By: David Magee and Philip Shirley; Foreword by Ken Griffey Jr.
Reviewed by: Sidney J. Vance
Triumph Books, 2009
Sweet Spot: 125 Years of Baseball and the Louisville Slugger is a generous pictorial history of the Louisville Slugger, the essential baseball bat for over a century. David Magee’s and Philip Shirley’s complete chronological account begins with the mythic origins of the bat in the 1880s and extends to the technology of contemporary composite alloy techno-bats. The book relies on the unique historical consistency of baseball and its meticulous records to show how the Hillerich family business has imparted a mystique to its bats that has enhanced the game and made its brand one of the most recognizable and profitable in all of sports.
The authors use well the license to mythologize, a favor often granted to writers of baseball history. Their preferred version of the origin of the bat has Bud Hillerich in 1884 putting the first bat turned on his lathe in the hands of Pete Browning, a hard-hitting outfielder for the Louisville Eclipse, the team which later became the Colonels of the American Association. Browning, conveniently nicknamed "The Louisville Slugger," was a powerful hitter. His .373 average led the league in 1890 and he batted .341 over thirteen seasons. While the Browning version is the most colorful of the myths of creation, the alternate stories agree that Hillerich made his first bat for a major league player in Louisville in 1883 or 1884. He registered the trademark, "Louisville Slugger," in 1894, and the rest is cultural history and American mythology.
The wood-working enterprise that J. Frederich Hillerich founded in 1859 has since then been largely managed by his descendants into the fifth generation. In 1897, Frederich’s son, Bud, became a partner in the J.F. Hillerich and Son Company. Bud, creator of the original Louisville Slugger, entrepreneur, and inventor of automatic sanders and lathes, convinced his father that baseball bats and not "butter churns, bedposts and bowling balls" should be the centerpiece of the business. The book’s steady focus on the Hillerich family enterprise imparts an almost priestly hereditary role to their making of the nearly sacramental bat.
The family business and its extensive repository of memorabilia, records, and photographs used in Sweet Spot attest to the historical acumen and promotional skills of Bud Hillerich. He recognized the marketing potential of endorsements by notable athletes at the dawn of the twentieth century. Honus Wagner, the modern game’s first superstar, used Hillerich’s bats in his rookie season with the Colonels in 1897. By 1905 Wagner was the premier player in the game with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Hillerich had branded his contractual signature into thousands of bats retailed throughout the country. Hall-of-Fame players Ty Cobb and Napoleon Lajoie had signed similar contracts and bats by 1908.
After these early successes, the authors write, the Hillerich business endured a sequence of near-calamities. Fire, flood, financial depression, and fierce competition sent the company into slumps in sales or production at various times in the twentieth century. However, the Louisville Slugger prevailed, through Bud’s close relationships with the powers of Major League Baseball and the genius of Frank Bradsby. The nearly cataclysmic fire that struck the factory in December 1910 led to Hillerich’s partnership with Bradsby, the managerial and marketing genius who steered the company to successes in the Ruthian Twenties and the Depressed Thirties. Bradsby had increased the sale of the autographed Slugger Junior 600% by 1916, and his name has since then been branded with Hillerich’s on every bat the company made. Also under Bradsby, the company began to manufacture PowerBilt golf clubs, used by winners of the PGA and the U.S. Open in the thirties.
While Bradsby managed, Hillerich golfed and toured with the titans of baseball. He and his wife were special guests of The Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig All Stars, who sailed to Japan in 1934 for games with the team that became the Yomiuri Giants. Archival photographs show the Hilleriches sharing celebrity with the Ruths, the Gehrigs, and the Lefty Gomezes.
The great Ohio River flood of 1937 marked another turn in the fortunes of the company, the authors write. The flood shut down all manufacturing for over a month shortly before the start of the baseball season. While the company survived, Frank Bradsby did not. He died of a heart attack in May 1937 at the age of 69. The Hillerich family eventually bought his share of the company from his heirs, but his success is memorialized by his name branded into every bat.
The inclusion of three centerfold pages that slickly depict the newest Hillerich & Bradsby hybrid graphite/alloy bat seems to be the only instance of actual product promotion in the book. Aside from this corporate cheerleading, the flaws are minor. For example, the caption on a picture of Rogers Hornsby misidentifies him as "...perhaps the greatest shortstop to ever play the game." Hornsby played most of career at second base, however. A couple of obvious errors in typesetting are also distracting, but this attractive book is a solid and interesting study of the interaction of the iconic and the commercial in sport.
Serious students of baseball will appreciate this cultural and commercial history documented by unique pictures and documents. The unforgettable cover photograph of Ted Williams kissing the sweet spot on his Louisville Slugger is one of many shots of baseball stars with their precious bats. Sweet Spot is also a warm invitation to the interactive Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, with its 120-foot tall carbon-steel sculpture which supposedly replicates Babe Ruth’s bat, although branded with the signature of A.J. "Bud" Hillerich. June 2009
Sidney J. Vance, Professor Emeritus, taught for many years courses in medieval literature, the writings of baseball, and other necessary topics under the aegis of the English Department at the University of Montevallo.