In an op-ed piece in the The Courier-Journal, Marty Archer, Louisville Slugger president for Hillerich & Bradsby Co., reflected on the 125th anniversary of the bat manufacturer. Archer discussed Louisville Slugger's roots, its charitable efforts, and the stewardship of the Hillerich family.
The full op-ed piece follows:
Perched high on the east side of the Heyburn Building at Fourth and Broadway, Bud Hillerich's likeness looks down at passersby with a freshly turned Louisville Slugger bat in his hand, wood chips covering his broad arms, and the mural proclaiming that Bud is Louisville's Slugger. Quite a statement given that what made Bud noteworthy began 125 years ago.
It was during the professional baseball pennant race of 1884 that one of the country's most enduring family businesses and sports legacies sprung up between the dust of a west Louisville baseball diamond and a woodworking shop on Main Street. The product was one that would forever make Louisville synonymous with the game of baseball.
Pete 'The Old Gladiator'Browning of the Louisville Eclipse had broken his favorite bat in a game. John A.'Bud' Hillerich, a 17-year-old spectator and himself an accomplished semi-pro player, took Browning back to his father's woodworking shop and worked through the night to develop a model that Browning felt gave him that 'edge' that all hitters covet. Browning went 3 for 4 the next day, and the J.F. Hillerich & Son woodworking shop, known for its butter churns, rolling pins and bedposts, gave way to what Bud's father thought was a frivolous waste of material and time: a baseball bat.
Over the next 20 years the Hillerich shop competed with a multitude of wood-turning operations that were making bats for what was becoming 'America's Pastime.' In 1905, Bud Hillerich signed Honus Wagner, the Hall of Fame shortstop of the Pittsburgh Pirates, to what is believed to be the first-ever sports endorsement contract. Exclusive bat endorsement contracts followed with the best players ever to play the game.
When many of the game's professional baseball players of the 1940s were drafted into World War II, the company known by then as Hillerich & Bradsby contributed to the war effort by producing M1 carbine rifle stocks. More recently, Hillerich & Bradsby has continued to support troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of the world with donations of sports equipment for their recreation. Always civic-minded and charitable, Louisville Slugger in 2006 began manufacturing and donating pink bats to be used in Major League Baseball games on Mother's Day to raise awareness of breast cancer. Since then, Louisville Slugger has helped MLB raise over $1 million for breast cancer research, screening, and treatment.
Central to all of this is a culture of continuity in the Hillerich family's ownership and management of the company. It is a culture that encourages empowerment of employees and that is constantly seeking new and improved processes to provide the world's best professional and amateur players with what they want and expect in their products. Perhaps most important, the Hillerich family sees themselves as stewards of the business with a primary goal of passing it from one generation to the next.
Few things last 125 years, particularly family-owned companies. But in all those years, there have been but five CEOs of Hillerich & Bradsby Co. Their positive impact on our community has often been quite tangible. For example, the 'Jewels of the Mile' – the vision of John A. 'Jack' Hillerich III to create the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory at 8th and Main and Louisville Slugger Field at Preston and Main – have literally transformed downtown Louisville and the Main Street district. The Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory attracts nearly 250,000 visitors every year.
Today's CEO, John Hillerich IV, is very much in tune with the culture, yet very aware of the challenges that face the company now and in the future. He has demonstrated his ability to be the steward he was groomed to be, and the leader he has to be to perpetuate the family business that inspires good thoughts of the city of Louisville every time someone anywhere in the world thinks of Louisville Slugger. John also continues to rely on the efforts of other family members, notably cousins Bob, Tom and Brian Hillerich who oversee manufacturing processes ensuring that today's players will be as satisfied with their Louisville Sluggers as Pete Browning was with his. John's brother-in-law, Bill Clark, heads up the fast-growing Bionic Glove division of the company.
The thousands of us who have worked with the Hillerich family over the past 125 years appreciate that we have a great privilege as well as a responsibility. Employee service at the company routinely reaches 30, 40 and even 50 years, and the respect, trust and loyalty between employer and employee borders on the sublime. There simply aren't many, if any companies like Louisville Slugger around any longer.
To the Hillerich family, and to Louisville Slugger, Happy 125th Birthday! Outside of professional sports teams, no city is more identified with a sporting goods product than Louisville is with the Louisville Slugger.
– Marty Archer is Louisville Slugger division president for Hillerich & Bradsby Co. in Louisville.