On May 1, 1985, Cincinnati Reds slugger Dave Parker was struggling with no home runs, five runs batted in and a .280 batting average–an inauspicious start for the man who would later emerge as a top contender for the National League’s Most Valuable Player award.
Enter Bill Dirksing, manufacturer and co-inventor of an adjustable-weight warm-up bat.
Dirksing had taken an early model of his warm-up bat to Reds trainer Larry Starr the day before, hoping for some feedback from the pros. Sitting in the stands and looking into the dugout through binoculars, his surprise at seeing his bat laid out with the others turned to elation when Parker carried it onto the on-deck circle to warm up.
The rest is baseball history.
With Dirksing’s bat in tow, Parker was named NL Player of the Month in May, finished among the league leaders in hitting, home runs and RBIs and placed second to Willie McGee in 1985 MVP balloting.
Although Parker could not be reached for his opinion, Dirksing, not surprisingly, likes to think his bat played a part in Parker’s stellar performance. Moreover, he’d like to build on that success in 1986, and turn it into profit for himself and the company he formed to make and market his Brutus warm-up bats.
By day, Dirksing, 39, is a packaging machine designer at The Procter & Gamble Co.’s Winton Hill Technical Center. By night and on weekends, he’s president and sole owner of Dirx Co., an Ohio corporation set up last August.
Dirksing plans to recoup his initial $10,000 investment this year, making and selling 1,500 bats in two styles, Brutus Maximus and a lighter-weight Brutus Bumpus.
What makes the mens slowpitch softball bats unique, and is the basis of a patent application now pending with the U.S. Patent Office, is an adjustable weight that can be screwed up and down the bat shaft, varying the resistance and effective weight of the bats.
Parker used Dirksing’s bat all last year, with the aforementioned results. Other major league players, including former Red Ken Griffey, now with the New York Yankees but still a Cincinnati resident, have requested and obtained bats from Dirksing.
In addition, Dirksing plans to travel to Florida next month and visit all the major league clubs training there. He’d like to see at least one or two of his bats with every major league team for the 1986 season.
Nevertheless, while professional acceptance and exposure is valuable, at $49.95 a bat, Dirksing knows he won’t get rich selling to major league clubs. His primary target market is the thousands of softball teams all over the country, some 3,000 of which are right here in the Greater Cincinnati area.
While on a recent trip to the East Coast to get approval from a national softball sanctioning body, Dirksing said he talked with a representative from the largest softball bat maker in the nation. The official estimated there are 40 million softball players in the United States, Dirksing said.
In order to begin tapping that market, Dirksing is finalizing a one-year marketing agreement with a local sales organization to sell the bats throughout a five-state area, including Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and West Virginia.
With some 50 bats already either given away or sold so far, Dirksing has purchased materials for 500 bats and has plans for another 1,000 when those are completed. All the components and finishing are purchased from local vendors. The bats are assembled by Dirksing and his two sons in their 12-by-28 garage in Mount Airy, with a drill press and an air compressor.
At this point, Dirksing is unsure where his venture will go after this year. He’s done some advertising in a local softball publication, but doesn’t have any present plans for wider distribution just yet; mainly because he can’t produce any more.
Though he wouldn’t release for publication what it costs him to produce each bat, Dirksing indicated his margin will increase as sales climb and he seeks new bids for larger quantities from his suppliers. As things stand now, he should get back all his out-of-pocket expenses this year, excluding the labor he and his sons have invested, Dirksing said.
Eventually, he may decide to let someone else manufacture the bats for him or sell the patent rights, he said.
Dirksing filed a patent application last April while the product was still in its early stages of development. His son John, who first came up with the idea, and brother Jack are also included on the patent application.
Working with a local patent attorney, who did not wish to be identified, Dirksing drafted a claim that covers not only the present model, but also other innovations which may be incorporated into the bat later, he said. He would not elaborate on those, pending his patent approval.
Dirksing’s patent lawyer expressed confidence that the variable-weight bat is sufficiently different from prior bats that a patent will be granted within a year or so.
The patent office could deny the application on the grounds that Dirksing’s bat is not novel or was obvious in light of existing products, but he doesn’t expect that to happen, he said.
The lawyer said although patent litigation can be very expensive, recent developments in patent law have been favorable in upholding patent rights. Also, it is not prohibitively expensive to obtain an injunction to prevent patent infringement, he said.
A valid patent also would put Dirksing in a much stronger bargaining position if he ever decides to sell the rights to a large sporting goods manufacturer, he said, since they are usually not interested in products with questionable legal standing.
Patent lawyer Peter J. Manso, with the Wood Herron & Evans law firm in Cincinnati, said the strength of a patent claim depends on how extensively an applicant searches prior developments and how broad he drafts his claim.
If an exhaustive search fails to turn up any comparable products, Manso said, then an inventor can have a very strong claim, giving him the right to exclude all others from making, using or selling the product for 17 years.
The only way someone could get around it, he said, would be to design around the existing patent or have the patent invalidated by showing that it was improperly issued, he said.
Blatant disregard for an existing patent is rare, he said, because courts can now impose treble damages for willful and wanton infringement.