The authentic archival image above dates to 1892. See the guy in the doorway, holding a baseball bat? That’s Bud Hillerich. Like a typical teenager, he played hooky from his father’s woodworking shop one day when there was something else he preferred to do. That was the start of the Louisville Slugger baseball bat, and this is the story behind it.
German Woodworking Roots
In 1842, J. Frederick Hillerich emigrated with his family from Germany to Baltimore, Maryland. They 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 spindles to shutters to steamboat interiors. The 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, became an apprentice in his father's shop. Young Bud also played amateur baseball, and made his own baseball bats along with bats for several of his teammates.
There is debate over the origins of the carpentry shop’s first bat for a professional player, but Bud most certainly played the 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 created by 17-year-old Bud for Pete Browning in 1884. Browning was a megastar on Louisville's major league team, the Eclipse. One spring afternoon, Bud skipped out of work to watch the Eclipse play. He saw Browning break his bat and offered to make a new one at the woodworking shop. According to the story, in the next game Browning got three hits with the bat Bud made.
And, oh, Pete Browning’s nickname was, "The Louisville Slugger."
Bud was passionate about adding baseball bats to the family business, but his father wanted no part of that product. He didn’t like baseball and he didn’t think there was money to be made in baseball bats. J. Fred believed the future of the business was a very popular, patented, swinging butter churn.
However, Bud Hillerich continued to push for and improve the bat-making business, and even invented some patented processes.
The Hillerich’s baseball bat business grew. The name "Louisville Slugger" became their registered trademark in 1894, and Bud joined his father as a partner in 1897.
Enter The Flying Dutchman
The success of the growing bat company took another leap 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.
Serious Sales and Marketing
In 1911, Frank Bradsby, a successful salesman for one of the Hillerich's largest buyers, joined J.F. Hillerich and Son. The Hillerichs knew how to make great bats but lacked professional sales and marketing expertise and drive. That’s what Bradsby brought to the business. In 1916, he became a full partner, and the company name was changed for the last time to Hillerich & Bradsby Co.
A disastrous flood along the Ohio River in 1937 did significant damage to the business. Working almost nonstop for weeks to repair the factory, Frank Bradsby was worn down and died later that year. Bradsby had no heirs, but the Hillerich family has kept his name on the business as a tribute to his amazing contributions to the growth of the company.
After making equipment for the troops during World War I, Hillerich & Bradsby Co. served the country during World War II by producing M-1 carbine gunstocks, track pins for tanks, and billy clubs for the armed forces. H&B also continued to make baseball and softball bats for the troops. Like many industries, H&B’s WWII effort was the first time women worked in the factory.
After the war, baseball carried on as the country’s passionate pastime, and Louisville Slugger bats dominated as the stick of choice for the greatest players in the game. Since that first contract with Honus Wagner in 1905, generations of legends have swung Louisville slugger bats, including: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, George Brett, Ken Griffey Jr, and Derek Jeter.
H&B’s wood bat business branched out into aluminum bats in 1970, and moved its factory just over the Ohio River to Southern Indiana from 1970 to 1995 when more production room was needed. The corporate headquarters always remained in Louisville.
In 1996, Hillerich & Bradsby Co. moved into new headquarters at 800 West Main Street, about seven blocks from the carpentry shop pictured at the top of this history.
Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is one of the region’s most popular attractions. The world-famous facility is hard to miss, just look for The Big Bat, the world's largest baseball bat, delighting guests as they enter. To date, more than 4-million people have enjoyed the museum and factory tour experience at this location.
H&B’s current President and CEO, John A. Hillerich IV, is the great-grandson of Bud Hillerich, the baseball fan who introduced the family business to baseball back in the 1800s.
In 2015, Wilson Sporting Goods bought the Louisville Slugger brand from H&B, which still owns Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and the production facility. Exclusively for Wilson now, H&B continues to produce Louisville Slugger bats in Louisville, Kentucky, where the Hillerich family first arrived in 1856.