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On a balmy afternoon in July 1884, John “Bud” Hillerich of Louisville, Ky., did what many other teenage boys might have done in his place: He skipped work to catch a major league baseball game at the city’s Eclipse Park. That seemingly innocuous act of truancy would prove historic not only for Hillerich but also for Louisville and baseball itself, as you’ll have a chance to learn at the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory here in the heart of the Falls City’s “Museum District.” Just 17, Bud worked at the woodworking shop his father, J.F. Hillerich, had opened in 1855. The younger Hillerich had a passion for America’s budding pastime, and one of the Louisville Eclipse’s stars he ventured to see play was infielder Pete Browning, the so-called “Louisville Slugger.” Known for his hitting efficiency and power, Browning had been struggling at the plate, however—a slide that would continue that day. After Browning broke his bat, Hillerich offered to have his dad personally craft a replacement to the player’s specifications. Browning eagerly accepted, and the next game, his new weapon in hand, immediately broke out of his slump. Partial to more traditional and practical woodworking options, the elder Hillerich had no desire for bat making to become a fulltime endeavor, it should be noted. But by the time Bud assumed the company’s reins in 1894, that—and the manufacturing of sports equipment in general—would be its destiny. Bud patented the “Louisville Slugger” name in 1894, and in 1905 signed the famed Honus Wagner as a promotional spokesman. In 1916, he joined forces with Frank Bradsby to form the Hillerich & Bradsby Co. Among stars to wield Louisville Sluggers over the years were Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, and, pictured below, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Joe Adcock of the Milwaukee Braves.

Photo of A giant baseball bat outside the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory in Louisville, Kentuckyís largest city, along the winding Ohio River. Louisville Slugger is a brand of baseball bat produced by the Hillerich & Bradsby Company.
A Splendid Twig. The world’s “largest baseball bat”—120 feet tall and 68,000 pounds—helps make the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory a can’t-miss destination in downtown Louisville. Opened in July 1996, this is more than a museum. Legendary Hillerich & Bradsby Co. baseball bats are still manufactured here. (Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory)
Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Joe Adcock of the Milwaukee Braves, holding bats. (Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory)

’Round the Horn

The museum’s current location, 800 W. Main Street, is the fourth site at which the company has manufactured its sports equipment. Nearby museums of note include the Frazier History Museum, the Muhammad Ali Center, and the Kentucky Science Center.

Prominent in the museum’s foyer is a wall featuring the signatures of every player to have signed a Louisville Slugger contract. Factory tours are available, as are batting cages where you can swing replica bats. To experience what it’s like to face a 90-mph fastball, check out the “Feel the Heat” exhibit.

Since 2006, the company has proudly manufactured distinctive pink bats for use on Mother’s Day.

this article first appeared in American history magazine

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