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The bat that made a hit.

In 1839, Abner Graves watched his Cooperstown friend and schoolmate, Abner Doubleday, use a stick to mark out a diamond-shaped field in the dirt. Doubleday explained the rules of a new game he had invented and named "baseball."

History recognizes Abner Doubleday as the father of baseball and Abner Graves as creator of the first stitched-cover baseball. This historic horsehide, and undersized, cloth-stuffed, misshapen and homemade baseball, was discovered in the trunk of a farmer's attic in 1935. The farmer's ancestor was Abner Graves. Today, this first baseball sits in a glass case at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

But who made the first baseball bat? Who first used his imagination and saw greater power inherent in a round piece of timber than in a cricket bat or the flat paddle players of Town Ball and One Old Cat, predecessors of modern baseball?

History does not record any one person as inventor of the bat. Undoubtedly, the first players made their own bats and fashioned them according to their individual desires. Even in later years, when the growth of the game resulted in bat-making becoming a profitable part of the wood-turning business, so careful were some of the old-time sluggers about their war clubs that they personally selected and seasoned the timber from which their bats were fashioned. Modern industry's organization, specialization and efficiency are now doing that for the players.

the indispensable weapon for the past 100 years has been the "Louisville Slugger" bat--the standard wherever baseball is played. Babe Ruth rose to glory on the power of the "Slugger." So did Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx and the other great hitters past and present.

The Slugger's origin goes back to an "errant" young wood turner, John "Bud" Hillerich, who worked in his dad's shop in Louisville. One summer day in 1884, Bud prolonged his lunch hour to watch his favorite team, the Eclipses. Pete "Old Gladiator" Browning, the slugger of the Eclipses, happened to break his favorite bat that day. Bud promptly invited Browning to his Father's shop and promised to make a new bat.

Bud selected a sturdy ash timber, put it on a lathe and shaped it into a bat. He let Pete take a few test swings and was advised to take "a mite off here and a mite off there." The next day, Browning went up to the plate with history's first custom-made bat. He pounded "three for three." Bud Hillerich was in the "bat business"!

But the elder Hillerich, who had no time for baseball, could not be convinced. "I won't allow some whim to get the best of my business judgement," he roared. "There's no future in supplying an article for a mere game."

In spite of the grumblings of the "old man," Bud stuck with it, turning out bats after hours. Gradually more and more players beat a path to the door of the man who built a better bat.

Hillerich Sr. finally conceded. He agreed to open a shop entirely devoted to bat-making and registered the name "Louisvilee Slugger." The trademark as well as the names of players using the bats was branded on each one.

In 1905, Honus Wagner signed a contract to have his autograph used on Louisville Slugger bats sold to the public. And "endorsement advertising" was born.

In 1910, the sporting-goods tycoon Frank Bradsby joined the firm. Hillerich and Bradsby continued growing to its present output of 5 million bats a year.

Early day baseball bats were veritable wagon tongues. There were no restrictions on size or weight. Pete Browning's bat weighed 48 ounces. Babe Ruth also swung a club of 48 ounces but moved down to 40-ounces later in his career. Today's bats are much lighter and average 32 to 34 ounces. Modern players prefer the lighter models because of the longer seasons and day-and-night schedules.

Ash is the ideal timber for the modern bat. It is tough and light and will drive the ball. The highest grade of ash comes from trees in Pennsylvania, New York and other Northeastern states. Each tree yields approximately 60 finished bats. After the trunks are cut into 40-inch logs and seasoned, specialized craftsmen turn them by hand. The entire bat-making process is open to the public at the Hillerich and Bradsby bat museum.

An inspection of the famous Sluggers shows the individual whims of each player. "The Ted Williams model has narrow grain, while Al simmons' bat has wide grain," explained Rex Bradley, vice president of Professional/Amateur Services. "Babe Ruth liked his bats with pin knots. Willie Keeler used the smallest bat of all time--30 inches long. The longest bat today would be the one we make for Dave Parker--36-1/2 inches long."

Idiosyncrasies abound, it seems, among players looking for "hot" bats. Some oil their bats, tar them, rub them and even heat them. Frank Frisch would hang his Sluggers in a barn during the winter to cure them as one would a sausage. Pete Rose wanted to use a rose-colored bat, but his idea was disallowed by the umpires.

Hillerich and Bradsby started its own aluminum line several years ago. The major leagues firmly rejected the idea of switching to aluminum bats. Such a change would have been tantamount to redesigning Old Glory. Wood and bat have been synonymous since 1839. Who would dare change that distinctive, clear, crack of bat meeting ball?
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Title Annotation:Louisville Slugger
Author:Curreri, Joe
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1984
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