BY CAROLYN LaWELL
LOUISVILLE, Kentucky | Nathan Stalvey grabs the handle of a heavy door, thick and plain, the kind of door that protects classified information in movies. He pushes it open into a rectangular room with fluorescent lights that dangle from high ceilings. He steps into the room and once the door is fully open, a wall in shades of yellow and brown is unveiled.
Welcome to the bat room.
Located in the innards of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, the room — and more specifically, the wall — holds 3,000 bats. Each model has its own specific shelf space and its own specific history.
“Give me a player,” Stalvey says. He has worked here as the museum’s exhibitions director and curator for a little more than two years. He knows the room pretty well by now.
Without hesitation, Stalvey reaches for the bat model Sandberg used throughout the bulk of his Hall of Fame career, the S333.
“Because of these precise dimensions, we have over 4,500 different bat models, and we’re still creating new models” he says. “Every one of them is slightly different in certain ways. Players will often say, ‘I like the knob on this one bat model, I like the thinness of this bat model and I like the barrel on another bat model.’ So we combine those bats.”
Most players request different bat models throughout their career. Ted Williams created 10 new models. Derek Jeter is the only player to never switch models. He has always swung the P72, the same model used by George Brett, Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, Hall of Famers all.
— Louisville Slugger bats are made with Northern White Ash or maple trees.
— About 40,000 trees are used to make one season worth of bats.
— Around 1.8 million bats are produced in the factory each year.
— Louisville Slugger’s template machines used to carve bats for minor league players takes 30 seconds to shape a bat. The wood spins 1,025 times in those 30 seconds.
Stalvey has spent so many hours in this room that he now has a favorite bat to swing in the cages — the U1 model used by Roberto Clemente. It shows only the hint of a knob, which “works with my long fingers,” Stalvey says.
Stalvey can talk bat models for hours. Of course, it is his job. But the lanky curator also has the perfect combination of geek fandom and historian.
He was raised on the South Carolina coast. He watched the Myrtle Beach Blue Jays, then the Hurricanes play at Coastal Carolina Stadium. He organized neighborhood games and made each player their own baseball card.
“I took Polaroid shots of all of us in batting poses, put on stickers of our favorite team, then wrote on it, taped it to an index card and made up fictitious stats,” he says. “I was batting .445, 15 home runs, 45 stolen bases.”
Stalvey was the curator of traveling exhibits and graphic design at the University of South Carolina’s museum when he found the opening in Louisville. “I looked at the job description and it was everything I did, all of the exhibit stuff, collection management,” he says. “In big letters at the very end it said, ‘Must be a fan of baseball.’”
A personal and professional collector, Stalvey was prepared for his interview in Louisville. He presented a PowerPoint on his exhibition philosophy and strategy for dealing with vendors, the typical skills and experience needed for the position. Then, before he thanked the room, he pulled out those baseball cards, the ones he made when he was 12, and his elementary school Dodgers jacket.
“This is how long I’ve been a baseball fan,” he told him.
Stalvey made an easy transition with decades of baseball history already memorized and placed somewhere in his mind. “It’s just as exciting as it was when I started,” he says. “Probably more so because I didn’t have to learn a lot about the baseball teams and players, because I knew all of that, but learning how the bats are made and all the different specs for the bats and how players get their bats.”
"We have over 4,500 different bat models, and we’re still creating new models." — Nathan Stalvey, exhibitions director and curator at Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory
For that, we have to go back to 1884 when the company legend claims John Andrew “Bud” Hillerich turned the first professional bat for Pete Browning — “The Louisville Slugger” himself — a star on the old Louisville Eclipse American Association team. Now Bud’s great-grandson John A. Hillerich IV runs Hillerich & Bradsby Co. Somewhere close to 2 million bats are produced every year in the factory that sits not far from where that first bat was carved and just a mile west on Main Street from Louisville Slugger Field, home to the Triple-A Bats.
The factory tour and museum’s rotating exhibits allow fans to watch, read, smell and touch baseball history. Want to know how fast a 90 mph pitch really is? A machine whips them past your face. Want to know how your favorite player signs his name? A wall of signatures, every one of them engraved in wood, lines the lobby. Want to smell and hold a newly carved bat? It’s the first stop on the factory tour where billets are shaped into bats.
Stalvey’s joy in digging through contracts, letters and storage units becomes part of the history presented today. To keep that connection to the Louisville Slugger, he sneaks down to the factory and hand carves bats before the public tours start at 9 a.m. The shavings stick to his clothes all day and his wife, Marissa, makes him shake them out before he comes in the house. But the smell of sawdust, lacquer and burned wood provides a sense of place, a sense of understanding.
“I like to practice, because to me, it’s like a historical craft,” he says. “As a curator here, to me it’s like reenacting. Its fun and it’s also an art trade. It’s a skill I’ve started to get pretty good at. Cutting billets on this is like cutting butter.”
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