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It takes a special place to craft the Official Bat of Major League Baseball. Since 1884, Louisville Slugger has put prime lumber in the hands of the greatest players of the game. A visit to the museum shows you how the sport has changed a bit between then and now, but the "crack of the bat" remains one of the sporting world's most thrilling moments.
Hillerich & Bradsby Company, Inc. is a privately owned sporting goods manufacturer best known as the producer of the Louisville Slugger baseball bats. In addition to its traditional wooden Sluggers, which are still made in Louisville, the company manufactures more than 100 models of aluminum bats for baseball and softball in an Ontario, California manufacturing plant, and a line of baseball and softball gloves. Hillerich & Bradsby also manufactures and markets a line of golf equipment--including clubs, bags, and gloves--under the trade name "PowerBilt," and a line of hockey equipment under the trade name TPS Louisville Hockey. The company also owns some 5,000 acres of forest in Pennsylvania and New York, from which it harvests the wood to produce its bats.
1800s: A Budding Bat Maker
The company that would come to be one of the biggest names in American baseball traces its roots to a young German immigrant named J. Michael Hillerich. In 1842, Hillerich--a "cooper," or craftsman who made wooden casks and barrels--left his home in Baden-Baden and moved his family to Baltimore, Maryland. Baltimore was only a temporary stop, however, and the Hillerichs soon settled permanently in Louisville, Kentucky. There, J. Michael's son, J. Frederic, opened his own cooperage. The business, J.F. Hillerich, Job Turning, was located in a two-story building in downtown Louisville. Hillerich made a variety of rounded wooden objects, including handrails, porch columns, bed posts, bowling pins, and bowling balls.
In 1880, a third Hillerich entered the woodworking business when 14-year-old John ("Bud"), J. Frederic's son, became an apprentice at his father's shop. It was Bud's entry into the family business that would ultimately result in the Hillerichs' most famous product. A baseball fan, Bud skipped out of work one day in 1884 to watch a Louisville Eclipse game. The Eclipse played in the American Association (the forerunner of the National League), and one of its most prominent players was Pete Browning. During the game Bud Hillerich attended, Browning broke his favorite bat--a fairly significant setback in a day when bats were expensive to make, and most players owned only one.
After the game, Bud Hillerich approached Browning and offered to make him a new bat. The two men went back to Hillerich's shop and worked through the night to turn a stick of white ash wood into a bat custom-designed to Browning's preferences. As Hillerich turned the wood on his lathe, Browning watched over his shoulder, periodically testing it for weight and swing. The next day, Browning hit three-for-three with his new, Hillerich-made bat.
As the word about Hillerich's craftsmanship spread, other Louisville players began approaching him with their own bat orders. His father, however, was unenthusiastic. Perceiving his son's new product as a trivial sideline, he preferred to focus on the business's original goods. Even so, Bud continued producing his bats, which came to be known as "Falls City Sluggers." Soon, there was a demand for Hillerich's bats even outside the professional leagues, and in 1890, a hardware company in St. Louis agreed to handle all bat sales except those to professional players.
In 1894, Hillerich changed the name of his bats from Falls City Slugger to Louisville Slugger, registering the new name as an official trademark. Continuing to turn out bats that were customized to each individual player's preferences, he also began branding the player's name on his bat. This allowed the player to readily distinguish his own bat from others.
In 1897, the 31-year-old Bud Hillerich became a partner in his father's business, and the company's name was changed to J.F. Hillerich & Son to reflect the new ownership structure. Business continued to thrive, and in 1901 the Hillerichs had to move to a larger facility. Sales of baseball bats got an additional boost in 1905, when Honus Wagner, a well-known shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, gave Hillerich & Son the right to use his autograph on their bats. This proved to be the start of a long tradition of product endorsements by professional athletes--both for Hillerich and for endless other companies. Shortly after signing Wagner, Hillerich got the rights to use another baseball superstar's signature: Ty Cobb signed an agreement with the company in 1908.
Early 1900s: Hardships and Changes
The Hillerichs faced a serious setback in 1910, when their bat factory caught fire. During the rebuilding process, the two men hired Frank Bradsby to oversee the company's sales policy. Bradsby was a buyer for the St. Louis hardware company that had earlier agreed to handle the non-pro athlete segment of Hillerich's bat sales. A skilled salesman, it did not take Bradsby long to make his mark within the growing business. In 1916, his efforts won him a partnership, and the company's name was changed to Hillerich & Bradsby Company.
The addition of Bradsby resulted in further changes at the company. Bradsby was a golf lover, who believed that the sport would soon become popular in the United States. Under his influence, in 1816 Hillerich & Bradsby (H & B) entered the golf equipment market. Its first golf clubs did not carry the company's brand; rather they were privately branded for the stores in which they were sold. Within a few years, however, H & B began branding its own clubs. Adopting the strategy that had proven successful with baseball bats, the company's golf division soon began producing clubs that carried the signature of famous golfers. The first such model was autographed by Stewart Maiden, a pro golfer from Scotland, who settled in the United States and gained fame as the teacher of golf legend Bobby Jones.
In 1924, Hillerich & Bradsby lost its founder when J. Frederich Hillerich died from a fall on an icy street. Meanwhile, the company's foray into the golf market was proving advantageous. In 1925, demand for its clubs had grown to such an extent that H & B was forced to expand. It purchased a large warehouse in downtown Louisville and moved its golf club manufacturing operation and its offices into the new space. In 1933, H & B first used the name that was to become the permanent brand for its clubs: PowerBilt.
Hillerich & Bradsby suffered, as did many others, during the Louisville flood of 1937, when weeks of unusually heavy winter rains caused the Ohio River to overrun its banks and flood much of the city. Both the company's offices and its factory were damaged. But more significant was the effect of the catastrophe on Frank Bradsby who, weakened by the strain and the extra work, died later that year.
Mid-1900s: New Facilities, New Products
The war years caused Hillerich & Bradsby to turn its focus temporarily from the making of sporting goods to the making of M1 carbine stocks and tank pins. Bud Hillerich died in 1946 at the age of 80, and his son, Ward, assumed the presidency of Hillerich & Bradsby. Ward's tenure as the company's leader was brief, however. He died just three years later and was succeeded by his younger brother, John Hillerich, Jr. John served as Hillerich & Bradsby's leader for two decades--during which the company continued to thrive. The Louisville Slugger continued to be the bat of choice in the Major Leagues, and H & B produced models that were graced by the signatures of such baseball luminaries as Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, and Hank Aaron. The golf equipment division also expanded during John Hillerich's leadership. This was due, in part, to a surge in the game's popularity during the 1960s, when the U.S. public became enamored with such players as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
In 1966, Hillerich & Bradsby expanded into yet another sport when they acquired Wally Enterprises in Ontario, Canada. Wally Enterprises produced croquet sets, pool tables, and--of more importance--hockey sticks. H & B changed the brand on the hockey equipment to Louisville TPS (Tournament Players Series) and began selling its sticks through sporting goods distributors in the United States and Canada.
In 1969, John Hillerich, Jr., died, and his son, John "Jack" Hillerich III took the reins at Hillerich & Bradsby. It was around this time that an important change began taking place in baseball. Although the professional players were still using wooden bats, larger and larger numbers of amateur players were turning to aluminum--a material that was thought to be not only safer, but more durable and thus more economical. The new material had another advantage as well. Because aluminum bats were hollow, they weighed less than the traditional wooden ones. This meant that the batter could swing the bat faster, thereby hitting the ball with more force and making it travel further.
In 1971, the aluminum bat was approved for Little League play and, four years later, it was approved for college play. Hillerich & Bradsby did not immediately jump on the aluminum bandwagon. Although the company contracted with an outside aluminum company to manufacture the first H & B aluminum bat as early as 1970, it felt that replacing wood with aluminum would detract from the game of baseball. Therefore, it remained focused on the traditional wooden Sluggers.
By the early years of the 1970s, Hillerich & Bradsby was growing out of its facilities in downtown Louisville. Needing more space, the company acquired a 56-acre facility just across the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Indiana. In 1973, the company moved its golf products operation to the new complex--named "Slugger Park." The following year, the baseball bat production also was moved to Jeffersonville.
Continuing to churn out literally millions of wooden bats each year in its new facility, H & B further penetrated the baseball market when it introduced a line of Louisville Slugger baseball and softball gloves in 1975. The company's large, 13-inch softball glove, "The Big Daddy," became one of the best-selling gloves in softball history.
As the 1970s wound down, the demand for wooden bats began to decrease significantly. Although the bulk of major league players still used Louisville Sluggers, their use outside the majors had dwindled. There was simply no fighting the popularity of aluminum--and in 1978, Hillerich & Bradsby made peace with the inevitable, buying the California manufacturer that had previously produced its aluminum bats on contract.
Late 1900s: Catching Up in the Aluminum Bat Market
Even so, the company's delay in getting serious about aluminum left it playing catch-up to its competitors. Easton Sports, of California, had leapt into the aluminum bat market early on, using the same technology it used to make metal arrows; by the early 1980s, it held the lion's share of the market. Between 1980 and 1985, H & B's sales stagnated, and its profits plunged by approximately 90 percent. Jack Hillerich knew he had to move fast to turn the business around.
His answer was to develop a better aluminum bat. The company started talking to players who used aluminum, obtaining feedback they could use in the design process. Then, pouring money into research and development, it began to improve the original product, making important innovations. One early innovation involved changing the grip surface to make it "tackier," thereby giving the batter more control over the bat. Others included weighted-end designs, pressurized air chambers inside the bat barrels, and thinner bat walls made out of super-strong alloys.
By the start of the 1990s, H & B's aluminum bat business had greatly picked up and was generating approximately 30 percent of the company's revenue. In fact, its aluminum bat facility in Santa Fe Springs, California was having trouble making enough product to meet the market demand. So in August of 1991, H & B moved its aluminum division into a larger facility in nearby Ontario, California. It also increased the staffing at that facility by some 35 percent. That same year, H & B supplemented its aluminum production capabilities by opening a smaller bat and hockey stick manufacturing facility in Florence, Kentucky.
While the aluminum bat division was growing out of its space, however, the wooden bat plant was in just the opposite situation. Not only had the demand for wooden bats dwindled, but the company's improvements in technology and delivery systems had reduced the amount of space needed. In 1996, H & B left Slugger Park and moved back across the river to Louisville, locating just a few blocks from where J. Michael Hillerich had opened his original cooperage back in 1975. The company's new complex included a Louisville Slugger Museum, complete with a 120-foot-tall bat.
The Future of H & B
As the 21st century got under way, Hillerich & Bradsby installed its sixth Hillerich as CEO. In November of 2001, Jack Hillerich resigned, leaving the company's operations to his son, John A. Hillerich, IV, who had previously served as president of H & B's PowerBilt division.
Aside from the leadership change, it appeared to be business as usual at Hillerich & Bradsby. Baseball and softball equipment sales accounted for around 60 percent of the company's revenues, with the fastest-growing segment of that market being women's fast-pitch softball. Hockey equipment sales generated some 20 percent of the total revenue, and the company was optimistic about the future of that division.
If any part of H & B had a questionable future, it was its golf division. Although the PowerBilt brand was well thought-of among golfers, it was not widely used among the game's pros. Since pro athlete endorsements were the most common form of sports equipment marketing, PowerBilt was at a disadvantage. In addition, the entire golf equipment industry was suffering from a flatness in the game's growth. The stagnant demand for equipment meant that many companies had to merge to stay afloat; others simply folded up.
In a 1998 interview with the Seattle Times, Jack Hillerich had hinted that the company might get out of the golf equipment business altogether. Although there is no indication of that happening soon, H & B has taken a different marketing approach in recent years. It has stopped pursuing equipment contracts with the tour pros and begun focusing instead on the concept of quality at an affordable price, with the slogan, "They only play expensive." Whether PowerBilt can weather the difficult times still besetting the golf industry, however, remains to be seen.
Principal Divisions: Louisville Slugger; PowerBilt; TPS Louisville Hockey; Louisville Slugger Museum.
Principal Competitors: Easton Sports, Inc.; Rawlings Sporting Goods Company, Inc.