Pennsylvania baseball brings three main thoughts to mind: Philadelphia’s Phillies, Pittsburgh’s Pirates, and the Little League World Series in Williamsport. The Phillies, in existence since 1883, have been home to two World Series championships and to 39 former players, managers, and announcers who have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Pittsburgh Pirates have an even more storied history since they began playing in 1887. The organization has won five World Series championships and has sent 45 of its former players, managers, and announcers to the Hall of Fame. The Little League World Series, begun in 1947, is broadcast by Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) and American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and involves teams from the entire world. If you think you know all there is to know about Pennsylvania baseball, however, think again. A company from Brookville founded in 1999 is beginning to gain importance to America’s Pastime in the state and beyond.
Brookville Wood Products (BWP) was initially founded by Joe and Mona Mitchell in 1965 in Brookville, Jefferson County. The company produced various wood products in the beginning, namely furniture and flooring. For a period of 25-30 years, BWP also supplied bat manufacturers with wood billets that were transformed into baseball bats. The decision in 1999 to produce bats under their own BWP label changed the company forever and firmly established the bat division of the company.
BWP’s operations take place on roughly 5,000 acres of land in the heart of Jefferson County. The first step in the production of BWP bats starts with something that most bat-producing companies do not have: its own forests and mills. Sales rep. Shane Ford told Becky Polaski of the St. Marys Daily Press that all BWP trees were “harvested within a 100-mile radius.” The next step in the bat-making process is to transform the tree into billets. A billet is a small chunk of the debarked tree, shaped like a cylinder. Billets are cut to a specific size of 37” long and 2 ¾” in diameter. After the billets are cut to their proper size, workers separate them by weight and the direction of the wood grain. Billets are then transported to the lathe where the circular billet is transformed into a bat in the span of a little over one minute.
A video courtesy of Walter Ambrosch shows that billets are loaded into the lathe and turned at a rapid speed. A lathe is run by a computer that instructs the machine how the wood should be cut. The metal cutting tools serve to whittle the wood away, replacing the hand-carving necessary in days gone by. While the lathe makes the process significantly quicker, the bat does not come off the lathe in a finished condition. BWP workers then sand the bat down to remove slight imperfections. BWP’s workers touch the bat once again when they dip the bat in a water-based paint or stain to give the bat some color. The process of staining or painting the bat occurs two or three times to deliver a deeper, truer color. As a way to ensure the color of the bat remains for a long time, a layer of clear-coat lacquer is applied to the bat. The lacquer will take three days to dry completely. Once the three-day period has passed, workers apply the BWP logo in one of the final steps in completing a bat. As a way to reduce the overall weight of the bat, a machine will “cup” the top of the bat to remove unnecessary mass. The finishing touch is applied when BWP’s machines engrave the bat. The bat is then ready to be shipped and delivered to numerous locations for sale.
BWP bats may be produced in Pennsylvania, but their reach extends outside the borders of the Commonwealth. Their products are distributed to business for customers in Mexico, Canada, Japan, Australia, Europe, and the Caribbean. Brookville’s bat may not yet have the star power or historical significance of Louisville Slugger bats, but that has not stopped BWP from making an immense impact on the baseball world, including Major League Baseball. Pittsburgh Pirates team president, Frank Coonelly, recently gave a presentation that featured highlights from the team’s 2013 season which ended its 21-year losing streak. One of the things Coonelly touched on was the local impact of the team, saying, “When the opportunity presents itself, we always look to Pittsburgh first. The services or products we get may be unrelated to playing the game for the most part, but there is a lot more that goes into it than just what you see on the field.” The Pirates’ commitment to local vendors extends to many aspects of the operation, including purchasing their bats from BWP.
Hitting World, a baseball bat-selling website, echoed that sentiment, stating, “BWP Bats is a truly unique wood bat manufacturer. Their location, state of the art manufacturing processes, and strict attention to detail enable them to provide the highest quality bats available. They are located in the heart of Pennsylvania, which is known as the hardwood capital of the world. Only the finest hardwood trees are processed into bats.”
BWP has not forgotten its roots either, despite all the national and international progress. Legion baseball leagues were set to switch from metal bats to wooden bats during the 2013 season. Because of this, Region 8 director Denny Haberberger invited a BWP sales representative to a local tournament. Haberberger had the following to say about his decision to invite BWP to the tournament: “I think what we’re going to do in Elk County, even my whole region, is I’m going to talk to all the coaches and maybe order them as one group.” The decision was made after Haberberger took a tour of the BWP facilities. VP Mike Gregory told the Erie Times-News in 2012 that “This place would make a manufacturing guru cringe if he walked through. We touch things too many times, and there isn’t much automation.” He went on to say that BWP’s hands-on approach guaranteed quality.
While BWP is enjoying all of this success and expansion, it has all come with only 12 employees. The company’s business model has generated $3.5 million in annual sales. Here is a small sampling of baseball players who use BWP bats: Shane Victorino, Starlin Castro, Hanley Ramirez, Yadier Molina, Todd Frazier, Brett Lawrie, Jean Segura, Ian Desmond, Justin Morneau, Miguel Sano, and Mike Trout, among others. In all, BWP supplies bats for over 300 professional players, according to Matthew Triponey of the Punxsutawney Spirit. Wilson Valdez, once a member of the Phillies who used BWP bats, was approached by Gregory and raved about the bat. Valdez was in a slump during that time and changed to BWP. Cristina Rouvalis of CNN Fortune quoted him saying about the switch, “After that, I was on fire. Every time I use the bat, I get a lot of hits.”
Throughout the years, BWP has engaged in initiatives that plan for long-term economic growth and sustainability. The essence of being a wood product company means that there is a heavy reliance on trees and that is why BWP is part of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). The proactive group allows for producers to establish short-term success with a plan for longevity. The SFI program “…is based on the premise that responsible environmental behavior and sound business decisions can coexist to the benefit of communities, landowners, manufacturers, shareholders, customers, and the environment, today and for future generations. It was launched in 1994 and has grown to become the largest single forest certification standard in the world.”
PA Preferred is a second program that BWP has become involved with. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture launched the initiative “to identify and promote food and agricultural products grown, produced or processed in Pennsylvania.” The PA Preferred program began in 2004 and was codified in law in 2011. The agricultural (Ag) industry earns roughly $5.1 billion annually in the state of Pennsylvania. Mark Shade reported for Reuters that a study conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture revealed that “93 percent of people say they prefer buying locally grown and manufactured food and drink.” Businesses must go through many steps to become part of the program. Among the requirements are that at least 75% of the production cycle is completed in Pennsylvania, final processing/packaging must be done in Pennsylvania, and the company must be headquartered in Pennsylvania. BWP takes pride in its involvement with the program because it is a reminder to consumers that they are using a genuine Pennsylvania product.
The PA Preferred program is not the only organization that makes BWP follow specifications for their product to be approved. Major League Baseball (MLB) has a set of standards that all bat makers must follow. Bats must be inspected by MLB and they have recently raised the requirement standards. Among the new requirements is a $10,000 annual fee to sell bats to professional teams. Companies must also carry $10 million in liability insurance. Consequently, gaining access to the major league market has cost BWP an additional $10,000 per year in premiums.
While Louisville Slugger remains the largest bat producer in the industry, BWP is quickly cutting into that position. It doesn’t have its own museum with a giant bat at the entrance like the Kentucky giant, but BWP is the epitome of a small business that has never given up on its dream of becoming the best baseball bat producer.