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  • JULIE WHITE

The Visitor Centre today is ... Louisville Slugger Museum

Batter up! Step up to the plate and see how this iconic sports brand's museum and factory tour hits it out of the park when it comes to engagement.

Forbes calls it ‘One of the greatest sports museums in the world.' With bats produced by the same family-owned business since the 1880s, we visit the museum and factory tour of Hillerich & Bradsby Company (H&B), an icon of America’s favourite sport, in Louisville, Kentucky, USA.


Louisville is Kentucky’s largest city and home to both the Kentucky Derby and Muhammad Ali. Here, you can sip some of the world's finest spirits along the Bourbon Trail, enjoy the beautiful countryside and visit the horse farms in Lexington. But there is more to Kentucky and a trip here should definitely include a visit to the Louisville Slugger Museum and Tour.


Even if, like us, you're not into baseball, turns out this experience has something for everyone.


Brand History

J Frederich Hillerich emigrated from Germany in 1842 and eventually moved to the Kentucky town of Louisville.


Louisville was a boom town when J Frederich arrived in 1856. Strategically located at the falls of the Ohio River, before J Frederich arrived, boats navigating the river's dangerous rapids, had to be unloaded in Louisville and their cargo transported overland, which created a hub for trade and commerce. In 1828 the Louisville and Portland Canal opened, allowing boats to bypass the falls and travel directly to Louisville. Steamboat traffic boomed, boosting trade in the area and the population increased massively, making Louisville the nation's tenth-largest city at the time. The city was a hub for all forms of trade, including tobacco, hemp, corn, wheat, livestock, lumber and other wood products, and, sadly, people, with slave traders bringing enslaved people from the South to be sold in the city through the 1850s and 1860s.


Capitalising on the growing timber trade, by 1864 J.F. Hillerich's woodworking shop was open for business, making bed posts, barrels, butter churns and steamboat interiors. You can even see one of their butter churns in the museum. The business thrived.

In 1880, his teenage son, John "Bud" Hillerich, joined him as an apprentice. Bud was an amateur baseball player and made his own baseball bats and bats for his teammates.


Bud really wanted to add baseball bats to the family business, but his father thought there was no money in it, preferring to put all their efforts into their very popular, patented, swinging butter churn.


In 1884 Bud attended a Louisville Eclipse major league baseball game. On that day Pete ‘The Louisville Slugger’ Browning broke his bat during the game. Seventeen year old Bud seized his chance, offering to make a bat for the player and took him to his father’s carpentry shop to tailor make a bat for him. In the following match, Pete scored 3 for 3 using Bud's bat, and orders poured in, with Louisville Slugger becoming the brand's trademark in 1894. Bud's father had been proved wrong. There really was money in baseball bats.

In 1905, Honus "The Flying Dutchman" Wagner, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, signed a contract with the brand. His autograph was etched onto his bat and he became the first professional athlete in history to endorse an athletic product. The decision to put the player’s signature on bats made the Louisville Sluggers even more popular, not just with the players, but also with the public, and the bats remain collectable to this day.

FUN FACT - Do you have one of the fifty-six T206 Honus Wagner baseball cards like in the image? If so, you're in luck. A 1909-1911 Wagner T-206, considered the rarest baseball card in the world, set the record for the most expensive card ever purchased, selling in 2022 for $7.25 million.


Business for Louisville Slugger was so good, that in 1911 local salesman Frank Bradsby joined the company. The brand moved several times due to the need for more production space, finally moving into the property at 800 West Main St, which remains the home of the factory to this day.


More than 80% of Hall of Famers had contracts with the brand, from Babe Ruth to Joe DiMaggio and Louisville Slugger is the official bat of the MLB (Major League Baseball) and makes bats for everyone, from major league players to kids in little league.


The museum and factory tour opened in 1996 and annually welcomes over 300,000 visitors. A whopping 1.8 million Louisville Slugger bats are made in the factory every year.


Sporting goods brand Wilson acquired the brand in 2015, but Hillerich & Bradsby kept ownership of the museum and factory. H&B’s current President and CEO, John A. Hillerich IV, is the great-grandson of Bud Hillerich, the seventeen year old baseball fan who started it all.


The Visitor Centre design

H&B wanted to bring the factory and offices under one roof while also providing a place for the public to engage with the Louisville Slugger brand. They found premises at 800 West Main Street, the site of a former tobacco warehouse and after extensive renovations, the Museum & Factory Tour opened in July 1996.


The museum underwent further renovations in 2008, led by Formations, Inc of Portland, OR installing an additional 12,500 square feet of exhibits in the museum’s main gallery and factory.

In 2019 the brand worked with attraction design company JRA (Jack Rouse Associates) on enhancing their factory tour experiences.

The museum closed shortly after my visit in 2022, to allow them to complete further renovations. JRA, part of RWS Entertainment Group, returned to complete the gallery renovation, expanding the Bat Vault, creating new temporary exhibit spaces and more.

I will mention these in my guide. I know from personal experience, that it was good before, so now it will be even better and there's even more reason to visit, and for me to return.


Entrance

The fun starts even before you enter the museum. Tributes to players and their bats are included on a mile-long Walk of Fame throughout the city.


You are greeted by the big bat outside the building, the biggest baseball bat in the world, measuring 120 feet tall, a replica of the bat Babe Ruth ordered in the 1920s.


It's a terrific photo opportunity.


Once inside, you find a welcoming entrance lobby and extremely friendly staff.

Pick up your tickets and you're off.


From Forest to Factory

The tour begins with a short film showcasing how the firm still uses its own forest and mills in upstate Pennsylvania and New York, one of the few brands to do so. The brand has bat scientists who select the best trees, and each tree can produce up to 60 bats.

The tour guide also gives us the potted history of the Hillerich & Bradsby brand.


Factory Tour

Follow your tour guide and you’re taken up close and personal with the factory workers, so you get to see pretty much every process on this 30-minute tour. This is truly authentic and there are large monitors to show the process up close too. It's very multi-sensory, from the smell of the wood to the whirl of the machinery, and, in parts, this is a real hands-on experience, as you get to hold bats during their manufacturing process. For the baseball aficionado, like some on our tour, you even get to hold bats owned by legends of the sport.


You see the process from turning to sanding, staining and drying, custom spraying, pad printing and mini bat production.


You're encouraged to take as many photos as you like while inside the factory too, which is a bonus, as you're not allowed to take videos. There are videos online should you want to see them.


The first thing you notice are thousands of wooden billets, cylindrical pieces of wood, from which the bats are shaped. The smell is amazing.

The next stop is the pro player billet bin, a rack of billets destined for major league players. Visitors can go right up and swing one of the bats and people on our tour excitedly picked up bats from their favourite players or teams. Getting to hold bats during production is a real treat, even for us baseball novices.

We got to learn about different woods that are used in bats and how each MLB player can handpick from these wooden billets and also specify the weight of the bat. Each wood produces a bat that feels and sounds different and each wood requires specific maintenance.

There are graphics and screens along the way on the history of the brand. You have time to read everything and never feel rushed.


Next we gather around a lathe machine, turning wooden billets. It takes 48 seconds to take a billet and turn it into a bat on the machines, which is much quicker than the 30 minutes it used to take to make them by hand. The tour guide even pointed out some bats currently being turned for MLB players.

The brand has made over 3000 different bat models over the years. Each bat is unique for each player.

Pro bats are usually sprayed, by hand by technicians, a process you also get to see up close later. Most MLB players order about 100 bats per season.

They even hand out their leftover pieces of wood, encouraging us to make them into something when we get home. I’m hoping to turn mine into candle holders. Even the sawdust is used, sucked up by the hoses and given to local farmers for turkey bedding.

Then we get to see the machines that cut off the wooden nubs and create the hollow, known as the puck, ready for puck balancing. 80% of bats are puck balanced for professional players using a puck knob, a one-inch extension added to the knob of the baseball bat. The puck knob is designed to counterbalance the weight of the barrel to help the player snap the bat quicker, adding bat speed and increasing exit velocity from the swing. There's more to these bats then we envisaged.

The next part of the factory makes all the retail bats, those destined for the store. Each bat is around $75 to buy and you can take them home in your checked bags they tell us.

Then we get to see youth bats being etched. The brand make 10,000 a day. Teams order them through the season and each MLB game has roughly 60,000 mini-bats available for sale.

We watch bats being branded, either foil branded on machines dating from the 1920s, or burn branding into the wood. The guide shows us some bats with names etched onto them.

The guide even pointed out that on the day we visited, bats were being made for the Houston Astros MLB team. We then get to see the dip line, where bats are lacquered by hand.

Then we get to see the bats being packed, ready for shipping.

Then there's a final chance to hold some bats that were used by MLB players.

And, just as the factory tour ends, we get to choose our souvenir bat to take home. This really is so much better than something useless.

And there are those leftover bits of wooden billets. You just take as much as you want away with you. And after a last few questions, that's the end of our tour.


The Museum

The first thing that greets you is a room full of full-size wax figures of famous players such as Jackie Robinson, Derek Jeter and Ted Williams. You can get right up close to the statues and people were having selfies with them.


The 2023 renovations have added backdrops to the players, and placed artefacts and information relating to each player’s relationship to Hillerich & Bradsby Co, right next to their statues. That would certainly give them more context and provide even better photo opportunities.

Visitors can see Babe Ruth’s (1895 - 1948) notched bat from 1927, each notch for a home run he scored that season. Babe Ruth memorabilia continues to be among the most prized artefacts for worldwide collectors and one of his notched bats recently sold for over $1 million at a Christies auction.

There are some exhibits on the history of the brand, plus many artefacts on show.


Wall of Fame

Just inside the doors is a Wall of Fame, displaying the signatures of thousands of current and former players who have used Louisville Slugger bats.


Bat vault

Something we never had access to on our visit was the Bat Vault, as this was part of the VIP tour. This has since been made part of the general admission ticket, as part of the recent remodel, which is very welcome. We would have enjoyed seeing these bats up close. The Bat Vault has doubled in size, to a 638-square-foot gallery, and holds 3,000 original bat models designed as templates by some of the game's most legendary players.

Hold a piece of history

Step up to the barrier and a staff member will invite you to come up and choose a famous bat to hold. We held the wooden bat of Babe Ruth, which was surprisingly heavy.

This is another area that has seen a major renovation, offering more photo possibilities for visitors to display their best batting stance while holding a legendary piece of timber.


Catcher run and batting cage

Visitors can experience what an 80 mph pitch feels like coming towards them, which was slightly terrifying trust me as a novice. Pay a little extra and you can use bats that have been made for famous players in the batting cage.


Witnessing History

We were unlucky on the day we visited, and missed the only hand-turning and branding demonstration. Part of the 2023 renovations installed cameras to show closeups of the hand turning and branding process to the visitors and added in a second daily demonstration.


Diversity on show

In the exhibit gallery, there is a big focus on inclusivity, from women in sport, to addressing baseball's past of racial intolerance. You see first-hand historical terminology, rules and attitudes that can make you feel uncomfortable and which are thankfully totally unacceptable now. It was a real education, but there is always more to learn.

One such exhibit, unearthed by curators, is a grainy photograph of a baseball game featuring black players. Using background references in the image, they discovered the players were from the semi-professional Louisville Unions team playing in 1908. They played for one successful season, against teams of all-white or all-black players, in an era where segregation was the law in most facets of life. Yet here they were on the field, playing baseball against each other.

The museum also showcases artefacts from black star players from the Negro Leagues and bats used by two of the game’s trailblazers, Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby.

In 1947 Jackie Robinson (1919 – 1972) was signed by the all-white, major league Brooklyn Dodgers team. Six months before, he had signed a deal for Louisville Slugger bats, and he took one of those bats onto the field and broke the colour barrier. A fabulous talent, he faced years of racist abuse and threats, but paved the way for other black players in the major sports leagues.

There is also a bat from "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron (1934 – 2021), considered one of the greatest baseball players in history, used to hit his 700th home run. Aaron made sports history on April 8, 1974 when he broke Babe Ruth's total home run record, a record he held for 33 years. The exhibit includes a death threat he received, one of nearly a million threats of violence sent to Aaron during his career.

There is information on Latino players too, who were all but excluded from Major League Baseball until the 1950s, but who now make up over 30% of the players in the Major Leagues in 2023.

Today the majority of players in Major League Baseball are American. In 2020 64% of the players were from the USA with 36% coming from Canada, South America, Asia and Europe.

If, like me, you remember the 1992 film A League Of Their Own, starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis and Madonna, you might be interested in the museum's exhibits on the history of women in baseball.


Fun Fact - Did you know, it took an innovation in clothing, due to the love of the bicycle, to see women play baseball?

in 1851 suffragist Amelia Jenks Bloomer donned loose-fitting trousers under a skirt and 'bloomers' became the rage for women wanting to take part in sport or leisure pursuits. In a time when they could not vote or own property, the first women paid to play baseball took to the field in 1875. Following that, semi-professional Bloomer Girls teams sprung up all over the USA, playing against men, at a time when women’s professional options were very limited. There were no leagues and each team had to have one male player. Despite their talent, the women faced discrimination and the last team disbanded in 1934, when the Great Depression made teams financially unviable.


Fun Fact - What is the connection between chewing gum and the first female professional baseball league?


The film A League of Their Own was based on a true story, of Helen Candaele, and her sister, Margaret, the first sisters to compete in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, founded in 1943 by Philip K. Wrigley, the man behind the chewing gum brand and the Chicago Cubs. He developed the league during World War II to maintain interest in Major League Baseball and fill the void while the majority of American men were fighting overseas. Running from 1943 until 1954, the league featured more than 600 players across 15 teams.

This is another area that has seen a renovation in 2023. Brand ambassadors can now use a dedicated space to bring some of the history to life. This will provide greater engagement opportunities and certainly will create time to develop the narrative and context, especially surrounding topics such as diversity in the sport.


New temporary exhibition space

An additional feature of the 2023 renovations, is a new 200-square-foot area designated for temporary exhibitions, starting with West Main’s Marvel: The Big Bat. In this display, visitors can learn about the history of H&B’s move to the West Main site in 1995, the installation of the iconic Big Bat, and the impact the museum has had on the growth of Louisville tourism.


The store

The gift shop is spread across several rooms and bats can be personalised on site. The retail space is also rumoured to be next in line for a renovation.

Bats are packaged ready for visitors to take them home, but they can also be shipped.

And there's something for everyone from T-shirts to coffee mugs, Christmas baubles to toys.

In conclusion

We visited for just over 2 hours and even for us, with our limited baseball knowledge, we found the tour and exhibits fascinating. We definitely learnt a lot. We knew the names of some iconic players beforehand, such as Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, but on most things baseball, we really are pretty clueless. The historical elements were really interesting and the passion for the sport we witnessed from many on our tour, and in the museum hosts, was evident and heartwarming to witness.


The tour guide was enthusiastic and absolutely loved the sport. The lighting and sound were good in all areas, as the guide also used a microphone. With a tour every 20 to 30 minutes, we were kept moving without feeling rushed, which some experiences can really take note of. Although there was a tour in front of us, we never saw them, so we felt we had the undivided attention of our guide. Maybe with a few more baseball nerds on a tour, you might be held up a little, but it wasn't the case on our visit and everyone could ask questions if they wanted to.


It was refreshing to see a focus on women in sport, and on black history, not as a sideline, but as a main component of the exhibits.


The souvenir bat is well made and a great memento and free, which is so refreshing nowadays. We know the cost is built into the price of the ticket, but we felt like it was an added bonus.


They really have a home run with their museum experience and we look forward to returning to see their new exhibits and urge everyone, baseball fan or not, to visit if you can.


How long was the visit?

It is recommended that you stay for 2 hours and we spent just over 2 hours there.


How much are tickets?

Check out their website for up to date prices.


We paid full price and this was not part of any advertising.


What we paid:

Adults: $18.00 Timed Museum & Factory Tour Admission

Over 65s: $17.00

Child 6-12: $11.00

Under 5s: Free


Tour options

We went on the standard Factory Tour which includes entrance into the museum exhibits. If you can attend one of their special, seasonal events, that run during the year, then book a tour to coincide with one of them. There really is something for all ages.


There's a premium behind the scenes tour, the All Star Experience, where passionate baseball fans can see items from players and teams that are of most interest to them and get to see parts of the factory not open to the general public. You even get a personalised souvenir bat. At $299 per person, I'd need to brush up on my baseball knowledge beforehand to get the most from that.


Opening times

It's always worth checking with the venue for their current opening times, as they can vary.

We visited in the summer when they were open from 9am until 5pm.


 

Where we stayed:

Hotel options were pretty limited for a week in July (peak tourist season) and we wanted to feel more at home in Louisville, so booked an Airbnb in the historic Henry Clay building hosted by Ashlyn.


This was perfect for us, one bedroom, Wi-Fi, kitchen, aircon and a parking space, which was ideal for our hire car. Looking at the images on Airbnb, she seems to have revamped her apartment further.


When we visited, in mid-July 2022, we must mention that the city was extremely quiet, almost like a ghost town in places and certainly not everything opens all week. It can be tricky to find places for food on a Sunday, as even Subway was shut! There wasn’t a large supermarket in town that we could walk to and even bars at night were very quiet. We’re used to cities having more hustle and bustle and this will, no doubt, all change with even more visitors coming to the city. Say Hi to Ashlyn from us if you book in. We're not being paid to advertise her place, but we can recommend it.


Getting here:

We were on a 3-week road trip from the UK, travelling from Atlanta to Detroit, so we came to Louisville by car, which was extremely easy. Having the car made visiting distilleries out of town for two days a breeze, but you can use tour companies that operate small tour buses for this if you don’t have a car at your disposal. The car did sit in the parking garage for 4 days, so it wasn’t the best use of the rental financially, but we appreciated the convenience.

We drove 3 hours up from Nashville, which does have direct flights from the UK. We left Louisville and went on to Chicago which is 5 hour's drive away. We split the journeys up with things to see along the way.

Louisville does have an airport but from Scotland most flights needed either two or three connections.


Getting around:

Apart from the hire car, we found Louisville is quite walkable. We also tried the scooters available to hire around town but found them more expensive than an Uber for the two of us, so we stuck to Uber for most places at the edges of town.


What else is there to see close by:

In Louisville, you're on the Kentucky Bourbon trail, so if you like your whiskey, you'll enjoy your stay. You can visit 2 or 3 distilleries a day and still not see them all in a weekend.

You can read our report on what to do on and off the Bourbon trail for more ideas soon.


The iconic Churchill Downs and Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville are a fantastic day out for all horse racing fans. General Admission includes a 30-minute historical walking tour of Churchill Downs Racetrack and access to two floors of Museum exhibits.


The Muhammad Ali Center, also in downtown Louisville, is the six-story multicultural centre and award-winning museum celebrating the life and legacy of the world-class boxer and global humanitarian.


The Urban Bourbon Experience comprises more than ten distilleries that are open for public tours and tastings and the Urban Bourbon Trail boasts over 35 bars and restaurants with bourbon-themed activities and menus.


A personal favourite of ours was The Frazier History Museum, located on Louisville’s “Museum Row” in the West Main District of downtown. The museum's collection includes American and international artefacts from the 16th century to the 20th century, including Daniel Boone’s Bible, General Custer’s pistols, and President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Big Stick.” For us, the highlight was the gallery on famous Kentuckians and the exhibit on how the city faces its recent racial tensions. Eye-opening and thought-provoking.


Visited: July 2022

Photographs: ©Julie White unless noted otherwise


Disclaimer - The views and opinions expressed are solely my own. I paid for the tours in full and any comments reflect my personal experiences on that day. Please visit and garner your own thoughts and feel free to research the brand and the visitor centre in question.

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