The Louisville Slugger Bat has logged more wins, captured more titles and set more records than any other brand of bat in the history of baseball. That’s quite a claim to fame, not to mention a reputation that is constantly challenged.
From a German immigrant named J. Frederick Hillerich and his simple woodworking shop came the baseball bat that would impact America’s favorite pastime in a way that nothing else ever has. This is the story of the American dream fulfilled by one man’s talented vision.
In 1842, J. Frederick Hillerich emigrated with his family from Baden-Baden, Germany, to the United States settling in Baltimore, Maryland. His arrival came eight years before the 1834 Book of Sports that was the nation’s first baseball publication. The sport was slowly seeping into the American spirit, but Hillerich never dreamed of the impact he and his family would have on America’s favorite pastime.
The family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1856 where J. Frederick set up his woodworking shop. By 1864, his shop was filling orders for any type of custom woodworking job imaginable; everything from balusters to bedposts. His operation was known as “J.F. Hillerich, Job Turning.” The first son, John Andrew “Bud” Hillerich was born in Louisville in 1866.
The family firm thrived and by 1875 some twenty people made a living by working for the little woodworking shop. In 1880, the bat was introduced via Bud who was an apprentice for his father. He was an amateur baseball player who made his own bats for both himself and his teammates. Although the story behind the very first bat made for a professional player remains a topic of debate, it is probable that Bud played a key role in what would become the product most closely associated with the family name.
According to company legend, the first bat was made for Pete Browning, a star of the team “Eclipse” back in 1884. After Bud witnessed his favorite player break his bat one spring afternoon, he offered to make him another and Browning accepted. The seventeen-year-old apprentice created a quality bat from white ash with which Browning scored three hits in the next game. Because he was known as “The Louisville Slugger,” the bat piggybacked on the name.
Baseball scholars have challenged the company’s version of the story over the years. Back in 1914, The Louisville Herald carried an article that included an interview with Bud himself. He stated that he had carved a ring into Browning’s bat to insure his hitting success, but that he did not actually make the first bat. Although he did not say so directly, it is believed that Bud’s father made the first bat and that Bud showed it to the players of his favorite team. They convinced the elder Hillerich to make more bats, which he agreed to do, but only on condition that the team make no future requests for bats!!
Despite the best-laid plans of mice and bat-makers, as word began to spread about the quality bats, other teams began sending in orders. The success of the growing bat company was further enhanced in 1905 when Honus “The Flying Dutchman” Wagner, a star for the Pittsburgh Pirates, signed a contract and became the first professional athlete in American history to endorse an athletic product.
Another story that often surfaces in regard to the origins of the very first Louisville Slugger bat was published in a 1937 interview for Baseball Magazine. The then 77-year-old Arlie Latham, a third baseman for the St. Louis Browns of the American Association, claimed that the first bat was made for him. He went on to say that he had broken a bat in Louisville in 1883 or 1884 and was unable to find another suitable one. He stopped into the Hillerich woodturning shop located near his hotel and asked J. Fred to have Bud turn a bat for him. A 1942 letter written by Bud Hillerich supports Latham’s tale, but this remains one of those things that experts continue to debate.
One thing is certain. The elder J. Fred had no desire to make bats. His business thrived on other products such as roller skids, bedposts, ten-pins, wooden bowling balls and a very popular, patented, swinging butter churn. Despite this, the baseball bat manufacturing process flourished and Bud improved the process by inventing a centering device for a lathe and an automatic sander. He and his father became partners in 1897 and the name of the firm was changed to J.F. Hillerich and Son.
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. In 1919, the company launched its first national advertising campaign and within four years was producing one million bats annually. J. Frederick Hillerich died in 1920 and his son, Bud, took over the business.
Despite expansion and changes in partners and company name and structure, corporate offices always remained in Louisville and The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, one of the city’s most popular attractions, is also housed within the corporate headquarters. It really can’t be missed as the world’s biggest baseball bat casually leans against the side of the building.
The museum offers the first public display of a Louisville Slugger bat used by Joe DiMaggio during his 56-game hitting streak of 1941 along with a special area where visitors can hold game-used bats from superstars both past and present. Highlights also include an updated factory tour where visitors can see how world-famous Louisville Slugger bats are made and an expanded display showcasing a Louisville Slugger bat used by Babe Ruth during his 60 home run season of 1927.
Come for a visit and be a part of 125 years of baseball history.
That’s a home run all by itself.
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