The guy we wanted most when we hooked up with Louisville Slugger for these interviews was the most difficult to schedule, and for good reason. Chuck Schupp is what you could call an Arms Dealer to the highest paid hitmen in sports. He is, for the last 30 seasons, Louisville Slugger’s salesman to the pros. When Brandon Phillips wants to shave a little off the handle, Adam Jones wants to try a flashier finish, or Derek Jeter wants, well, yet another set of black P72s, its Chuck that gets it done. Fast. For the last month, Chuck has been running from playoff city to playoff city, putting the bats in the hands that will determine the outcome of the World Series.
Supplying the elite .01% of a profession with their most important tool of the trade can be quite the undertaking. The demanding customers, the perfectionists, the nutcases, the 6’5, 240 pound angry men, not to mention the 27 other companies coming for your business. Chuck Schupp’s job may seem like a dream job, but here we’ll step into his shoes for a moment, and you’ll see that its far from a cakewalk.
Once again, huge thanks to Chuck for sitting down with us, and a final thank you to Rocky, our bat historian, for the awesome interviews.
WPW: Do you travel to where the playoff games are taking place?
CS: Yes, we have already been to the division and the league series cities, and we will be going to wherever the World Series is.
WPW: For some background, you played at the University of Louisville and you were a pitcher?
CS: That is correct. I pitched two seasons for the Twins, I played in Elizabethtown and Pulaski. I was supposed to go to California, but that was the Spring I got released.
WPW: There is a Charles Schupp in the baseball reference…
CS: The one in the 40’s?
CS: That is my Dad.
WPW: And Ferdie Schupp?
CS: He was my Great Uncle.
WPW: So this is a bit of a family business for you?
CS: Well, yeah, as a baseball talent, I was probably the weak link of the chain, but it got me a college education, kept me in baseball, and allowed me to start my career here.
WPW: How did you go from Pulaski to the Pro Bat Sales Director for Louisville Slugger.
CS: I started with the company in 1979. I was in California, but I wanted to move back to Louisville, and one of my best friends was a sales rep for Louisville Slugger in California, and they had a position open for amateur baseball promotions, which included little league and softball, which was my entry into the company. I went from that to doing more operations with collegiate baseball, and that developed into more of a sophisticated market, which went from just dealing with schools buying product from their dealers, to sporting goods dealers obtaining products from their suppliers, to signing pro players to contracts. That was the early 80s. I worked in the Pro Bat Department for Rex Bradley, who ran the department at that time, and in ’84 I took his post. I have been overseeing our pro baseball operation ever since.
WPW: As the guy interacting with the players during some dramatic changes with respect to media coverage, what in the clubhouse has changed? Are players more serious about their bats now?
CS: When I started there were something like six companies, now there are twenty-eight, so the competitive field has gotten a lot more crowded, but the competition has been good. It is just part of the business. The players are about the same, they have always taken the game seriously. Hitting is about failure anyway, you are going to fail 70% of the time, but if you can do that, you get a big payday. It is the only profession where you can fail that badly and make a very good living. Before the advent of maple, ash was the species of choice, but there was always an issue of just making a better bat. Is it harder? Does it have cosmetic appeal? Those are the things players were looking at. Before the days of electronic scales, feel was more important. Guys used to use a postal scale to check a bat, now they use a digital scale in the clubhouse to check, so the technology has changed dramatically. As far as being in the clubhouse, that is still about the one-on-one conversations, whether that was the 80s or now. Guys want what they want, and our job is to win their loyalties.
WPW: How many companies are in the clubhouse routinely now?
CS: That is fairly limited. Even for us, as the official bat, it is limited to those credentialed to visit the clubhouse. There are, of course, sales calls, but I don’t run into them all of the time. We see (our competitors) in Spring Training, of course. They are all there sporadically. Keep in mind too that every one of us has to respect that we are in the player’s office, you have to be allowed into that office, so you have to respect that territory. You do your business, and then it is time to get out of there.
WPW: We are in the postseason right now, do you have special accommodations to fill the needs of your players?
CS: The bat needs are ongoing, but if you do the math, there are only four (interview was on 10/17) teams left, so we can focus on just those four teams. Anything we have to make we can get produced and out the door in 48 hours…sometimes less than that, depending on the finishes and drying time.
WPW: Are all of the Pro Bats hand turned or are they produced on the CNC lathe as well?
CS: Pro bats are all made on the CNC lathes. Almost everyone now uses that technology. It is very accurate and consistent, which is a good thing. When I started the machine was not in use in this country, and as nice as hand-turning sounds, it is difficult to duplicate models time and time again. Players want consistency. It has helped tremendously.
WPW: On the new Prime models there is a stamp for Amish craftsmanship. Is that just a reference to the idea that you have an Amish worker watching the machine?
CS: That actually came from the fact that our bats are now vacuum-dried, and the vendor who provided that service was Amish, so we used the term, and it stuck. It conveys a perception of quality and craftsmanship.
WPW: Can you explain the vacuum-drying process?
CS: Timber was once kiln-dried. The blanks were put into a kiln where there was humidity and heat in a temperature controlled environment, but the time cycle of that process was exponentially longer, and was less consistent. Vacuum-drying is similar to microwaving, but the blanks are dried more quickly and more consistently end to end. It also gives it the wood a white appearance, and changes the sound of the bat upon impact of the ball. There is a much better phonic to it.
WPW: How many miles have you traveled doing this job?
CS: Wow…I can tell you this, I have a million on Delta, and they are all domestic.
WPW: How much international travel do you do for this job?
CS: We travel to the Dominican Republican, of course. We do the fall league there. That league seems to be the best for accomplishing our task. That is where the top players are in the wintertime. We have a rep who does Japan and the Orient, but I do not really get involved with that.
WPW: The season will come to a close no later than the 31st. When it ends is that vacation time? What is your off-season routine?
CS: Yeah, I will take some down time, but the winter meetings are not that far off, they are the second week in December. At that point we are dealing with contracts, batting gloves, gloves, protective gear. We are always looking to add new guys on the bat side, so we have appointments, talk to the agents, we are also writing orders for Spring Training. Then the holidays, which are pretty quiet, and then things ramp up filling the orders for Spring Training, and that usually starts just after the first of the year. At that point the factory is working overtime, and then it is off to Spring Training at that point.
WPW: What are the biggest challenges about doing your job?
CS: My challenge right now is to walk into that clubhouse, talking to twenty-something year old guys, know what I am talking about, be relevant to them, and bring value to the players. At the end of the day, that is what we do. I still enjoy it. I have lots of relationships which I have established over the years, which is very helpful. When I walk in to see these playoff teams I know half of the managers and most of the coaches, they are guys we have dealt with, so they trust us. We have to earn their trust to be there. Once the playoffs start, the access gets a bit more tight. For me, doing it for 30 years, they trust me, they know how I am going to conduct myself and how I am going to act in the clubhouse.
WPW: When you first started doing this job, how did you earn that trust?
CS: I was in my 20s, so I was about the same age as the players. I was their contemporary, but things haven’t really changed. You shoot straight with them, you do not lie to them, and you do what you say you’re going to do. That is how to build that relationship. They have to know that if I say I am going to do something, I do it. If I can’t do something, I tell them that, and that is where we stand. Whether it is a player or an agent, you have to have respect, even if it is a guy who does not use our product. My goals is to always keep a positive relationship with them, and always be able to speak to them, because you never know when the opportunity will come for them to try out something they have seen someone else using, or you come up with a new product that they want to try.
WPW: That’s sound advice for any businessman. Is there anything you would like to add?
CS: Yeah, what you guys do, trying to track what these guys are using, you know that it depends on when you take the picture. At-bat to at-bat, April to May, and people who are not in the business don’t really understand that. I always look at it this way, I am only as good as the last order we sent out the door. Yes, it is nice that we have been around a long time, but it is always about product and service. That is what the guys care about.
WPW: During my discussion with Jack (Hillerich), he had said that the company used to, when they were hand-turning, employ about 5-6 bat turners. Now there are over 30 with the CNC machines, meaning that the machines did not take jobs, they actually created them, and we are now getting higher quality bats.
CS: Yes, the quality is better. We are working on some new stuff for Spring Training, we have done some things on the fly, we have added some new finishes, we are working on ways to mechanize and make the bats harder.
WPW: Is one of those finishes a matte finish?
WPW: Is that the one that Giancarlo Stanton was swinging with the orange lettering (we’ll have photos of these soon)?
WPW: What other finishes are you adding?
CS: We are looking at a higher gloss, we are working with one of our vendors, Sherwin Williams, on some harder finishes. We are stepping up our game. We recognize that some of our competitors have done a very good job, and we applaud them, but in the same vein, it makes us work harder.
WPW: For the consumer right now, “the look” is the big thing. You have companies like MaxBats and others who allow you so many color combinations, but for your company, because of your scale, that seems a little less possible.
CS: We can do it for the Pro Bats, but it is more of a challenge at the retail level.
WPW: I know that I will sometimes call out, frequently irritating my wife, “Hey, he is using the new Marucci” or “that is the new Louisville Slugger”…but for most people that is just background.
CS: Yeah, in a good way, that works to our advantage. People will frequently react with the question “what do you mean there are 28 competitors?” When you get into the sporting goods markets, the Dick’s, Modell’s. People know what the players are using. Everybody seems to say “isn’t it bad to have all of this competition?” No, the competition is good, it forces us to get better, and there is nothing wrong with that.