The Story Behind Our Famous Baseball Bats
“One of the greatest sports museums in the world.” - forbes.com
From Butter Churns to Baseball Bats
History in the Making
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, one day, when there was something else he preferred to do, he played hooky from his father’s woodworking shop. That was the start of the Louisville Slugger baseball bat — and this is that tale: the story behind it.
German Woodworking Roots
In 1842, J. Frederick Hillerich (above, second from the left) 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, filling orders for everything from spindles and shutters to steamboat interiors. The eldest son, John Andrew "Bud" Hillerich (pictured left), was born in Louisville in 1866.
“The Louisville Slugger”
The business was thriving. 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 some debate over the origin story — what set in motion the carpentry shop’s first bat for a professional player. Here, Bud played a key role: 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 (pictured right) in 1884. Browning, megastar on Louisville's major league team, the Eclipse, found himself in the middle of a slump one spring afternoon. On that day, Bud skipped out of work to watch the Eclipse play.
After that game, Browning, having heard about Bud’s craftmanship, asked Bud to make him a new bat. According to the story, by the next game, Browning scored three hits with the very bat Bud made.
It feels fitting that Pete Browning became known for his nickname: "The Louisville Slugger."
Diving into the Baseball Bat Business
While Bud was passionate about adding baseball bats to the family business, 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 (pictured left).
However, Bud Hillerich continued to push for and improve the bat-making business; even going on to invent some patented processes.
The Hillerichs' baseball bat business began to grow. In 1894, the name "Louisville Slugger" became their registered trademark; and by 1897, Bud joined his father as a partner.
Enter The Flying Dutchman
The success of the growing bat company took another leap in 1905 when Honus "The Flying Dutchman" Wagner (pictured right), 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 ever endorsed an athletic product.
Serious Sales and Marketing
In 1911, Frank Bradsby (pictured left), 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. That's where Bradsby came in, bringing transformative drive to the business. In 1916, he became a full partner, and the company name changed for the last time to Hillerich & Bradsby Co.
A disastrous flood along the Ohio River in 1937 hit the business with significant damage. Working almost nonstop for weeks to repair the factory, Frank Bradsby died later that year, devoting his life to save the business. Though Bradsby had no heirs, the Hillerich family has kept his name as a tribute, honoring 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 efforts marked the first time women worked in the factory.
After the war, baseball carried on as the country’s passionate pastime, where 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, moving its factory just over the Ohio River to Southern Indiana from 1970 to 1995 (when more production room was needed). However, throughout every evolution of the business, the corporate headquarters has 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, captivating each guest as they enter the building. To date, more than four million people have enjoyed our museum and factory tour experience at this very location.
H&B’s current President and CEO, John A. Hillerich IV, is the great-grandson of Bud Hillerich: the baseball fan who introduced baseball to the family business 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.