Who is baseball’s all-time hits leader?
If you said Pete Rose, you’re wrong.
No man in the sport’s history can claim as many knocks (or subsequent mound visits) as our guest today, Jack Hillerich III, Louisville Slugger’s former CEO and current Chairman of the Board.
From 1969 until 2001, Jack Hillerich III presided as CEO to the largest bat company in the world, putting more bats in more hands than any man since the game was invented and still to this day. Only 28 years old in ’69, he took the reigns of Louisville Slugger just in time for the greatest changes ever to hit the game. Jack’s tenure spanned the advent of “Ping” in 1970, an enormous shift in the bat industry. The switch from forests to refineries didn’t keep H&B from remaining the top brand on the diamond, however. A hundred million-or-two bats later, just about everyone reading this has tallied a few Punching Judy’s off the cap of a metal (or wood) Louisville Slugger at some point in their lives (my favorite was the black/turquoise drop 11 that my dad still keeps in the car… absolute rake).
Jack is the grandson of Bud Hillerich (above), the man who turned Slugger’s first bat in 1884. In this conversation, Jack tells WPW’s bat historian, Rocky, about the company’s heritage as well as his fondest memories of the factory—those with the Splendid Splinter, “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived,” Ted Williams, who (in the least surprising news in baseball history) was pretty particular about his wood.
WPW could probably write a book on Jack’s experiences, but I hope you’ll settle on this brief but authentic interview. Many thanks to Jack for the time and Rocky for the journalism.
WPW: What is your history with the company?
JH: I started there around high school, and I have gone through about everything we have done. In 1969, my father passed away and I became President and Chairman of the Board. Mostly what I like to do is be out in the factory, trying to improve the process, but of course, having been CEO, I have done a little of everything.
WPW: How old were you when you became CEO?
JH: I was 28.
WPW: Did you play baseball?
JH: I played in high school.
WPW: What position did you play?
JH: I played first base and I pitched.
WPW: You have been doing this since 1969, what are the biggest changes you have seen in the field?
JH: Starting out with aluminum bats was a big change, that just changed everything. We went from making eight million bats a year to 3. That was a big change, so we had to adapt. That is one thing that we’ve been pretty good at. We stay pretty close to the game, and close to the players, and of course with our customers and our suppliers, we certainly like to swim with the fish. We are pretty close and can see changes happening, so we adapt pretty well.
WPW: Have you ever turned bats yourself?
JH: I’ve tried. I wasn’t very good at it. That is one thing that we see, you can either do it or you can’t. It is not something you can be trained to do. I’ve seen some people pick up a tool and go to town with it, and others will try and try, and never get the hang of it. It is sort of an innate skill.
WPW: Do you actively recruit people with that skill set?
JH: No, we have enough people who have it, so we don’t have to go out and get backups.
WPW: Is it becoming a skill less needed because of computers?
JH: Yes, we still have to have it around for the occasional one off bat, a bat that someone wants to dig out and a have duplicate made for him or his grandfather, instead of setting up the computer and getting all of that done, we will just hand turn that one bat.
WPW: When you get a request for a specific bat do you go to the shelves with the models, and have the computer measure and cut it right there?
JH: Yes. 15 years ago we had four or five people making Major League bats, and now we have 35 making them.
WPW: How wide is the range of places that you get the wood for your bats?
JH: The hardwood is what we use, of course, ash and maple, and the best in the U.S. is near the border of New York and Pennsylvania, from about Erie to New York City, twenty-five miles either side of that is the belt where you find the best hardwoods.
WPW: About 1996, I had a conversation with a retailer who was predicting that the wood bat would soon be disappearing. He thought we were running out of wood, but I see new brands and varieties being added. What do you think will happen with wood bats?
JH: There are new species being added, Maple being one that was not around in 1996, and as far as Major Leaguers are concerned, it is now about 50% of what they use. There are other species that are coming on now that players seem to like. Whether or not they take hold we don’t know. We will not know until the future tells us if they really like them.
WPW: Are you actively pursuing new types of wood?
WPW: Are there any exciting ones coming up?
JH: Birch seems to be one that is gaining a foothold, but it is too early to tell if it will go mainstream or not. There are so many things about a wood bat that we can’t tell, for instance, the sound of a bat. We came out with a wonderful bat made out of beech, very durable, didn’t chip, and (the players) didn’t like the sound.
WPW: Is there one product that you wish you hadn’t tried to make?
JH: We took our first aluminum bat, tried to make it like a wooden bat, put our logo on it, and we found out that people wanted an aluminum bat to look like an aluminum bat. They wanted an aluminum bat to be graphically exciting and all kinds of other things.
WPW: What are differences between your wood and your aluminum bats?
JH: There is a big difference, the sweet spot is so much bigger with aluminum…well, it used to be, now that they have come out with all of the new rules it is diminishing. They are trying to make an aluminum bat perform like a wood bat, which is causing all of the aluminum bats to become generic, which is tough for us manufacturers.
WPW: You grew up around the factory. What was your first impression when you walked into the place?
JH: The enormity of the number of bats we had in the factory. Over a million bats at one time being processed, and I just thought…”wow, this is huge”…I couldn’t get over the number of bats out there.
WPW: Do you have a number for how many bats you have produced?
JH: We haven’t added it up, but it has to be 150 to 200 million. I am just guessing, but not too far off.
WPW: Do the players come to the factory?
JH: Occasionally. It used to be that we had Major Leaguers coming through here barnstorming to Florida, and they would play a game with our local team. They would drop by the factory. Ted Williams was one of them. Every time he played here he came by the factory, and he would pick out the lumber he wanted his bats made from. He was one of the few. Today, players don’t really do that. Occasionally we will get a player from Cincinnati who is a friend of Chuck Schupp to see the factory, but that is about it.
WPW: Do players now expect you to bring the bats to them?
JH: Oh yes. We talk to them all of the time. They will say something like “I want to try a smaller barrel bat”…we will ask, is there a certain model you want, and they will say “no, just take my handle and take a little off the barrel, and make a new model bat.” Most of the time they will just pick up someone else’s bat, and they say, “I want a dozen of those.” That is how most of them change bats.
WPW: Who was your favorite player to come through the factory?
JH: Ted Williams.
WPW: Was he constantly tweaking his bat, or was he pretty set in what he liked?
JH: He changed, we have a record of six or seven models over the years, and I put them in the computer, and we measured them at various locations on the bat, and I found 1/64th of an inch difference between all of them. They were different, but if you added up all of the changes it only added up to 1/64th of an inch.
WPW: Did any of them try to make a bat?
JH: No, they took one look at that hand turner…
WPW: If you had to go to the plate for one bat, which bat would you want to use?
JH: The R43. Babe Ruth’s bat, 35 inches. That is the most valuable bat in our museum, and that is one I would want to hit with.
WPW: As Chairman of the Board, what do you see as the future of the company?
JH: There are so many challenges right now with rules committees, the leagues and the governing bodies. They say that the wood bat is coming back, but I don’t think we can take the aluminum or composite bats away—wood is just too expensive for that.
WPW: What are Slugger’s plans to market internationally?
JH: We’ve been shipping internationally forever. Japan, of course is the biggest. There is a little to Europe, a little in Taiwan, and a little in Korea. China has not opened up yet, and we are not sure if they will.
WPW: Why have you outlasted everyone else?
JH: I think our forefathers gave us one hell of a good name, it has stuck, and stayed around, and everyone knows it. Everywhere I go around the country they know our name. I was in New Zealand two years ago, stopped at a gas station and the attendant asked where I was from. When I said Kentucky, he asked what part, and when I said Louisville, he asked “Slugger?” The name is one thing, but the other was our forefathers’ love of baseball. My grandfather (Bud Hillerich) went to every World Series, went to every winter baseball meeting. He knew all of the owners, he knew the players and he knew the managers. He had a terrific love for baseball. My father (Jack Hillerich, Jr., CEO from 1949 until his death in 1969) was the same, he knew all of the owners and the players. In the 30s, the 40s and the 50s, we signed up a lot of minor league players. Scouts would get paid if their guy made it to the majors. Those scouts would want contracts for their players with Louisville Slugger, because we didn’t spend money on just anyone, if you had a contract with Louisville Slugger you had something. That really helped. We got some really great players from that.
(All photos courtesy of the Louisville Slugger Museum)