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"Literally, Don woke up one night and told me we were going to make bats. I told him he was bats," Sharon says.
The Oberriters developed a logo and had it trademarked. They began by offering a line of Little League bats that sold for $9.95 each (an extra $1.50 if you wanted Sharon to personalize it with a name or message in indelible ink). At first, the Oberriters thought they could make the bats themselves. But after frustrating hours working raw wood billets on a lathe, they were otherwise convinced. "There were a lot of bats that never saw the light of day," Don says. Eventually, they came to the conclusion that they were best at finishing the bats, not making them from scratch. Today, all their bats are purchased from major bat manufacturers.
"There are a number of ways to put information on a bat," Sharon explains, "and we looked at all of them. But to achieve what we wanted to achieve, it has to be done by hand. We found no way to automate what we do. We found no way to change the method we use that would give us better range or reproduction quality. So, at least for the moment, we're doing the only thing possible for what we wanted to achieve on bats."
What the Oberriters do sounds easy enough. The images of the ballparks and players are executed by Bruce Guyot, a local artist, then printed in reverse on a special paper and transferred to the uneven surfaces of the blank bats. That's all there is to it, though developing the right decal techniques took four years of experimentation before the Oberriters were satisfied enough to start selling the bats in 1982.
Just as Don had hoped, visitors to the Hall of Fame liked the bats and began buying them. What the Oberriters did not envision was the explosion in the baseball collectibles field that hit about the same time their bats went on the market. The bat portion of the company quickly became the main part of their business, and in 1988 the Oberriters sold the restaurant to devote full time to bats.
"We know our product goes up in value the moment it walks out the door," Sharon says. "But we are not going to create an inflation of value [by changing production runs, or holding bats off the market]. We are not interested in contributing to a manipulation of the market value."
So out the door the bats go, the stadium series bats at $45 each, the famous player series for $195 to $275 each. The collectors continue to snap them up, and the baseball memorabilia dealers know it.
At a baseball card show in Albany, N.Y., last year, John Convent, a dealer from Worcester, Mass., displayed several stadium models. A Yankee Stadium bat with a Reggie Jackson autograph carried a tag of $450. A Polo Grounds bat with a Willie Mays signature was selling for $225.
"A blank bat [without an autograph] will go for eight or nine times the original price," Convent said. "Honestly, I don't like to part with them. That's why I price them so high. I have a Yankee Stadium bat at home with a Mantle autograph. I won't part with that."
The Oberriters would prefer that their bats be appreciated simply for the craft and the nostalgic tribute they embody. "We're just concerned about making a good product at a fair price and making it available to people who would like it," Sharon says. "Dealers are dying to get hold of our stuff, and have been for years. We don't have a dealer network. There are dealers who do business with us, but they do business in the same fashion that customers do business with us."