Crack of the Bat: The Louisville Slugger Story

By Bob Hill

Sports Publishing Inc, 2000

Bob Hill is a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal, but the copyright on this book is held by Hillerich & Bradsby Co., which manufactures the famous Louisville Slugger. So the book is in some ways an official corporate history. Don't look here for any controversy, though how much controversy is there about baseball bats? Wood vs. aluminum? They make both kinds. Official corporate histories are made to be presented to employees, customers, vendors, and relatives. This book contains player endorsements, and more information than you want to know about who became head bookkeeper in 1942 and which great-grandson did what with the family business. But there is also some fascinating stuff about bats.

Baseball players from Little League upward have a special thing about bats. Remember Robert Redford's bat in The Natural, the one he carved out of a tree? It had a lightning symbol burned into it, and it was magic. Well, that is all kids feel about their Lousiville Slugger. Big Leaguers are even more obsessive. They become convinced that a given bat has a certain number of hits in it, that the wood is good or lousy, that wide grain or narrow is better. My father swung a hammer for a living, and he could feel very slight differences in the weight and balance of a hammer. Professional ballplayers are like that with their bats.

My childhood bat was not a Louisville Slugger but a sleek all-black Adirondack that was a bit longer than the Little League black-and-white standard 28" issue . I learned from this book that Ken Griffey's all-black bat is dipped in urethane in what is called a "Smith" finish. (Which Smith? I don't know). The traditional black barrel with a white handle is called a "Walker", after Harry the Hat Walker, old-time batting champ. Tony Gwynn uses a bat with a black barrel and a white, unvarnished handle. This is called a "Gwynn" finish.

In the beginning J.F. Hillerich, the son of a German immigrant, opened a wood shop in Louisville in 1859. He made porch columns, stair railings, bowling pins -- anything you could make by turning a piece of wood on a lathe. As a teenage appreentice, the old man's son "Bud" liked to hang out at Eclipse Park, where the Lousiville Eclipses played. According to family legend, in 1884 Bud saw that star left fielder Pete Browning, "The Old Gladiator", was in a slump, and offered to make him a new bat at his father's shop. Pete had three hits the next day, and soon the whole team was using Hillerich bats. There are other versions of the story, but the essential truth is that the Hillerich company started making bats for the Lousiville team in the 1880's, and the bats spread throughout the major leagues.

The old man was supposedly against the baseball bat business, but young Bud pushed hard for it. The Hillerichs made their bats out of second-growth Kentucky mountain ash which had been milled and shipped to Louisville and dried for at least a year. About one piece in 10 was used for professional bats. The men who hand-turned the bats for professionals could produce about 35 bats a day. Only ash was used, with the exception of a Cuban-grown wood called majaqua. Hillerich turned majaqua bats for Cuban players, and charged $2.00. Regular ash bats were $1.50.

No one's quite sure where the moniker Louisville Slugger came from, but it was registered at the US Patent Office in 1894. Honus Wagner signed what is called the first sports endorsement contract in 1905, giving J.F. Hillerich & Son the right to use his autograph on their bats. Napoleon Lajoie soon followed, and in 1908 Ty Cobb inked a Lousiville Slugger contract. About two dozen companies were producing bats in this era, but none of the others would survive, thanks to the quality of the Louisville bats and their excellent marketing. Kids saw Ty Cobb using one, and they wanted one, too. The concept still works today.

In 1910 the Hillerich factory was gutted by fire and needed money to rebuild. They took in Frank Bradsby as a partner, and that is how the company became Hillerich & Bradsby. Frank was a skilled businessman who helped the business grow until it totally dominated the baseball bat industry, and Louisville Slugger had become part of the American culture.

Lousiville's success rested on two ideas:

Ballplayers, already inclined to use the Lousiville bat, were willing to sign cheap longterm contracts. Louisville got Babe Ruth for $100 in 1918. Joe DiMaggio signed as a 19-year-old for $25, three years before he made the Yankees. Ted Williams signed for $200. Stan Musial got about $100. Ben Chapman in 1929 signed 20-year contract for $1. Ken Griffey signed a 20-year contract at age 19. Cal Ripken signed right out of high school, making up for dozens of high school grads who got a Louisville Slugger contract but didn't make the majors.

Ted Williams used a W-148 model Louisville Slugger, the model number meaning he was the 148th player whose name began with "W" to have a bat model named for him. Babe Ruth's bat was R-43, said to be very similar to Hank Aaron's A-99. Rod Carew had a C-243

After so many years, it seems that players are often able to find an existing design they like, rather than making a new one. Griffey Junior's cupped all-black bat is a model C-271, 34 inches and 31 ounces. The "C" stands for Jose Cardenal. George Brett used a T-85, first made for Marvelous Marv Throneberry. Vern Stephens is responsible for the very popular S-2 bat, which was used by Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, and Ernie Banks.

Mickey Mantle's K-55 was first used by Chuck Klein, National League power hitter of the 1930's. A reproduction of Mantle's H&B card shows that in 1952 he started ordering M-110's, a popular model originally created for a guy named Eddie Malone. Mantle got some Ted Williams bats in 1956, but generally stuck with the Klein and the Malone through 1960. The model number refers to the shape, not the length and weight. A quick look shows Mantle, like many hitters, ordering lighter bats later in the season.

Hey, the pictures are really good, too.

Review by David Nevard

© 2000 Buffalo Head Society

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