You're Never Too Young to Dream: The Craftsmanship of Baseball Bats
Elias, Robert, Nine
Baseball is what dreams are made of. You're sitting in Atlanta's old Fulton County Stadium. The bases are loaded. Ray Lankford is at bat for the visiting Cardinals. As a fan, perhaps you dream of seeing a rare grand slam or of hitting that home run yourself and running around the bases. But maybe your dream is more unusual. For you, there's a different thrill: it's in the bat.
Chris Young makes bats. As the founder and owner of the Young Bat Company, he supplies bats to Major Leaguers and other ballplayers. Ray Lankford was using a Young bat that day in the mid-1990s in Atlanta. Leaning over to his friend, Chris wondered out loud how it would be if Lankford hit a grand slam. A minute later, that's just what he did. In dramatic fashion Chris Young had a chance to watch the fruits of his own labor in action.
"I made that bat." Young recalls the feeling, one he's relived many times since then. It must be a tremendous feeling. It's a baseball dream fulfilled.
When I was a child and big league hopeful (at least in my own mind) in the early 1960s, my father took me to the Adirondack Bat Company factory. It was located (as it still is today, with new ownership) in rural, upstate New York in Dolgeville, essentially in the middle of nowhere. At the factory we got a tour and watched some bats being made on ancient lathes. But the highlight was visiting the Major League Room, where Adirondack made bats for the big league stars. I got a sample bat from that room, which I have to this day. It was a Hal Smith model. OK, it's true: Hal was mainly only a backup catcher and third basemen for five different teams between 1955 and 1964. But for me, Smith was great: having the bat of this Major Leaguer was amazing.
That bat and that long-ago visit made a deep impression on me. Nearly forty years later, I happened to drive past the Young Bat Company in rural western North Carolina on a summer vacation. Something made me stop. I went inside, ordered a few bats on the spur of the moment, and was quickly gone. But there's something about making bats, and about how a remote little shop helps turn ballplayers into superstars. They're neglected parts of the American dream, and they drew me back. A couple of months ago, I returned to the Young Bat Company, determined to meet the owner and find out more.
Chris Young grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, amid stories his father told him about old-time baseball. Chris's dad, Jim Young, was a pitcher in the Yankees organization. In 1935 Jim's greatest thrill was pitching to Babe Ruth in spring training. It was a story he told Chris many times. Jim Young never made it to the majors, but baseball was in Chris's blood. As a boy he played in Little League and (of course) in the Babe Ruth League. More important, living in St. Pete, he had close access to spring training. In fact, he worked at Al Lang Field from 1960 to 1961. He met dozens of players from the Yankees, Pirates, Cardinals, and other teams. He got autographs from Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, Roger Maris, Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, and many more. Despite these beginnings Chris Young eventually lost some of his interest in baseball and gravitated more toward basketball and the business of getting on with his life as an adult.
Young always liked working with wood. "I love anything wood, the feel, the smell, the look," he says. After moving around a bit, he had a chance to relocate to Brevard, North Carolina, in 1972, where he was able to buy some property and begin a lumber business. He started a sawmill and began providing wood for the region's building projects. He also became a contractor himself and began building houses in the area. He built cabinets and wood floors and supplied custom logs for log homes. Then the baseball bug began to bite once again. Picking up from the autographs he began collecting as a boy, Chris spent a good part of the next fifteen years accumulating all sorts of baseball memorabilia, including an extensive card collection. …