After 136 years, Louisville Sluggers may become a virus victim

© Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

The changes never end. Seasons postponed, games cancelled. And now, no Louisville slugging.

A small item, perhaps, among the devastation, pain and doubt caused by the coronavirus, yet in baseball all too pertinent.

Hillerich & Bradsby is closing down, a victim of the virus. If there’s no baseball, and that alone is difficult to accept, then there’s no need for the implements of the game, in this case bats.

H&B announced it was closing the factory and, no less important, the attached museum, furloughing most of its employees, more than 150, and offering pay cuts to the rest.

The company has been in business for 136 years. It created signature bats for Babe Ruth, for Joe DiMaggio, for Ted Williams. It survived World War I, World War II, the Great Depression.

Baseball never stopped. Neither did production of the bat that carried the name Louisville Slugger.

Everything has stopped these days.

No one is driving. The roads are virtually empty. No one is playing catch or taking batting practice. No one is sharing the joy of wrapping hands around a slim bat handle and, if he’s a kid, thinking what might be or, if he’s older, thinking what was.

One thing I’ve never been able to do: Pass a display of baseball bats or golf clubs without grabbing one and taking a swing or two.

There are other bat companies, Easton, Mizuno and the newly popular Marucci. Still, no name quite resonates like Louisville Slugger. The words encompass everything a batter seeks to be. “Hey, slugger.” For a ballplayer of any age, could there be a higher compliment?

But the slugging will have to wait.

Our national pastime is on hold, along with so much else. Tough for all of us. Tougher for those in a firm that has remained in the family since it started in 1884.

If you believe the legend, Bud Hillerich, 17 years old and employed at his father’s woodworking shop, skipped school one afternoon to watch the Louisville Eclipse, the city’s ball club, whose star, Pete “Louisville Slugger” Browning, was in a slump.

Bud invited Browning to the shop and made him a to-order bat, and in the next game Browning got three hits. The father wanted to make stair railings and butter churns. But Bud churned out bats, and so it went. Until April 2020.

“We’re not doing any advertising.” John Hillerich IV, CEO of Hillerich & Bradsby, told the Louisville Courier about the shutdown. “We’ve cut all our expenses we can. We’re just hoping to get back to normal before we run out of cash.”

That sounds like the rest of us, including ballplayers and team executives. There’s a feeling of desperation throughout all sport.

A year ago, Major League Baseball proposed a reduction of affiliated minor league teams from 160 to 120. The plan was refused. Then came the virus pandemic, and the loss of baseball at every level along with the loss of income. The probability is that the minors have no other option than to agree to the cutback — even though it leaves areas without the game.

The question when and if sports return will likely determine whether Hillerich & Bradsby returns.

According to Anthony Witrado of Forbes magazine, the company was making an estimated 50,000 bats a year, for some 14 percent of the major league players.

If there is no production soon, some of the wood supply may dry up and be ruined, another money loss.

One recurring theme is to have all 30 major league teams play games in Arizona without fans. That means no ticket revenue. That also means families separated because the players would have to be cleared by medical personnel.

“The issue without fans is going to get ugly,” a baseball official told Tyler Kepner of the New York Times. “Owners will claim they’d lose money by playing without fans if players get their full per-game salaries.”

And if something doesn’t happen, baseball — all of us — may lose a little history, Hillerich & Bradsby.