Note: This story is from the September-October, 2016 issue of the Gypsy Journal.
The world of baseball was changed forever thanks to an enterprising German immigrant and his son. J. Frederick Hillerich and his family first settled in Baltimore, Maryland in 1842, and then moved to Louisville, Kentucky a few years later. He started a small woodworking shop in the Ohio River town. The business thrived and before long the shop employed twenty people.
Hillerich’s eldest son, John Andrew “Bud” Hillerich, was born in Louisville in 1866. When he was fourteen years old, Bud became an apprentice in his father’s shop, learning the woodworking trade. When he wasn’t working the boy loved playing baseball, so it seemed only natural that he would make his own baseball bats at the shop. When his friends and teammates saw how well crafted the bats were they all wanted one, and a new product was born. A product that would become famous with sports fans around the world as the Louisville Slugger.
Bud Hillerich became a partner with his father in 1897, and the name of the firm was changed to J.F. Hillerich and Son. But while they were now partners, Bud’s father wanted nothing to do with making baseball bats. His business was built on making roller skids, bed posts, bowling pins, wooden bowling balls and a very popular, patented, swinging butter churn.
Undaunted by his father’s lack of interest, Bud Hillerich continued to improve the manufacturing processes of the new bat business, inventing a centering device for a lathe and an automatic sander, and to his father’s surprise, their baseball bat business began to grow far beyond his expectations.
Company legend says that the first professional baseball bat was made by Bud for Pete Browning in 1884. Browning, known as “The Louisville Slugger” for his tremendous hitting power, was a star on Louisville’s professional American Association team, the Eclipse. As the story goes, seventeen year old Bud watched Browning break his favorite bat during a game. A big fan of the player, Bud offered to make him a custom bat. In the next game, using the new bat, Browning got three hits with it and the company was off and running.
In 1905, Honus “The Flying Dutchman” Wagner, a superstar for the Pittsburgh Pirates, signed a contract as the first player ever to endorse a bat. His autograph was also the first to be used on a bat and the first time a professional athlete endorsed an athletic product.
The success of the Louisville Slugger bat was due in part to the fact that amateur baseball players across the country could purchase the bat model of their favorite big-league player. In 1915, the Louisville Slugger first appeared in a youth-size model. By the early 1920s, the company was producing one million bats a year.
Along with making baseball and softball bats for the troops during World War II, the company also produced M-1 carbine stocks, tank pins, and billy clubs for the military.
Always aware of changes in the sport and the industry, in 1970 the company began producing aluminum bats. These days Louisville Slugger aluminum and composite bats are available in adult baseball, youth baseball, and softball models. The TPX and TPS brands are the top selling models in the business. The first line of Louisville Slugger baseball and softball gloves was introduced in 1975.
Bud Hillerich died in 1946, but the company remains a family business. Today his great-grandson, John A. Hillerich IV, serves as CEO and President. And the tradition continues. Professional baseball players still have their bats custom made at the company’s wood bat manufacturing facility, not far from where the very first bats were made by Bud Hillerich way back in the 1800’s.
Visitors can tour the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, housed with the corporate headquarters in downtown Louisville. The location is easy to find, just look for the World’s Biggest Baseball Bat leaning against the side of the building. And it is indeed big! The steel bat weighs 68,000 pounds and is 120 feet tall. It is an exact-scale replica of Babe Ruth’s 34 inch Louisville Slugger bat. The bat’s hollow interior has a 30,000 gallon capacity.
Inside the museum, guests can see exhibits that include Bud’s Batting Cage, named in honor of Bud Hillerich, who made the first Louisville Slugger. Batters are invited to take a swing or two with replica bats of legends like Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, along with current superstars.
In the Grand Slam Gallery, visitors can hold Louisville Slugger bats that were actually used by some of baseball’s greatest hitters, past and present, including Mickey Mantle, Cal Ripken Jr, David Ortiz and Johnny Bench. Displayed here is the Louisville Slugger that superstar player Babe Ruth carved notches in for every home run he hit with it during his record setting 60 home run season in 1927.
The Signature Wall displays thousands of signatures that have been burned into Louisville Slugger bats. Located in the front lobby, this impressive collection of familiar and not-so-familiar names and signatures includes many baseball legends and heroes.
In Gallery 125, lifelike sculptures of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Ken Griffey Jr, and Derek Jeter greet visitors. Here you can also see the Louisville Slugger bat used by Joe DiMaggio to set his 56 game hitting streak record.
Company and baseball memorabilia is on display in Grandpa Bud’s Attic.
Be sure to take a guided tour through the factory where Louisville Slugger bats are made. You will learn every step in the manufacturing process, and after the tour, you will receive a free miniature Louisville Slugger bat.
Guided factory tours are held every twenty minutes to an hour, depending on the season. The last factory tour of the day departs a half hour before closing. Factory tours last approximately thirty minutes. Visitors should allow at least two hours for the entire museum and factory experience.
The museum and factory are handicap accessible, with open-captioning and listening devices available in the theater. The regular tour does include some steps, but a handicap accessible door allows this area to be bypassed. Be aware that there is some dust and noise in the factory.
A museum store offers souvenirs, apparel, and personalized baseball bats for sale.
The Louisville Slugger Museum and personalized bat store are open Monday – Saturday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. They are located in downtown Louisville at 800 West Main Street. Admission is $14 for adults, $13 for seniors (age 60+), and $13 for kids ages 6-12. Children age 5 and under are free.
Parking is available for automobiles in a city garage directly behind the museum, and some street parking is available. Traffic conditions and parking for larger vehicles is difficult in the downtown area. For more information, call (877) 775-8443 or visit their website at http://sluggermuseum.com/.
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Congratulations Jennifer Wiltrout, winner of our drawing for an audiobook of Birdsongs, the first book in my friend Jason Deas’ excellent Benny James mystery series. We had 56 entries this time around. Stay tuned, a new contest starts soon.
Thought For The Day – I’m flattered you actually think I can afford the things on your holiday wish list.