Taking Maple to the Max
Money may not grow on trees, but at MaxBat it's a close call.
BY MIKE STRAND
When Minnesota Twins designated hitter Jason Kubel squared up in the batter's box at blustery Target Field on April 12, Minneapolis entrepreneur and avid baseball devotee Jim Anderson's adrenaline, much like the other 40,000 fans in the sold-out stadium, was pumping. Kubel hit
his two-strike, solo home run off Red Sox reliever Scott Atchison over the right-field wall--and Anderson was ecstatic. But he had more reason to be excited than most of the fans watching. Because Kubel not only had hit the first home run in the first regular season game of the
Twins' new outdoor ballpark, but he did it with a gleaming sugar maple bat (Model No. 238 JK) manufactured by Anderson's homegrown company. Sweet.
In the classic period baseball film "The Natural," a young Robert Redford shapes a homemade bat from the shards of a hardwood tree that lightning slashed in half outside his bedroom window. He hand carves and carefully sands the white barrel, and with a branding iron
christens it "Wonderboy"--complete with a lightning bolt burned beneath the name. It is a mystical and romantic tale of love and redemption amid the glamour and greed of pro sports. Jim Anderson's story, too, is nothing if not a romance. It's the tale of a young guy who, at 33,
took one of life's larger lemons (an unexpected job layoff) and began making hardwood baseball bats. He lost his job, but found his calling. And he did it all for the love of woodworking, baseball and his then-newborn son, Max.
So, exactly how does a native of Wahpeton, N.D., and art design major from Minnesota State University Moorhead wind up manufacturing Major League Baseball bats for a living? Anderson, now 41, says it was a combination of timing, his own enthusiasm as a woodworking hobbyist and
a deep-seated adoration for baseball--both as a fan and a utility player in the St. Paul amateur men's league. But it was fate, he says, that really made the decision for him.
"I was in sales and traveled a lot. My son, Max, was on the way and I didn't want to travel as much anymore. So I went to work for a brand-new company out of Ohio. But then 9/11 hit and the company tanked. I was embarrassed and mad that a small group of people [terrorists]
controlled whether or not I had a job.
"I was inspired by the way America came together over that. I'm a very optimistic person by nature and I had a lot of time to think about what my next step would be." He was sanding a new wood floor for the kitchen in his South Minneapolis home when the "Eureka!" moment,
well, hit him. "I thought why don't I combine things I like to do--woodworking and baseball? The worst that could happen is I fail-- and I wasn't making any money anyway." The concept for MaxBat was born.
For almost anyone now north of middle age, as a kid the only weapon of choice that mattered while playing sandlot baseball was the massmarketed Louisville Slugger, a clear-coated, unpretentious white ash bat that you could buy for $5 to $10. It's still the official bat of
Major League Baseball. Yet with the advent of aluminum, composite hybrids and alternate woods, nearly 50 manufacturers of baseball and softball bats compete today. Anderson's new company waded into a veritable biting swarm of competitors.
Besides MaxBat, there are currently 14 firmsapproved to produce and provide bats to Major League Baseball. Louisville Slugger notwithstanding, many are relatively obscure brands to the general public: names such as Brett Brothers, BWP, CTG, Dinger, Old Hickory, Hoosier, RX
Sport, Sam Bats, Striker, Trinity and Tuff Bats. In fact, it was competitor Sam Bats of Ontario that first developed the method in the mid-1990s used to remove sufficient moisture from hard maple so that maple bats would be light enough to swing. After gaining major league approval
in 1998, the bats quickly caught on with major league players, including Barry Bonds--who Sam Bats claims used a maple bat during his record-breaking season of 73 home runs. Ironically, some of the more recognizable brands--Easton, Glomar, Rawlings, Mizuno, Nike and Wilson--are not
on the approved list of MLB bat manufacturers. Nike, for example, makes only aluminum bats. Public visibility for the others stems from gloves and apparel, as well as their popularity on countless amateur baseball and softball diamonds around the world.
Anderson says it all started as a hobby. He began carving, or turning, a bat or two by hand for his own use while playing in the amateur leagues. "I had some guys in St. Paul ask me to make them a bat. Soon other guys wanted to buy them from me," he says. It wasn't always
an easy or painless process. For example, Anderson talks about the time his lathe's rpms were set too high and the wood caught the knife at an odd angle and came flying off the machine, badly bruising his chin.
An only slightly less painful task, when first starting out, was asking a mutual acquaintance of Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer and his father, Jake, if Anderson could make a couple of hand-turned bats for them. He was able to do so. But, Anderson is quick to say, "I
don't want a player using our bats because we're paying him"--a reference to the now-familiar practice of paying high-profile players to use specific brand names, which is pro sports' version of Hollywood's product placement. Anderson doesn't believe in it. "We compete by
focusing on the quality of both our wood and customer service." Still, Anderson knows the impact such tacit endorsements can have and believes that getting his bats into minor league players' hands early could pay big dividends later when--and if--they reach "The Show." He says:
"It can be a long waiting game."
Anderson considers the company's bats a form of art. At an average sale price of nearly $100 each, it's probably a higher form of art than most recreational ballplayers can afford to care about. "Larger bat companies can't take the time to customize it like we do," he says.
For sales, "they primarily rely on kids reacting to the MLB logo on the barrel."
Quality wood is a key ingredient. "We have close working relationships with several mills in Pennsylvania and New York," says Anderson, and they provide the pro stock maple blanks and wood chunks called billets required to create a MaxBat. Canada is another source, though
he says that wood tends to be more brittle and less forgiving than domestic northeastern hardwoods. "It's a combination of hardness, density and straightness of grain" that matters most in producing a quality bat, he says.
Anderson gives considerable credit to Paul Johnson, MaxBat vice president of production, who shops for the lumber the company uses because the raw materials (primarily sugar or rock maple) used in MaxBat's custom-order bats must be a higher grade. Hence, they're more expensive
than what is typically used in mass produced bats, making them expensive as a store item. So you won't find MaxBats in your nearest Dick's Sporting Goods, Sports Authority or other athletic chain stores.
Plus, "the big guys can't afford the time it takes to do what we do," Anderson says. He says his bats are "vastly different" from those typically used by garden-variety weekend warriors. "We don't sell retail, but we make an awesome bat," he says, one that can be
special-ordered via the Internet and be effective "for a high schooler or a 10-year major league veteran."
Near the end of any bat's barrel, there's a mystical spot. This unmarked optimum point is found only by the feel and sound when bat meets ball. Theoretically, when your bat meets or kisses a ball with the "sweet spot" of the bat, it's like magic. The ball jumps off the bat
with greater power and zing. With the success of MaxBat, Anderson has apparently found a sweet spot of his own.
Not Exactly in the Strike Zone
Almost paradoxically, MaxBat products are manufactured for big leaguers two hours west of the Twin Cities in tiny Brooten (pop. 622)--the "heart of the Bonanza Valley," according to the city's Web site.
"It was a lucky find for me," Anderson says. "There was no way I could produce enough bats on a hard-turned lathe from my basement in Minneapolis. So I went hunting for a business partner. I figured there had to be a company somewhere in the Twin Cities. But this one
name--Glacial Wood Products--kept turning up. So, I finally called Dick Johnson. But at the time he was producing custom bats for an outfit in California."
Again fate intervened. "For whatever reason, that business ended, so Dick called me back," Anderson says. "We talked and it seemed like a natural fit. He's a real perfectionist." Johnson now is president of MaxBat, which employs a total of eight people. Predictably, the
work is seasonal. Anderson says it slows down in the fall and returns to full throttle each January.
Asked if clients raise concerns about an MLB bat manufacturer being located so far from an urban center, Dick Johnson says, "Sometimes it's a bit of a nuisance, but when they order from us we can deliver in two days, versus having to wait two weeks [for a bat] from another
Yet when your client list contains names like Jason Kubel, Joe Mauer, Albert Pujols, Delmon Young and Dustin Pedroia, you might think the folks at MaxBat could expect to coast. "We're shooting for [selling] around 30,000 bats this year," Anderson says. But less than half of
Max-Bat lumber winds up in MLB dugouts. "Sixty to 70 percent of our bats are made for minor league and amateur players," Anderson says, and a small (less than 2 percent) but growing number of them are traveling to destinations outside the United States such as Australia, Europe
and Asia. Like many small manufacturers, he says, MaxBat is coping with growing pains in managing its international supply chain. "But I look at things through rose-colored glasses," he says. So far, the future for MaxBat looks rosy indeed.
"Our maple kicks ash
The Twins' Jason Kubel would probably agree with the company's memorable and trademarked, if highly testosteroned, tagline. Up until three years ago, Kubel was using another manufacturer's bat and having less than sterling results with it. Paul Johnson says MaxBat asked if
they could provide him with something a bit different. Johnson went to work examining the previous bat's barrel and found something he didn't like. Johnson says he "changed the profile" of Kubel's bat a bit and that Kubel has been using it ever since. "He's made a lot of money
with it," Johnson says, with a laugh.
What makes a maple bat better than ash, according to Johnson, is its density. "White ash has a nice feel to it and it is hard, but not as hard as maple," he says. Maple's notoriety among the pros, he says, "seems silly now because the reason there's such a fuss over maple
bats is because the ash [models] were breaking all the time." Ash, he explains, is only slightly more flexible, a difference that Johnson compares to a stiff versus flexible shaft in golf clubs. "They can feel the hit just a little more with ash," he says. But the two hardwoods
react much differently to repeatedly hitting 80- to 100-mph pitches. "The more you use a maple bat, the harder it gets," says Johnson, "whereas ash, over time, breaks down and softens--it becomes mushier."
Each of the company's 300 custom models or "profiles" (some 30 now are publicly available) requires a different computer-drawn design template, the profiles for which are individually fed into the computer tower of the lathe--another feather in "perfectionist" Johnson's
cap, according to Anderson. The hopper is loaded with wood billets--all sorted by weight. The specific model number dictates length and weight. It then becomes a delicate, precise and repetitive process of turn-sand-weigh-sand-repeat. Anderson says it takes a lot of wood, requiring
a 6-pound billet to create a 2-pound bat. Once off the lathe, the bat is again inspected and tested for straightness of grain, providing either "good slope or bad slope."
If it passes initial inspection, the next step is where the real artistry comes in: the finishing process. While selecting the right wood and grain is vital, Anderson also emphasizes the handicraft of studying the wood in each bat and the staining process. "Joan [Rademacher]
brings the bats to life," he says. Each bat is hand-stained according to the model's (or custom order's) design. She then spray paints and hand sands the bat before applying two coats of lacquer, which takes two or three days. Finally, the bat is laser etched with the logo and
model. "She's really an artist," Anderson says.
Anderson declined to discuss hard numbers about revenues from his hardwood bats, but the company's Web site individually thanks all 389 major league ballplayers who currently use the MaxBat brand. "We're privileged to be in pro baseball, but we answer all e-mails and all
calls are returned," Anderson says. "We don't misrepresent ourselves or overpromise. It sets us apart from the competition."