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Louisville Slugger Museum

By Mark Glass
Mark Glass is a journalist trapped in a lawyer's body, balancing his practice with
writing and broadcasting on travel, entertainment and professional sports.  

Mark Glass - Click to Enlarge

In St. Louis, baseball season invariably evokes excitement about our home team, and nostalgia over the rich history of the game. Our Cardinals play in the “Senior Circuit”, since the National League predates that abomination which spawned the Designated Hitter, and allowed the Yankees to become George Steinbrenner’s circus.  
But even older than the NL,  more enduring than its stars (and some franchises) is one name that has been synonymous with the game for over a century. In 1884, Hillerich & Bradsby started making Louisville Slugger bats in a woodworking shop, that had been generating bedposts and butter churns. According to family legend, Bud Hillerich, the owner’s son, went to a local pro game. Star player Pete Browning was in a slump. Bud took him to dad’s factory to have a new bat made. Browning got three hits the next day, and diversification was born. We all know which part of the business survived (seen any ads for butter churns lately?). Today, visitors to the main factory in downtown Louisville watch the process, and enjoy an interactive museum, second only to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York for baseball lore and artifacts.

80% of the position players in the Hall have used Louisville Sluggers, from Honus Wagner, to Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and our beloved Stan Musial. There’s a wall of signature plaques for each player ever under contract with the company, and a huge, signed photo of Stan the Man signing an autograph.

 The third generation of Hillerichs still runs the business. Even though there haven’t been any Bradsbys since the late 1930s (Frank, a hardware store owner, joined them from St. Louis in 1912), they’ve kept the name. What else would one expect from a company bonded with a sport that so devotedly honors its antecedents?

Visitors first watch a stirring twenty-minute film about the history of the game. The factory tour is no mere show. The workers are actually making bats for big-leaguers. Other H&B products, from aluminum bats, to golf clubs and hockey sticks, are made elsewhere. Almost every bat is made of white ash, mainly from Pennsylvania.

The museum features one of the bats Ruth used for 21 of his 60 homers in 1927 - notched by the Bambino after each one, gunslinger-style. Among myriad photos and memorabilia, there are interactive exhibits. A diorama and video show the process of growing and cutting the trees. Visitors can stand behind a home plate to watch a selection of pitchers throw a 90 m.p.h. fastball - pitcher on life-size screen; real ball comin’ at ya.  Other rooms house traveling exhibits or special events.

H&B has always made bats in Louisville, except for a few years across the Ohio River in Indiana. The city missed one of its hallmark enterprises, and worked with the owners to acquire a large building in the downtown warehouse district, allowing the creation of the museum. The skyline is accented by the handle of a 120-foot bat, standing before the museum at a slight, jaunty angle.

In a brilliant display of opportunistic marketing, a blank wall on the building to the west,  facing the bat handle,  has a large mural of a ball crashing through  a window. The occupant? Kentucky Mirror and Glass, of course.

Besides making bats for pros and retail stores, H&B takes individual orders.

Spokesperson Mika Patton said a  man recently bought a bat with his and his girlfriend’s signatures on the label side, and something else engraved on the back. He gave it to her at the Museum, surrounded by several friends, and under the covert eye of most of the staff. The young lady was quite pleased, but even more delighted when he rolled the bat over to show the other side’s inscription, “Will you marry me?”  Her “yes” was almost as much of a thrill for the batmakers, as for the couple.

The Louisville Slugger Museum is open Mondays -Saturdays, all year. It’s drawing about 300,000 visitors per year, not including the myriad passersby who linger at  the large picture windows on Main Street to watch the workers creating the tools for their heroes. Even though our AAA farm club moved to Memphis, baseball - complete with local connections - is thriving in Louisville. And each return visit seems to include added attractions, or greater appreciation of the familiar. Baseball’s like that; so how could one of its shrines be different?

Author’s addenda: Since the first version of this article appeared, many readers have e-mailed  collectible-type questions. I’m no help there, but have been advised by the Museum’s staff that a gentleman named Dave Bushing at MastroNet is a likely resource - dbushing1@aol.com.  I hope that proves useful to you.

Also, during the season, the downtown area offers an extra treat for fans - a new-built, old-style ballpark, hosting the Reds’  AAA farm club (the Bats, of course).  13,000 seats; picnic areas; river views. It’s a major-league attraction at minor league prices. For schedules and ticket information, check www.batsbaseball.com.  

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Email:  lotekguy@swbell.net (Mark Glass)

Mark Glass is a Mark Glass is a freelance writer and broadcaster, based in St. Louis, covering travel, entertainment and professional sports for his readers and listeners. Mark was travel editor for "St. Louis Connoisseur", and now have that role for "Life in the Midwest", based in Indianapolis. For the last fifteen years, he's written and broadcast features on travel, entertainment and sports, while maintaining his law practice in the St. Louis area. (More about this writer.)

 

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