Batter up! Hillerich made sluggers for sluggers

Few baseball fans would argue but that there is a certain fresh smell about a new baseball – sort of a clean, earthy smell. But without that piece of lumber called a bat, the ball would be no more to the game than a meaningless sphere orbiting through the air as it is tossed from one person to another.

Joe DiMaggio Louisville Slugger
This Louisville Slugger K55 model bad has been signed by DiMaggio on the barrel below the words “Louisville Slugger.” It’s a strong DiMaggio signature in blue Sharpie and has been authenticated by JSA. It sold for $1,287, inclusive of 17 percent buyer’s premium, in the inaugural auction.
Courtesy Auctions.

In 1839, Abner Graves watched his Cooperstown friend Abner Doubleday use a stick to mark out a diamond-shaped field in the dirt and explained the rules of a new game he invented named baseball. History recognizes Abner Doubleday as the father of baseball, and Abner Graves as creator of the first stitched baseball.

But who made the first baseball bat, and who gave it its present shape? Who first saw the great power inherent in the timber, and foresaw the thrilling clear, sharp sound of bat meeting ball? And why has the stamp “The Louisville Slugger” been applied to bats for so many years?

Back in 1884 John “Bud” Hillerich, an apprentice in his dad’s wood turning shop, prolonged his lunch hour to watch his favorite local team, the Louisville Eclipses. Pete “Old Gladiator” Browning, the slugger of the Eclipses, broke his favorite bat that day, and Bud watched them frantically trying to nail the broken bat together. After the game, Bud invited Browning to his dad’s shop where he could create a replacement.

Selecting a sturdy ash timber, he worked in on a lathe and shaped it into a bat. Browning took a few swings with the bat and advised him to take “a little off here and a little off there.” At last Browning pronounced it “just right” and the next day he went three for three.

Browning’s bat became history’s first custom-made bat and the Hilleriches were in the bat business. But the elder Hillerich, who had no time for baseball, could not be convinced. “I won’t allow some shim to get the best of my business judgment,” he roared. “There’s no future in supplying an article for a mere game.”

In spite of the grumblings of the “old man,” Bud stuck with bats, and when more and more minor and major league players demanded those Louisville Sluggers that Bud turned out after business hours, Hillerich Sr. became convinced. He agreed to open a shop devoted entirely to bat making. Soon the company’s famous trademark “Louisville Slugger” would be branded on each bat along with the name of the players using the bat.

In 1905, Honus Wagner signed a contract for his autograph to be used on Louisville Slugger bats for public sale, this beginning a new standard of endorsement advertising.

Many of the game’s greatest players have signed with Hillerich & Bradsby and have swung Louisville Sluggers during their Hall of Fame careers. These greats include Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Hank Aaron and Johnny Bench. Today, Hillerich & Bradsby makes 1.5 million bats a year.

Early baseball bats were veritable wagon tongues. Pete Browning’s bat weighed 50 ounces. Pop Anson’s bat weighed 48 ounces, the same as Rogers Hornsby’s bat. Frank Baker swung a bat weighing 52 ounces!

Then bats got shorter and lighter. Slugger Hank Aaron’s bat was 35 inches long and weighed 33 ounces. Mantle and Maris used a medium barrel at 35 inches and 32 ounces. The largest bat in baseball history was a 38-inch bat used by Al Simmons, who played with Philadelphia and Boston.

The ideal timber for the modern bat is light, enduring wood with great driving qualities. This wood is ash. Manufacturers scout for trees that are 40 to 50 years old in upstate New York and Pennsylvania. Each tree yields approximately 60 finished bats.

Idiosyncrasies abound in the way players handle their bats. Players have oiled their bats, tarred them, rubbed them, and even heated them. Frankie Frisch hung his sluggers in a barn during the winter to cure them as one would a sausage. Del Ennis of the Phillies soaked his bat in linseed oil, making the bat heavier but more solid in contact. Pete Rose is said to have cleaned his bat with alcohol after each game, and Mike Schmidt honed his bat.

Some players say the best thing you can do to a bat is kiss it. Players get very fond of their bats.

The Major Leagues have firmly rejected the idea of switching to aluminum bats. Fans would never accept the unsatisfactory ping aluminum bats produce when hitting a ball. Such a change would have been placed in the same category as wanting to change the design of the American flag.

Pete Browning, the “Old Gladiator,” would no doubt turn in his grave to protest.

Thus, it seems that the 100-plus year old romance between wood and bat and fan is eternal. So are the excitement and thrill that those vital components bring to American baseball.

autographed baseball bat

This Rawlings bat has a National Baseball Hall of Fame logo on the barrel and was presented to George Brett when he was inducted in 1999. The bat includes more than 50 signatures from living Hall of Famer at the time, including Sandy Koufax, Brooks Robinson, Lou Brock, Harmon Killebrew, Johnny Bench, Eddie Murray, Brett, Yogi Berra, Joe Morgan, Dave Winfield, Whitey Ford, Kirby Puckett, Robin Yount, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Reggie Jackson, Duke Snider, Al Kaline, Willie McCovey and many more. The bat has all the signatures authenticated by JSA and comes from a close friend of Brett, who was given the bat by Brett himself. Sold for $995, includes buyer’s premium. Courtesy Auctions.