When you see the physical signs that a bat was at one time affixed to a lathe for turning, what does it tell you? These are some of the responses I have been provided with or have read:
“This is likely a gamer because of the hand turned knob.”
“This is a professional grade product because it was hand turned.”
“It seems that one of the major requirements for a bat to have been
made for professional use is that it have a hand-turned knob.”
Objectively all of this only tells us or offers insights into:
1. How the bat may have been affixed to a lathe for turning.
2. How much wood may have been left at both the knob and barrel end outside of the turning dimensions of the bat with respect to length and diameter for that remaining wood.
Objectively, none of this or the markings we see makes a bat either a professional model or a hand turned product. This is something I feel needs to be addressed and clarified and done so within some sort of context about both process and product. You will find these markings on both professional quality products and retail youth offerings as seen here.
To begin with, wood products far more complicated to produce than a baseball bat, have been machined turned on lathes for almost 200 years. Thomas Blanchard patented such a device in the early 1800s for the production of gun stocks. This was an expensive technology at the time. Blanchard sold Great Britain 8-10 of these machines for some $40,000 (or $4,000 – $5,000) a piece. This has always been an expensive proposition. According to an article in the Anderson Daily Bulletin (12 October 1973), Garnet Beck noted that he got out the bat making business after World War II because he “couldn’t afford the spend $18,000 for the automatic equipment.” Just as with gun stocks in the 19th Century and baseball bats in 20th Century, automating the production of wood products is expensive and only becomes cost effective based on economies of scale.
This concept of hand turned or machine turned has to be looked at with respect to:
1. Period of time.
2. Specific manufacturer in question.
3. Machinery used at the time and costs involved.
4. Volume of production.
5. Actual technique or process employed for the process.
Yet, for decades this hobby/industry has embraced an oversimplification of what may or may not be seen on the knob or barrel end of a bat and almost uniformly agreed to what it denotes.
In looking at the images provided with this article you will see the manner in which a wooden billet is affixed to a lathe for the turning of a baseball bat, either cut by hand or machine has not changed much in over 100 years. What has changed is the amount of wood beyond the length of the desired end product and how those areas are finished is what appears to have changed. If this was not the case then the logic of “lathe marks = hand turned = professional product” should have held true for any hand turned product.
To begin with, getting away from this false absolute, let’s being with asking ourselves “Why We See What We See” since we know that lathe markings on a bat are NOT a definitive sign that a bat was either hand turned nor necessarily a professional product.Lathe markings, if present on both ends, only show us how the bat was affixed to the lathe and that the length of the finished product was very close to the original length of billet. If the lathe markings are not present on either the knob and or barrel end, then those have been removed through cutting, sanding or a combination of both. We know this to be true based on current images of how bats are manufactured.
For bats that feature remnants of the excess wood necessary to affix the bat to the lathe, we see this as an outline of that excess material. We see this because the area was not finished or sanded to a uniform surface depth, hence the outline. The difference in the color of these areas, one typically being darker than the other, may be due to a combination of factors:
1. Length of time and storage conditions between when that bat was initially turned and when it was finished. If the bat was turned and then stored for some period of time before removal of the nubs and final finishing, then the surface areas of the knob and barrel outside of the area of the nub area would not have been exposed to the same environmental factors for the same period of time.
2. Application of heat/flame for branding prior to removal of “nubs” and final finishing. Same reasoning as #1, but in this case the environmental conditions are again different.
3. Method of final sanding or finishing of this area. Sanding method effects final finish. Excessive friction from rapid machine sanding can burn or darken wood.
When considering purchasing a bat that still shows signs of how it was affixed to a lathe or how either the barrel or knob end was finished, I would suggest asking myself these questions:
1. What do I know about the manufacturing process and finishing methods of the company relative to the time frame the bat was produced?
2. How the bat compare, as function of size, weight, and design (model) to what I should expect to see during the period in question?
3. What, if anything can I infer about the quality of the wood as seen in the grain count?
Take the time to look into issues for yourself beyond what is you’ve always been told and decide for yourself why it is you believe what is you do. If you are like me, you were probably once told stories about an Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy. I’ve looked into those and no longer believe what I once did about those either.
As always, collect what you enjoy and enjoy what you collect.
MEARS Auth, LLC
For questions or comments on this article, please feel free to drop me a line at DaveGrob1@aol.com