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Honus Wagner and Hillerich Baseball Bats

Pittsburgh Pirates’ great Honus Wagner was known for his bat.  Not just figuratively–he led the National League in batting eight times and finished with a .328 career batting average–but for his actual baseball bat, the lumber he gripped in his hands.  He preferred a 33 inch bat weighing over 40 ounces, massive by today’s standards, with a thick handle and small knob.

Perhaps the most iconic photograph of Wagner depicts him squatting in front of the dugout, selecting his bat from those laid out on the ground in front of the bench. Wearing a thick team sweater over his uniform, he seems to be looking at the bat in a moment of quiet contemplation, a man and the tool of his trade.  He squats in a remarkably similar pose in an earlier photograph, seemingly caught unaware, his left arm blurred in mid-gesture, his right hand holding the bat up high on the thick handle.

Pittsburgh Pirates Honus Wagner posed with bats

Like most ballplayers, Wagner was particular about his bat; he used bats made by Hillerich & Sons, the makers of the Louisville Slugger.

Frederick Hillerich started his woodworking business in the mid-1850s (accounts vary on the exact year), making stair railings, porch posts, and wooden butter churns. According to the official lore, Frederick’s son, John ‘Bud,’ was a baseball fan, and one day in 1884 he was watching the local Louisville Eclipse, when its star batter, Pete Browning, mired in a slump, broke his bat.  Bud convinced Browning that he could make a new bat for the slugger.  They went to the shop, and Bud put a piece of white ash on the lathe and spun a bat to Browning’s specifications.  The next day, Browning went 3 for 3, and soon his teammates were making the trek to Hillerich’s shop to order bats of their own.

Even so, success did not come quickly.  Frederick believed there was no future in baseball bats and foresaw a better future in producing wooden butter churns. He even turned some players away when they requested bats. But slowly, the bat business grew, and when Bud took over the business in 1894, he focused on bats, trademarking “Louisville Slugger.”

A newspaper article two years later in the Maysville, Kentucky Evening Bulletin reported that while only a few years prior, Hillerich & Sons couldn’t afford a wagon-load of ash to make bats, they were now making 75,000 bats a year and bringing in over $50,000. Hillerich & Sons became the standard in baseball bats.

Its reputation was further boosted in 1905 when it signed the first athlete ever to endorse a product: Honus Wagner would endorse the Louisville Slugger.

Wagner had a long relationship with Hillerich bats.  When he played with the Louisville Colonels starting in 1897, he befriended Bud Hellerich and began using bats from his shop; Wagner used Louisville Sluggers for the next twenty-one years until he retired in 1917.

Two photographs recently digitized as part of the Digital Archive Project at the National Baseball Hall of Fame show Wagner after he had retired, sometime in the 1930s, visiting the Hillerich & Bradsby Factory (as it was renamed in 1916).  Accompanying Wagner is pitcher Larry French, suggesting the photo was taken in 1934 or 1935, the years when Wagner and French’s careers overlapped with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Wagner as a coach and French as a player.

The first shows Wagner, in three piece suit, and pitcher Larry French each holding a white baseball bat. The bats are shaped, but unfinished, with wood blocks still attached at the top and bottom so they can be mechanically held for further sanding. Wagner and French stand in an aisle made from a wall of bats stacked high above them–hundreds, maybe thousands of bats.

A second photograph from the same visit shows Wagner standing just behind another man, several inches shorter than Wagner’s 5’11”, and with a much smaller chest. The smaller man wears round wire glasses, above which his dark eyebrows lift towards his brow. A large, graying mustache droops down from his nose. He wears a three-piece suit and holds a baseball bat finished in a dark stain.

He is Henry William “Papa” Bickel.

Before Wagner had signed his endorsement contract, before Wagner had even played in the Major leagues, and before a young Bud Hillerich made a bat for local slugger Pete Browning, Henry Bickel had worked in Frederich Hillerich’s wood shop.

Bickel was born in Germany in 1866; his family immigrated to the United States when he was 8 years old.  He began working for Frederick Hillerich in 1881 at 15 years of age, the same age as Frederick’s son Bud.  Like Bud, Bickel was a passionate baseball fan, and when the company started making bats, Bickel learned the craft: taking the round billets of wood, turning them on his lathe, finding the part of the wood that would be the strongest, checking the size with calipers and the weight with scales, and sanding the bats smooth.  As time went on, Bickel became the expert at turning a bat on his lathe.

By the time Bickel retired from Hillerich & Bradsby in 1938, he had spent 57 years with the company and become factory superintendent. Just as Frederick Hillerich had passed his wood shop on to his sons, Bickel passed his profession down to one his sons; Fritz Bickel started working at the factory in 1912, when he was 14 years old, and would work there for another 50 years, and then he would pass the tradition on to his nephew.  The three Bickels worked at Hillerich & Bradsby for a combined 149 years.

Bickel was around 68 years old when Honus Wagner visited the factory,  having moved from the lathe to a supervisory role.  When the two men met, they posed together, standing in a workshop, perhaps where Bickel himself used to turn lumber into baseball bats. The floor is covered in sawdust. A lathe sits on the table behind them, with a scale behind it, and calipers for measuring hanging on the wall. The bat Bickel holds doesn’t appear to be new, with dings and scratches; one can imagine it belonging to Wagner himself. Bickel holds it at the knob with one hand, the other hand half-way up the barrel, as if ready to bunt.

Wagner’s pose is confident, with hands on hips and a satisfied smile.  Bickel is less expressive, but there is a hint of a glimmer in his eyes. Though they wear hats and suits, the men appear comfortable in this workman’s setting. They are men used to working with their hands, each masters of their crafts, surrounded by the tools of their trades.

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