Louisville Slugger: the making of an American icon

“I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.”
– Babe Ruth

BY CHRIS REWERS
EDITOR

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Since Babe Ruth was bigger than life, the 129-foot, 68,000-pound Ruth model replica bat – the “Largest Bat in the World” – that is displayed next to the entrance of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is a fitting tribute to the legendary slugger.

The museum, which is located in downtown Louisville and celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, is a slice of Americana, a candid look at the manufacturing process of an iconic product, and a celebration of a batter’s essential tool.

In 2015, a record 314,149 attended the museum, making it one of Louisville’s most popular attractions.

The Hillerich Company, which remains family owned, opened as a woodworking shop in 1855. For much of its first three decades, the company specialized in manufacturing an array of products like bedposts, table legs, stair railings, porch columns, and butter churns.

All of that changed in July, 1884.
Photo of Pete Browning
John “Bud” Hillerich, the 17-year-old son of company founder J. Frederick Hillerich was an avid baseball player and fan who was a regular at Eclipse Park – the home of the American Association’s Louisville Eclipse. The younger Hillerich developed a friendship with Eclipse star Pete Browning (right) – AKA “The Louisville Slugger.” Browning, who was mired in a hitting slump, broke his bat one afternoon.

The broken bat was a traumatic event for the eccentric Browning, a three-time American Association batting champion. It’s likely that no hitter prior to Ted Williams obsessed over bats as much as Browning. The slugger, who liked to swing a mammoth club that was 37 inches long and weighed 48 ounces, named each of his bats – often times after biblical figures. He spoke to his bats and, believing each one only contained only a certain number of hits, retired them on a regular basis.

After the game, Bud Hillerich invited Browning to his father’s shop and handcrafted him a replacement bat to the slugger’s exact specifications. The next day, Browning collected three hits. His teammates immediately placed bat orders. The Louisville Slugger was born.

J.F. Hillerich didn’t see much of a future for his company in bats but his son was persistent. The reputation of the bats began to spread throughout baseball and a steady stream of visiting players continued to visit the shop and place orders. By the time Bud assumed leadership of the company in 1897, the Louisville Slugger was its primary product.

In 1905, eight-time National League batting champion Honus Wagner signed a first-of-its-kind exclusive endorsement deal with Louisville Slugger and by 1923, the company which by then was known as Hillerich and Bradsby, was the nation’s top-selling bat manufacturer.

Upon entrance to the museum, visitors are greeted by an impressive wall display featuring the autographs of thousands of players, past and present, who had their signatures burned into Louisville Sluggers – ranging from Wagner to present day stars like Joey Votto, Curtis Granderson, and Dustin Pedroia. According to the display, over 80 percent of batters elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame used Louisville Sluggers.

On display in the museum gallery are models of Ruth’s 42-ounce bat in which he carved notches for each of his 60 home runs in 1927; the 36-inch bat Joe DiMaggio swung during his famous 56-game hitting streak in 1941, a bat Williams used when he became the last man to hit over .400, in ’41; and the P72 model bat that was used throughout the Hall of Fame careers of legends like Robin Yount, Cal Ripken Jr., and Derek Jeter. There are life-size mannequins of Ruth, Williams, Jeter, and Jackie Robinson spread through the center of the room.

Visitors are given the opportunity to swing a Louisville Slugger themselves in on-site batting cages. Among the bats available for use are replicas of the models used by Browning, Ruth, Williams, and Mickey Mantle. The pitching machines can be geared to slower speeds for novices including children ages 6 and older or, for the courageous, can be jacked up to reach speeds up to 90 MPH.

But the main attraction is the 30-minute factory tour which gives guests a thorough demonstration of how more than 1.8 million bats a year are made. And it’s no demo. The sight of flying wood chips, the smell of sawdust and the sounds of machinery upon entry makes it clear that real work is being done.

Typically, the factory produces 3,000 full-sized bats per day. In peak production during spring training, about 5,000 bats are manufactured.
Our family’s tour last November, which concluded with the presentation of a souvenir mini bat to each visitor, included roughly a dozen people. Our guide, Larry, was friendly, informative, and paused regularly to answer our questions.

Larry gave us an overview of the company’s history and of the bat-making process. We then made several stops along the production line.
We were shown how bats were handcrafted prior to the computer age. A block of wood called a billet, which matched the weight and length of the model requested, was guided onto a lathe machine by a highly-skilled craftsman and carved into a bat. A model bat was placed on a rack above and behind the lathe. The craftsman then revolved the billet on the lathe, sanding and shaving it until it was an exact replica of the model.

Each bat was custom made to the exact specifications of each player. Ruth, for example, demanded that each of his bats include pin knots in the barrels. Williams would visit the factory each offseason to personally oversee the production of his bats.

The heaviest bat – 48 ounces – was ordered by Edd Roush, a Cincinnati Reds star a century ago. The lightest bats on record – 30 ounces – were ordered by 1950 AL batting champion Billy Goodman and 1975-76 NL MVP Joe Morgan. The longest bat – 38 inches – was brandished by 1920’s and 30s slugger Al Simmons. The shortest Louisville Slugger used by a big leaguer was owned by late 19th and early 20th century star Willie Keeler.

On our next stop on the line, we witnessed the branding process that goes into every Louisville Slugger. Each ash bat is branded with the familiar Louisville Slugger trademark – one-quarter of a turn from the sweet spot.

Each player’s model is also branded with his signature, taken directly from his endorsement contract. The sizzle of the branding process is audible and the smell of burning ash permeates the room.

On the harder maple bats, branding decals are applied.

After branding, some bats are dipped into a staining vat (including the pink models many major leaguers use on Mother’s Day) and all of the clubs are varnished. They are inspected. Bats that pass inspection are packed and shipped. Bats that don’t pass muster are repurposed for souvenir use.

Shavings from the bat production are sold to area farmers and are primarily used as livestock bedding.

We were then shown how contemporary bats are made. Williams pioneered and modern players like Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn popularized the theory that how heavy a bat was wasn’t as important as how fast a batter could swing it. Therefore today’s batters are lighter than ones that were used in the old days. Today’s players have more than 8,000 variations to choose from but they typically order from a list of approximately 300 popular models.

The bat specifications for each player contracted by Louisville Slugger are entered into a computer and with a touch of a button, bats are produced from billets. Players are shipped bats, usually in sets of 12, several times throughout the season and some players’ specifications change as the year progresses. Most players prefer a lighter bat later in the year as the hot summer months take their toll. A typical major league batter will order 120 bats during the course of a season.

A common specification of modern players is a cupped bat in which a portion of the top of the bat is carved out. This specification, according to our guide, was invented by Chicago Cubs outfielder Jose Cardenal during an MLB All-Star tour of Japan following the 1973 season and quickly caught on with other players. Cardenal’s model, the C271, remains the company’s most popular today.

Bats have traditionally been made from northern white ash cultivated from company owned forests – about 6,500 acres – in New York state and Pennsylvania, but surprisingly, roughly 80 percent of the bats used by current major leaguers under contract by Louisville Slugger use maple.

The maple bats, which were popularized by Barry Bonds, are a harder wood but tend to shatter easier than ash models. In the past, hickory was a popular wood for bats but today the material is deemed to be too heavy.

The featured product of the museum’s gift shop is the customized bat which must be pre-ordered. The shop also features an array of souvenir bats (world championship Cubs bats were a hot item during our visit), replica bats of legends like Ruth and Williams and of current stars like Granderson and Evan Longoria, and usual gift shop fare like postcards, T-shirts, and coffee mugs.

The museum is located at 800 W. Main Street in Louisville. Admission is $14 for adults, $13 for seniors 60 and older, $8 for children ages 6-12, and free for children 5 and younger. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.

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