Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
When Charley "Lefty" Trudeau became a Muffin, he had no idea it would change his life.
Trudeau is the founder of Phoenix Bats, a maker of wooden baseball bats in Plain City, Ohio, 30 minutes northwest of Columbus. His company sells to everyone from little kids to major leaguers: in 2012, Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers won the Triple Crown swinging a Phoenix bat. This is a small-town heartland business serving a sport that retains, at its core, a small-town heartland feel. (Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, and their ilk notwithstanding.) Trudeau competes with power hitter Louisville Slugger and dozens of small bat suppliers by embracing not just baseball's future, but also its history.
Which brings us to the Muffins. The Ohio Village Muffins (to use the formal name) is a vintage baseball team that plays games under the rules and dress from 1860. "The uniforms are heavy cotton or wool, with long sleeves, long pants, and heavy belts," says Trudeau. "You'd get a chuckle out of them. But in the middle of August in Ohio, it's not much fun."
In 1991, Trudeau, who was then a recent graduate of Ohio State University with a small business restoring houses, saw a notice from the Ohio Historical Society soliciting players for the team. A "muffin," he explains, is someone who plays the game for enjoyment, rather than because he is skilled at it. "That's a good indication of the kind of team we are," he says.
When Trudeau signed on, the Muffins were buying bats from a manufacturer in Cooperstown, New York--not the most efficient means of supply. During the 1995 season, after many of those bats broke, Trudeau's teammates asked if he could make new ones in his workshop. Plunging into research, he determined it was a materials problem and began sourcing premium ash, birch, and maple logs sliced top-to-bottom rather than crosscut. He lathed the wood into a variety of shapes, using history books for reference. While today's bats have heavy barrels and thinner handles to maximize swing speed, 1860s' bats were bigger and heavier. "The logic was, the more mass you had behind it, the better your hitting would be," Trudeau says.
Plain City is something of a mecca for vintage baseball enthusiasts. The Muffins are one of the teams that ignited national interest in the throwback pastime; a small vintage baseball museum is located a few towns away. Each year, 30 teams from six states congregate there for the Ohio Cup Vintage Baseball Festival. "When guys come to the festival from out of town, the first stop they make is Charley's tent to see what he's got laid out," says Andrew Shuman, a fellow Muffin and one of the first owners of a Phoenix bat. (For that one Trudeau experimented with knotty wood.) "He's always coming up with something new. Some guys will have two or three bats because they see something Charley just made and they have to have it."
The road to the majors.
In the 1990s, those visiting players, as well as teams Trudeau encountered during away games, provided him with a healthy sideline in vintage bats. Then the Internet happened. Trudeau created a homepage for Phoenix Bats (so-called because the company was in the business of giving new life to extinct bats); and orders flowed in. In 1998, customers started asking for modern bats. Trudeau complied. A year later, professional baseball came calling, and Trudeau folded his restoration business to give Phoenix his full attention. "I didn't want to look back with regret and wonder if I could have had bats in the major leagues," he says.
Phoenix's first pro inquiry came from a minor leaguer in the Milwaukee Brewers' system. And in 2003, John McDonald, an infielder for the Cleveland Indians, became the first major league player to wield a Phoenix bat. With the company's profile rising, Trudeau used money from a local angel investor to buy a new lathe that provides the highest level of precision and consistency in the industry. Imported from Italy, the machine cost almost twice as much as machines used by other bat makers, he says. The lathe wouldn't fit in his workshop, so Trudeau, who by that time had hired one another person to help him, relocated to a factory in an industrial park surrounded by farmland.
In 2007, a local VC firm bought out the angel's stake and recruited Seth Cramer, a veteran entrepreneur, to run Phoenix Bats so Trudeau could focus on design. Today, the company, which is profitable, has nine employees and produces about 15,000 bats a year; roughly 20 percent of its sales are to pro players. The rest is a mix of vintage, youth, trophy, and other markets. (Phoenix is unusual in that it uses virtually the same quality wood for regular customers as it does for the pros.) The company sells to minor league affiliates of the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays, among other teams.
Trudeau also will do custom work for pro players, either replicating a favorite bat with a few modifications--a thicker handle, say--or designing a new one. "They made a model specific to my liking: customized everything from the weight and length, to the color of the stamp they put on the bat," says Adam Eaton, the White Sox outfielder who has been swinging Trudeau's bats since he was a kid. "Most companies, it takes months sometimes to get bats. Phoenix works hard to get what you need in your hands in a timely fashion."
The Goliath of wooden bats.
Sometimes Trudeau doesn't just respond to orders, he travels to ballparks to help players figure out what they need. Phoenix's other customers don't get personal visits, but they do get virtually the same bats with the same quality wood as the pros. "If you think of it as Adam Eaton receiving a bat that is 100 on a scale of 1 to 100, your bat or my bat will be in the 90s," says Cramer. "The main difference being the evenness of spacing of the grain lines."
No matter how high its wood quality, Phoenix--like all bat makers--plays on an uneven field. A longstanding licensing agreement makes Louisville Slugger the "official bat of Major League Baseball," giving the company the exclusive right to market its products with MLB and MLB team logos. (Last week, Wilson Sporting Goods acquired Louisville Slugger from Hillerich & Bradsby, which will continue to handle manufacturing.) Cramer calls foul on that competitive advantage. Yet, "even though we are trying to steal business from Louisville Slugger, we have a very good relationship and a lot of respect for them," he says. The two manufacturers share information about their lathes, which are made by the same company.
Another thing Phoenix Bats shares with Louisville Slugger is a popular factory tour. Each year more than a thousand people, from Cub Scouts to senior citizens, arrive in busloads or on their own to take the tours. For $10 a head, visitors get to heft the bats, including vintage models and some used by professional players. They also spend time on the factory floor, up-close to the Phoenix lathe. "They are not looking through a glass window," says Cramer. "We let one of them push the button to start this $192,000 piece of machinery."
Trudeau says sophisticated equipment hasn't changed the fundamental process of bat-building, which still involves cutting the perfect piece of wood into the perfect shape with the perfect weight. "One thing I've always enjoyed about this business is knowing that if I could travel back in time, grab one of the original bat makers, and bring him to today, he would look at what we're doing and absolutely understand it," says Trudeau. "It's the same thing he was doing."