When the best players in baseball step up to the plate, chances are they are holding a Louisville Slugger bat. Currently, 60 percent of major leaguers use bats produced by the family-run company based in Louisville, Ky.
Ironically,Louisville Slugger wasn't founded by a man with a love for baseball. In fact, J. Frederich Hillerich didn't even like baseball when he started his woodworking factory in the 1850s.
"Hillerich was not very fond of baseball, he thought that it was a fad and a game for drunkards, womanizers and gamblers," said Rick Redman, vice president of corporate communications for Hillerich & Bradsby Co., which owns Louisville Slugger. "He didn’t want his family involved with that. He wanted to continue making porch railings and bedposts and butter churns."
Hillerich's son, John Andrew, however, did not have the same view of baseball. Bud, as he is known, instead saw baseball as the perfect partner for the family business.
"The legend goes that one spring afternoon the star player of the Louisville team, a guy named Pete Browning, broke his bat," Redman said. "Young Bud Hillerich went to him after the game, asked him to come to his father's woodworking shop to make him a new bat. Browning did exactly that. He went to the shop and they made the bat. He took it to the park the next day and went 3 for 3 and they won the game. The Louisville Slugger was born."
The first athlete endorsement
The Louisville Slugger was trademarked in 1894, but its contribution to the history of sports marketing might be as significant as the product itself.
"Our company was the first to sign a professional athlete to a contract to promote a sporting goods product," Redman said. "In 1905, we signed Honus Wagner to endorse and sell our bats with his name on them. Then in 1918 we signed a guy named Babe Ruth."
Signing Babe Ruth propelled the company to a new level of notoriety. In subsequent decades, it signed many more of baseball's legends, including Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams. In fact, 80 percent of the hitters in the Baseball Hall of Fame have used Louisville Sluggers.
"There is no question that having players of that stature makes a huge difference in that it is a signal to everyone that our company makes the best products," Redman said. "We work hard to identify the players we want to work with. We are not looking for just great hitters, we are also looking for great people who will represent our company well. We want to make sure to uphold the history of our company."
Today, the company continues to produce their wooden bats in Louisville where they have done so for most of the company's history. Louisville Slugger moved to Jeffersonville, Ind., in 1976 before moving back to Louisville in 1995.
Last year the company made 1.8 million wooden bats and more than 1 million bats from aluminum and composite materials. The company employs fewer than 300 employees and is able to carve a bat in 45 seconds and finish it in anywhere from two and six hours. The company no longer produces just bats and has moved into producing gloves, batting gloves and other baseball-related accessories.
Surviving through five generations
The fifth-generation family-owned company continues to thrive, in part, because it has maintained a quality made possible by the fact that the company has long-term goals in mind when making decisions.
"In more than 120 years of business you will have ups and downs," Redman said. "We have had some really high highs and some tougher times. Our company has survived two world wars, a Great Depression, floods and fires, but the most important thing is to persevere and look at the long-term strategy."
"One of the great things of being a family-owned company is that we don’t have to make knee-jerk reactions for our business based on for the short term,” Redman said. "We look long term and I think that is the main reason we have been around for so long."
Aside from planning for the future and delivering a quality product, the company has a passion for baseball that was passed down from Bud Hillerich. Redman says it is that passion that is the best driving force and learning lesson that any business can take away from Louisville Slugger.
"One thing our company has learned about successful businesses is they are run by people with a passion for what they are doing," Redman said. "Bud Hillerich had a passion for baseball and saw it as something that was going to grow in our country and a wonderful opportunity for the business. No matter what business you are in, you have a far better chance of being successful if you are passionate about your business."