Louisville Slugger : From Pete Browning to Derek Jeter
Posted by athomeatfenway on December 22, 2009
SWEET SPOT, 125 Years of Baseball and the LOUISVILLE SLUGGER
David Magee and Philip Shirley. Triumph Books, 2009. 182 oversized pages. Copiously illustrated with archival photos.
This wonderful book blends the histories of the Hillerich & Bradsby company with that of Major League Baseball, starting in 1884, when Pete Browning accepted Bud Hillerich’s invitation to make a replacement for the bat he had just cracked.
John “Bud” Hillerich was the black sheep of the family, and his love for baseball soon diversified their lines of butter churns and bed posts.
Browning, the hard of hearing Louisville outfielder who refused to slide and caught flies standing on one leg, would soon win a batting championship with Hillerich’s bat. Hillerich catered to professional players and gained a share of the professional bat market.
In 1884, the business was called J.F. Hillerich Job Turning. Father would begrudgingly recognize the son in 1897 by re-naming it J.F Hillerich & Son.
It seems Bud Hillerich deserves 99.9% of the credit for creating his legendary family business. Those who came before him rejected baseball. Those who came after him were good stewards that recovered from their rare mistakes.
The bat that Bud made for Browning and others in the early days also had a different name. It was called the “Falls City Slugger” in tribute to Louisville’s location at the Falls of the Ohio River.
Bud Hillerich replaced production of wooden churns & bowling balls with baseball bats -against his father’s will. Overtime, Louisville Slugger, which Bud trademarked in 1894, became a high quality brand.
Bud conducted business in The Polo Grounds, Baker Bowl, the Huntington Avenue Grounds and their like. He built relationships and made bats for the best players in the majors.
Company history took a shocking turn in 1910 when a fire decimated their spring stock just as it was to be shipped to retail stores, a niche that drove 74% of their revenue at that time.
Recovered but wounded financially, the Hillerichs pondered whether to fold the business, sell it, or attempt to manufacture something else entirely.
J.F. Hillerich, the founder, decided to sell the business in 1911.
In his 60’s and unwilling to hand over the company to son Bud, J.F. accepted $125,000 for “controlling interests in all facets of the business, including machinery, brand, and receivables, to 33-year old Frank Bradsby.” The company was renamed J.F. Hillerich & Sons.
Bradsby, a super salesman who helped to build the Simmons Hardware retail chain, “had as much business acumen as he did sales savvy.”. He knew Bud was the backbone of the bat business, so he sold him back part of the business and made him President of the company.
Smart guy, that Frank Bradsby.
Bradsby collaborated with Bud to sign players to autograph model contracts for retail stores. This caused total sales to soar by 600% by 1916. The addition of golf equipment (Powerbilt) that year added even more revenue to the growing company.
Bradsby worked with Bud and his family up until his death in 1937. Under pressure from rebuilding their flood ravaged LVS facility in the midst of the Great Depression, Bradsby suffered a fatal heart attack aboard a train bound for Baseball’s Winter Meetings in Chicago.
He left behind a company that supplied 80 % of the bats in pro baseball and 60% of all other bats sold in the U.S.A.
LVS would be the dominant brand in bats up until 1970 when a tannery in Tullahoma, Tennessee decided to produce a bat made from Aluminum.
Prior to 1970, Worth had only made leather covered baseballs and softballs at its tannery. But an employee named John Parish sensed that there was a new market in a very old idea, one that could challenge LVS’s stranglehold on the bat market.
Aluminum bats were first patented in the 1920’s, but players did not then warm to them. Worth received a completely different reaction when they brought them to market 50 years later. Little League players quickly purchased aluminum bats, preferring the cost effectiveness due to the bat’s durability. They didn’t break !
Little League officially accepted the aluminum bat in 1971, and the NCAA did the same in 1974. Within a year, H & B’s all time bat production peaked…..and then it dropped.
Easton soon entered the aluminum bat market, too.
By 1976, H & B production fell from 7 million to 1 million bats annually.
H & B didn’t see all this coming. They were slow to react. 8 years after Worth took the first bite out of them, H&B finally bought an old Alcoa plant in California and launched their first all in-house aluminum bat production.
In between the utter domination achieved in 1916 and the cataclysmic losses in 1976, the Louisville Slugger story is packed with fascinating associations with Babe Ruth, Gehrig, Musial, Ted Williams, Mantle, Killebrew and many others.
Page after page details the history of baseball and the H & B company, from Alexander Cartwright to Longoria and Jeter.
Embedded in this book among the photos of knob ends, superstars, and model records are tantalizing nuggets of baseball lore past and present.
Here are a few……….
Babe Ruth & Johnny Bench both used an R43 model. Babe’s weighed 37 to 40 ounces. Bench’s weighed far less. Bench was strong and had massive hands, but he couldn’t swing the same weight as the Bambino. Time, and the chubbiness of Babe in his later years, obscured just how powerful Ruth’s body was.
Dustin Pedroia, the little guy with the big swing, uses a black finished, maple S318 cupped LVS which is 33.5” long and weighs 30.5 ounces. This web-site has for 2+ years consistently been asked to share what size and weight bat D.P. uses. It’s a mystery to so many because what they see visually just doesn’t compute. The bat looks disproportionately large and it is illogical to think he can control the lumber. Thanks to the authors, we now know specifically what he swings.
Ken Griffey, Sr. was liberal when introducing his young son to different bat brands, even the ones he himself did not use. Junior tried Cooper, Adirondack, and others. But Ken Griffey, Jr. chose & stuck with LVS model C271 as he smashed 630 HR (5th All Time) and 1,829 RBI (16th All Time). He used the C271 to become the only player to hit the B & O Warehouse behind right field at Camden Yards with a bomb.
Red Sox Scout Early Johnson cultivated a relationship with Harmon Killebrew long before he appeared on the radar of the Washington Senators. Johnson put the hook in Killebrew for good when he gave the teenaged Killer a LVS model W166, the same model that Ted Williams used. Soon, Killebrew gave the Sox the inside track to match the $12,000 bonus he was offered by the Nats. Incredibly, the wealthy Red Sox passed on the $12,000 investment and the 573 career HR’s that went along with it.
Two photo pages of model records are eye-popping. Mantle swung a K55, but he also ordered M110 and B220 as he went head-to-head with Maris in ’61. Yogi Berra went along with Bench and Ruth in the use of the R43. Rod Carew ? H185, R161 and C243. Gehrig frequented a 37 ounce A-1 in ’31.
Bat lovers and baseball historians alike will love this book. After you read it, you can supplement the experience with a visit to the web-site of the Louisville Slugger Museum at http://www.sluggermuseum.org/default.aspx.