CHAMPLAIN, N.Y. — Nolan LaValley, blind since birth, does not let his disability keep him from bowling and enjoying a sport he has learned from his high school coach and teammates.

OLIVE HILL, Ky. -- It had the trappings of a scene from The Natural. A hand-crafted bat made from scratch for Tim Johnson’s son J.T.’s summer season in the North Carolina North State League, showcase for college baseball players with big league dreams.

It wasn’t “Wonderboy” made for Roy Hobbs from a tree split by lightning. But it lickety-split earned the reputation of whim-wham lumber from J.T.’s Piedmont Whitetails’ teammates, including the winner of the league’s 2019 home run derby.

From there, word of mouth spread so fast that Tim Johnson’s woodworking hobby moved to the early stage of a budding bat production company, making customized and model bats for baseball and softball players of all ages.

Located in the northeast Kentucky hamlet of Olive Hill, the informally named Big Johnson Bat Company includes marketing maven Madison, Johnson’s niece and a softball player at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Kentucky. She sells Johnson bats like they were hotcakes cooked in pork fat.

“I had to tell her to quit,” said the 54-year-old Johnson. “I couldn’t make them as fast as she sold them.”

With the assistance of his brother Shawn, Johnson fastidiously lathes blank cylindrical billets of ash or maple into sanded, customized bats, each taking three to four hours. Duplicates of non-customized bats take 20 minutes on a duplicator, a machine designed to ensure the legs on a chair are identical.

Customized bats are made to a hitter’s preferred length, weight and sweet spot. A wood-burning pen brands the barrel, then Johnson hand rubs each bat with seven or eight coasts of lacquer, a task performed in the bathroom of the family home because there’s too much humidity and dust in his workshop.

Johnson’s “plant” is his 576-square-foot garage, jammed with various machines, prototypes, raw wood, tool chests and a refrigerator for drinks in one corner. To cross the sawdust blanketed workspace, you carefully set your foot with each step.

Making bats is Johnson’s night job. During the day he’s an administrator for three area vocational schools, meaning he starts his bat-making around 4 p.m. He normally turns out two customized bats before calling it a night, though he’s made as many as five hand-turned bats in one very long night, an experience he doesn’t plan to repeat.

Johnson works on and off during the week, unless “Madison goes back to a selling rampage, then it’ll be every night.”

The Johnson customized bat sells for $125. Madison-designed bats for training, with an enlarged sweet spot, go for $75. One-handed bats cost $50. Johnson also makes long, lightweight fungo bats for hitting practice balls to fielders.

The Johnson brothers learned wood working at a young age, assisting their father, who owned a used furniture store that included refinished antiques. They also played baseball in high school and college before taking up successful high school coaching careers. That background has been helpful in bat production, said Tim Johnson.

“I know what a bat needs to feel like,” he said, “if it needs to be balanced or end-loaded, how thick or thin a handle needs to be, if you need a cupped end, a smaller taper on the barrel or a longer barrel, and what type of wood has the qualities that would be most productive with each particular swing.”

Johnson never thought his bat hobby would go this far. Yet he plans to retire from his school administrator’s position sometime next year, then decide whether to make bats for a living -- with the help of his brother Shawn, son J.T. and niece Madison.

They already have a tee-shirt slogan, “Swinging hard wood.” Now all they need is a natural like Roy Hobbs to popularize the power of the Johnson bat.

Zach Klemme, sports writer for the Ashland, Ky., Daily Independent provided details for this story.  

 

Before dying of a methamphetamine overdose early on Aug. 1, 2017, La Salle County, Texas,  prisoner James Dean Davis, aka “Country,” moaned and yelled for most of the night. Sweat dripped off him in a chilly holding cell, as vomit ran red, like Kool-Aid, on the floor. 

DUNCAN, Okla. – The police clock read 9:55 a.m. Monday when a 911 caller reported an unidentified man and woman, walking calmly from the money center in Walmart to enter their parked car, suddenly were shot to death through the windshield.

An online, unscientific poll by CNHI newspapers in 22 Midwest, Southern and Northeast states found almost half (45.58%) of the 1,832 respondents said they don’t plan to watch the open hearings that start Wednesday in the President Trump impeachment inquiry.

If you live in non-metro or rural America, you’ve been left behind by the economic boom cycle that came after the Great Recession. You also endured a more severe recession than people who live in bigger cities.

At a May 2016 campaign rally in Charleston, West Virginia, Donald Trump, the presumed GOP nominee for president, told the faithful: “If I win, we’re going to bring those miners back. You’re going to be so proud of your president. For those miners, get ready, because you’re going to be working your asses off.”

Yogi Berra once famously gave this puzzling advice to a college graduating class, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  The quip became lore, along with other Yogi-isms attributed to the legendary baseball player.

PALESTINE, Tex. -- With more than 100 jail deaths a year, Texas leads the nation, and probably accounts for more than 10 percent of the U.S. total of in-custody

BOSTON – Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker Tuesday declared vaping a statewide public health emergency and ordered a four-month ban on the sale of e-cigarettes and vaping supplies, including those used to smoke marijuana.

In 2002, a friend’s eight-year-old daughter, Brianna Caddell, while sleeping in her bed, was fatally shot with an AK-47 assault rifle. The shooter, a drug dealer who had beef with another drug dealer, fired on the wrong house in Detroit, spraying it with two dozen rounds.

A tornado emergency was declared for parts of Pontotoc County Monday night as severe storms were reported near the Hickory and Roff areas.

ASHLAND, Ky. -- Boyd County and its insurance carrier have reached a $1.75 million civil settlement with the estate of an inmate who state prosecutors said died at the county jail of internal bleeding from blunt force trauma caused by corrections officers.

LONDONDERRY, N.H. – Police pulled over a New Hampshire driver with an air conditioner jutting from his car’s rear right window and the generator powering it atop the roof  -- but not for the reason you might think.

This Week's Circulars

MESICK [mdash] May Elizabeth Schermerhorn, 98, of Mesick, died Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020 at Glen Eagle in Traverse City. She was born May 10, 1921, in Wallin the daughter of John and Ethel (Francisco) Webber. May was a member of the Grant United Methodist Church as well as the American Legion …

92, of Frankfort, passed away Jan. 10, 2020 at Munson Medical Center. A memorial service is planned at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 13, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Frankfort. Arrangements are provided by Jowett Family Funeral Home.

100, of Traverse City, passed away Jan. 21, 2020. A full obituary will be in a later edition of the Record-Eagle. Margaret and her family are being cared for by the Reynolds Jonkhoff Funeral Home and Cremation Services.

INTERLOCHEN — James Wesley Waulkazoo, of Interlochen, died Jan. 14, 2020. He was born to Sylvia Jean Waukazoo at James Decker Hospital in Traverse City. In 1953 he was moved to the Elliot's home in Buckley with his two sisters. He attended the Buckley schools, played on the high school baske…

PITTSBURGH — Jennifer Eileen Olsen, 33, passed away Dec. 8, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Jehni was born in Traverse City on May 13, 1986. She was a graduate of Traverse City West Senior High School and the Great Lakes Culinary Institute. Jehni had a real passion for her chosen professio…