When I was a young baseball player and dreamed of playing for the Royals, I always thought the surest sign of success was when you got your first baseball card with your image on it. Now that I’m older, my thinking has shifted. I now believe the pinnacle moment is when you get the first call-up, that long-anticipated phone call telling you to catch the next plane to “The Show.” There’s a third moment that for many players carries serious importance and that is when they sign a contract with Hillerich and Bradsby and get their autograph imprinted on their first set of Louisville Slugger baseball bats.
My wife and I were recently in Louisville and took a tour of the Hillerich and Bradsby factory and museum, a tour which I highly recommend. Louisville is an interesting city, especially for a sports fan. Riding the Ohio River, the city boasts a vibrant downtown flush with quality restaurants and of course, that Kentucky signature, bourbon. Besides the bat factory, Louisville is home to the University of Louisville football and basketball teams, Churchill Downs, and the Muhammad Ali Museum. Louisville is also home to the Louisville Bats, the AAA team of the Cincinnati Reds. The Bats play at Louisville Slugger Field, naturally. The field is a beautiful little park just off of downtown, a couple long home runs from the river. That’s a lot of world-class activities for a sports fan to indulge in.
The Hillerich and Bradsby bat factory has the world’s tallest bat, standing at 120 feet, to welcome you to the factory. The company, which once made butter churns, produced its first bat in 1884 for Pete Browning, the star player for the Louisville Eclipse. Browning went 3-for-3 with his new bat and the company's bat business was off and running. Browning’s nickname was the Louisville Slugger, which in 1894 became the company’s trademark. The company's bat business really took off in 1905 when Honus Wagner became the first player to endorse a bat. His bat was the first to carry an autograph. During World War Two, the factory expanded its production to include M-1 carbine stocks, track pins for tanks, and billy clubs. Currently, over 8,000 major and minor league players have contracts with H & B to produce bats for them.
Just inside the doors is The Great Wall, which displays the signatures of thousands of current and former players who have had their names burned into a Louisville Slugger. Visually, it was overwhelming.
I picked out a few Royals on the wall including this unusual Amos Otis signature. Amos “Jose” Otis? There’s got to be a story behind that.
There were also the Brett brothers, side by side.
The factory also has a bat vault, which contains over 3,000 original bats, some of which are over 100 years old. Another part of the tour allows you to hold a game-used bat. You can select from several superstars on display. I choose the Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron bats. It was a bit humbling to hold the lumber that these two greats once used in a game. The Ruth bat was a 46-ounce hammer. I expected it to feel heavier. While I held it, I was certain I could swing it. Probably couldn’t hit anything with it, but I could swing it.
Next came the factory tour, which was a mind-blowing experience. It started with a short film describing the company’s forest in upstate New York and how the company's bat scientists identify the best trees. Once a tree is marked, usually around its 65th year, it is cut down, processed into smaller pieces and shipped to Louisville. What arrives at the Louisville factory is a cylinder of wood, called a billet. The very best wood is used for major league bats. Everyone else gets a lower grade. A suitable tree can produce about 60 bats.
The company had a rack of unprocessed wood that would soon be turned into bats for about 20 major leaguers. I spotted the Kyle Isbel slot and looked at a couple of pieces that would soon be turned into bats, and hopefully hits, for the Kansas City outfielder.
We continued deeper into the plant, led by a terrific tour guide, while workers just feet away, continued to shape raw wood into bats. The billets are fed into an automated lathe, which is programmed to turn the billet into a specially designed bat. The entire process takes about 30 seconds. The leftover wood shavings are then sold off to a turkey farmer for bedding. The guide informed us that the average major league player goes through about 100 bats each season. There were other interesting factoids as well, such as this pearl: some players will rub their bats with chicken bones to harden the wood. I fully expected her to say this was a Pedro Cerrano joke, but she was dead serious.
One of the lathes has several autographs of Hall of Famers and other stars including this sweet inscription from George Brett.
The bats continue down the line where they are sanded smooth, stained, dried, tested for quality, and packed. Some are cupped, which is the process of removing some wood from the top of the bat to lighten the piece while still maintaining the sweet spot. On TV, you’ll see these bats, which have a rounded indentation at the top. I had no idea beforehand why this was done.
I stood enthralled while bat after bat came off the assembly line. Once the tour ends, you have time to explore the museum, which is top-notch, and the gift shop. I couldn’t resist the temptation to have a bat made with my name on it. I opted for a traditional Louisville Slugger, a sweet 34-ounce piece of swinging heaven.
When I was a younger man, I spent the better part of two years traveling our great country on business. I always carried a bat or two in my trunk. Some people go to a bar at the end of a workday to have a drink. I usually went to the local batting cages and hit balls until my hands blistered. There have been very few activities in life I have loved more than hitting a baseball. I’m torn on the idea of hitting with my bat. I’d love to see how it would feel and sound but would be crushed if I broke the dang thing. If you’re a baseball fan, I highly recommend taking a tour of the bat factory.