Two of the biggest brands in baseball came together Monday as the parent company of Wilson Sporting Goods announced it was acquiring the intellectual property of Louisville Slugger from its original owner, Hillerich & Bradsby.
The cost of the deal was $70 million.
For more than 100 years, Louisville Slugger was the dominant force in the baseball bat industry, with its name on the bats of more than 18,000 Major League Baseball players. But the past 15 years have faced significant competition from the likes of Mariucci and DeMarini brands, which has tripled in size since it was acquired by Wilson parent, Finnish company Amer Sports in 2000.
"The rise of softball created a new opportunity for competitors and as everything went from wood to metal from the Little League to the college level, it was an entirely different product that Louisville Slugger wasn't ready for," said Philip Shirley, co-author of "Sweet Spot: 125 Years of Baseball and the Louisville Slugger."
John A. Hillerich IV, chief executive officer of H&B, said the goal was to keep the business independently in the family, but things had changed as the company faced the "challenges of global business climate."
"While brand awareness and affinity is tremendous, unfortunately our resources are limited," Hillerich said.
Hillerich admitted in a news conference Monday that some of the lawsuits due to injuries resulting from metal bats "played a small part" in encouraging him to sell.
In 2012, Louisville Slugger, along with retailer the Sports Authority and the New Jersey State Little League, agreed to pay $9 million to the family of a boy who suffered brain damage after a line drive that came off a Louisville Slugger bat hit him in the chest.
H&B will continue to make the bats in Louisville, but do so exclusively for Wilson.
Wilson has a composite and metal bat factory in Hillsboro, Oregon, a football factory in Ada, Ohio and a uniform factory in Sparta, Tennessee.
Louisville Slugger is currently the official bat of Major League Baseball, though players are allowed to use or endorse any approved brand. Wilson is the official fielding glove and catchers' protective gear.
Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips, Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and New York Mets third baseman David Wright currently endorse both Louisville Slugger bats and Wilson gloves.
Louisville Slugger got its big break in 1897 when Honus Wagner made his MLB debut for the team in Louisville. Bud Hillerich made bats for the team and befriended Wagner. In 1905, the two made their partnership official as Wagner became the brand's first endorser. The deal put Wagner bats, with his signature on them, in stores.
"They really created modern-day sports marketing right there," Shirley said. "Decades later, Nike of course turned it into an art form, but Louisville Slugger was there in the beginning."