The entrepreneur behind custom bat maker Johnnyville Slugger on . . . living by Ben Franklin's advice, making customers weep, and why a bat is better than a lap dance.by Kyle Swenson
Johnny Smatana rockets around his West 25th Street store like a rubber ball that's been side-armed into a phone booth by Randy Johnson. The garrulous, high-energy founder of Johnnyville Slugger embodies the all-in ethos that once made him successful in the air and freight business. Bat making was never a dream he quietly stoked. Sure, he played around with woodworking, but it wasn't until he realized how far engraving techniques have advanced that Smatana saw potential dollar signs. Almost a year after opening his Johnnyville Slugger store, he's churning out one beautifully sculpted and painted bat after another, each with customized, personal details. As Johnny says, it's "the greatest gift you can give a guy under $200 in the history of the fucking world."
You don't have a woodworking background, so was it kind of a stretch to become a bat maker?
I'm a numbers guy first, so it had to make sense financially. I had a job that made good money. I had no reason to jump, but I found out I could do this and bring my sons into it and kind of create my own world. And it's something that's never been done. You couldn't take this to a bank and say this is what I'm looking to do, because those fuckheads have no vision. If it hasn't been done before and if they don't have 15 identical pro formas, they don't understand it. But you get to a point like I did where you're like, "I don't need those fucking asses."
So was this a gamble?
Even though I was going into urban Cleveland as a bat maker, there was zero doubt of success. I knew the numbers, I knew what it could do, I knew its appeal. People say, "Oh, it's a niche market." I say, "It's a niche as big as your fucking head you moron, it's ginormous."
When you learned bat making, was it just trial and error? Did you bend a lot of expert's ears?
Old Ben Franklin always said, "A want of care does more damage than want of knowledge." And I often quote that because people are always like, "How much experience do you have?" No, it's how much passion you have. Most people think they know how to work and overcome things, but with me, I just stay on it, keep hammering until I make it right. Mostly it was hands on. I just went and bought my first lathe and started machining.
You've probably developed an eye for the material. Each piece of wood is different, right?
As we sand them, I'm picking and pulling: Some bats will be painted, some bats will be stained, some bats will be this color or that. As the orders come in, I just process them differently. I look at each individual bat for what I can do with it. Certain color configurations, certain strains in the wood — everything means something to me now, which ones will color brighter or darker, the grains in the wood. This isn't a mass production thing. There are times now that I'm not really involved with each bat, but every single one goes through my hands before it gets tagged.
What's so cool about one of your bats is they're so personalized.
I make shit [that makes] fucking people just fall to pieces. A bat can tell a guy's life story. You've got to give me the signature and the personal salutation, that's what really makes a Johnnyville Slugger. I made one for the head of Lutheran Hospital who had been there 22 years. I had Lutheran's logo. He got his undergraduate at Notre Dame, so I had the "ND," then his signature. He got his post-graduate work done at Michigan, so he had the "M." And it's sized right. It's not a 31-inch bat. If the guy's 6'3", 240 pounds, then give him a 34-inch oak bat.
What's been the big area of business?
Corporate business has been my homer because it is the greatest gift you can give. It is. It just fucking is. Bottles of whiskey, lap dances — nope, nope, nope. All of them are going to get you in trouble, none of them are going to work out like you think. We know the program, right? We've been down that road and we know how it works.