How Louisville Slugger Became the Only Bat You Know by Name

From Pete Browning to Derek Jeter

Photo: Nick Ferrari

It happens at two minutes and 12 seconds into this Major League Baseball video. No, not Derek Jeter's final hit—a high chopper to the left side of the infield. The moment just after that—when Jeter parts with a piece of equipment that served him for 20 years and gave him every one of his 3,465 hits.

As he starts hauling ass to first base, Jeter tosses away his Louisville Slugger. To be precise, he tosses away his 32-ounce, P72 ash model Slugger with the OSmith finish

Specifics are important because baseball players are very particular about their bats—and 60 percent of MLB hitters use a Louisville Slugger. The bat’s past users are a who’s who of baseball: Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth. As Rick Redman, communications vp for the brand, put it: “Put the words ‘Louisville’ and ‘Slugger’ next to each other, and 90 percent of Americans have no question what you’re talking about.”

It wasn’t always this way. Baseball itself was already 45 years old when Bud Hillerich, a woodshop apprentice who spent most of his time turning bedposts, produced a bat for Pete Browning. A player for the Louisville Eclipse team, the heavy-hitting Browning was himself known as “The Louisville Slugger.” When other players saw Browning’s bat, they wanted one, too. The woodworking firm of J.F. Hillerich and Son wisely trademarked the Slugger name in 1894, and the rest took care of itself.

Yet the Slugger’s iconic status owes itself to far more than just the bat being the choice of over 8,000 pro ballplayers. After all, many catchers wear a cup supporter called the Nutty Buddy, but you don’t hear that brand name at the dinner table. No, the Louisville Slugger has become a household phrase because amateurs like it. The company was early to recognize that baseball fans like to use the same equipment that their heroes do and made a point of making the same bat models that the pros used available to backyard sluggers, too. That fact explains why Louisville Slugger turns out 1.8 million bats a year, and why the Slugger name has become shorthand for a batter who swings for the fences.

“The Slugger to sports equipment is what Kleenex is to tissue and Xerox to copying,” said sports media consultant and Columbia University professor Joe Favorito. “It fits so well with the culture of baseball that it’s part of the nomenclature. It’s all that a brand could ask for.”

Of course, having Derek Jeter’s not bad, either. In recognition of No. 2’s retirement, Louisville Slugger decided to retire the P72 designation and rename the model DJ2. By any name, however, it’s still a Slugger.

Photos: Getty Images