If baseball is America’s pastime, then the Louisville Slugger is America’s bat. What began as a slim piece of white ash in a small woodworking shop in Louisville, Kentucky, over 120 years ago has gradually morphed into an icon of Americana.
The titular bat got its start in the hands of young John A. “Bud” Hillerich. J.F. Hillerich, Bud’s father, was owner of the Hillerich woodworking business in the heart of Louisville. A German immigrant, J.F. Hillerich began his small yet successful business in 1855 with the quintessential hardwork, tenacity, and straightforward values common to nineteenth-century immigrants. When his son came of age, J.F. Hillerich hired Bud as an apprentice to his shop, with the intention of promoting him someday to take his place. But, like most teenagers, Bud was uninterested in his father’s craft and longed to pursue other personal passions—namely, baseball.
Bud was an amateur baseball player throughout his youth and spent his time in his father’s shop alternately dreaming of time on the mound or whittling away at baseball bats for himself and his friends to use when he could once more take to the field. As it turned out, Bud’s formative years spent shaping his own bats turned into an opportunity the likes of which he had never dreamed.
Legend has it that on one fateful, summer day in 1884, the weather was too sweet and the cheers too loud for Bud to resist; he abandoned his tools and stealthily sneaked out the back of the shop, then ran through the bustling streets of a younger Louisville to the field where the local major league team, the Louisville Eclipse, were playing. Bud watched as Louisville favorite Pete “The Old Gladiator” Browning stepped up to the plate, swung at a ball, and shattered his bat. In true Southern fashion, young Bud saw a problem he could fix and applied himself to the solution with generosity, selflessness, and good manners. Whether it was inspiration or sheer pluck, Bud decided to approach Browning after the game with a proposal. He offered to help Browning design a new, stronger, state-of-the-art bat in his father’s small shop. Surprisingly, Browning agreed.
Browning accompanied Bud to Hillerich’s mini-empire, and together they designed a bat that would make history. The two collaborated on a piece of white ash, which Browning used in a game the very next day to hit three balls. Word of Bud Hillerich’s bat travelled quickly through the local ranks of professional baseball players and it did not take them long to come knocking at the door of the Hillerich shop, begging for bats of their own.
Despite his son’s enthusiasm for crafting the new-fangled sports equipment, the senior Hillerich was none-too-pleased with the sudden abundance of business in the form of baseball players. J.F. Hillerich still firmly believed in the popularity of necessities and that the passing fad of baseball bats was just that—a fad that would soon evaporate and leave any business dependent upon it dry. Instead, J.F. Hillerich demanded his company—and his son—continue to produce integral, if mundane, household items that would perpetually be in demand. At one point the elder Hillerich even turned away baseball players, slamming a figurative door in the face of his very own legacy.
Bud, however, was not so easily dissuaded. His persistence in his insistence that there were profits to be made in the sports industry finally won over his father, and by 1890 the duo and their company began mass-producing the “Falls City Slugger,” distributing it through Simmon’s Hardware of St. Louis (bats hand-made for professional players were still shaped in their Louisville shop, just like Browning’s original bat). In 1894, the Hillerichs had the “Louisville Slugger” registered with the U.S. Patent Office, an ode not only to their hometown but to the original bat they produced for Pete Browning who, in addition to “The Old Gladiator,” also acquired the moniker “The Louisville Slugger” early in his career.
Bud’s trademark innovation continued to propel the company (renamed “J.F. Hillerich and Sons” with his promotion to partner in 1897) into the twentieth century. In 1905 Bud made another proposal to another famous baseball player that again made history. When Bud Hillerich asked Honus “The Flying Dutchman” Wagner for the use of his name on their now-famous Louisville Slugger bats, it was a move that came to influence the way customers shop for sports equipment for generations to come. The Hillerichs pioneered the sports marketing industry by recruiting (and paying) Wagner to be the first-ever professional athlete to endorse a product.
Through fire, flood, war, and death the Louisville Slugger and the Hillerich empire not only continue to exist—they thrive. Countless times the Louisville Slugger and its parent company have made history and changed the face of the sports industry. Since 1923 it has been the most popular baseball bat in the entire industry. The simply carved pieces of white ash passed through the hands of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Lou Gehrig, and modern Major League Baseball players still insist on using the timeless Louisville Slugger. All this thanks to a boy named Bud, his friend Pete “The Louisville Slugger” Browning, and a touch of good ol’ Southern generosity.