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Sam Holman reinvented baseball with his new bat

What started as a friendly bet between two drinking buddies is making Ottawa a major league town.

One of the most popular bats in professional baseball is the SamBat made in Carleton Place.

For more than 150 years, baseball's traditions dictated that baseball bats were to be made out of American ash and nothing else, even though ash was known to splinter if hit too hard.

But because baseball is the most traditional of American sports, no one really tried to make a better bat, one that wouldn't explode on contact like ash, until 1996, when a stage hand and woodworker named Sam Holman made one out of maple and called it the SamBat.

Today, 26 years later, more than 80% of the bats used Major League Baseball (MLB) players are made of maple, either by SamBat, or because of it. The company makes 22,000 bats annually, many of them custom made for MLB players. Exports to the U.S, Italy, Australia, France and Japan account for annual revenues of more than $2-million annually. See their website www.sambat.com

It's an amazing evolution for the tiny company that began casually as a friendly wager between two friends in 1996, when Holman was having a beer at the Mayflower with Montreal Expos scout Bill Mackenzie, who complained he was tired of replacing the ash bats that fell apart after only a few hits. He challenged Holman to see if he could make a better bat.

The challenge of building a better baseball bat intrigued Holman. A carpenter from South Dakota, he liked working with wood and readily accepted the challenge.

“I knew I couldn't make a better ash bat, I had to look for another species of wood to make bats out of, something light and stronger than ash,” the now 77 year old Holman recalls over coffee. “I knew I had to find a better material.”

With that, he converted his garage into a makeshift factory and rejigged a lathe to cut squares of wood into rounds for bats, trying various woods before settling on the rock maple wood that grew near his cottage.

Holman initially realized he was on to something big after slugger Fernando Tatis of the Ottawa Lynx knocked a pitch out of the park, some 410 feet, with Holman's prototype maple bat.

“It worked,” Holman says. “Once I knew the bat worked, I had to get going.”

Looking for an endorsement from MLB, Holman had a similar experience after inviting Toronto Blue Jays' Ed Sprague, Carlos Delgado and Joe Carter to try his new bat. According to legend, they all hit home runs.

“There was no looking back after that,” Holman says. “Joe loved the maple bat and took it with him to every team he played for, Baltimore and Arizona, telling his teammates about how good the SamBat was. He was the best bat salesman I ever had, and I never had to pay him.”

Word of Sam's maple bat spread through the league, eventually more than 150 players, including hitting champion Barry Bonds, signing on as clients. Today, maple bats are the industry standard, thanks to Sam Holman.

And it only took major league baseball 150 years to realize there might be a better bat.

“It's the perverse nature of tradition,” Holman concludes. “Major league baseball was not open to try anything new. It's a very traditional, conservative culture. They only changed when they were certain it – my maple bat - was better.”

In 2008, 63 and looking to retire, Holman sold most of the business with his partners Arlene and Jim Anderson and Paul Balharrie, while retaining a 23% share of the business. He continues to represent the company at shows and conventions mostly in the U.S., where he can visit family. He was active until a heart issue necessitated a quadruple bypass in November 2021.

“At this point, keeping a hand in the business is all about the glory,” he says. “It's given me a great life.”

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