The Louisville Slugger factory, ten years apart

The Louisville Slugger factory, ten years apart
Photo by Ray Graciano / Unsplash

Yesterday, I went on the Louisville Slugger factory tour, mostly to enjoy the smell of fresh wood bats in their factory. After I got my tickets, I realized I also went on the very same tour the first time I visited Kentucky back in 2013.

On the 2013 tour, pro bats were 100% handmade and we had to interrupt workers at each station in the process of making major league bats (any Louisville Slugger you buy in a store was made in the same factory, but instead using automated machines for all production). The workers were operating lathes and cutting shapes into the bats by hand, then hand-sanding all their work. The smell of fresh maple, ash, and hardwoods being sanded was unforgettable. One weird aspect of that 2013 tour I still remember is that we spent about ten minutes of it talking about how aluminum bats suck for baseball (according to the wood bat company, even though aluminum bats last much longer than any wood and are cheaper), and they talked about how MLB rules basically gave this company a monopoly by requiring only wood bats in pro baseball, effectively banning aluminum bats.

The 2023 tour started with a whole section dedicated to their love of the environment, about how they practice smart forest stewardship and hand select each tree that becomes bats. It was a weird bit of greenwashing because honestly, among all products made from trees in our forests, I never really thought baseball bat production was high enough to even make a dent in our annual US logging numbers. It felt like the whole "we love the earth" addition was in response to maybe a few weird comments on Yelp or something, but it felt entirely unnecessary, insincere, and tacked-on.

The next big thing I learned is the 2023 tour is much more video heavy, and each station had a short 2-3min video to explain the next step of production, so tour guides basically just introduce the video, make a few jokes, and make sure we're walking to the next station at the right time. The goofiest aspect of tour was one video showing a great-great-great-grandson of the founder hand-selecting all the trees to cut down, but later in the tour we learn they do a lot of actual scientific hardness testing so only about 10% of the selected trees are good enough to make pro bats used in the MLB. The video reminded me of my tour of Tabasco factory about 25 years ago, which was high on folksy family stuff because one family has run the company for over 150 years and only blood relatives of the founders tell everyone when to pick the peppers used in their sauce (as opposed to say, a trained botanist).

The CNC machines get signed whenever Major League Baseball greats show up for a visit

One thing I really missed in the present-day tour was seeing happy employees doing all the little jobs around their factory as they worked on pro bats. Instead, the pro bats are all now made on an automated CNC lathe, which on the one hand is good for the consistency of bat performance in the pro game, but I missed seeing guys hand sanding and shaping bats. We watched two big CNC machines cut bats in 30 seconds, each loaded with a dozen bat-blanks like a cylinder of an old west gun. In the ~30min tour we only stumbled on one guy actively working on a weekday, as he was painting bats, but again, most of it was automated and he just had to swing a paint sprayer around a bit and check the work before things went into a drying room.

The 2023 tour felt a lot different. Gone were the wonderful smells of an active woodshop, now replaced by automated machines with better ventilation and dust removal. The videos took away all the personality and basically made the tour guides' job a menial task.

I think I liked the old tour better.