Jack Barnes and I were sitting on his front porch in Hiram, enjoying some of Diane's freshly made muffins. "I treasured my R. G. Johnson baseball bat," Barnes told me. "Coach Johnson had custom made it for me in his work shop. After I graduated from Standish High School in 1945 I carried it with me on the train when I went to college in Dickinson, North Dakota. It never left my sight," he remembered.
"I was at bat for my team and hit a clean single to right field, but as I hit the ball it broke my Johnson bat into two pieces. My teammates were hollering at me to 'run, run!' but I just stood there at home plate staring at my bat!"
"By the time I snapped out of it and ran for first base they threw me out," Barnes said. "I don't remember if we won the game or not. But the memory of breaking my Johnson bat is as fresh today as it was nearly 60 years ago."
Rupert "Rupe" G. Johnson (1902 - 1974) was Barnes' beloved teacher and coach at Standish High School when it was located at Standish Lake Station (the building is now the home of the Schoolhouse Players). Johnson was principal there from 1925 until Standish joined SAD6 and moved the high school to Bonny Eagle. He continued as a Bonny Eagle high school teacher and athletic director until his retirement in 1965.
Principal Johnson started making baseball bats as a hobby when he lived in Brownfield. As the coach of the boys' baseball team at Standish High School he made bats for his team, while he inspired his boys to play top-notch ball and stretched their capabilities. His boys worshipped him and would do anything for him. The combination of his coaching and his bats was effective, and his team consistently won the Triple C championship (now the Western Maine Conference). During Johnson's tenure Standish won 384 games and lost only 90, a phenomenal .810 record that has never been equaled since in Maine high school competition.
Barnes was the captain of the team in 1945 when they were Triple C Champions, and played four years on the varsity team. He told me that Coach Johnson was known as the "Grand Old Man" of sports in Maine and is regarded as the father of schoolboy baseball in Maine. He also was a scout for the Milwaukee Braves and other professional teams. Johnson was voted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame in 1978 and a custom Johnson bat is at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. <
"In the same way that 'Rupe' could turn a raw piece of wood into a polished bat, he could turn a raw farm boy into a skilled baseball player," Barnes said.
Barnes was not alone in his respect and admiration for Johnson. Everyone whom I spoke with had similar words of praise about his skills as an educator, coach, and role model. They remember how he would buy baseball shoes and other equipment for his players if they needed them. And they remember his custom baseball bats.
I probably would never have learned about Johnson and his baseball bats had it not been for an e-mail I received from Utica, NY in May. "Does anyone remember a baseball bat factory in Sebago named R.G. Johnson?" asked Steve Klodnicki. He had a story about an old baseball bat he found in a hidden space in the attic of his house.
"One day as I was cleaning an upstairs bedroom closet, I noticed a piece of plaster board screwed onto the closet wall…When I removed the plaster board it revealed an entrance into another part of the attic." There he found an "R. G. Johnson baseball bat. And all around the bat on the floor [were] old Topps baseball cards."
He sent me several pictures of the bat with the label "R. G. Johnson, Sebago Lake, Maine" prominently embossed in the wood. It is a size 34 bat, made of birch, and stamped with the name "Hornsby". The bat is cracked in the thin handle part, the sort of break a ballplayer might get when they hit an inside pitch, but was important enough to its owners to be saved and hidden away. Klodnicki did a little research on the former owners of his house, and found that they were big baseball fans. He wonders if Rogers Hornsby (1896-1963), the famous shortstop and second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, might have owned this bat.
Klodnicki aroused my curiosity, and I told him I'd see what I could find out about his bat. I first asked my neighbors, and they remembered that someone used to make baseball bats in Sebago Lake Station. The small building still stands on the side of Route 35 just east of the junction with Route 114, but bats haven't been made there since 1978. In one of Barnes' books, Sebago Lake Western Shore, I found a picture of Johnson and his championship Triple C baseball team. That led me to interviews with Barnes, with Johnson's daughter Janet, and Johnson's grandson Robert Logan.
Logan continues his grandfather's legacy and turns out custom R. G. Johnson bats in his Denmark woodshop, using the same lathe and special tools that his grandfather had used. He confirmed what Barnes had told me about "Rupe".
"My grandfather started turning baseball bats at his home in Brownfield in 1927 for fun, and supplied his baseball teams when he was principal at Standish High School," Logan said. "His custom bats were much sought after by professional ball players for their craftsmanship. When his home in Brownfield burned to the ground in 1947 the only things he rescued were this lathe and his tools he used to make bats. He then set up shop in the little building by the high school and made bats there."
"I started helping my grandfather and his good friend, Ed Woodbrey at the shop when I was just a little kid. I remember that leather belts drove all the machines, and everything was a whirr of pulleys and belts moving whenever they turned out bats. Over the years my grandfather let me do more and more of the work. My first order was four dozen bats for my own USM baseball team," Logan said. "From there, I just sort of took the business over, and after he died I moved everything back here to Denmark in 1978."
At his workshop Logan showed me the lathe and equipment where blanks of wood are turned into baseball bats. He uses only knot-free white ash, rock maple and yellow birch, cut from trees individually selected in Maine and New Hampshire. Trees are sawn into 3"x 3" blocks 40" long and air dried for a year. The blocks are then turned into round billets by his son Michael in Fryeburg and air-dried for another year before the billets with the clearest grain wood are turned into custom bats.
"I've replaced the belt-driven system with electric motors, but everything else is original," he said as he showed me how a wooden billet is turned into a finished bat using a model bat as a guide.
Logan burns the "R. G. Johnson" label into every bat. When they were first made "Brownfield, Maine" was also burned in. Later it was "Sebago Lake, Maine", and now it is "Denmark, Maine". Bats are sanded and receive a coat of lacquer and then two coats of polyurethane.
On the wall was a box of metal nameplates, including a "Hornsby" plate. Logan explained that there are 71 different bat models, each one patterned after a favorite bat used by a big league player. These plates are used to burn the name of the model into the bat. I showed Logan the photos of the old Johnson bat from Utica, NY. "This bat is stamped with the name "Hornsby"," I said, "after Rogers Hornsby?"
"Yes, you are right. But it doesn't mean that this particular bat was ever owned or used by Hornsby."
"So this bat isn't famous?"
"Well, it's a Johnson bat," he said. "Isn't that famous enough?"
Johnson bats are made in different lengths and weights, and Logan makes custom bats on special order. Because of their fine craftsmanship and quality wood, major league players, serious amateur ball players, and school teams alike seek Johnson bats. He and his wife ship them around the world from his Denmark workshop, and from the R. G. Johnson sporting goods store run by his son Bob in Bridgton. FMI contact the R. G. Johnson Company at (207) 452-2770.
I wrote back to Mr. Klodnicki with the story of the R. G. Johnson - Sebago Bat Company. "I hope it has answered some questions for you. Hold onto the bat, you have a wonderful piece of history there."
This article was edited and published in the Neighbors Section of the Portland Press Herald on July 22, 2004 under the title "Secret attic room begins quest for Sebago bat factory".
Last updated August 24, 2004
Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree