This week’s interview is with P.J. Shelley, tour and programming director at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. We about the history and pride that surrounds the iconic wood baseball bats made in Louisville, Kentucky.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Louisville Slugger?
I am the tour and programming director for the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory and I’ve been here for just over 3 years. I’m a huge baseball fan, so what better than to work for a company who makes baseball bats. I get paid to talk to people about baseball, manufacturing and baseball bats. People really get excited to come here and take a tour of the factory and it pumps people up, so it’s a fun job.
How big of deal is it to manufacture your bats in America, for America’s pastime?
It’s important. I think that America’s pastime is celebrated and played here in the United States. We take a lot of pride that we make our wood baseball bats in our factory downstairs. It’s a certain pride factor. Not only are we an American company, but we represent the American dream in a sense that we’re still a family-owned business. We’ve been around for 128 years making baseball bats. To this day, we’re still family owned, there are still family members walking the factory floor. They were there this afternoon. The president today is John Hillerich, and he’s the great grandson of the man who made the first baseball bat back in 1884. Even for us employees who aren’t a part of that family, we take a lot of pride in representing the family and representing the brand.
It has to be rewarding for the workers and factory employees to be making one of the most iconic pieces of sports equipment, right here in the USA.
It pumps those guys up in the factory, and even myself. When you see Jim Thome stepping up to the plate with a Louisville Slugger and hitting a home run, it’s like ‘YEAH! That was in our factory not too long ago.” So we take a lot of pride and take a lot of ownership. We’ve got a really unique role in baseball history. Look at the World Series. One of the common trick questions we play on the people on factory tours is: “What city has been represented more than any other in the World Series?” People say New York or Chicago, etc. But it’s Louisville. It’s Louisville because ever since 1903, there has always been a Louisville Slugger baseball bat in the World Series.
How important is ‘made in the USA’ to the Louisville Slugger brand, not just in America, but around the world?
As far as the branding overseas, yes, it’s important to us and to other companies and consumers. Latin America and Asia are two very big markets for us. We sell a lot of baseball bats there. They want to see that the product is made in the United States, as well. We take a lot of pride in that. They all know that the best Baseball is played here in the United States. Players come from around the world to play the highest caliber of baseball and they know that the US is the birthplace and epicenter of all things baseball. It’s important for consumers to see that our bats are made in the USA.
Other products in the Louisville Slugger line are made overseas; gloves, aluminum bats etc. Is there any talk to or strategy to bring those products back to be manufactured in the USA?
Nothing is off the table as far as returning manufacturing to the US. I know that we were the last US company making aluminum bats here, they moved that productions over to China in 2008. In 2009, when I first started here, there were still some aluminum bats on the market that still said Made in the USA on them. So I don’t think anything is off the table. I work for the museum, but I don’t know all the details. My focus is on the wood bats and celebrating that focus of the company. But I know that one of the big reasons for moving manufacturing over there is the cost; specifically the cost of the raw materials. The composites, and aluminums that we used to make those bats were significantly less expensive to make in China instead of importing them and manufacturing them here. All of our competitors had already moved production off shore and we had to do the same to remain competitive with our retail customers. It was a difficult decision, but one we had little choice but to make.
Is it imaginable that the Louisville Slugger wood bats would ever be made overseas?
I don’t foresee the wood bat production moving at any time overseas. All of the wood that we use to make a Louisville Slugger is grown here in the US. We’re here to stay. It’d be hard to put LS on something that isn’t made in Louisville.
The best wood for making baseball bats grows in New York and Pennsylvania. It’s easy and inexpensive for us to move that wood to Louisville where we turn it into bats. It doesn’t make economic sense to move our retail line offshore because it would be very expensive to move the wood across the water twice. We could never move our pro player bats off shore because we often need to react quickly to meet the demands of MLB players who often need bats by the next day. Great example just this week, the factory got an order for Manny Machado bats Friday around 1:00. They stayed over, got them done and overnighted them to the Orioles. Machado used those bats to hit his first career home runs on Saturday.
It seems the big edge you have on foreign production is the technology and techniques you use in the production of a Louisville Slugger. After touring your factory, I find it hard to believe it can be done any more efficient.
We’re right now in the process of switching over how we stain our bats. We’ve always been able to adapt over the last 128 years to what the players are demanding. That’s something that’s important. It’s important for the company to be able to adapt over the years. The old days, we started out with the hand-turning of the bats, and later with the automated lathes, we’ve been able to be more consistent product and now with the CNC Lathe, it’s even more accurate, it’s within 2/7000 of an inch. Part of staying afloat in this is business is to adapt to our consumers and our consumers are Major League Baseball players and amateur ball players. The major league players are the ones to drive the change and it trickles on down from there. Right now, ball players are looking for more of a shiny, satin finish. Dipping the bats by hand, that’s just something we weren’t able to do. We’re changing the process for our pro bats that we’re spraying them with a satin, water-based lacquer. We spray it on there and it gives it that shiny finish that the players like. The players today grew up with aluminum bats. They don’t quite have the appreciation for the natural wood that some of the older guys did. When they get to the majors, some of the guys don’t want to see a natural finish bat. They want to see this kind of shiny, black finish, or silver finish. We’re trying to adapt to that and meet the demands of the consumers.
Bearing the name of the city has to give Louisville, Kentucky a great sense of pride. Is that something that is evident?
The city takes great pride that we’re here. For about twenty years or so, from the late 70s to the mid-nineties, the Louisville Sluggers were made across the river in Indiana. They had actually moved. Before that they were about 6 or 7 blocks down from where we are now. After about 70 years or so they had outgrown the facility. Corporate HQ stayed here in Louisville, but the manufacturing facility moved to a large facility in Jeffersonville, Indiana. They were there for about 25 years or so. Then the Chariman of the Board, the grandson of Bud Hillerich, he hooked up with the Mayor at the time, Jerry Abramson, and they decided that they have to get them back to Louisville and that they shouldn’t be made in Indiana. I think they leased us this building for like a penny for 200 years. It was really important for the city to bring manufacturing back here and open this great facility where we can welcome 240,000 visitors. I think the city takes a lot of pride that we make Louisville Sluggers. It’s always fun when the mayor comes with some VIP guests. The governor brings people through here. The whole state takes pride that their state is producing LS baseball bats.
Louisville Slugger is perhaps the most iconic of all baseball companies, yet Kentucky doesn’t have a professional sports team. What is the big sports team there to follow?
The big sport I’d say is college basketball. University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville have this huge rivalry and this past March we had the Final Four. It was quite a big deal. You’re either a hard-core Louisville fan or you’re a hardcore UK fan. There’s no middle ground. I grew up outside of NY City where it’s all Red Sox, Yankees, or Mets. It’s a little bit different here. But besides basketball, there are a lot of baseball fans all over the place. Whether you’re a Mets, Cubs or whatever. You’ can still be a fan of Louisville Slugger. No one in New York is going to want to buy a Boston Slugger.
So it worked out perfect that you can be neutral! Thanks so much for your time and insight, PJ. It’s greatly appreciated.