Tag Archives: Bud Hillerich

The Story of the Story of Browning’s bat

12 Aug

On the Louisville Slugger website, the simple story of how 17-year-old Bud Hillerich “changed the game of baseball forever,” is told.

According to company, Hillerich watched Browning break his bat during a Louisville Eclipse game in 1884, and offered to make him a new one—Browning sat at his side as he made the bat, and with that, “one of the most iconic brands,” was born.

browning2

Pete Browning

That humble origin story was not enough for two of the most prominent baseball writers of the 1920s, who both told their readers more dramatic versions of the story nearly 20 years after Browning’s death.

Fred Lieb, then sports editor of The New York Telegram, told his version in February of 1923 as part of a series of articles he wrote on the game’s history for the Al Munro Elias Sports Bureau:

lieb

Fred Lieb

“They still tell a story around the Hillerich and Bradsby factory in Louisville about Pete when he came in one night and would not leave the factory until they had made him a new bat.”

Lieb said Browning was “brooding,” having cracked “his most successful bat,” and walked to the factory:

“(F)ortunately, some of the men were working. He insisted that one of the workmen leave his lathe and get busy on making him a new bat. Personally, he selected the piece of timber and then had it put on the lathe.

“He had his old bat with him as a model, and insisted the new bludgeon be an exact duplicate. From time to time he would have it taken out of the lathe to see how it ‘felt.’ Then he would want a little more taken off here and a little more there. If too much was taken off, then an entirely new club would be prepared.

“It was early in the morning when he left the factory satisfied and happy. An exact duplicate of his lucky bat had been reproduced.”

And while the “official” story on the company website says Browning had “a trio of hits,” the following game, Lieb did them one better:

“That afternoon he slapped out four hits.”

Lieb closed by asking his readers:

“Can anyone imagine a player of today staying up all night to superintend the making of a new bat?”

One year later, just after Bud’s father, John Frederick “Fred,” Hillerich died, Bozeman Bulger, the sports editor of The New York World, who also wrote a nationally syndicated column, further embellished the story.

bulger

Bozeman Bulger

In Bulger’s version, it was Fred who “never tired of telling the story of Browning’s night visit to the then small factory,” in Louisville:

“His favorite bat had been cracked. None other would do.”

In Bulger’s story, Browning arrived just as the factory workers were leaving.

“’I got to have a bat, and have it tonight,’ said Pete, ‘or I can’t sleep. If I don’t get my hits tomorrow, I’ll go daffy.’”

After Browning, “with an expert eye,” picked out the piece of timber “having the most solid wood,” the shop foreman told him:

“’(W)e’ll turn it for you tomorrow. We know your model.’”

In Bulger’s version, Browning had not brought the broken bat with him:

“’Tomorrow,’ exclaimed Browning. ‘Listen, I don’t care what it costs, and I’ll but supper for the gang. You fellows stay here and get the man on the lathe. I want that bat turned just right. But I’ve got to have it tonight.”

After feeding the factory workers, “The foreman and the lathe man,” returned to the factory with Browning, and after “They turned the stick again and again,” Browning said the bat “felt just right.”

It was “well after midnight,” and in Bulger’s version, Browning also had four hits that day, and soon “Others took up the fad.”

Six months after Fred’s death,  his hometown paper, The Louisville Courier-Journal, in a long article, under the headline “Baseball bat industry brings fame to city,” told the story.

In this version it was not Hillerich, but one of “the turners” who was “an ardent fan,” who stayed late to make Browning’s bat. When it was to his liking, Browning was so pleased with the bat he left with it “without waiting for the final polishing.” The paper qualified the claim about Browning’s performance the following day, saying “Tradition has it,” that he had four hits.

Lieb, Bulger, and The Courier-Journal did not mention Hillerich attending the Eclipse game on the day in question.

Bud Hillerich, who spent his winters in Florida, told his version the story to The Miami Herald in 1944.

budhillerich

Bud Hillerich

In his own telling, he doesn’t mention having attended the game that day, but instead says Browning approached his father about making a bat:

“Dad refused. He said, ‘we don’t have time to turn out such junk. Besides baseball is just a passing fancy. But if you can find my son, Bud, he might make a bat for you.”

Bud Hillerich died in 1946 in Chicago, en route to the winter meeting in Los Angeles, his obituary in The Courier-Journal failed to mention the Browning story.