Baseball is called America's National Pastime, and Louisville Slugger is the name of the most famous and popular wooden bat employed by professional ballplayers to smash singles, bash doubles, belt triples, and pound home runs in a ballpark.
The roots of the Louisville Slugger date to 1884 and involve John A. "Bud" Hillerich (1866–1946). Hillerich's father operated a woodworking shop that produced bedposts, bowling pins, handrails, and ornaments. At the time, most ballplayers whittled their own bats and often owned only one. The story goes that Hall-of-Famer-to-be Pete Browning (1861–1905), playing for the Louisville Eclipse of the American Association (the forerunner of the National League), broke his bat during a game. Additionally, he was in the middle of a batting slump. Young Hillerich, who was just eighteen at the time, happened to be at the game and offered to produce a bat for Browning. The ballplayer agreed, and Hillerich spun one out of white ash, to Browning's specifications. The following day Browning busted out of his slump, getting three hits in three times at bat, and requested that Hillerich produce additional bats. Soon other ballplayers began ordering Hillerich's product. At first, they were known as Fall City Sluggers, but in 1894 Hillerich copyrighted the name Louisville Slugger, which was imprinted in an oval on every bat. Each ballplayer's signature also was burned into each bat, allowing him to keep track of his lumber.
In 1905, another future Cooperstown inductee, Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop Honus Wagner (1874–1955), became the first professional athlete to earn endorsement money for allowing his name to be linked to a product when he signed a contract with Hillerich that resulted in bats with his name burned into them to be sold in stores. Ten years later, the Hillerich factory was destroyed in a fire. During the rebuilding process, Frank W. Bradsby (1878–1937), a former buyer of athletic equipment, was hired to market the bats. In 1916, the company name became Hillerich & Bradsby (H&B).
To this day, H&B still produces bats for major leaguers, designed to the specifications of each ballplayer. The history of the company—and the history of its baseball bats—is chronicled in the Louisville Slugger Museum. Located in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, visitors to the museum can observe actual bat production. Despite the present-day use of aluminum bats by schools and Little Leagues, H&B produces hundreds of thousands of wooden bats per year. The company also produces approximately seventy-two bats per season for each major leaguer.
For More Information
Arnow, Jan. Louisville Slugger: The Making of a Baseball Bat. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.