The Louisville Slugger Legacy
- Updated: January 7, 2015
The beginnings of the famous baseball bat making company Louisville Slugger is something out of a storybook or a classic Coca-Cola commercial. It started with a young man’s love of baseball, opportune timing and a father’s willingness to make his son happy.
It Started With a Broken Bat
In 1884, the Louisville Eclipse team, led by manager Mike Walsh and team star player Pete Browning, finished third in the American Association with a 68-40 record. Seventeen-year-old John A. “Bud” Hillerich, who loved the game of baseball and worked with his father in woodworking in Louisville. He enjoyed watching the Eclipse play and, on one particular day, he snuck out of work to catch a game.
While Hillerich watched on, Browning, who was suffering through a hitting slump at the time, broke his bat during one at bat. At that moment, Hillerich had an idea that sparked a chain of events ultimately leading to the founding of a successful business that continues to this day. Back then, a fan could approach a star pro player like approaching a friend. Hillerich invited Browning to his father’s workshop to make him a new bat, to which Browning accepted—something that would never happen in today’s sports society.
With the help of Browning, Hillerich handcrafted a new bat fresh from a slab of wood. In the next game, Browning, using his new bat, collected three hits, ending his hitting slump. From there, it was old-fashioned marketing—word of mouth—that more and more pro baseball players turned to Hillerich and his father to carve them bats of their own. However, his father, J.F. Hillerich, turned them down at first. He didn’t see the profit being as big as making porch columns, swinging butter churns or stair railings. But his son, as stubborn as he was passionate, was persistent and kept trying to convince his father that making bats could take off as a business. Finally, his father listened.
In 1894, the elder turned over his woodworking business to his son and “Bud” wasted no time in patenting the name “Louisville Slugger” as his bat-making company. With baseball ruling the sports scene in America, it wasn’t long before great players such as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig would wield Louisville Slugger bats at the plate.
Just as Browning’s word-of-mouth to other pro baseball players spread the news about Hillerich’s wonderful bats, Hillerich used another marketing tactic that is still used today. Just as he approached Browning to use one of his handcrafted bats, Hillerich hired Hall of Fame batter Honus Wagner to use his name on a bat, which today are staples on sports equipment and apparel. Louisville Slugger was selling more bats than any other bat making company by 1923 and today as much as 60 percent of all players in the major leagues use Louisville Slugger bats.
Louisville Slugger has been able to adapt to business and cultural changes over its 120 years of existence. What took perhaps hours to carve out one bat now takes only 45 seconds, thanks to faster and more advanced technology. It is as serious a company as any you would find on Wall Street and, as Rick Redman, the company’s vice president of corporate communications says, with competition in the baseball bat making industry still as high as any time in history, Louisville Slugger leans on technology not just to create bats, but to store and protect its data using cloud data protection site Mozy, for example. Redman said with so many “balls” in the air, his company cannot afford to let any of them drop to the ground. It is a great example of how an all-American company that started out as a father-son business and has grown successful by meshing traditional business tactics with today’s modern marketing and technological techniques.