SARASOTA — Joe Tanner founded Tanner Tees after decades in baseball as a player and coach, but now he works for the grandsons who’ve taken over the family business.
At the age of 85, he stills punches in every day at a warehouse east of I-75.
Tanner hunches over his workbench on a small assembly line. He tapes his fingertips and dips his hands in baby powder to get a better grip on threaded steel pipe and rubber fittings.
Each batting tee takes him about 90 seconds — unless he stops to tell a story, make a joke or share a laugh.
Tanner has lived in Sarasota since the 1970s, when the Kansas City Royals opened a baseball academy at Twin Lakes Park, but his Mississippi accent remains thick as molasses.
“I’ve been all over the dad-gum world,” he says, laughing, “and people always ask me, ‘Where are you from?’”
Tanner started out making adjustable tees for his baseball camps and instructional leagues. Then other coaches and players asked for tees, too.
Soon he was making dozens of batting tees in his garage in Sarasota. Finally, he filed for patents and turned those tees into a business.
“It wasn’t that hard,” he drawls. “You just needed some kind of telescoping system that could move up and down. That’s all it was.”
His products, like all baseball tees, are like golf tees for giants. Their sole purpose is to hold a baseball up so batters can hit them to practice their swings. Tanner’s telescoping product adjusts for batters for different heights and so they can practice swinging at pitches of different heights.
Another unique aspect of the Tanner Tees is their rolled-up rubber material on which the baseball sits. It’s a material and design that can stand up to the heavy-duty abuse of being hit with a bat thousands of times.
Best sellers on Amazon
Today, Tanner Tees sells more than $1 million worth of equipment each year. Customers include batting cage companies and youth camps, along with players and parents.
The company’s products are listed atop the Best Sellers in their category on Amazon.com.
All Tanner Tees are assembled in Sarasota. Nine full-time employees work in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse at 1867 Barber Road, in the Eastern Industrial Park.
In the front office, there’s a counter with four batting tees on display. Behind that counter sits Marilyn Menard, the only woman in the place.
“I’m little, but I’m tough,” she jokes. “I have to be.”
Marilyn is Joe Tanner’s daughter. Her sons, Andy and A.J. Menard, bought Tanner Tees from their grandfather in 2012.
She loves the idea of her dad getting to work with her boys. She loves the idea of them building on what he started. She loves the idea of everyone watching his great-grandsons play baseball.
“If that isn’t cool,” she says, “then I don’t know what is.”
‘Best tee in the game’
Tanner is known for heavy-duty tees that weigh more and cost more than lighter and cheaper competitors. Models range from $80 to $115.
Baseball players all over the world train with batting tees. Little Leaguers use Tanner Tees. So do Major League players and coaches.
“They make a good product,” says Scott Coolbaugh, hitting coach for the Baltimore Orioles, who visits Sarasota each year for spring training. “They’ve been out there for years.”
Coaches and equipment managers may know different brands of tees, but many players never give them a second thought.
Phil Gosselin, an infielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, said he’s concentrating on technique when he enters a batting cage.
“I’ll hit off whatever they’ve got in there,” he says. “I’m not too picky.”
Other players are more appreciative. Scooter Gennett, who plays for the Milwaukee Brewers, grew up in Sarasota and signed a bat for Tanner Tees.
Above his signature, Gennett wrote, “Best Tees in the Game.”
A.J. Menard, the 37-year-old operations manager for Tanner Tees, is a former teacher at Sarasota Christian School. Andy Menard, the 34-year-old sales manager for Tanner Tees, is a former Army Green Beret.
“My brother and I, we’re neighbors, too,” A.J. Menard says. “We literally live next door to each another.”
At Tanner Tees, everyone pitches in during the busy season, which is right now.
When professional teams start spring training, everyone else follows. Tanner Tees is part of that picture.
“It’s cool to see major leaguers using your tees, but the important thing is that it trickles down to colleges, high schools and youth teams,” A.J. Menard says. “It’s a huge market and it’s very competitive.”
Small companies such as Tanner Tees now have competition from much bigger sports brands such as Easton and Rawlings. The family business strategy is to keep things simple and make good batting tees.
“We love what we’re doing,” A.J. Menard says. “The company’s growing and we want to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Flip phone and taped glasses
Joe Tanner played minor league baseball in the 1950s. Along the way, he earned a finance degree from the University of Texas and began working at brokerage firms in Dallas and San Antonio.
Then he heard about the new Royals academy in Florida. He decided to get back into baseball. He moved to Sarasota.
He never thought making tees would turn into a family company, but he knew a business opportunity when he saw it. Tanner Tees. Why not?
The family loves to joke about how Joe furnished his business with used stuff he found at garage sales. He hasn’t changed with time.
The lopsided chair at his workbench is a battered old thing, but he refuses to replace it. A piece of tape holds his glasses together. He carries an old Verizon flip phone.
“It’ll make a picture and everything,” he says, laughing. “It’ll do anything I need it to do.”
Joe and his wife, Jeannine, have never owned a computer. That’s one of the reasons his grandsons took over the business.
“It got too big for us to run,” Joe Tanner says. “She was ready to quit when I sold it to the boys.”
He didn’t quit, though. He kept going to work and building tees. While he works, he listens to religious programs on an old Sears transistor radio.
On a good day, he can make a couple of hundred batting tees.
Tanner has sore knees and an aching back, but he shrugs off those ailments. He has problems with his eyes — macular degeneration — but can see enough to work.
If he quit working, he doesn’t know what he’d do. He doesn’t like to take vacations. He’s certainly not going to play golf.
“If I swing anything,” Tanner jokes, “it’s gonna be a bat.”
Finding a tee should not be a problem.