For seven years the Louisville Slugger Factory & Museum and Hunt Auctions have teamed to present their Living Legend Award. The 2013 recipient was Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. who, prior to receiving the award, was taken on the Louisville Slugger factory tour. It was 30 years ago today, by the way, that Ripken followed his Rookie of the Year season by being named American League Most Valuable Player.
I was fortunate enough to accompany Ripken on the factory tour and watched as he worked with craftsman Danny Luckett to manufacture a bat by hand on a lathe. Ripken seemed genuinely interested and engrossed by the process, and shared his thoughts on the product that Luckett had hand crafted over the years that served him so well in his Hall of Fame career.
In an age where so much is manufactured via automation, it is a remarkable sight to view a true American artisan produce a baseball bat by hand. Luckett represents a generation of American craftsmen that is unfortunately being lost, and watching him work was something of a revelation – and a realization that I, and most from my generation, struggle with simply assembling furniture in a box.
At the press conference following the tour, I had the opportunity to talk with Ripken about the bats of the legendary players who proceeded him – most notably Lou Gehrig. “I’m always curious about what other players swing,” Ripken began, after a joke about the length of my question. “I remember dad (Cal Ripken Sr.) had a collection of quite a few bats that was up in the attic that he had collected over time – I got a chance to look at those.”
“Lou Gehrig’s bat I had a chance to pick up, which I was interested in, and because I am linked to Lou in the consecutive games streak. But I always thought that it was an unfair comparison, because Lou was one of the game’s best players – his statistics were off the chart – what he was able to accomplish is remarkable. But still in the end because we had this common accomplishment in playing all these games in a row I thought it was curious to see how big he was, how strong he was and normally that’s reflected in a bat. So you grab the handle of the bat and kind of shake it. They used big bats.”
“Not with somebody throwing the ball. But yeah you swing it and kind of feel it. Its different when you take it out there and try to hit a ball with it. I was most curious about Lou,” Ripken concluded, when I followed up by asking if he had taken a swing with Gehrig’s bat.
At the reception following, I spoke with Luckett and he informed he had been with the company since 1969. During those 44 years he has worked on virtually every player who has used the company’s bat. While he did not want to venture a guess as to how many bats he made during his career, he did say that during Spring Training he could make 350-400 bats – a day.
During his time at the factory he has met many of the game’s most legendary figures, but the one that stuck with him most was the Negro League star and baseball ambassador Buck O’Neil. “Most guys get rushed through the factory and the tour, but O’Neil actually told them to slow down,” Luckett informed me. “He wanted to see what everything was. He wanted to see how everything worked.” Luckett seemed especially proud that in a time when baseball was not integrated, Louisville Slugger was, and pointed me towards the Negro League items in the museum.
If you are a collector of game used bats manufactured during the last four decades, odds are before it was touched by your favorite player, it was first touched by Danny Luckett or one of the other craftsmen at the Louisville Slugger Factory.