Mitchell Godkin is swinging for the fences.
The third-year Engineering student is the creator of the Leadbury Bat Co., a premium baseball bat manufacturer based in southwestern Ontario – just a pop fly from his childhood home near Seaforth.
“It’s been quite a ride from just having this little idea or hobby. I have an interest in manufacturing, so developing the process from scratch has been a lot of fun,” Godkin said. “You would think the market is very saturated. The baseball community is a lot more receptive to new products than I expected.”
His first steps into bat-making were taken during an Engineering co-op at Nostalgic Wood, a reclaimed woodworking business in Mount Forest, Ont.
The business focuses on flooring, furniture, doors and other items. But with the arrival of a new drying kiln, Godkin was handed the responsibility of developing processes, drying protocols and manuals for the machine that boasted a capability of working on pieces of wood 12 inches thick, 50 inches wide and 20 feet long.
Soon afterward, a logging company that makes hand-split baseball bat billets approached Godkin seeking a custom-drying company. He stepped up to the plate for the job and, unbeknownst to him, and in mere weeks, would be holding a business opportunity in his hands.
“As the kiln tech guy, it was quite a different process. I did research and found no one was using this type of machine for drying baseball bats,” Godkin said. “I got some bats done up and got them to Western for some testing. The initial results were so exceptional I went back and said, ‘I’m going to start my own baseball bat company because I think I have a pretty good product here.’”
Performed in the General Dynamics Lab at Western Engineering, the initial testing showed promising results. Using a three-point bend test, Godkin tested five of his 33-inch Leadbury 271 bats against a similar model from the Louisville Slugger Co. According to Godkin’s results, the Leadbury bat showed 20 per cent more strength and 30 per cent more flex.
Both desirable qualities in a bat, the discovery was a game-changer for him – and for the industry.
For the last century, wood bat manufacturing has remained relatively unchanged – wood is cut, sawed into billets and then dried in a kiln. That traditional process can leave moisture at the center of the lumber. In recent years, manufacturers have started experimenting with other methods.
“No one has reinvented the drying process in a long time. Typically, the process uses ambient heat, but I’m using a different process to do that. It’s not just a gimmicky new thing; it’s a big change to the manufacturing process,” he explained.
“My process allows the wood to dry much faster, more evenly and without as much damage to the grain structure of the wood. That results in a stronger bat with more flex – meaning more bat life and more performance. Those are the two main things you want in a bat.”
He continued, “That’s the big thing that I can offer to my customers – I’m a woodworking drying expert making baseball bats, rather than a baseball guy trying to learn the woodworking side of things as he goes along.”
Most bat companies outsource the drying process. But Godkin’s success hinges on his academic training and work expertise. He even pre-enrolled in his fourth-year thesis course last summer, beginning his research using the bats, and rolling that into his thesis, which will prove how his drying process is getting such solid results.
“Being able to have an Engineering thesis behind the bats is going to be a huge selling point for me,” he said.
His company’s name is a nod to Leadbury, Ont., a small farming and postal hamlet in Huron County at the intersection of Hullett-McKillop Road and County Road 12, just north of Seaforth. It is a mile down the road from where Godkin grew up and where the bats are manufactured.
All the wood for the bats – ash and maple – is also sourced from the Huron and Bruce region.
“Growing up in a small community, local business is a big factor. Supporting local is big. We have some of the best wood right here in our region,” he said.
The bats are quickly gaining in popularity. Last fall, the Western Mustangs baseball team used the bats, along with players at the Orlando Baseball Academy. London Majors outfielder Byron Reichstein used a Leadbury bat late last season and will go full-time with them when the Majors begin their season next month.
“To me, I knew it was coming from a good source. Western Engineering knows its stuff,” Reichstein said. “The bat also had a nice design and nice colour to it. When I picked it up, it didn’t feel like those stock off-the-shelf-type bats. I loved the feel of it and went to town.”
Should a major leaguer step up and want to use his bat, that is great, Godkin said. But right now, he is focused on becoming strong within the Ontario market.
“I’m going give the real ‘engineering answer’ here,” he said. “I don’t think I’m ready to have a major league player swing my bat yet. The major leagues gets you the exposure, but it doesn’t necessarily mean success.
“The nice thing about this business is I can scale it how I want to. I’ve been very careful about rolling out product slowly for any potential issues. My goal is to be the big player in the premium bat market in Ontario and the business can run with great profit selling say 5,000 bats a year. Anything over that is above and beyond.”
Godkin is wrapping up his third year in Engineering before starting a 16-month internship, during which he will be the production manager at Nostalgic Wood, now owned by his family. He plans to continue growing Leadbury Bat Co. After completing his fourth-year thesis, he’ll return in fall 2019 for his final year of studies.
“Engineering puts you in such a great position to do almost anything. You have the critical thinking skills, the knowledge base and the learning ethic,” he said. “It let’s you hop into any project and transfer your skills.”