by Ashlee De Wit
HOMEWOOD, Ill. (May 10, 2019) — A parked yellow school bus rumbled in front of the former Illiana Christian High School building in Lansing, awaiting its students: a group of 40 adults, taking Jeff White’s five-week local history class.
They’ve already been to Family Farms in Lynwood, Ill., visited a one-room school house in Grant Park, Ill., and taken a walk down Ridge Road in Lansing. The class would wrap up with a trip to VanDrunen Farms in Momence, Ill., the following Wednesday. But this week’s destination was Homewood Bat Co., a relatively new organization with roots in local history.
White, a Lansing resident and Illiana Christian High School history teacher, offered an overview of the origin of baseball and its Chicago history during the bus ride. When the class pulled up in front of the baseball bat company on the far-east edge of Homewood, White turned the presentation over to company president Todd Pals and vice president Dan Gibson.
The history of Homewood Bat Company is brief, but they are working toward a bright future. The four-person operation is now four years old; in that time they’ve nearly doubled production each year.
Gibson and Pals met while coaching baseball at Illiana Christian High School, then in Lansing. They discussed the possibility of opening a bat business, but were involved in their respective family businesses at the time: Gibson Chevrolet and Pals Cartage, both based out of South Holland, Ill. After General Motors closed the car dealership, and the trucking company was sold to the competition, Gibson and Pals decided to pursue their dream.
“Creating bats in a plant where visitors can see that process and customize their bat has been a dream many years in the making,” the Homewood Bat website says. “Patience and prayer have made that dream a reality. We know the quality of each bat will show our commitment to creating a fine and lasting product.”
Pals had some experience in the industry when they started: he was a minority owner in another bat company before opening Homewood Bat.
“I had just enough knowledge to be dangerous,” he joked.
They pause the tour, and direct everyone’s attention to the TV in the showroom as White Sox second-baseman Yolmer Sanchez swings his Homewood Bat in a game against the Orioles.
“We’re like little kids here watching a game,” Gibson later said. “If we see someone with our bat get a hit, I’ll…be yelling at the top of my lungs.”
Hitting it big
Baseball fans on the tour were impressed to learn that Homewood bats have already gone pro—they are used exclusively by both Sanchez and by David Bote of the Cubs, among other MLB players, and the company has a good working relationship with the White Sox, Cubs, and Brewers organizations.
Minor league and independent league relationships are also important, but Gibson and Pals both noted that the most important business aspect of selling bats is finding something to do with the wood that isn’t game-bat caliber.
Game-used bats need to be a certain weight—but wood isn’t sold by weight. Instead, they buy wood with the straightest possible grain.
“Usually, a third of it is too light and a third is too heavy [to be used for a game bat],” Gibson said. “That’s the hard part of this business, we’ll make it or not make it based on that [finding something to do with other wood].”
Lighter wood can be used for toddler bats or fungo bats—the thin bats that coaches use for hitting ground balls and fly balls in practice. Heavier pieces often become souvenir bats: mementos for parting seniors on a varsity team, awards for tournament team champions, or gifts for groomsmen.
Learning new things
Elly Clousing of Munster does not describe herself as a big baseball fan, but she still found the Homewood Bat tour fascinating. She learned that Homewood Bats come from 55- to 80-year-old trees grown in the Northeast US and Southeast Canada because that region has the best climate for slow-growing trees, which produce the hard wood desirable for making baseball bats.
“I was interested in where the wood came from, and all the weather factors—I never knew all that,” she said.
Schererville’s Gary Thomas is a White Sox fan, but was unaware that some pros’ bats come from nearby Homewood.
“It was a really informative tour,” he said.
About Homewood Bat Co.
The Homewood Bat Co. plant is located just a few miles from Lansing, at 17945 Bretz Drive in Homewood. The pro shop is open Monday to Friday, 9:00am–5:00pm. Hours on Saturday vary.
They offer tours, and encourage local residents to call ahead and schedule a time to visit. “We want to make sure the machine is running when you come,” Gibson said.
To set up a tour, call 708-713-8000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About White’s Local History class
White’s local history course is offered every spring on a first-come, first-served basis.
“It is really open for anyone who wants to learn about history and has an affection for the history of the Calumet area,” he said.
He chooses new destinations each year. Next year, he’s looking at new sites, such as Main Street in Highland, Ind., and the site of the Carnegie library in Crown Point, Ind.
The 40 available spots fill quickly, so White suggests that anyone interested should contact Illiana Christian High School in March of next year for more information.
The making of a Homewood bat
All Homewood bats are made of birch, maple, or ash.
The wood arrives in orders of 300 cylindrical pieces of wood, called billets (from the Old French word for “tree trunk”). Regardless of the type of wood, the billets are 37 inches long and 2.75 inches in diameter. They are sorted and organized by weight.
When a billet is selected for a bat, it goes into the CNC lathe, a wood cutting machine that Homewood Bat imported from Italy.
The machine has been programmed to cut about 100 standard bats. Carly Hogan, who does all the programming and computer work for laser engraving, can also set up a custom bat. Craig Olthoff handles bat manufacturing, taking it from billet to finished bat.
The bat comes out of the machine and Olthoff evaluates it. Rarely, the wood has a defect of some kind: “Once, we ran a bat through and there was a hole inside the wood, from an insect or something,” Pals said.
The grain has to be straight, and the bat has to pass an ink dot test to ensure the wood pores are straight from top to bottom—otherwise the bat will be prone to breaking.
Sometimes, there is nothing wrong with the bat, but the aesthetics are off: “A color change in natural birch wood is okay for function, but it doesn’t look good on TV,” Pals said.
If the bat looks good and passes inspection, the handle will be sanded and the barrel could undergo “cupping”: removing a small rounded section from the end. This makes it a little bit lighter, while maintaining the structure and integrity of the wood.
To finish the wood, the bats are dipped in tubes of clear lacquer or paint. Players in MLB are allowed four color choices for their bats: natural, black, gray, or merlot (a burgundy color). Mothers’ Day weekend means pink bats, and players weekend allows for some creativity. But Homewood Bats offers many color choices for their other customers, including two-tone bats.
During the local history field trip, a set of bats for Mike Tauchman hung to dry. The Chicago-area native was recently traded to the Yankees and ordered new bats for his new team.
Finally, the Homewood Bat logo is applied, and out they go: to Wrigley or to Yankee Stadium, to the Railcats’ U.S. Steel Yard—or right up the road to Illiana’s baseball team, as each senior varsity player will receive an engraved souvenir bat commemorating his high school career.