Louisville Slugger icon calls it a career

·MLB columnist
Craig Biggio watches as Danny Luckett turns a bat. (Courtesy Hillerich & Bradsby)

For 45 years, nine months and eight days, Danny Luckett's office consisted of a spinning machine and a cloud of sawdust. Before retiring Friday morning, Luckett turned his final baseball bat, one of an estimated 2½ million he created during nearly half a century making Louisville Sluggers for so many of the moments burned into the sport's history.

Hank Aaron's 715th home run came with a 35-inch, 33-ounce Model A99 run through Luckett's lathe. Ozzie Smith's go-crazy-folks homer in the 1985 NLCS? Luckett and a K75 model. Joe Carter's World Series-winning home run in '93 was a Luckett-spun J93 model, and nearly every Derek Jeter plate appearance came using a P72 turned by Luckett. Every day, Luckett stepped out the door at 4:50 a.m., into the office at 5:30, inhaled the rich smell of metal shaping wood for 10 hours and witnessed his work as quickly as the same evening.

On Oct. 11, 1972, a request came in to the office that Johnny Bench needed new bats. Long before the advent of the computers that today dominate bat-making, Luckett made each bat by hand. Two representatives of Hillerich & Bradsby, the parent company of Louisville Slugger, drove 100 miles to hand deliver them to Bench. In the ninth inning of the deciding game of the NLCS later that night, Bench hit a game-tying home run. Cincinnati went to the World Series due in large part to Luckett's bat.

"I take pride in what I do," Luckett said. "It's not just throwing a piece of wood in there and turning it."

Making baseball bats today is nothing like it was when Luckett started in September 1969. He was out of the Air Force and had bounced from job to thankless job. When Luckett went into the Kentucky state employment office and inquired about other opportunities, the veteran representative asked what he thought about making baseball bats. "I don't care," Luckett said. "I need a job."

Danny Luckett talks with Nick Swisher. (Courtesy Hillerich & Bradsby)
Danny Luckett talks with Nick Swisher. (Courtesy Hillerich & Bradsby)

His apprenticeship lasted about a year, and he found peace in making something substantive out of billets of wood. Though Luckett wasn't the biggest baseball fan, he appreciated the history of Louisville Slugger. When Luckett needed to see the size and dimensions of a particular bat, he went into Louisville Slugger's model room, which H&B vice president Rick Redman said "is like our Fort Knox." In it, the company keeps the prototype bats of Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams and Roberto Clemente, luminary after luminary. Aaron's A99, which he used for the final 15 seasons of his career, is in there as well.

"I'm in the Hall of Fame," Aaron once said. "I hit 755 home runs with that bat. I met Danny, who made just practically all of them. I need to carry him in with me."

Luckett is perfectly content to live in the background, as he did throughout his entire career. He witnessed his craft turn to automation, with the shapes of models input into computers that now spit out bats with remarkable efficiency. A dozen bats used to take Luckett three hours to hand turn. Today's machines carve a dozen in 15 minutes.

Rather than lament it, Luckett appreciates the technology. His back and legs wouldn't have lasted 46 years without it. As romantic as spending all day hunched over a lathe with tools and hooks and other implements shaving off slivers of wood was, he gladly traded the artistry for the ability to now spend time with his grandchildren and trying to lower his handicap on the golf course.

With him go the memories of being the actual lumber guy behind the Pittsburgh Lumber Company teams of the mid-to-late 1970s, of turning bats for more than 65 Hall of Famers, of savoring the special moments like Craig Biggio's five-hit night that included No. 3,000 of his career. That came with one of Luckett's last hand-turned bats. The last bat he carved with his tools belonged to Miami outfielder Christian Yelich, who visited H&B before this season and left with the final relic of Danny Luckett.

"I don't know what we're going to do without him," Redman said.

The art of bat-making isn't dead. "More than anything else, patience and practice," Luckett said. "It's not just something you pick up overnight. You have to work at it."

One of the finest craftsmen, maybe the finest, is gone, and he leaves a vacuum that can be filled only in small shops, where his heirs stand over a spinning machine and in a cloud of sawdust and keep alive a tradition well worth keeping.