LOUISVILLE, Ky. (LEX 18) — If American baseball began as a New York craze in the 1850s, how in the world did Louisville become the center of the baseball bat-making universe?
Back in 1884, a teenage woodworker named Bud Hillerich made a bat for a local pro baseball player Pete Browning, who then got three hits in his next game and went on to a stellar – some would say Hall of Fame-caliber – career. His nickname was the Louisville Slugger.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
I learned that and so much more on my visit to the Louisville Slugger Museum in downtown Louisville as part of our Spotlight on the American Spirit series this week. The facility is also a factory where they produce 1.8 million bats every year and where they expect 300,000 visitors to take a tour in 2022, a quantum leap from the COVID-limited seasons of the past two years and near the record crowd of 318,000 in 2019.
Every tour includes a peek inside the room where it happens… the actual factory! After viewing a short film, you enter the factory and are greeted by thousands of billets – cylindrical pieces of wood - stacked to the ceiling, ready to be shaped.
"We have our own forest and mills in upstate Pennsylvania and New York," says marketing director Andrew Soliday. "We harvest all of our own wood. We're one of the few bat makers that does that."
It's a real-life bat cave! Bats for major league players, minor league players, Little League players – even the miniature souvenir variety – are made in this lone space that's less than a city block in size. The expert crew sometimes pushes out more than 60,000 bats in a week… helped by modern technology, of course.
"We have machines that shape a bat in about 30-40 seconds. Back in the day when we use to turn bats by hand, it would take a skilled hand-turner 30 minutes to make that bat. So things have sped up just a bit, needless to say!" says Soliday.
Baseball purists may have heard the term "boning" when players of yesteryear would take a bone or soda pop bottle and rub their bats. The process helps condense the wood and creates that "crack of the bat" sound when a ball is hit. No more bones are needed, as they have a machine here that does that too. Some bats get paint jobs here. Some get a Louisville Slugger sticker for identification; others have the iconic logo burned into their midsection, just as they have been doing for 138 years.
There's even a "bat vault" containing thousands of templates that have been copied over and over again for generations. Another area allows visitors to actually hold game-used bats by some of the game's legends.
"The one thing we love for our guests to do is to really get that hands-on experience, where they can really hold on to some of these game-used bats," says Soliday. "Johnny Bench, Ken Griffey Jr., Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, even Hank Aaron. And we have another display where bats from players from every Major League Baseball team are on the display. It's amazing to feel the difference in weight among the various bats from different time periods."
The tour's final stop is its gallery. Like any museum, there are statues. But instead of being behind a glass window, these stand on the floor next to visitors, all in familiar poses; from Derek Jeter's stoic stance in the batter's box as he waited for the pitch to a seemingly off-balance Aaron after he'd sent a ball deep into a ballpark's outfield.
And if all of this Americana isn't enough for you, the museum just opened a bourbon bar next door where you can mix your own concoction.
Just as the Louisville Slugger bats and the technology behind them have evolved over the generations, so does this place. The museum has plans to renovate and expand in 2023, giving old visitors something new to look forward to on their next visit.