In the Major League

In the Major League

The tongue-twister—Coopersburg and Cooperstown—the latter the New York home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, is a “pleasant misconception.” Or so says Scott Pino, owner of Coopersburg Sports, the modern incarnation of the nation’s oldest manufacturer of turned wood products, say baseball bats, on record.

Originally known as Coopersburg Handle Works, the business dates to 1791 and the Landis family, when the Upper Saucon Valley, largely Coopersburg, was the commercial center of the region.

Today, Coopersburg Sports in Center Valley is licensed by Major League Baseball to produce and supply each team and 200 of its minor league franchises with mini-bats and other souvenirs. It also provides premium high-end event products like the solid acrylic bat that’s awarded to the MLB MVP each year.

Also, Pino has rights to imprint the World Series logo on products when the champions are crowned. During the World Series, and thereafter, Coopersburg Sports sells thousands of commemorative full-sized bats with the champions’ logo and player signatures. These bats are nationally advertised during the games, and depending on the winning team and its location, can equal as much as 30 percent of annual revenue.

The business is expanding, too, into the collegiate market, producing similar items for college bookstores and retailers across the country, and also into trending products and accessories like phone wallets.

At its peak between 2001 and 2007, the company was producing nearly one million mini-bats,
mini-bat pens and mini-bat key chains and nearly $4 million in revenue a year. Well before that, and the advent of power tools, every hand tool made in America had a wooden handle that was likely turned in Lehigh County at Coopersburg Handle Works.

A railroad car tool, essentially a 7-foot handle, allowed one man behind the wheel of an 830-ton railroad car to move the locomotive one click at a time. During World War II, one lucrative governmental contract called for 300,000 folding foxhole shovel handles. By the 1950s, before licensing, billets were turned into bats for baseball’s Philadelphia Athletics, New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. Pino found that evidence in the form of brass team-logo dies while digging through a cigar box of sawdust. “It was an ‘Oh my God’ moment,” he says.

Players later enshrined in Cooperstown came to Coopersburg to select would-be bats from handle stock of hickory. Agricultural tool handles were made of ash. Each tool, or bat, began as a blank of wood, milled into billets, then was kiln dried before getting turned on an 1800s’ Klotz & Kromer lathe that hummed into the 1980s.

“Handles came off ugly with a rough neck that needed to be roll-sanded by hand on a sanding belt—brutal work,” says Pino, whose father, Anthony, bought the company that he’s saved and repurposed. “The final handle (of a shovel, clam fork or boat tiller, for example) was dipped in a lacquer tank, hung and polished, making it pristine enough to hang in a hardware store. But all these tools were eventually replaced: “We were doomed,” he says.

So a story of adaptation evolved for what’s still a family-owned company that’s survived two fires, a collapsed warehouse roof during a snowstorm, initial rejections for a MLB license, a 1994 MLB strike, the game’s steroids era, repeated bouts with its one-time leading opponent, Louisville Slugger, and a collapse in the nation’s economy, all to tell a success story that includes scoring a difficult-to-get Walmart vendor’s license and re-inventing itself after 9/11. That’s when Walmart asked Pino to make an exclusive American flag magnet by the tens of thousands.

“I didn’t want to benefit from tragedy,” he says. “But Walmart said people wanted the product, and felt emotional about it. We agreed, then set aside 10 percent of the profits for children of the police-fire and first-responders killed in 9/11. Man, did we make magnets.”

Then, in 2008 at the height of the economic downturn, when the company needed another rally, Scott’s daughter Jackie wrote to Marcus Lemonis, the once Lebonese orphan turned entrepreneurial genius and host of The Profit, the reality show that focuses on saving good companies in trouble. Lemonis may have paid extra attention to the application: Through his Florida automobile family’s good fortune, he’d befriended local kindred Lee Iacocca in Allentown. Whatever. It worked. Two episodes with Coopersburg Sports aired. Lemonis became Pino’s 50-50 partner for two years, changed a struggling seasonal-based business model and pushed for the diversification and expansion now in play.

In the end, Pino says, “Marcus chose us for who we were—the oldest manufacturer of wood products in the U.S.”

Lemonis insisted on moving the business to its present location in Center Valley, renting an empty warehouse and injecting $630,000 into retrofitting the rest of the building with offices and infrastructure to expand operations, all while Pino worried that 30 years of his life were on a lathe. Lemonis paid some debt, fixed production flow and suggested selling the old building in Coopersburg, which Pino did. Then, their relationship deteriorated before parting amicably—and not without gratefulness on Pino’s part. “He saved us,” he says, though he and his wife Wendy are now looking for a new investor.

It’s never been easy. Pino was a 20-year-old college senior when his father thrust him into the handle business. He liked sales, knocking on doors and people. It helped. Early, when the company was really in trouble, Pino began calling every remaining old-time hardware store he could. Soon, company sales jumped from $180,000 to $600,000, then $700,000.

Then, he hit the home run—finding the brass baseball team patterns. The old-timers told him turning bats “was a side thing.” Well, in 1990 he sold the handle works portion of the business to a Bethlehem Steel retiree, who moved it to Bethlehem before it soon folded. In 1991, after multiple rejections and he and his father’s correspondingly persistent response, Pino acquired the MLB license, and mini baseball bats became their primary focus. Within three years, he’d virtually eliminated all competitors.

During the MLB strike in 1994, when there was no World Series, the company fielded angry phone calls “as if it was our fault,” Pino says. Customers returned so much merchandise he needed to rent a walk-in container to store it all. Then, USA Today called for an interview about how the strike was affecting licensees. The photo-op captured Pino climbing boxes of returned product. It became the cover of the Money section. MLB’s phone call followed, asking, “What did you tell them?”

Coopersburg Sports hasn’t completely solved its seasonal, or diversification, problem, but whenever you see the tagline Coopersburg Sports, it’s a Pino innovation like the recent introduction of a home wood products line that he calls Home-Gaiting (like tailgaiting) with an increasing number of usable novelties, say bamboo coasters, unlike those only a diehard fan would buy like a mini-bat.

“You can’t hit with any of our products,” Pino says. “They’re all souvenirs. We buy trophy grade wood, grades the players won’t use. We take the stuff they call ‘junk,’ but make novelties—something everyone else hangs on a wall.”

COOPERSBURG SPORTS
2600 E SAUCON VALLEY RD
SUITE A
CENTER VALLEY
COOPERSBURGSPORTS.COM

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