Vintage bat maker is a hit: 'I'm just a guy with a lathe and a garage'

News-DemocratMay 12, 2014 

Todd Eschman was not trying to swing for the fences when he first approached a metro-east small business incubator about his baseball bat-making enterprise.

The Swansea resident said he was just looking for some coaching.

However, he ended up hitting it out of the park and took home a $10,000 prize for his Old Dutch Classic Bats -- vintage baseball bats that he makes in his garage in Swansea.

When he initially contacted the Small Business Development Center at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Eschman was looking only to fill out business registration with the state.

"I figured I had to make myself square with the IRS because I had made some bats in November and I didn't want to get in trouble with a huge hunk of income there," Eschman said. "I wanted to do it right and I wanted to put a website up so people had an easy way to find my bats and I didn't have to worry about collecting money or pre-paying."

Eschman is the general manager for the Belleville Community News Group, which includes the O'Fallon Progress, Highland News Leader and News-Democrat. In his free time, he makes 19th century-era wooden bats. He's been doing it for the past year and a half, soon after helping establish a local baseball team of that same era. The Belleville Stags plays other teams throughout the St. Louis area and Midwest. Teams wear replica uniforms and play the game as it was played in the 19th century with replica bats and no gloves.

"It was a bucket list thing," he said about his bat making. "After I started doing this, I thought we needed to get vintage baseball bats. It was a confluence of goals."

His hobby comes from his love of the game and fascination with its history, especially its roots. As a self-proclaimed baseball purist, Eschman said he always wanted to learn how to make baseball bats, especially the vintage models because of their quirky bottle-shaped barrels and creative shapes and size.

"They're like a piece of furniture," he said. "They're like a work of art to me."

He makes them with a lathe and can make one from scratch in 20 to 25 minutes and spends another 30 minutes sanding them. He also has a duplicator, a production machine that fits on the lathe that still involves some hand work, but he can cut down the bat production time to 15 minutes. Each is stained and a clear sticker with his Old Dutch Classic Bats logo is applied to the barrel. He said he has made about 100 bats and still has the very first one he made. His uses ash and maple supplied from Michigan.

He makes six models, including the "A.G. Spalding," with a mushroom-shaped handle; the "King Kelly," a long heavy bat which was inspired by a model he found at a flea market, and the "Wee Willie Keeler," the smallest of his vintage bats at 30.5-inches long. He decorates some of them with stripes and different colors in keeping with the tradition of that era. He also makes three models of modern baseball bats. He has recently created a website, dutchbats.com.

When he initially met Small Business Development Center Director Patrick McKeehan, McKeehan said he was impressed with Eschman's enterprise and encouraged Eschman to consider entering the Metro East Startup Challenge, a business plan competition to recognize and reward excellence among metro-east entrepreneurs.

But Eschman didn't see himself as an entrepreneur and initially balked.

"I said, 'I'm not a manufacturer, I'm just a guy with a lathe and a garage,'" Eschman said. "He said it was specifically for manufacturing, IT and medical startups and all you had to do to enter was to put in a one-page executive summary. So I figured I could do that standing on my head. I threw something together and entered the contest, figuring that would be the last I would ever hear of it."

He was later contacted by contest judges seeking further information.

"I went to this seminar and they said everything they wanted had about 18 pages," he said. "And I said, 'Oh my God. I'm writing a college paper here.' It's not what I expected."

McKeehan said he immediately recognized Eschman's potential.

"I knew he could write a business plan," McKeehan said. "As he went through the whole process, he got stronger and took advantage of our workshop training that we put on. I was pleased to see it."

Eschman filled out a questionnaire, then an executive summary and a market competitor analysis after that. He estimated projected revenues and projected expenses. He then wrote a 24-month proforma and finally submitted a business plan, just minutes before the March 31 deadline. He said his experience in the newspaper business helped him navigate the process.

"I know my way around a profit and loss statement and, while I'm no salesman, our thrust on advertising has influenced me sufficiently enough to recognize a solid marketing plan," he said. "And, at the end of the day, I still identify most as a journalist and writer. Being able to put all of that together, no doubt, helped me in writing an effective business plan."

Eschman was named one of five finalists out of more than 30 entries. On April 28, he made a three-minute presentation before the judges and answered their inquiries during a five-minute question-and-answer session. He was named the grand-prize winner.

"I was very happy for him," McKeehan said. "He definitely did a great job."

"He was very grateful and he was really excited," said Jim Pennekamp, Executive Director of University Park at SIUE, which sponsored the contest. "I think this is something that there is niche in the market for and I think it will grow. We wish him all the best."

Eschman said he will reinvest some of his winnings into enhancing his workshop. He also said this experience has taught him much about business. When he started, bat-making was a means to finance his "expensive hobby." Now he approaches it as a entrepreneur.

"I think I am on to something," he said. "I'm seeing more possibilities than I have before, but I'm not trying to get too carried away."

"I would like to see it grow. But more than anything, I do this because I just love baseball. I love studying it, I love traditions of it, I love the 19th century because I'm in it. And I love the bats."

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 239-2526.

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