One day in '84 (so our story goes), Bud was at the ball field, watching the local pro team, the Louisville Eclipse of the (then-major league) American Association. The star of the Eclipse, Pete Browning, broke his bat, and young Bud offered to make him a new one. Browning looked askance at Bud (the tale continues), but he accompanied him to the shop. Any port in a storm. Bud turned out an ash bat to Browning's specifications, and as you fable fans might imagine, Browning went 3 for 3 the next day. Soon Browning's teammates, and then visiting opponents, were beating a path to the quaint little woodshop on First Street. The elder Hillerich (the story guffaws) fumed; one can almost hear him bellowing at Bud in a Katzenjammer dialect, "Vat iss diss mit das crvazy baseball schtick?" Fade out....
Fade in the Slugger factory. Portentous bass voice-over: "Today that quaint little woodshop on First Street makes three and one half million bats a year!"
The Pete Browning tale is promulgated in all hallowed Slugger chronicles. And why not? Browning was a period superstar, lovingly known as the Old Gladiator. But there is a skeleton in the closet. On the wall of the company president's office is a clipping from a 1912 Louisville Herald. It relates a story told by Bud Hillerich that does not mention the Old Gladiator. Instead, Hillerich explained how he had made his own bat when he was playing on a semipro club. A teammate, Augie Weyhing, had asked to use it, and Bud had made one more for another teammate, Monk Cline. Monk Cline? Augie Weyhing? Down in front!
Anyway, the rest is history. The bat was known as the Falls City Slugger until 1894. In 1905 Honus Wagner signed a contract with Hillerich, permitting his signature to be branded on bats. He thus became the first baseball player ever to ink an endorsement pact. In 1911 Frank Bradsby, a sales expert, came on board, and the corporate name was altered in 1916. The factory was moved across the Ohio River to Indiana in 1974. Otherwise, business as usual.
More than 90% of all pros sign up with Slugger. Most join on as minor-leaguers earning a small fee and the promise that Louisville will make them personalized bats for as long as they play for pay. On semiautomatic lathes, consumer bats can be knocked out in eight seconds flat, but the pros' personal models are still turned by hand. Bats are never made or cut or formed. They are turned.
In the old days players used to make special trips to Louisville to talk to the craftsmen, to pick out their own timber. Not surprisingly, Ted Williams was the most persnickety. Players tended their bats, "cooling" them in alcohol, "tightening" the grain by rubbing them with a bone or a pop bottle. Today Louisville hears only from agents trying to renegotiate the old service contracts.
Styles change, too. Generally, handles have gotten thinner. Still, the most popular bat with the public is the Jackie Robinson model that has a relatively stout grip. The other retail autograph models are named after Aaron, Clemente, Mantle, Frank Robinson and 14 current hitters including Pete Rose, who is trying to get out of his Slugger contract so he can Charlie Hustle aluminum bats.
An original model is catalogued in a very simple way—by the initial of the player's surname and a number that indicates how many players with the same initial have had distinct models turned for them. Thus, the first bat made with a concave end is designated as C271 because it was turned for Jose Cardenal, who is the 271st player with the initial C to have had a Slugger model created for him.
A small room at Slugger Park holds file cards on every major-leaguer who ever had a Slugger turned for him. There is an eerie feeling there, a sense of time having stopped. A man can go into that file cabinet and determine what bat it was that Home Run Baker used on April 14, 1910. And in a few minutes a craftsman can turn that exact bat. There are 13 check points on every bat. It is always made from a white ash that has grown for 45 to 50 years in New York or Pennsylvania. The tree has to have grown on a ridge top or have been exposed to the north and east for the right amount of sun. Then it is cut and dried. Finally it is turned by an artisan who does it precisely as one of his predecessors did it decades ago, about the time the seed went into the ground and Home Run Baker took his cuts.
Unfortunately, it is hard to find young men who want to be woodturners. It requires a long time to learn this honest craft, and young people do not want to invest that time. Besides, there are aluminum bats. They already take up 35% to 40% of the total bat market, and their share increases every year. A Slugger will cost you nine bucks tops, but it will break and sting your hands, and you must remember to keep the label up. Aluminum bats sell for as much as $50, but they last and last, whichever way you hold the label. It is also alleged that a baseball jumps off them faster. The sound is different, too. It is more modern, like an automobile crash.