baseball glory, including home-run king Barry Bonds before he retired in 2007.

Closer to home, Toronto Blue Jays right-fielder Jose Bautista hit 50 home runs with a Sam Bat in 2010.

A 34-inch, 32-ounce MC1 also helped the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera win the Triple Crown this year, and become the first player in 45 seasons to lead major league baseball’s American League batting average, home run race and runs-batted-in – a feat not accomplished since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967.
It all started in 1996 when Holman fashioned his first bat cut from a maple railing ripped from the staircase in his house after a friend, and scout for the Colorado Rockies complained major leaguers needed something new.

“He told me there were just too many ash bats breaking,” says Holman. “They were looking for something more durable, something that lasted longer.”
That’s when Holman started sifting through files at the Canadian Patent Library, researching more than 200 US patents to uncover a solution. Ultimately, he fell upon some research about hardwood train bridges made from maple.

Record breaker
“There really weren’t any ways to make those ash bats stronger,” says Holman. “I figured I’d give the maple bat a shot.”

Holman shared that first bat with Toronto Blue Jay great and friend Joe Carter, who loved it.

“You’re onto something here,” he told Holman.

Fast forward to the end of the 2001 season when San Francisco Giant’s left-fielder Barry Bonds broke the major league’s home-run record, smashing 73 baseballs into the stands at ballparks around the US. Each of those bombs were deployed with a Sam Bat made in Holman’s 290 square-foot garage.

That’s when the company, like a baseball off Bonds’ bat, really took off.

Nowadays, the Original Maple Bat Corp., headquartered about 40 minutes outside of Ottawa in Carleton Place, Ont., supplies not only the major leagues but also produces a retail line of bats and New Era 9FIFTY-branded hats. The retail products are sold through an online store built into the company’s website.
And the Sam Bat is now the official bat of the six-team Australian Baseball League, a professional outfit in its third season.

Holman, 67, has taken a step back and handed the business end to husband-wife team Jim and Arlene Anderson, both chartered accountants who acquired the company’s majority stake in the spring of 2007. They’ve now got two facilities – one that houses the kiln that dries the prized maple, and the other where the bats are produced. The little company that could now employs 20 people.

“The whole business just went a little crazy and Sam was having a hard time keeping up with the demand – it’s amazing how many players wanted the bats,” says Arlene, president of the company. “We couldn’t get the bats to everyone who wanted one.”

Anderson, who had worked with various companies producing wood products, had very little baseball knowledge. She did, however, recognize the big names using Sam’s bats.

“We knew what Sam had built was something special, and we wanted to be a part of that,” she says.

Production is handled in a 10,000 square-foot plant that produces more than 18,000 bats a year – a big step up from Holman’s humble beginning in his tiny backyard garage.

Despite its rapid growth and growing reputation among major leaguers and baseball enthusiasts, the company is sticking to its roots and has no desire to mass-produce. Even in 2012, when any number of fancy machines could do it for them, they still hand finish the bats in a variety of stains and varnishes, and rather than applying laser engraving, workers hand-stamp the company’s infamous bat logo on pro models.

The company uses the same production techniques Holman applied in the old garage – just on a somewhat larger scale. Anderson handpicks wood from a secret supplier in the Ottawa Valley, pieces of lumber no more than 2.75 inches in diameter and 42 inches in length.

Holman and Anderson are tight lipped about the cutting process, preferring to keep pesky competitors out of the loop, and guessing. He started out using a customized CNC lathe to cut the bats down to size (from seven pounds to two) and two more traditional lathes to complete sanding and finishing. He was able to customize the lathes to cut 250 model shapes without any extra set up, covering lengths from 26 to 36 inches, at half-inch increments.

Automated process
Automation has helped cut production time from about 11.5 minutes to between five and seven, which is dependent on a number of factors including the size, length and wood density of each bat.

When Holman started turning bats, it took him about 20 minutes.

“The process we’re using now is definitely more automated, but it’s the cutting process we used when we started, it’s a just a touch faster these days,” says Anderson.

While the company invests about 15% of its revenues in R&D, Anderson says it’s usually to tinker with bat styles; custom jobs that include messing with weights, shapes, knob and handle sizes, and finishing processes.

“We’re constantly reviewing how we can make the bats better to improve the speed they can generate, the look, and the feel,” she says.

The company is even testing torrefied wood, a newer process that involves sucking the moisture out so it changes the maple’s colour.

In today’s business climate when prosperity and growth are typically dependent on how well a producer of goods handles advancements in technology, Sam Bats work because it’s all about Sam’s bats. They’re made with the right mix of traditional craftsmanship and automation, which appeals to baseball enthusiasts (and home-run kings) who, unlike most of today’s hockey players, still like the “crack”of solid lumber when they score.

This article appears in the Nov/Dec 2012 edition of PLANT.