Commentary

Wilson Buys The Bat Brand Favored By Hammerin' Harmon

You can bet that Mickey Mantle rookie card they won’t be rebranding it “The Helsinki Slugger” but the Finnish company that owns Wilson Sporting Goods has agreed to pay Hillerich & Bradsby $70 million cash for the “global brand, sales and innovation rights” to the hallowed Louisville Slugger brand of baseball bats.  

The Kentucky company — which is owned by five members of the fourth generation of Hilleriches and its employees — will still manufacture the bats, and retain ownership of a museum and gift shop, at its factory on Louisville’s West Main Street. It also retains its Bionic golf gloves and Powerbilt golf products brand. 

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“The move is aimed at spurring growth for the languishing brand,” write Sara Germano and Chelsey Dulaney in the Wall Street Journal. “Louisville Slugger has signed a long roster of professional players, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, to endorsement deals over the years, but its market share has been waning. The company has struggled in recent times after a series of missteps, including a costly bat recall.”

Hillerich & Bradsby stockholders still need to approve the deal.

“The Hillerich family, and those closest to the brand, firmly believe that a new business model is necessary to realize the enormous potential of this brand in the future,” H&B CEO John Hillerich IV said yesterday, reports Jacob Ryan for WPFL.org. “We recognized from our first conversation with Wilson that they would be a great partner and steward of the brand our family created and so many have nurtured for 131 years.”

Hillerich IV also said that the company “could not compete with international conglomerates such as Wilson, a division of the Finland-based Amer Sports Corporation,” reports Joe Arnold on WHAS11.com, adding that he feared Louisville Slugger would go out of business.

“And so we said, ‘You know what? We're not going to take this thing into the ground. We're going to try to set aside our egos, set aside our love for the brand and actually put it forward so it's in a place that is better off than it is today.’”

“The company brought in turnaround experts from AlixPartners in 2011 … and spruced up its marketing, sales and supply chain with the help of executives who had worked for Nike Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co.,” the WSJ’s Germano and Dulaney report.

“It's a perfect match, since Louisville Slugger is the official bat of Major League Baseball and Wilson is the league's official glove,” observes CNN Money.

Its balls are also the official balls of NFL football, NCAA March Madness and NCAA Soccer Championships. The Chicago-based company’s core sports are tennis, baseball, American football, golf, basketball, softball, badminton and squash.

“Growing our baseball and softball business globally is a key business strategy, and H&B has created one of the most recognizable baseball brands in the world,” said Wilson Sporting Goods president Mike Dowse in a release.

Helsinki-based Amer Sports Corporation owns Wilson, as well as the Salomon, Atomic, Arc’teryx, Mavic, Suunto and Precor brands. It says its “strategy emphasizes excellence in consumer-centric product creation.”

"H&B now employs 273 people, but the workforce will shrink to 177 in the next four months,” reports Grace Schneider in the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Forty-four of the jobs, roughly half of which are sales positions in the field, will be shifted to Wilson.” In addition, 52 people in administrative support will lose their jobs. 

“Hillerich, who is the great-grandson of Bud Hillerich, the family's first bat craftsman, said the family ownership group includes him, his father Jack, a sister and three cousins,” Schneider writes. “They formed a family council to ensure that they communicated about the business and any dealings going forward.”

Bud's father, J. F. Hillerich, owned a woodworking shop. The 17-year-old Bud “slipped away from work one afternoon in 1884 to watch Louisville's major league team, the Louisville Eclipse,” according to a company history. “The team's star, Pete Browning, mired in a hitting slump, broke his bat.”

You can take it from there.

“Former All-Star player Matt Williams, who manages the Washington Nationals, said the bats were popular among players of his generation,” writes the AP’s Bruce Schreiner. 

“There's so many bats today to choose from that I, for one, would go crazy trying to choose a bat or a company,” Williams said. 

“I still remember my first Louisville Slugger bat as a kid,” Hall of Fame player and Minnesota Twins manager Paul Molitor tells Schreiner. “All I knew was that Harmon Killebrew used one, and that was good enough for me.”

Anything that was good enough for Hammerin’ Harmon is good enough for this reporter, too, at least in theory. In practice, he uses one of the aluminum or composite bats that have, for nearly four decades, been predominant in the amateur and collegiate ranks.

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