Growing up in world of three television channels, I spent many afternoons watching baseball. That was my reality TV. Many years, it was a harsh reality as my beloved Cleveland Indians charted a course through the summer that put them out of World Series contention. There was always next year and fresh hope.
One piece of fantasy injected into those summers was when the New York Yankees came to town. That meant a visit by Mickey Mantle, my favorite baseball demi-god. Run, hit, field, throw - to my young eyes, he was a wonder of speed, power and athletic grace.
So, it was a special moment this week when I visited the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, and got to take a few swings with a bat used by the Mick. The museum is a treasure trove of baseball memorabilia and little known facts, not least that the 1.8 million wooden bats produced annually are made by Steelworkers!
Louisville Slugger is a relatively small business with a very big brand identity. The factory has 52 hourly employees who produce high-quality bats made of ash or maple harvested from timber forests in Pennsylvania and New York. The typical bat is 34 inches long and weighs 32 ounces, but applying the word "typical" to bats is almost misleading. The company uses automated lathes that work with 25 model templates, but produces many more types than that (8,000 variations are available), particularly for professional players who obsess over the smallest of details. The average pro player goes through 100-120 bats in a season.
Where it used to take 30 minutes to produce a bat on a hand lathe, the automated lathes can shape a wood billet into a bat in just 30 seconds. All that grinding results in about 40,000 pounds of wood chips a week, none of which goes to a landfill. Instead, it is used for a variety of purposes, such as on farms.
The Louisville Slugger museum has more than 220,000 visitors a year. If you are in town and have a couple hours to spare, be sure to swing by - and take a swing with Mickey's bat.