Entrepreneur Todd Eschman has a passion for America’s favorite pastime — baseball — and not just the modern game. He has developed a love for vintage league baseball and how it was played in the 1800s, including the original rules, uniforms and equipment, namely the handcrafted vintage wood bats. And as with all great entrepreneurs, he turned that passion into an idea for a small business — Swansea, IL-based Old Dutch Classic Bats, which as the name suggests, sells vintage wood baseball bats.
Although his grandfather owned a lumberyard in Belleville, IL, Eschman had no previous experience in woodworking. But he quickly taught himself how to turn wood in order to craft his own vintage bats. He picked up a lathe on clearance from Harbor Freight Tools and then spent long hours learning the basics of wood turning and how to replicate a 19th-century baseball bat.
Research was key, Eschman notes. With the growing popularity of vintage baseball, it is very important to players that every aspect is historically accurate. But when it came to the bats, generally players would buy a modern bat and just sand off the labels. However, the desire for authenticity prompted Eschman to start making his own vintage bats, a trait shared with players from the past who often made their own bats as well.
Records on how those early bats were created were not easily found, Eschman says. But his background as a baseball writer as well as membership in the Society of American Baseball Researchers (SABR) were valuable as he searched for vintage bat specifications and traditional designs. He also bought a few vintage bats and used them as models.
One of the major differences between a modern baseball bat and a vintage one is that the modern bat is much more refined and calibrated with lighter weights to help improve a player’s hitting ability. Vintage bats were longer and heavier with thicker handles, Eschman says. Many of those bats had acorn knobs that served as counterweights below the hand. Another unique aspect of vintage wood bats is that they were often decorated to match the color of a team’s uniform.
All of the effort he put into researching and creating his own bats as well as the interest from other vintage baseball league players prompted him to turn his hobby into a business, starting Old Dutch Classic bats in 2012.
Best Woods for Bats
Vintage ball players and bat manufacturers often used local hardwoods, which included cherry, hickory, ash and maple.
Eschman says he mainly works with ash, but maple baseball bats also are an option. He is even planning on launching a modern line of maple bats at a future date.
The quality of wood he seeks is generally a higher grade than what is typically available in the wood billets for baseball bats offered by many wood supply stores.
Moisture content, approximately 10 to 12 percent for ash and lower for higher-density woods, as well as whether the woodgrains are straight and tight are critical factors in what makes wood suitable for bat making, he says.
One of Eschman’s favorite vendors is a wood supply company located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but he also has vendors in Maine and upstate New York. The shorter growing season in those Northern locations makes the woodgrain harder and tighter, he explains.
To manufacture the bats, the turning process starts with mounting a 37- to 40-inch wood blank on the lathe.
With his duplicator, Eschman says he can turn bats quickly in 10 to 15 minutes. It takes another 10 to 15 minutes for sanding, “depending on vibration and then the type of finish,” he adds.
“Maple turns faster but it takes longer to sand,” Eschman says, because it involves a more detailed sanding process. The final step is applying a protective coating.
The entire manufacturing process for Old Dutch Classic Bats takes little space. Standard equipment in the shop includes: two lathes, a belt sander, grinder, drill press, band saw and miter saw.
Small Business Strategies
Although Eschman has a full-time job as sports editor for the Belleville New-Democrat, his goal is to grow Old Dutch Classic Bats until it is self-sufficient.
His strategy is to build business in increments. Marketing is an integral part of that from maintaining an optimized website to social media, which he describes as huge. “When I blog I receive dozens of orders,” he says. Also word-of-mouth is a key part of the marketing strategy.
Vintage baseball may be a niche market but it is growing, which bodes well for Eschman’s success. In fact, he credits the rise in popularity of the sport as a reason Old Dutch Classic Bats won the first-place prize of $10,000 in the SIUE Metro East Start-Up Challenge, a regional competition for first-time businesses organized by University Park at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and PNC Bank.
“That’s how I won,” he says. “I convinced the judges that vintage baseball was growing.” Eschman used the award money to improve dust collection in his shop, purchasing an air purifying system to go along with his dust vacuum system.
The contest also was crucial in helping Eschman realize the potential of his business. “Preparing for the contest opened my eyes to the possibilities and helped me develop a plan and incremental goals to build on over time,” he says. DutchBats.com
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