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The Swing of Things

As the guy responsible for putting Louisville Sluggers in the hands of countless major leaguers, Chuck Schupp is far more than a mere salesman—he’s also the guy who helps give pro ballplayers the means to be heroes

Author Cristina Rouvalis Photography David McClister

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Bats manufactured at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory in Kentucky get several coats of varnish before receiving the brand’s legendary logo

Chuck Schupp is pacing a locker room in Surprise, Ariz., his blue eyes darting behind square black glasses. All around him, members of the Texas Rangers are lacing up their shoes, changing into blue-and-red practice uniforms, ribbing each other the way teammates do. Within the hour, they will take to the field for the first swings of spring training—which means Schupp has to move fast if he’s to get any joy today.

But Schupp doesn’t look as though he’s feeling the pressure. With spiky brown hair and the loose-limbed gait of the minor league player he once was, he moves around the room with a politician’s practiced ease. “How do you like that finish? Black barrel with a natural handle,” he says, pulling a bat from his bag and offering it to Rangers outfielder Craig Gentry. “Now that’s a good-looking bat.”

Gentry inspects the bat and breaks into a boyish grin. “Cool,” he says, and then orders one.

It’s moments like this that make Schupp, 59, the subject of envy among his friends. “Everyone wants my job,” he says in his soft Kentucky drawl. And why not? As head of professional baseball sales for Hillerich & Bradsby Co., Schupp is the face of Louisville Slugger, the iconic brand popularized by Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb
and Honus Wagner. His job is to schmooze with the biggest names in the game, and to help provide them with the means to become heroes.

After 33 years in the business, Schupphas become something of a name himself. Rangers equipment manager Richard “Hoggy” Price calls him “the guru of bats”—and certainly Schupp knows his stuff. He knows that Yankees star Derek Jeter always swings a 34-inch black ash bat. He knows the Rangers’ Nelson Cruz is a maple man, while Angels slugger Josh Hamilton favors an extra-long barrel. Just as important, he knows how to hobnob with individuals who are part of an exclusive and rarefied profession.

Many of the players Schupp approaches today—his first sales call of the season—greet him with bear hugs, broad grins and inside jokes. “Hey, you come in here looking like a movie star,” Price calls out as he spots the fastidiously groomed salesman. “The rest of us look like we were in a freezer for the winter.” After teasing him for a few minutes, Price gives Schupp carte blanche to approach the players.  

Over the course of an hour, Schupp racks up 15 dozen orders, including some from Cruz. “Let me know if you need anything else, dude,” he tells the hulking superstar, smiling. And Schupp has reason to be happy. The fact is, he isn’t here to sell a few dozen bats—he’s here to sell a few million, and to do that he has to get his products into the right hands. Because as everyone in this industry knows, a big-game, 500-foot homer clouted off of one of your bats is worth more than a month of prime-time ads.

“Having stars like Derek Jeter, Buster Posey, David Wright and Josh Hamilton definitely influences purchases,” says Rick Redman, vice president of corporate communications at Hillerich & Bradsby. “Kids want what their favorite players, the MLB stars, use.”

It turns out that Schupp’s job is going to be a little more complicated this year due to the fact that his company recently updated the Louisville Slugger logo, the first change in more than three decades. In the details-obsessed bat business, even a minor cosmetic adjustment is a gamble. He shows the redesign to Gentry, who examines it carefully, then nods. He likes it. According to Schupp, only one player, an Arizona Diamondback, has thus far complained about the change.
“Noted,” Schupp says, rolling his eyes. “He is not Derek Jeter.”

As company lore has it, the Louisville Slugger traces its origins to a day in 1884 when John “Bud” Hillerich, the 17-year-old son of a Kentucky woodworker, left work to watch a Louisville Eclipse game. Pete Browning, the team’s slumping star hitter, broke his bat. Bud invited him to the shop to have a replacement made. In the next game, wielding his new weapon, Browning got three hits. Bud’s father wanted to keep making stair railings and butter churns, but the young man convinced him to move into bats. Later that year, the company produced the Falls City Slugger. By the late 1880s, the bat had become known as the Louisville Slugger, and by 1894 the name was trademarked.

The Hillerichs were not without competition. Companies like Peck & Snyder, E.I. Horsman and Harwood were all producing big-name bats. By the end of the 19th century, Spalding, Rawlings and Adirondack dominated the industry. The Slugger didn’t emerge as a real contender until 1905, when Pittsburgh Pirates star Honus “The Flying Dutchman” Wagner endorsed a model named after him. In 1918, the company entered into an agreement with Babe Ruth. As the Babe’s star rose, so did the Slugger’s. By the mid-20th century, it had about a 75 percent share of the pro baseball market.

If you peer inside the players’ bat lockers today, Louisville Sluggers are everywhere. More and more, though, you’ll see them mixed in with Sam, Marucci, BWP Bats and other upstart boutique brands. While the Slugger is still the dominant force, its market share recently slipped to between 55 and 60 percent. “My job has gotten harder, not easier,” says Schupp. “We compete with 32 vendors. When I started, there were eight.”

Worldwide, the Louisville Slugger brand sells 1.8 million bats a year. On a good day, Schupp might shift 120 or so, which retail for about $100 a pop. But again, his job is more long-term branding than short-term sales. And to do his job properly, he needs to inspire trust—both in the bats he’s selling and in himself. So Schupp works hard to build and maintain personal relationships, traveling more than 90 days a year. Presumably, the most important time to be around the players is spring training, when hope runs high and season-long product deals are signed. Yet a midseason slump can present opportunities, too: As Schupp puts it, “If a guy is one-in-40, he’ll try just about anything.”

In a player’s mind, there’s an infinite combination of factors that can affect how a bat performs. Some believe they can “feel” the ball better with an unfinished surface. Others fixate on the dimensions of the bat, the shape of the knob, even the sound you hear when you put the barrel next to your ear and tap it, as though it were a watermelon. Chris Nelson, a third baseman for the Colorado Rockies, has said he doesn’t know if a bat is right for him until he closes his eyes and picks it up before the game.

“You gotta understand that these guys fail 70 percent of the time,” Schupp says. “And that’s the good players. There’s a lot of psychological and physical failure in this game. Hitting is huge.”

And when players are hitting, their rivals want to know what they are hitting with. After the first round of the 2008 Home Run Derby, when the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton smashed a record-setting 28 home runs using a Slugger, Schupp’s cellphone lit up with texts from players around the country.

What is it?  (Ash, 35 inches, 33 ounces, flame tempered.)
 
The decision-making process regarding bat selection is part logic, part faith. It’s been this way for as long as Americans have been playing ball. “Nobody but nobody used Pete Browning’s bat,” says baseball historian and novelist David Nemec, referring to the recipient of that proto-Slugger, back in the 1880s. “He believed each bat had only a certain amount of hits in it. There was a mystique around it.”

That mystique may have been intensified by the fact that 19th-century bats, heavier and sturdier than today’s, could be with a player for his entire career. Modern pros, by contrast, might go through 100 bats or more in a single season. This fact, however, does not make their relationship with their bats any less intense. For most players, the bat is far more than a mere instrument—it is a talisman, an object of devotion, a source of superstition.

“Some guys sleep with their bats. Or they take them home and put them in the corner when they don’t get a hit. It’s like ‘bad bat!’” says Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski. “Some guys are crazy about their bats. They rub them, tape them, put them on the scale and make sure they are all the same weight. You name it, they do it.” Unsurprisingly, for an enterprise in which so much is at stake, baseball players tend to spot problems in the most minuscule, apparently trivial factors, and they rely on Schupp to help them sort these problems out.

Not long ago, over the course of 16 months Schupp sent sample after sample to Brandon Snyder, then the Rangers’ first baseman, each with a near-imperceptible adjustment over the previous one. The process didn’t end until Snyder entered a brief purple patch. “I hit two home runs with it that week,” he says, referring to a bat with a slightly longer barrel than its predecessor. “It’s the best.”

And it will remain the best until Snyder hits another dip in form, which will likely necessitate another round of tweaks. Still, Schupp—described by one player as “a bat therapist”—is full of fatherly praise for the reformed flip-flopper. “The journey is over,” he says, pointing to Snyder’s bat. “That’s a good day. I am telling you, guys spend a lot of time trying to figure that out.”

Indeed they do. Willie Bloomquist, infielder for the Diamondbacks and a self-confessed “high-maintenance bat guy,” is another player who keeps changing his bat almost to the point of obsession. Schupp is aware that constant switching can do more harm than good to a player’s game (and, not incidentally, that such capriciousness may cause a player to jump to another brand), so he occasionally will offer counsel if he feels someone is going overboard. “I say, ‘Dude, pick one and stick with it.’ But sometimes it’s not in their DNA.”

A moment later, just before the Rangers take to the field for their first outing of the season, Schupp approaches catcher Geovany Soto, who’s standing in front of his locker, apparently deep in thought. At the end of 2011, Soto switched from the Louis­ville Slugger to a rival manufacturer’s bat, and Schupp is eager to flip him back. “We have a little better piece of wood,” he says. “If you are good where you are, I understand. But it is something new. Just a thought.”

His words hang in the air as Soto stares ahead. Schupp walks away, and shrugs.

“Noncommittal,” he says, before moving on to the next player on his list.

Cristina Rouvalis is a writer based in Pittsburgh. She admits to being a little super­stitious in her choice of ballpoint pens.

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