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Fans Go Batty for Lousiville Slugger Museum

by Gregory Watkins (10/28/08).

That’s one big bat leaning next to the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory in Louisville, Ky.

When thinking about the greatest shrines devoted to baseball, and the greatest collections of baseball memorabilia, one first thinks of Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. There is another museum, near the Ohio River in Kentucky, though—one with a specific focus—that baseball fans and collectors should not miss.

It’s not hard to find the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, which still crafts the official bat of Major League Baseball. Just look for the big bat, or more precisely, the 120-foot, 68,000-pound replica of Babe Ruth’s preferred bat, a 34-inch Louisville Slugger.

The Louisville Slugger Museum is collector friendly, and the staff there recognizes and encourages interaction with collectors.

“We have found that working with the private collectors has made us a better museum,” said Anne Jewell of the Louisville Slugger Museum. “Collectors have been so generous loaning us artifacts and their expertise, because some of them know more about our bats—the very fine, fine points of our bats—than we even do. We rely on collectors as a resource, and they rely on us, as well. It’s been a really good partnership and one that we hope will continue for many years.”

Jewell said the connection with collectors first started when the museum decided to host its own auction on site some four years ago. When the news of that auction got around, baseball memorabilia collectors from all over the world flocked to Northern Kentucky. Among the items put up for bid was one of the two Ty Cobb bats the museum owned. The winning bid for the Cobb bat was the princely sum of $125,000.

Early Louisville Sluggers now command tens of thousands of dollars from collectors. A Shoeless Joe Jackson Black Betsy model was sold a few years ago for well more than a half-million dollars. 

Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach, ready to swing his Louisville Slugger.

The inner sanctum of the museum—the place any baseball fan would love to get into—is the temperature- and humidity-controlled vault, where hundreds of original bats are kept to preserve the bat’s weight and shape. Resting on racks that span from floor to ceiling are the prototypes, made to each player’s specifications, to be used when making their individual supply of bats.

“This is the model that when Babe Ruth played, this is what we used to turn his bats,” said Danny Luckett, holding the original Ruth 34-incher. Luckett has been working in the factory 39 years, hand turning white ash and maple into the clubs Major Leaguers wield when they step into the batter’s box. “When Ruth ordered them, this is what he sent us to start with, and this is what we made his bats off of for the rest of his career.”

Maybe the most famous bat in baseball history, Black Betsy, which acquired it particular dark color after being stained with tobacco juice.

Black Betsy’s owner, Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Babe Ruth, aka the Sultan of Swat, holding a Slugger.

The Louisville Slugger Museum offers more than bats, though. The museum includes a wall composed of the signatures of the thousands of players who signed contracts with Louisville Slugger over the years. These are the signatures that were branded into the barrel of the bat. Then it’s on to the company’s private collection of memorabilia, including experimental bats, as well as interactive exhibits and the history of baseball and Louisville Slugger going back to the day in 1884 when it all started.

Bud Hillerich, a 17-year-old who worked in his father’s woodworking shop, slipped away one afternoon to watch Louisville’s major league team, the Louisville Eclipse. Pete Browning, the team’s top player, was slumping badly at the plate, and to make matters worse, he broke his bat. After the game, Hillerich invited Browning over to his father’s shop to make him a new bat. Under Browning’s direction, Hillerich turned a piece of ash into a new bat.

The next day, Browning broke his slump with a three-hit game. Delighted with the results, Browning told his teammates about Hillerich, and soon a surge of pro ballplayers descended upon the little woodworking shop. It wasn’t long before the shop was making nothing but bats.

Presidential John Hancocks on baseballs

This baseball, signed by Richard Nixon, is on display at the Louisville Slugger Museum, part of the “Play Ball, Mr. President” exhibit through November.

Another exhibit of note is a collection of baseballs signed by chief executives of the United States, including the only baseball ever signed by Theodore Roosevelt.

“No president before Roosevelt had signed a baseball,” says Dan Cohen, curator of the Louisville Slugger Museum. “William Howard Taft, he threw out the first presidential first pitch to start a season in 1910. Old Abe Lincoln was an avid baseball player. Apparently, he played while president. He would go out and play some games. Teddy Roosevelt, on the other hand, did not like baseball. And then you get people like Dwight Eisenhower, who grew up idolizing Honus Wagner.”

So, Mr. & Ms. Baseball Fan, if you are in the Louisville area, you definitely should take some time to check out the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. Walk through the exhibits, tour the factory, watch Sluggers being made right there in front of you. Maybe even take home a personalized 34-inch ash bat with your name on it. Then take it out to the local ballpark, step into the batter’s box and . . .

Can’t get to museum soon? Take a tour of it in this Louisville Slugger Museum video. Learn more about the bat itself by watching Louisville Slugger—Great Bats & Great Collectibles.


Gregory Watkins is WorthPoint’s newsletter editor

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