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More articles from March 2005 newsletter
Pete "The Old Gladiator" Browning stalked to the plate, eyes squinted, bat resting on his shoulder, ready to swing at his pitch. A warm spring breeze graced the field in Louisville and the late spring sun already promised the warmth of summer. It made Browning feel good, but didn't ease the doubts already creeping into his head.
Browning was in a slump. He couldn't remember the last time he made solid contact with a pitch. It was so bad that all his ups, all his opponents, all the games, just blended together.
Browning kicked at the dirt next to the plate and assumed his stance. Sixty feet away the pitcher crouched, nodded and straightened. Then he wound up and fired the pitch. For the briefest of moments Browning thought the pitch was there and he swung. The thump of the ball in the catcher's glove confirmed the umpire's wail, "Stee-rike!"
They went through the motions again. This time Browning stood sentinel over the passing ball, "Stee-rike!"
One more and it would all be over. But then Browning felt something tug at his spirit. Something about the way the pitcher moved, something about the hopeful stares in the crowd. This pitch was going to be special. This pitch was going to change everything.
Browning saw it all as if the world slowed down; the ball floated toward him in a suspended arc. It looked as if it had grown, like a cantaloupe wrapped in bleached leather and stitched with heavy red thread. He waited until it was...wait...wait...wait...
There! He swung. He felt the impact in his hands and heard the snap of the wood. He turned to run but stopped before he got three steps as he watched the ball roll harmlessly to the first baseman, who scooped it up and stepped on the bag. Browning's heart sank as his excitement ebbed and he jogged off the baseline. This couldn't get any worse.
That is, until he turned around. There in the dirt next to home plate lay his bat in two pieces, no more than two pieces of kindling. Broken, like this season. Like his swing.
After the game Pete sneaked out of the yard as best as he could. If he had been doing well on the field, he would seek out the fans. He loved them and they loved meeting him, a real, live sports star. But now, the game had turned on him. Just when he thought he was getting away, he heard his name.
Inevitably there were the hard core fans who waited around to catch a glimpse of their hero, or in Ol' Pete's case, their goat. He turned and saw a boy with the light and hope of youth in his eye. He looked to be about seventeen.
"You broke your bat."
Browning bit off his flippant reply and said, "Yeah."
"You need a new one?"
"Why, you got one?"
"Well, its like this," the kid looked him right in the eye, excited, "my father owns a wood shop. It's the family business."
"I could make one for you."
"What's your name, Kid?"
"Bud," said the boy, "Bud Hillerich."
The year was 1884. The city: Louisville, Kentucky. And that night John "Bud" Hillerich made a baseball bat for Ol' Pete Browning, star of the Louisville Elites of the American Association. They selected a piece of White Ash. Bud carved and sanded the club and Browning tested it periodically throughout the night until Browning declared the bat complete. They called it the "Falls City Slugger," the first Louisville Slugger ever made. In his next game, Browning went 3 for 3. For his career, he achieved a lifetime batting average of .349 playing for several teams.
Over the next 120 years, the Louisville Slugger became the bat in baseball. While Hillerich didn't invent the baseball bat, it's not at all a stretch that he helped invent the baseball bat business. Until 1884, players were responsible for finding their own woodworkers to turn their bats. After Browning's impressive outing, the maker of the Falls City Slugger was in demand and Bud's father's shop, J.F. Hillerich, Job Turning, adopted baseball bats as one of their specialty products. Orders came in from Browning's teammates and the rest of the league.
However, it wasn't until 1894 that the wood shop, now Hillerich and Sons, registered Louisville Slugger with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and started branding each stick with their world-famous emblem. But that's not all they branded into the bats. The company had the equivalent to a marketing brain storm in 1905. According to BaseballCorner.com:
"On Sept. 1, 1905, the company signed 'The Flying Dutchman', Honus Wagner, one of the best hitters of the day, to the first known contract of a professional athlete for the endorsement of a retail product. The signing of Ty Cobb, 'The Georgia Peach', followed closely in 1908. The contracts gave J.F. Hillerich & Son Co., then the parent company of the Louisville Slugger brand, permission to use the players' autographs on Louisville Slugger bats. Since then, more than 7700 different signatures have appeared on the bats."
Today, the Louisville Slugger, still made by the same company (now named Hillerich and Bradsby), remains the most in-demand bat in baseball and commands at least 70 percent of the market.
There are few things as pure in the world of sports as the crack of the bat. It's a reminder of the elegant simplicity of America's great pastime. A game that speaks to the excitement every spring promises. When teams take the field for the first time each year – from little league through the majors – a piece of Bud Hillerich goes with them. InventHelp® salutes Bud Hillerich, who helped to invent the game's legendary figures. Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Pete Rose, Derek Jeter, Tony Gwynn and many other baseball icons have walked to the plate carrying Hillerich's Louisville Slugger.