When I was a sandlot baseball player, in the 1950s, my favorite bat was a 32-ounce Ted Williams model. Brand-new, it was a thing of beauty, the ash smooth and polished to a high gloss. Of course it didn't take long for the bat to become scarred and smudged. When it cracked, I tried to fix it with a nail and masking tape, hoping to squeeze a few more hits out of it.
Every time I looked at the trademark, I felt a special pride, because my bat was a Louisville Slugger, made by the Hillerich & Bradsby Co. in the Kentucky city where I lived. The Louisville Slugger was the bat of choice for every star in the big leagues except those infidels (boo! hiss!) who perversely endorsed Adirondack or some other obscure brand.
Those days were very much on my mind on July 16, when I attended the grand opening of the Louisville Slugger Museum, the centerpiece of H&B's new corporate headquarters and manufacturing plant, at Eighth and Main near the Ohio River. The museum is only about eight blocks from where the first Louisville Slugger was produced in 1884. The building is easy to find, mainly because it's the only one in town with a 120-foot-high bat leaning on it.
The guests of honor at the opening were 14 former big leaguers, including nine of the 56 living members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. But the star of stars was Williams, the only honoree who received a standing ovation from the crowd of 600. Hobbled by a couple of strokes, the erstwhile Splendid Splinter, now 78, was helped onto the stage by his son, John Henry Williams.
Nobody in baseball history took hitting more seriously than Ted Williams, who batted .344, with 521 homers, in his 19-year career with the Boston Red Sox—a career that was interrupted twice for military duty, during World War II and the Korean War. Williams wanted only the best wood for his bats, and he frequently came to Louisville to pick it out.
"When I first came to this factory, 60 years ago," Williams said, "I was just like a young kid in a toy factory. I thought, Boy, this is the greatest place I've ever been. My first trip here I met a dear old guy named Fritz Bickel. He was one of the lathe guys. He took a liking to me because he could see how intent and interested I was. When I left, I gave him 10 dollars. And I tell you, I got the best bats in the league from then on."
Across the stage Bobby Doerr, the Red Sox second baseman during most of the years Williams was in leftfield, smiled and chimed in. "I was with Ted that morning," Doerr recalled. "We had to sit on the steps of the factory a half hour, waiting for it to open. Ted wanted the lathe guys to pick out the wood with these little knots and put it in his bats.
"In 1941, at that All-Star Game in Detroit where Ted hit that famous home run, he ran into Mr. [Bud] Hillerich at the hotel. He said, 'Mr. Hillerich, I want some 32-ounce bats.' And Mr. Hillerich said, 'Ted, you can't get good wood with a bat that light.' But Ted proved that the light bat was a big factor in hitting. He was the first player I remember going to a light bat like that."
They were talking about the kind of bat that I owned as a kid.
I could have sat there all night, listening to the legends, but too soon it was time for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. After I toured the museum, my only question was, What took H&B so long to build it? It's the most interesting display of baseball memorabilia west of Cooperstown. Where else can you see one of the bludgeons used by Babe Ruth during his 60-homer year of 1927? The museum also has a short movie, The Heart of the Game, which is a salute to the great hitters; a miniature ballpark modeled after Camden Yards in Baltimore; and some interactive exhibits. Baseball aficionados will be fascinated by the Louisville Slugger's special relationship with the major leagues. Behind every bat there's a story. For example, Stan Musial wanted his bats to have such thin handles that he shaved them down after receiving them from the H&B factory.