In 1884, Bud Hillercih – an apprentice at his father’s woodworking shop – made a bat for a Louisville Eclipse player named Pete Browning. A decade later, Hillerich registered Browning’s nickname as the trademark for his growing bat business: Louisville Slugger.
One of Hillerich’s innovations as a businessman was obtaining player endorsements. The first professional athlete retained to endorse an athletic product was the Flying Dutchman, Honus Wagner, who signed a contract with Hillerich in 1905.
Louisville Slugger offers a special status for players under contract: it burns their signatures onto their bats. One bat on display at the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory features Jackie Robinson’s signature burned into the end of the barrel. Robinson signed a contract with what was by then Hillerich & Bradsby Co. in October 1946 – little less than six months before he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier.
Jackie Robinson will always be revered for that feat and the majestic dignity with which he accomplished it. He was also a great baseball player. He was the 1947 Rookie of the Year, batting .297 that season. Two years later, he was the National League’s MVP, leading the league in batting average and steals. During his ten seasons with the Dodgers, the team won six pennants and one World Series. His career batting average was .313.
Robinson was also a veteran. He was drafted in 1942 and commissioned in 1943 after the great boxer Joe Louis championed the cause of allowing highly qualified Black soldiers to attend Officer Candidates School. In April 1944, Robinson became a tank platoon leader at Fort Hood, Texas. And there, in 1944, he was court-martialed after refusing to move to the back of a bus. A panel of nine officers – two of them Black – ultimately acquitted him of charges of failing to obey an instruction by a superior commissioned officer and disrespect to a superior commissioned officer. Those charges arose from his interaction with a captain at an MP station after the bus incident.
A riveting account of those events is set out in Major Adam Kama’s article, “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson,” in Issue No. 1, 2020, of the Army Lawyer, available here: https://tjaglcspublic.army.mil/the-court-martial-of-jackie-robinson?inheritRedirect=true. The article recounts the trial in detail, including a delicious impeachment of a government witness during the defense’s case in surrebuttal. Any litigator will love this article.
A year after his acquittal, which was followed by his honorable discharge “by reason of physical disqualification,” Robinson had his fateful meeting with Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers who was determined to integrate Major League Baseball. That set Jackie Robinson on the road to his contract with Hillerich & Bradsby Co. – and one of the great moments in American history.
-Current Term Opinions
Joint R. App. Pro.
Global MJ Reform
LOC Mil. Law