Play Ball! The History of Louisville Slugger
Travel down Main Street in Louisville and you’ll see any number of interesting sights. Perhaps the most eye-catching is the 120 foot tall, 68,000 pound steel baseball bat that extends into the sky outside of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory. The behemoth structure is the largest baseball bat in the world and an exact scale replica of the 34 inch bat that Babe Ruth used when he played. While this is what gets most people’s attention, the history of the Louisville Slugger brand is what keeps people coming through the doors of their factory and museum all these years later.
Let’s start our story back in a small woodworking shop in Louisville in 1856. J. Frederick Hillerich, an immigrant from Germany, began his small business turning out a variety of products after moving to Louisville. Over time Hillerich’s shop began to thrive, employing around 20 people, and by 1880 Hillerich’s oldest son, John, or Bud as he was known, began an apprenticeship in the shop. Bud began to use his new skills to his advantage. He not only was a woodworker but was also an amateur baseball player and began to make bats for himself and his teammates which allowed him to really hone his craft. He and his pals also would take in games of the Louisville Major League team, the Eclipse, led by star Pete Browning, or as he was known by fans “The Louisville Slugger.” On one such occasion Bud went to check out a game and saw Browning break his bat. Being an enterprising 17 year old, Bud offered to make a new bat for Browning to replace the broken one. Browning accepted and in the first game he played with the new bat had three hits.
While Bud was happy to make these baseball bats, his father was not as keen. He felt that the real money to be had in the woodworking game was with his patented swinging butter churn, not baseball bats. Bud, however, would not be deterred and continued working on bats and even created some patented processes to make bats. As the bat business grew the Hillerichs registered a trademark for their product in 1894: “Louisville Slugger.” Bud joined his father as a partner in the woodworking business three years later in 1897 and they continued to turn the bats out.
Shortly after the turn of the century the Louisville Slugger brand got the first ever athlete endorsement for an athletic product by Honus Wagner, an eventual Hall of Famer, who was paid to feature his signature on a bat. Since this historic endorsement Louisville Slugger bats have carried the signatures of many iconic pros over the years including Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Henry Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr., Roberto Clemente, and Derek Jeter to name a few.
While the Hillerichs knew how to make very good baseball bats they were somewhat lacking in their marketing and sales experience. Lucky for them, a salesman for one of the largest buyers the Hillerichs had, Frank Bradsby, joined their team in 1916 and became a named partner, leading to the parent company being renamed Hillerich & Bradsby Co. (H&B)
As many local businesses in Southern Indiana and Louisville did during the 1937 flood of the Ohio River, H&B had a great deal of damage done to their factory and the repairs took weeks to complete. However, they were lucky enough to have kept their business afloat (no pun intended) when others had to shutter. The 1940s also brought change to the company with the onset of WWII. As many manufacturers did during wartime, H&B began making various equipment for the armed forces as they did during WWI. This time, however, they employed women for the first time in company history. In addition to the military equipment they produced, H&B provided the troops with entertainment in the form of baseball and softball bats.
As baseball changed so did H&B. By 1970 the factory began to produce aluminum bats in addition to the wooden bats that they were known for. As they continued to grow more production space was needed which prompted a move of the factory across the Ohio River to Southern Indiana for 25 years. In 1996 bat production was moved back over to Main Street in Louisville, just a few blocks away from the original location of their factory, where it has stayed ever since. Advancements in the technology used in the production of bats today allow bat makers to turn out a bat every 50 seconds. However, some bats, such as those produced as souvenirs and for lower level players, are still made using customized lathes that created in Germany in the 1960s as the company has done for years.
Millions of people have visited the factory and museum to learn about the history of the Louisville Slugger bats and how the iconic bat is produced today. Renovations to the museum have recently been completed and include an expansion of their “Bat Vault” which allows visitors to enter and see original bat models, some of which are over 100 years old. Over the years H&B has stayed in the family and today is run by the great-grandson of Bud Hillerich, John Hillerich IV. While the Louisville Slugger brand has been sold to Wilson Sporting Goods H&B continues to turn out the bats everyday for every level of player. Be sure to visit the museum to see historic bats, the whole bat making process first-hand, and get a mini-bat of your own!
By: Hanna Gish