The wood is milled into round,
37-inch blanks, or billets, which are shipped to the H&B factory in Louisville.
There they're turned on a tracer lathe, using a metal template that guides
the lathe's blades. These templates are set up to the specifications of
each pro player. Then the bats are fire-branded with the Louisville Slugger
mark. This mark is put on the flat of the wood's grain, where the bat
is weakest. Players learn to swing with the label facing either up or
down, so that they can strike the ball with the edge grain, where the
bat is strongest. Hitting on the flat grain will more often than not result
in a broken bat.
Finally, the bats are dipped
into one of several possible water-based "finishes" or varnishes, which
gives bats their final color and protective coat. Each player selects
the finish they desire, while a few players, such as former Kansas City
Royals star George Brett, chose to leave their bats unfinished.
Players today may go through
as many as six or seven dozen bats in a season. (In early years, players
used only use ten or twelve bats.) "In fact, one player, Joe Sewell,
used the same bat for fourteen years," says Bradley. He attributes the
increased breakage of bats to the thin-handled, large-barreled design
of modern bats, and to the use of ash instead of hickory. "A pitch that
jams you inside will almost always saw off a modern bat, while an aluminum or old-fashioned hickory bat might produce a base hit."
Though the manufacturing process
for bats has stayed largely the same, the design of the pro wood bat has
changed a great deal since 1884. The early bats had very little taper,
resulting in a bat with a very thick handle and a relatively small barrel.
"The early bats almost look like someone just took an ax handle and used
it for a bat," says Bradley. "Modern players want a thin handle and a
large barrel, to concentrate the weight of the bat in the hitting area."
By major league regulations, bats must be round with a barrel of no more
than 2 3/4 inches. They can be up to 42 inches in length; there is no
regulation about the bat's weight.