It’s as synonymous with summer as the chirping song of birds and sweet visits to local ice cream parlors. The sharp whack of a bat against a ball brings back childhood memories of ballgames on the neighborhood vacant lot.
With no scheduled time, kids seem to straggle in for an impromptu game until the field and makeshift dugouts are filled with players and fans. The score often seems to get lost as youngsters play into the twilight.
The Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, glorifies the game and those memories. And why not? From the beginning of the museum video where actor James Earl Jones intones the words, “the crack of the bat is the heart of the game,” visitors can remember the pure joy of baseball.
Visiting Louisville before boarding the American Countess for an eight-day cruise from Louisville to Nashville, my grandson Logan and I put the Slugger Museum on our to-do list. It was an easy walk from our room at the Galt House Hotel and people of all ages were already at the museum. Many of the little boys and girls wore baseball hats honoring their favorite teams.
Birth of Louisville Slugger
The tale of the Louisville Slugger begins more than a century ago. As tour guide Matt says, Hillerick & Bradsby’s Louisville Slugger took shape from the splinters of Pete “The Old Gladiator” Browning’s bat.
The story goes that one day in 1884, John Hillerich played hooky from his apprentice woodworking job in his father’s shop to watch the Louisville Eclipse team game. A star player, outfielder Browning was in a batting slump. “That day he broke his favorite bat,” Matt says.
John Hillerich makes a bat for Pete Browning – the first Louisville Slugger bat.
Afterward, Hillerich invited the despondent Browning back to his shop to create a new bat — the first Hillerich had ever made. Using a piece of white ash, Hillerich began fashioning the new bat, according to Browning’s direction. The two worked through the night, stopping periodically to let Browning take practice swings.
The next day, Browning slugged out three hits with his new bat and went on to compile the 10th best career batting average in big-league history. With that success story, other teammates ordered bats, as did players from other teams.
“That’s how a tradition was born,” Matt says. The family woodworking shop went on to become the world’s oldest and largest bat business.
World’s Largest Bat
The Louisville Slugger Museum has become a popular attraction for visitors and recently completed a renovated museum experience. Of course, the museum is hard to miss — just look for the world’s largest bat.
Propped outside the downtown Louisville museum is a 120-foot-tall steel bat, an exact-scale replica of Babe Ruth’s 34-inch Louisville Slugger bat. Looming over the streetscape, the hollow bat is made of carbon steel and weighs about 68,000 pounds.
Erected on Oct. 21, 1995, the bat leans 11.5 degrees off vertical center as though it is waiting for some super-huge player to pick it up for an out-of-this-world ballgame.
However, inside the museum, it’s a whole new ball game. In April, the museum’s renovated gallery and exhibit space was unveiled.
The renovation project placed a bigger interest on the thrills of baseball. Visitors now get a real look at the players, the history of the players and the bats they used.
For example, the new Bat Vault – called “The Fort Knox of Baseball Bats” – is double its previous size and accessible to everyone, not just VIP tours as it was previously. Visitors can view more than 3,000 bat models, some over 100 years old, created by baseball’s more legendary players.
The Bat Vault
Start Tour in Museum Theatre
To begin the tour, start off in the theatre to see some of the greatest hits in baseball, including anecdotes and insights on hitting from such top players as Johnny Bench and Tony Gwynn.
Next up is the museum floor where visitors can stand next to life-like statues of legends such as Derek Jeter for photo ops.
Derek Jeter stands ready to swing.
Visitors can read about the history of baseball and see some of the actual bats of such power hitters as Babe Ruth, Pete Rose and Hank Aaron.
In a case of honor is the bat Babe Ruth used during his 1927 season. The greatest power hitter of all time, Ruth had his best season in 1927. He hit a record 60 home runs, drove in 164 hits and batted .356, leading the Yankees to a 110-44 record and a sweep of the World Series.
Notches carved by Babe Ruth for each homer hit.
The Babe swung a big bat. This Louisville Slugger Model R43 is 35 inches long and weighs 38.7 ounces. Although it is not the largest bat Ruth used, it is much heavier than those used by most players today. Around the bat trademark are 21 notches carved by Ruth. Like a gunslinger, Ruth would carve one for each homer hit.
The Slugger hits one out of the ballpark.
Another display shows the Louisville Slugger that Hank Aaron used for his 700th home run on his way to surpassing Ruth on the career home run list.
The final home run bat used by Johnny Bench is displayed. Nearly 54,000 fans were in attendance at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati to witness Bench hit his final homer, launching it over the fence on Sept. 17, 1983.
Joe DiMaggio’s Hitting Streak
On display is the bat Joe DiMaggio used to set a record that stands as one of the greatest of all time. On May 15, 1941, DiMaggio began his 56-game hitting streak that transformed the New York Yankee into an American legend.
Joe DiMaggio kisses his record setting Louisville Slugger.
For a magical two months, with World War II looming, DiMaggio scored at least one hit in game after game. “The Streak” captured the imagination of the country as millions followed the drama on the radio – a welcome distraction from the stresses of war. A photo shows DiMaggio kissing his Louisville Slugger bat.
‘The Streak’ by Joe DiMaggio
Roberto Clemente’s Unused Bat
Roberto Clemente’s unused bat is on display behind a case on the inner wall of the Bat Vault. The knob is stamped C276 after his last name and number in the museum’s catalog. He designed it a few weeks before his death but was never able to use it in a game.
Playing primarily for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Clemente was a right fielder from 1955 to 1972. In 9,454 times at bat, he hit 240 home runs and had a batting average of .317.
Clemente died along with four others in a plane crash off the coast of his home, Puerto Rico, on his way to Nicaragua to deliver supplies after a devastating earthquake. Reports said the sounds of engine failure were heard as the plane went down the runway upon takeoff at 9 p.m.
The plane reached an altitude of only 200 feet before exploding and plunging into the ocean. Rescue workers were sent out immediately but darkness made any rescue impossible. The bodies were never found.
Holding a Bat Used by Famous Player
In the Hold A Piece of History exhibit, visitors can hoist bats used in Major League Baseball games by legends like Babe Ruth, Johnny Bench, David Ortiz and Derek Jeter. These are genuine artifacts and real pieces of history that visitors get to hold and, of course, get photographs taken. Mickey Mantle’s bat is said to be among the most chosen.
Visitors can get a closer look at two historic bat-making processes in the hand-turning station and the burn branding station. Demonstrations run every day so keep an ear out for the sound of wood chips flying and smell the sizzle of a bat being branded.
Hitting a baseball is said to be one of the hardest things to do in all of sports. Major Leaguers typically only have around .25 seconds to react to a 90-mph fastball. Visitors are invited to see if they’ve got what it takes to step up and see a 90-mph fastball in action.
Before leaving the museum, visitors also can sit on the world’s largest glove. A favorite photo stop, the glove is 17 tons of limestone sculpture. Crafted by two local sculptors, the stone is more than 450 million years old.
The world’s largest ball glove
After walking through the museum and a replica of a Northern White Ash forest, visitors can take a guided tour of the plant. Watch the bat production process from a bulky block of wood to a meticulously crafted Louisville Slugger whose next step is a major-league ballpark.
After the factory tour is over, visitors can leave with an appropriate souvenir — a free miniature Louisville Slugger.
Tour guide Matt talks about Louisville Sluggers.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch
Bottom Line: The Louisville Slugger Museum is a treasure trove of baseball memories and artifacts. Children of all ages were there when I visited and excitement filled the air. So many well-planned photo ops and I saw cellphones clicking everywhere. Also saw many happy faces walking out of the factory tour with small Louisville Slugger bats. Definitely recommend a visit to this museum. Might bring back happy memories to anyone who has ever played or watched a sandlot ballgame.