Summer is well under way, and many of you are probably planning vacations and road trips across the country.
If you find yourself, for any reason, traveling down Interstate 65 through downtown Louisville, Kentucky, you’ll notice the handle of a giant baseball bat peaking above the buildings. Nestled in the northwest corner of Louisville’s downtown area, the Louisville Slugger Museum is just a few pitches distance from the great Ohio River, and close enough to Slugger Stadium to walk. The bat is a replica of Babe Ruth’s own, and leans against a five story brick building engraved with the name Hillerich & Bradsby Co. Just across the street is the genealogical research library, America’s Heritage: Sons of the American Revolution. It seems fitting that a library preserving our country’s history would neighbor one dedicated to America’s favorite pastime.
Sometimes it seems we’ve forgotten the charm that baseball once brought to our country. But an afternoon spent in the modestly priced museum at the north end of Museum Row will reinstate one’s faith in the game that many baseball loyalists recall with fond memories from their visits to Fenway, Wrigley, Yankee, Slugger…
Come with me and discover why attendance records have been broken in the short span of 2013 alone (January, 6,000 visitors; February, over 13,000; March, 25,000 – all during the off-season!). Let’s take a peak behind the tinted glass doors and see what has been drawing people through them since 1996 (and, based on the length of their lease, will continue to draw people in for the next 183 years).
You are greeted by a gift shop on your left that baseball naysayers will be drawn to after completing the museum’s tour. If that’s you, rest assured that sites like Trip Advisor are filled with positive reviews from even baseball cynics. (As of this writing, it is currently ranked #1 of 58 attractions in Louisville.)
If you’re lucky, you just might get a glimpse, like I did, of the company’s president, Jack Hillerich, grandson of the founder John A. “Bud” Hillerich (b.1866-d.1946). Or maybe you’ll run into Dale Murphy or Ben Revere, just a couple of the major league players who have made their way through the museum in the last six months alone. I missed him, but Chuck Harmon, the Cincinnati Red’s first African American player, stopped in the day I was there.
Baseball lovers of all ages will appreciate the up-close view of the production line. Here, tourists are brought through the step-by-step process of the conception of a Louisville Slugger at eye level.
Tour groups are lead through the process by a knowledgeable guide. At the start of the tour, you are greeted by stacks and rows of billets, cylindrical pieces of wood, shipped in from Pennsylvania and New York mills. Some are destined for the shelf of a retail store, and others will shine under stadium lights in the hands of major league greats.
On the tour, you’ll witness the work of lathes – wood carving machines – that cut and shape each billet to exactness (precise down to 1/100th of an inch), specific to the needs of the players. But these machines didn’t become the go-to for crafting bats as far back in history as one might think. Slugger bats have been hand-turned up until a shockingly recent date. (Hint: It’s very likely Johnny Bench and Rod Carew hit with hand-spun bats.)
Next, the bats are carted to the sanders, on the very carts that once carried Gehrig’s, Cobbs’, and Lazzeri’s bats. Here, they are sanded down to a smooth, silky texture. These sanders produce up to 15,000 lbs of sawdust a day.
Once the sanded bats are dipped in a water-based lacquer – 400 bats per hour – they’re taken over to be foil-branded, where the brand new Louisville Slugger’s shiny gold logo is meticulously placed on each bat. This year is the first time in 33 years the logo has been updated. There’s another brander, a century old, for unpolished bats where they are branded the old-fashioned way, by an iron. Be sure to smell it for that old-fashioned campfire smell.
At the end of the factory tour, you’ll be given a mini Louisville slugger bat to take home with you. And don’t forget to pay the $1 fee to hit your choice of ten fastballs or ten softballs with your favorite player’s bat. (I was only able to just barely skim the ball once with Hank Aaron’s anvil of a bat.)
Who knows who’s bat you’ll see brought to life when you tour the factory. It’s possible that when you watch David Wright crouching over home plate (another recent visitor), that might be the very bat you saw take its first breath of air in the bat factory in downtown Louisville at the Slugger Museum.