February 8, 2007

Hillerich & Bradsby

And the men behind the brand are...
Bud Hillerich and Frank Bradsby

It seems that Pete Browning, “The Gladiator,” was in a slump. The celebrated hard-hitting batsman for the Louisville Colonels went in search of a new bat. He stopped by the small woodworking shop of J.F. Hillerich, then noted for its wooden butter churns.

Hillerich’s teenage son Bud turned a piece of white ash while Browning tested it every few turns until just right. Browning went 3-3 the next day and publicly gave credit to the bat. Baseball players are a superstitious lot and after the game the rest of the Louisville team showed up at the Hillerich shop for a bat.

it was 1884. Until that time players bought bats already formed by woodturners or tried to carve their own. Hillerich’s first custom-made bats became all the rage. He called them “Louisville Sluggers” after the power-hitting Browning. Soon Hillerich was turning out only baseball bats, and the wooden churns that had been the shop specialty were forgotten.

As batters became more exacting Hillerich began burning each player’s name into his bat. Famous 19th century stars like Anson and Keeler and Wagner used Sluggers. Hugh Duffy hit .438 in 894 with a Slugger, the highest average of all time. The early greats were followed by Cobb, Hornsby, Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio. More Sluggers were made for Babe Ruth than anyone else. The Bambino favored gargantuan pieces of lumber weighing up to 54 ounces, 50 % heavier than most bats.

Hillerich sold bats directly to the players personally, recording their required specifications on cards still retained by the company. Behind the baseball scene every player knew Bud Hillerich. In 1910 Frank Bradsby joined the company to expand sales outside major league baseball. Everyone wanted to use the same bats as the big league stars and by the time Bradsby died in 1937 the company wa turning out two million bats a year.

The tiny woodworking shop grew into a ten-acre timber yard. Trainloads of white ash rounds, the only wood used for major league bats, were stacked to allow air to season and dry the wood. Over 5,000,000 sticks of forty-inch ash would always be on hand. Each piece was carefully graded before turning on lathes, with the very best ash reserved for the major leaguers.

When Hillerich died in 1946 at the age of 80 the “Louisville Slugger” trademark had been burned on over 100,000,000 baseball bats and Pete Browning, the original Louisville slugger, was forgotten.

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