I had a rare opportunity last week. While in Louisville for a business conference, I had the privilege of taking a tour of the Lousiville Slugger factory. That in itself is not really a rare opportunity, as anyone can walk in and purchase tickets for a tour. My opportunity was special because the tour guide was Chairman of the Board John A. “Jack” Hillerich III. He served as the President and CEO of his grandfather’s company from 1969 until 2001. His signature is on the giant bat outside the factory.
There were several highlights, including the opportunity to see and hold the original bat designs for players such Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Honus Wagner. We saw a demonstration of turning a bat ‘the old fashioned way’, meaning by hand and using another bat as a guide. They still train employees to do this, even though the bats are made by automatic lathes these days. Our guide couldn’t help but be nostalgic at several points along the way, and you could tell that he has a real appreciation for the game and a respect for the players that can tell a good bat from simply holding it or swinging it a few times. We were told that players order bats by the dozen, and that out of that dozen there may be 3 or 4 that a player chooses as a ‘gamer’ instead of a practice bat. Expensive process huh?
As technology has changed, so has the process by which they turn the bats. Or I should say the equipment used to turn them. The machines that once turned the pro bats are now the lathes that are responsible for little league or recreational bats. There is in fact only one machine that makes the pro bats now. It keeps the measurements and shapes of every bat the company has made in it’s databanks, meaning there is no switching of templates. It can go from making a Grady Sizemore bat to a Rocky Colavito bat with the push of a button. While we were there the Pro machine was finishing up orders for the Tampa Bay Rays.The pictures here are not of the pro model lathe, but these have made pro bats in the past.
What hasn’t changed is the method they use to put the finish on the bats. Some bats are delicately hung by fishhooks as they wind through a machine that sprays and then dries them. There are color finishes as well, and of course the trademark stamps. Each player that is signed with Louisville Slugger has their actual signature produced into a stamp that is burned or etched on the bat depending on the finish. The wall of the lobby is filled with all the signatures that the company has, including that of the first ever athlete to endorse a product- Honus Wagner. Here are some I thought you might enjoy.