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Baseball traditionalist turns memories of wooden bats into a cottage industry built on a dream

LOCKPORT – Searching for something to keep him off the couch during the winter months, Russ Chaffee descended into what his wife, Brenda, now calls “the bat cave.”

Chaffee’s one-man mission: to bring back the sweet sound of wood cracking a baseball – one bat at a time.

“When I played, it was all wooden bats,” said Chaffee, 56, a left-handed catcher and first baseman for Starpoint High School and various local amateur teams in the 1970s. “I loved the sound of the ball hitting the wooden bat, and I love hearing it come back.”

Russell M. Chaffee learned carpentry skills from his father and spent a couple of years researching the bat-making process before he purchased an old-fashioned lathe for his basement. He created his first wooden bat for his son, Marc, to use in an amateur league in 2010.

Since then, Chaffee has produced more than 300 professional-grade wooden bats, customized to a player’s preferred length, weight, handle width and color. He charges between $35 and $45 for each, about half the cost of a comparable bat at most sporting goods stores. The bats can be engraved, and some people have ordered them as wall decorations, Chaffee said.

Chaffee orders the white ash and maple wood needed to make high-quality bats from various suppliers as near as Forestville and as far as Massachusetts. He said he uses multiple suppliers because sometimes the companies that produce bats for Major League Baseball players purchase all of the available wood.

Aside from his son’s friends, Chaffee’s first customers were Niagara Power players who needed to replace wooden bats that were broken during New York College Baseball League play. He soon got an order from Cory Brownsten, a Lockport native playing in the Atlanta Braves farm system.

When Starpoint hosted Niagara Wheatfield and Lewiston-Porter in wooden-bat games, Chaffee provided bats for the visiting teams. Cardinal O’Hara High has used Chaffee’s bats for the last two seasons in the Monsignor Martin Athletic Association, the only local high school league that does not allow metal bats. “It started off as a hobby, and the more I got into it, the more I like doing it,” Chaffee said. “One thing has led to another, and it’s really growing.”

Chaffee, who works for a local utility company, is careful to control the growth of his business so that demand does not exceed his ability to supply. He does not have a website and does not advertise.

“Maybe someday, when I retire, it can be bigger,” he said. “Right now I’m just taking it one year at a time to see how much I can handle.”

“He’s not making a lot of money,” said Tom Sarkovics, the Starpoint athletic director and Chaffee’s former baseball coach. “Just enough to get his next stock of wood.

“He’s excited to do it. He’s a guy who is always there for people. He’s helped me at Starpoint for a million things – whether it’s putting an air conditioner in or putting a rubber floor in our dugouts.”

As safety concerns over the use of metal bats rise, local athletic directors have discussed switching back to wooden bats, which were used up until the late 1980s, Sarkovics said.

“We talk about it every year at our AD meetings,” Sarkovics said. “But as long as the colleges aren’t doing it, I don’t think it’s going to come to us.”

Chaffee expects his business to continue to grow with the increased number of wooden-bat tournaments for youth players. And if he is able to carve out enough time to turn more bats, he could advertise for more business.

While working wonders with lumber remains his labor of love, Chaffee hasn’t lost sight of a lofty dream.

“My ultimate goal,” he said, “is to make a bat for someone in the major leagues.”