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"Last Saturday was absolutely classic," Sharon Oberriter was saying. "We had this little boy come to the door with his parents, and he sees everything and says, 'Oh, boy! Bats!' He ordered his bat and five minutes later, he's outside still saying, 'Oh, boy! Bats! Oh, boy! Bats!'
"Then 10 minutes later, two grown men come into the store and one of them says, 'Oh, boy! Bats!' It was exactly the same reaction, except there was 30 years' difference in age between the little boy and the adult. And that is what is so wonderful. You see grownups who genuinely let go and enjoy it."
It's been that way since 1981, when Sharon, 47, and her husband, Don, 52, opened the Cooperstown Bat Company in a converted garage not far from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Inside there are hundreds of bats, some stuffed into long cardboard boxes, others hanging from special wooden racks. All have been hand-finished by the Oberriters, and all have a pristine, glossy look. But what sets these bats apart from your everyday bats are the multicolor lettering, designs and portraits that embellish them. These bats aren't for hitting, they're for hanging.
Some of the bats simply read: COOPERSTOWN HOME OF BASEBALL in fire-engine-red letters. But the series on old ballparks really catches the eye. Images of Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Forbes Field, Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds are emblazoned on the barrels of the bats by a chemical process the Oberriters have developed. "As far as we know, no one has been able to do what we do," Sharon says.
The latest venture by the couple is a famous-player series. Pee Wee Reese and Ted Williams bats have already gone into production and one new player-bat series will be produced annually. Reese and Williams autographed 1,000 of the bats bearing their images and, almost instantly, the limited edition souvenirs became hot items in the collectors' market.
Cooperstown never has been, and probably never will be, on the way to anywhere. And even if you are one of the quarter-million people who visit the Baseball Hall of Fame each year, you might easily miss the Cooperstown Bat Company. A two-by three-foot sign outside the basement garage is the only indication of an office. That may strike some as an unlikely way to run a business, but the conversion of the Oberriters from small-town restaurateurs to big-time bat producers is far more unlikely.
Don has not attended a major league game in 15 years. Sharon has never been to one. Neither has much of a background in the lore and legend that absorb Cooperstown.
The Oberriters moved there in 1976 from Utica, N.Y., to get away from the pressure of running a family restaurant that had grown from being a comfortably busy operation into an all-consuming monster. In Cooperstown, which has a year-round population of 2,500, they opened a small restaurant specializing in sandwiches. "All I wanted to do was run a nice restaurant and not get an ulcer," Don says.
" Cooperstown was much quieter then," Sharon says. "It was a little sleepier, a little more like it had been for the preceding 150 years. You worked hard all summer to put money in a savings account so that the money would stretch to the next season."
But by the late '70s, Don was getting restless. He decided to establish a restaurant with a baseball motif to take advantage of the growing Hall of Fame tourist trade. He would call the eatery the Cooperstown Bat Company and, in order to legitimize its name, the restaurant would sell bats as souvenirs.