JEFFERSONVILLE, Ind. — Baseball has changed over the years, but one component of the game has remained constant--the Louisville Slugger bat.
In 1896 it was made from white ash by woodcrafters standing before a lathe.
Today, when factories in Haiti and Korea churn out balls and gloves and grass fields have given way to artificial turf, woodcrafters stand before a lathe to shape the Louisville Slugger from white ash.
"It's a part of America that goes on and on and on," said Bill Williams, vice president of the Hillerich and Bradsby Co., which makes the Slugger here.
"It's a craft that has remained unchanged for 100 years. The only difference is the power source. We're using electricity instead of steam."
H&B, the world's largest maker of bats, will produce about 1 million wooden bats this year. Of those, about 100,000 will be used by major and minor league baseball players. About 90% of the players in the major leagues are under contract to H&B, and their signatures appear on models of their bats.
Williams said H&B loses about $13 on each bat it makes for professional players, yet it is something the company doesn't intend to change.
"I'm sure the Harvard Business School would tell us to get rid of the wood bat factory," said Williams. "But we look at this as a service we provide to professional baseball.
"As long as we can provide wood bats, we will. If we would quit making wood bats, I'd say you'd see aluminum bats in professional baseball. No one could fill the void we'd leave."
The Hillerich family became involved in bat-making in 1884, when 17-year-old John Andrew Hillerich fashioned a bat at his father's woodworking shop. The tool brought Louisville Eclipse star Pete (The Gladiator) Browning out of a batting slump.
In 1905, Honus Wagner, the Hall of Fame shortstop from the Pittsburgh Pirates, signed a contract with J.F. Hillerich and Son giving them permission to use his autograph on the Louisville Sluggers.
He was the first. Through the years, the greatest names in baseball have put their signatures on a Slugger, including home run kings Babe Ruth, Roger Maris and Hank Aaron. Ty Cobb set his numerous batting marks with a Slugger and in 1941, Joe DiMaggio used a Slugger to hit in 56 consecutive games while Ted Williams was using a slugger to hit .406.
The company's name changed to Hillerich & Bradsby Co. in 1916 when it merged with Frank W. Bradsby, a St. Louis sporting goods dealer. Bradsby was eventually bought out by the Hillerich family.
Most of the wood used by H&B is grown on the company's 5,000 acres of timberland in New York and Pennsylvania and shipped to the company's factory in Jeffersonville. The company outgrew its Louisville, Ky., plant in 1974 and purchased a 56-acre facility in Jeffersonville, just across the Ohio River.
The majority of Louisville Sluggers are turned on automatic lathes that can make a bat in eight seconds. The bats used by the major leaguers, though, are produced by craftsmen at a rate of one every 20 minutes.
While H&B has maintained much of its tradition, it has been forced to change to remain competitive. H&B has eight international offices and makes golf clubs, hockey sticks, gloves and aluminum bats at different locations.
It expanded into the aluminum bat business to meet a demand in the softball and amateur baseball ranks and to compete with other sporting goods manufacturers, Williams said. Wood bats account for 20% of H&B's sales of about $50 million a year, but Williams said the company has no desire to quit making them.
"We've got a product that is 100% natural, 100% replenishable," Williams said. "We'll keep making Sluggers: it's tradition."