With the close of the year’s major-league baseball season, and as ball fields lie dormant for a short winter hiatus, one local baseball fan isn’t quite done.
Bill Rayburn and his replica 1800s bat company will continue to fill orders and produce artisan baseball bats that represent different periods of America’s favorite pastime. Rayburn, in his little workshop west of Murray makes a little piece of baseball history every day.
Rayburn really likes baseball, and he has ever since he was a kid.
"Baseball, I think, was a little bit of an equalizer," he says. "You didn’t have to be the best looking kid in the class – the best liked in the class, but if you were good, or at least worked hard and tried to be good, you could be an equal on the playing field."
And Rayburn has turned that love for the game into something much bigger.
He’s retired now, but he spent years in real estate, freight and university athletics. And in retirement, he builds baseball bats that resemble those from the game’s early history. He even restores bats – many of which were used in the game’s early history.
Plus, he single-handedly produces the entire line of bats for one of the nation’s largest classic baseball memorabilia producers in his garage.
Each day, Rayburn occupies the small shop adjacent his home west of town.
Inside, walls are lined with bats of various shapes and stages of completion. He has a series of new bats with oddly-shaped handles. He says they represent the dead ball era, when a baseball was softer and more emphasis was put on field positions and strategic bunts.
With each new bat, he starts with a three-inch billet of Ash or Maple, which he marks and whittles down on a lathe, carefully carving away excess wood in one-inch increments. As he carves away, using different sized tools, the corrugated form of a bat appears.
To the untrained eye, it looks ready, but Rayburn has a secret.
"I don’t care how fine of sandpaper you get, you’re still sanding against the grain, and if you just stained it at that point, you’re going to have lines," he says. "That’s what some of the other companies that make these bats, they stop at that point. But when you sand with the grain then you get all those cross grain marks out, and it makes for a really nice, pretty finish."
Rayburn started making bats about six years ago. He taught himself how to operate a lathe with the help of a family friend and a furniture repair background. Not long after, he amassed a sizeable collection.
"These things take up a little space and, after you make a few, you don’t want to quit making them, but you can only have so many," he says.
Since, Rayburn has partnered with the Huntington Baseball Company, and his bats have shipped in bulk to big-name retailers like RedEnvelope-dot-com, and, more recently, The New York Times online gift store, selling for about $150 per bat.
But Rayburn hasn’t sold away his entire bat collection or any other memorabilia which he proudly displays throughout his home.
And, now during this lull in baseball action and as the December holiday season looms. Rayburn will spend his coming weeks in his little garage living out his perfect retirement … bat by bat, one season at a time.