In the early days of baseball, players made their own bats, which meant they came in all shapes and sizes. It was not until 1879 that “long and slender” was cast as the preferred design for baseball bats, though there was no single bat manufacturer. That changed in the mid-1880s when J.F. Hillerich and his son, Bud, began producing Falls City Slugger bats made from hard white ash. Ten years later they patented the name Louisville Slugger, and the largest and most important bat company ever was born.
Although some contemporary bats are still made of ash—maple has since become a popular material—early J.F. Hillerich & Son bats were noticeably heavier than bats used today. However, these very old bats, made before the company began getting stars to endorse them, tended to be the same length as bats used in the big leagues today—approximately 33 to 35 inches.
In 1905, with the company now run by Bud Hillerich, Pittsburgh Pirates star Honus Wagner became the first ballplayer to endorse a bat. His signature was emblazoned on Louisville Sluggers, a tradition that continues to this day. Three years later, Ty Cobb, the game’s biggest name at the time, also signed with Hillerich. Early bats with Wagner or Cobb engravings are popular items among collectors today.
Frank Bradsby, a salesman, signed on to partner with Hillerich in 1911, although the bats were not branded as Hillerich & Bradsby until 1916. Soon Hillerich & Bradsby were manufacturing bats for the biggest stars in the game, and by the mid-1920s, legends like Babe Ruth were swinging Louisville Sluggers—Ruth used a model R-43.
Spalding is another company that produced early baseball bats. Miller Huggins of the New York Yankees was one star to endorse Spalding. Another company was Wright and Ditson. It put out Nap Lajoie bats with double-ring handles, which were designed to give players more control when choking up.
In 1946, Adirondack, a company that would later merge with baseball equipment powerhouse Rawlings, began making bats. One star who loved the Adirondack’s McLaughlin-Millard bat was Willie Mays.
Game-used bats are usually tough to come by because players often used the same bat until it broke. Old game-used bats from the early days of Louisville Slugger, such as a cracke...
Autographed bats, regardless of the vintage, are easier to find. Because bats have a large surface area, they offer plenty of room for an entire team’s autographs. Autographed bats featuring the signatures of older stars such Ruth, Cobb, and Lou Gehrig are even more sought-after, as are Ted Williams autographed bats—his refusal to sign bats in the latter years of his life limited their supply.
Other collectible bats include souvenir and giveaway bats. These were normally made to honor a particular event or milestone. Some were produced in limited runs while others were handed out during stadium giveaways.
Dating a vintage bat can sometimes be difficult. Usually the best clue is the shape of the bat or its logo—for example, the Hillerich & Bradsby oval has varied over time, which helps collectors date their bats.
In recent years, there has been a push to ban maple bats in the Major Leagues because they are prone to breaking and splintering, which can be dangerous for players on the field and spectators in the crowd. That could force players and manufacturers alike to use only ash, which could one day make maple bats footnotes in baseball history.