ATLANTA -- The Louisville Slugger was the house bat of baseball for more than 100 years, as iconic a piece of hardware as there is in the history of the game. It has been whipped through the strike zone by Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron, among other immortals, but suddenly, surprisingly, the Slugger has lost some of its grip on the game.
Hillerich & Bradsby, the maker of the Louisville Slugger wood bat, has been losing major leaguers to other bat companies for several years and no longer is the undisputed king of swing. The Marucci Bat Company, created out of a backyard shed by LSU athletic trainer Jack Marucci in 2002, has emerged as Slugger's biggest rival in an increasingly crowded field of manufacturers.
Marucci says it's the No.1 bat when it comes to usage by major leaguers, a claim difficult to verify given the day-to-day fickleness of hitters and their bat selection. But Louisville Slugger does acknowledge it has lost significant ground to Marucci and others.
"It fluctuates every game," spokesman Rick Redman says when asked if Louisville Slugger is No.2 in use among major leaguers. "I think there are days when they're No.1 and there are days when we are No.1. It's neck and neck."
IT'S ALL ABOUT FEEL
Players are as protective of their bats as they are impulsive. If a certain model bat feels good, go with it until it runs out of line drives. And never say never when it comes to returning to an old favorite.
"The first bat I used in my career was a Louisville Slugger," San Francisco Giants outfielder Angel Pagan says. "They were the wood pioneers. They're widely respected in the major leagues. They have good wood and they treat us really well, but sometimes you may say, 'I want that bat in a Louisville Slugger model,' and they bring it to you and it's not the same, so you put it aside.
"There's a bunch of companies now, so you try them all and go with the bat that feels comfortable in your hands. If you have a weapon in your hands and you don't have the right feeling, you're not going to swing well."
When discussing their bat choices, players almost always talk about "feel," a rather nebulous description, and one that can be maddening for a bat maker.
Atlanta Braves rookie switch-hitter Joey Terdoslavich, for example, swings Marucci from the left side and Louisville Slugger from the right.
"There's nothing wrong with Louisville Slugger, it's all about feel," says Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who uses B45, a Canadian-manufactured bat. "Louisville makes birch bats, just like B45, but I just like the feel of the B45.
"I don't know why people are not using Louisville Slugger as much. Maybe it has to do with so many choices out there."
There are 32 companies licensed to make bats for major league and minor league players. That's up from 10 in 1993, according to Major League Baseball.
In a competitive environment, many players say a bat maker's responsiveness means something.
"I think the guys want to have the personalized product and the consistency and the quality," says Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista, a board member and investor in Marucci.
Bill Deane, a baseball historian who has done research for the Hall of Fame and the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and was the editor of the encyclopedia Total Baseball, is as surprised as some players that Louisville Slugger is no longer dominant.
"I would think, for the last 100 years, Louisville has been No.1 and has been challenged by Spalding, Adirondack, among others, but those competitors came and went," Deane says. "Just from a superficial look, perhaps they could not keep up with the 21st century marketplace demands."
That is part of it. Hillerich & Bradsby is a 129-year old, family-owned company that also makes youth, amateur and softball bats, and as it lost market share in recent years, it has tried to adjust to increased competition and changes within the industry.
Although bats used by major leaguers are still manufactured at the company's revered home in downtown Louisville, it started to outsource work to China in 2006, and thousands of softball bats made there were recalled in 2013 because of issues with barrels separating from the handle, Redman says.
There was bad publicity and financial repercussions. Hillerich & Bradsby's banker, PNC Bank, raised interest rates on a line of credit, but H&B found more agreeable terms from Wells Fargo in August.
"We were forced to push and innovate," Redman says. "We needed to get better. We have been in the process the last 3-5 years of improving our major league wood and offering the same wood to retail customers."
TUG OF BAT WAR
Blue Jays first baseman Edwin Encarnacion was the beneficiary of the simmering bat war between Louisville Slugger and Marucci.
The nine-year veteran has used both bats, although he has relied mostly on Marucci in recent years. When he showed up to the All-Star Game at Citi Field in New York in July, he was greeted by a representative of Louisville Slugger offering to donate money or equipment to a charity of Encarnacion's choosing if he swung a Louisville Slugger bat in the game that would draw baseball's largest TV audience of the regular season.
Reed Dickens, a Marucci board member who raised the growth capital for Marucci and is in charge of brand building, is ready to take his hacks at Louisville Slugger over this practice.
"We have a huge amount of respect for Louisville Slugger, but they are manipulating the facts to pretend they are No.1, and they're not No.1," Dickens says. "Baseball would not be what it is without Louisville Slugger, that's a fact. They have made huge contributions, but the game has shifted, and the players expect a perfect bat and we deliver that."
Redman says a donation of equipment was made to Encarnacion's charity.
"As we have done for many years, we did reach out to Edwin to gauge his interest in swinging Louisville Slugger in the All-Star Game," Redman says.
"Edwin has swung our bats in the past. He agreed to swing our bat in exchange for Louisville Slugger making a charitable donation on his behalf. This is not anything new. This is a program we've done for decades, long before their company existed."
Encarnacion, on the disabled list, returned to his home in the Dominican Republic before the Blue Jays' season ended and could not be reached for comment. His agent did not return calls or e-mail requesting an interview.
Marucci held a party in New York during the All-Star break to trumpet its milestone of passing Louisville Slugger. Hillerich & Bradsby, meanwhile, sent out a press release, which said, "The Official Bat of Major League Baseball is still being manufactured in Louisville, Ky., and despite what competition has recently said, Louisville Slugger is still the #1 choice among the best players in the game."
Says Dickens: "We can get into arguments all day about how to count numbers, but the crux of this story is that we have never paid a player and they do pay players. You are talking two different philosophies. From five years ago to today, we have taken half their market share without paying a player."
For years, Louisville Slugger was accused of shuffling its lesser quality wood to players who are not stars, but Erik Kratz, a catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, says he can pop open a box of six Sluggers and get six good bats.
So how much does he get paid to swing the Slugger? Kratz's eyes open wide.
"If you find out they pay everybody else, come back and see me," he says. "I'm not getting paid."
As for the players, you won't get some of them in the middle of the war.
"I swing both bats, and I will swing Tucci," Cleveland Indians first baseman Nick Swisher says. "It all depends on the feel that day, that game. The guys in here don't care who is No.1. Our goal is to get the hardest wood out there to take up to the plate."
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz in San Francisco