This is the story behind the world-famous Louisville Slugger baseball bat, and the family-owned company that has created it since 1884.
J. Frederick Hillerich emigrated with his family from Baden-Baden, Germany to Baltimore, Maryland in 1842. The Hillerichs moved to Louisville in 1856, where J. Fred started a woodworking shop. By 1864 "J.F. Hillerich, Job Turning" was in business and filled orders for everything from balusters to bedposts. Hillerich’s eldest son, John Andrew "Bud" Hillerich, was born in Louisville in 1866.
The business thrived and by 1875 the little woodworking shop employed about 20 people. In 1880, Bud Hillerich, who was an amateur baseball player, became an apprentice in his father's shop. Young Bud made his own baseball bats along with bats for several of his teammates.
There is debate over the origins of the company's first bat for a professional player, but Bud most certainly played a key role in getting his father's business involved with what would become the company's signature item.
According to company legend, the first pro bat was turned by Bud for Pete Browning in 1884. Browning was a star on Louisville's professional American Association team–the Eclipse. On a spring afternoon Bud, then seventeen years old, witnessed Browning break his favorite bat. Bud offered to make a bat for his hero and Browning accepted. According to the story, after the young wood shop apprentice lathed a quality stick from white ash Browning got three hits with it in the next game. Because of his tremendous hitting power, Browning was known as "The Louisville Slugger" years before the Hillerich family trademarked the name for their bats.
Despite Bud’s passion for the product, his father wanted nothing to do with making bats. His business was built on making roller skids, bed posts, tenpins, wooden bowling balls and a very popular, patented, swinging butter churn. However, Bud Hillerich continued to improve the manufacturing processes of the new bat business, inventing a centering device for a lathe and an automatic sander. Their baseball bat business grew. The bat was first known as the Falls City Slugger, (a reference to Louisville's location at the Falls of the Ohio River), but the brand name was changed to Louisville Slugger and registered as a trademark in 1894. Bud Hillerich became a partner with his father in 1897 and the name of the firm was changed to J.F. Hillerich and Son.
The success of the growing bat company was further enhanced in 1905 when Honus "The Flying Dutchman" Wagner, a superstar shortstop 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.
In 1911, Frank Bradsby, a successful salesman for one of Hillerich's largest buyers, joined J.F. Hillerich and Son. He brought sales and marketing expertise and drive to the company. In 1916, he became a full partner, and the company name was changed, for the last time, to Hillerich & Bradsby Co. Seeking to diversify products, Bradsby propelled the firm into producing golf clubs, eventually creating the PowerBilt brand.
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 in just four years was producing one million bats a year. The success, however, was marred the next year by the death of J. Frederick Hillerich. His son, Bud, became the boss.
A disastrous flood along the Ohio River in 1937 did significant damage to one of the factories and some of the offices. Working almost nonstop for weeks to repair the factory, Frank Bradsby was worn down. His efforts during this ordeal are believed to have led to his death later that year.
Hillerich & Bradsby Co. served its country during World War II by producing M-1 carbine stocks, tank pins and billy clubs for the armed forces. It also continued to make baseball and softball bats for the troops. Bud Hillerich died in 1946 and his son Ward took over. But after only three years as president, Ward died in 1949. His brother, John A. Hillerich Jr., succeeded him.
In 1969, John Hillerich Jr. died and his son, John A. “Jack” Hillerich III, at 29 years old, was named company president.
In 1970, the company began producing aluminum bats. Louisville Slugger aluminum and composite bats, are available in adult baseball, youth baseball, and softball models. Today, the TPX and TPS brands are huge hits and are the top selling models in the business. The first line of Louisville Slugger baseball and softball gloves was introduced in 1975.
In 1996, Hillerich & Bradsby Co. moved into new headquarters at 800 West Main Street. Professional baseball players continue to have their bats custom made at the wood bat manufacturing facility, not far from where the very first bats were made back in the 1800's.
Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, one of the city's most popular attractions, is also housed with the corporate headquarters. The location is well-marked by the World's Biggest Baseball Bat that casually leans against the side of the building. Guests are invited to learn about the Official Bat of Major League Baseball–Louisville Slugger. Today, over 3-million people have enjoyed the museum and factory tour experience at this location.
John A. “Jack” Hillerich III retired as CEO and President in 2001 but remains as Chairman of the Board. His son, John A. Hillerich IV, succeeded him and currently serves as CEO and President. John is the great-grandson of Bud Hillerich, the baseball fan who introduced the family business to baseball back in the 1800's.