Pittsfield man making his own baseball bats
PITTSFIELD - Casey O'Donnell believes there's no sweeter sound than the crack a wooden bat makes when it connects with the leather hide and stitches of a baseball.
Perhaps that's why the 27-year-old entrepreneur began making custom baseball bats for players in the basement of his parent's Pittsfield home. But as O'Donnell tells it, the true reason for his avocation is far closer to the "American Dream," with his bats, hand-crafted in the city that includes the earliest known reference to "America's Pastime" in North America, emblazoned with the red, white and blue, and in the hands of high-level ball players.
At 9 years old O'Donnell had just been cut from his Little League team, a moment that " devastated" the would-be ball player and bury his love of the game for nearly two decades.
O'Donnell studied music, playing bass and other instruments in several bands and eventually enrolled at the University of Massachusetts, Boston where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science.
But something felt off, unfinished, empty. Then it hit him. About three years ago he was watching his dad, Kevin O'Donnell, working in his shop making wooden fishing plugs.
Casey turned to his father and said, "hey Dad, think we can make a baseball bat?"
Wanting to support his son's passion, Kevin worked with his son, showing him everything he had learned about working with wood.
"More than anything I want to see him do what he loves," Kevin said of Casey. "Half of the battle of every day is getting up. It's a lot easier if you have a job to go to that you're passionate about."
The first bat he made turned out more like a club that the Flintstones cartoon character Bam Bam would wield, O'Donnell said. But it was a bat, and each one after the first one looked more polished as he honed his skills with his father as teacher, supporter and counselor.
His first customer was an easy sell. O'Donnell's best friend, Paul Procopio, was playing for the North Adams Steeplecats at the time and as soon as he heard Casey was making bats, he just had to have one. So O'Donnell went to work and created the first P22, which is named after his friend.
"His attention to detail is unbelievable. It was amazing to use something my best friend made and such an incredible product," Procopio said. "It's totally custom to what you like - smaller knob, bigger knob, smaller barrel, bigger barrel - it didn't matter, he can do it."
Word spread quickly of O'Donnell's bat making prowess and orders trickled in through word-of-mouth, but he didn't have a name for his company yet. He decided to name it "Odo," after the only nickname he's ever been given. The Odo Bat Co. was created.
O'Donnell's weekends during college were spent driving back to Pittsfield to make a bat or two, before driving back to Boston for class. His life has been full of maple, birch, ash and sawdust ever since.
"Nothing is more gratifying than seeing a guy at the plate, holding one of my bats in his hand ready to unload on a pitch," O'Donnell said. "Every time one of them breaks though, it feels like one of my limbs just broke."
A broken bat, however, might be just what O'Donnell needed to thrust his small business into a lifelong career.
Ryan Deitrich of the Pittsfield Suns was using one of O'Donnell's bat during a game recently when he swung at a fastball low and away and snapped it at the handle. He still managed to get a base hit.
Deitrich, who will leave the Suns after the team's game on July 4 to join his new teammates at Duke University, said he liked the broken bat so much that he knew he had to have more. So he ordered five bats from O'Donnell to take with him to North Carolina.
"I used a lot of big name bats but they're not always a high quality wood they use," he said. "Casey is able to give me custom spec bats. He's able to cut them down to the exact length, weight, barrel size and handle size I like."
O'Donnell also specializes in "bone rubbing" - using a cow's bone to give the bat a smoother finish and compressing the wood - to each of the bats. Deitrich said that method gives the batter a higher percentage for making a hit.
"It feels better coming off the barrel," he said. "If you don't square one up, it gives you a little more room for error to still make good contact and get a hit."
It takes O'Donnell about three days to make a bat from start to finish, he said. He also staggers the process, turning out four or five bats in each cycle.
O'Donnell plans to keep the production of bats in his parent's basement for the next year or so while he saves up enough money to rent a workspace in Pittsfield, his hometown, and the city where his business will remain no matter how big it gets.
"This is the American Dream," O'Donnell said. " Players want to support something local and it's very important for me to do it here in Pittsfield."
For more information about Odo Bat Company, access the company's page on Facebook.
To reach Josh Stilts: firstname.lastname@example.org, or (413) 496-6243 On Twitter: @JoshStilts