It all started with a tree limb, house paint and two baseball-loving boys in southern Minnesota.
The Pillbox Bat Company, in Winona, started from the hands of Zak Fellman and Dan Watson in the 1990s. And now, their company has been officially licensed to make Major League Baseball memorabilia for all 30 teams.
The company makes specialty baseball bats that are typically not used for the game itself. The bats are sold to the likes of baseball fans, collectors and appreciators of art. However, the bats are yet to be licensed with the MLB due to Louisville Slugger’s exclusive contract with the league. But wood pennants, coasters and everything else listed on its website is exclusive with MLB as of this summer. In addition, the company also makes products related to the Negro Leagues, MLB Hall of Fame and the University of Notre Dame.
Bring Me The News spoke with Watson this week. He said there are two sides to the coin, regarding how the business came about.
In 2015, Fellman owned and was a founder of a Winona business called Sanborn Canoe Company, which makes painted, wood paddles by hand. Meanwhile, Watson was into some other ventures when Fellman contacted Watson and asked him a question that would lead to a new approach business-wise.
“He called me and asked, ‘Hey Dan, I’m thinking about doing some custom, painted baseball bats. Want to do it with me?'” Watson recalled. “It took about two seconds for me to respond, ‘Yeah let’s do it! That sounds like a blast.'”
The name “Pillbox” comes from the old downtown St. Paul ballpark the Saints used to call home in the early 1900s. Along with the Saints, the stadium was home to the St. Paul Colored Gophers, a small club of Black baseball players.
The stadium was so small that it was nicknamed the “Pillbox,” with hits over the left and right field fences only awarding the batter two bases.
“You may find it an odd choice of stadium to pay homage to with our company name. But to us, the story of the pillbox ballpark, is the story of what baseball is all about. It’s like that sand-lot place out back of your house that is just big enough to throw down a couple of mitts and a hat for bases, anoint someone all-time pitcher and strike up a game of stick-ball,” the website reads.
Watson also recalls a younger, more innocent time around the age of 12 when he and Fellman started making wood bats from logs and sticks in the woods.
“We would go out into the woods and find some logs and sticks, things that could resemble the weight and length of the bat that we wanted,” Watson said, adding they would take pocket knives and cut them down into the shape and size of bat to use for home run derbies in their backyards.
From the start, Watson said both he and Fellman made it their goal to get licensed by the MLB. Within the first few months of being in business, they reached out to the league and began talks about licensing. Talks went on for months, then turned into years. Finally, a deal was struck July 1.
“Getting MLB licensing is huge and it’s bringing all kinds of opportunities,” Watson said, adding that a deal with Fanatics is also in the works.
Some MLB players have already expressed their interest in the company, including a Minnesota Twins pitcher.
“Joe Ryan saw one of the bats being made for a project relating to Twins season ticket-holders, and decided that he wanted one,” Watson said.
The team contacted Pillbox and worked out a trade involving Ryan. The 26-year-old starting pitcher sat a picture with the bat and an autographed baseball in exchange for the custom piece. Watson said he and Fellman thought it would be a great idea to get photos of players with their bats, along with signed baseballs, to have on a wall in their shop, located at 460 West 3rd St.
Then, Cincinnati Reds second baseman Jonathan India, the 2021 National League Rookie of the Year, reached out to do the same deal as Ryan. Watson says he has been working with the Reds to finalize that.
And the interest doesn’t stop with professional baseball players. Watson said the company has had conversations with musical artists such as country singer Chris Stapleton; bands Green Day, Fallout Boy and Weezer during their hella mega tour; and Guns N’ Roses when they performed at Target Field.
“When [artists] play in baseball stadiums, there’s some interest in creating some memorabilia that’s specific to that venue,” Watson told Bring Me The News.
Pillbox employees also made a custom bat for the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club store in New York City. PSG is a professional soccer club based in France.
The Pillbox team is one person short of being able to field all nine baseball positions, as they have eight employees consisting of woodworkers, designers, painters and logistics.
“I think it comes as a surprise to people how efficient we can crank out orders, especially larger orders from a small team,” Watson said, noting that they have been able to finish orders of 1,000 bats in about a month. Fellman is credited with bringing the artistic ideas to the table.
Watson also hopes Pillbox can license pennant deals with NASCAR, the NFL and MLS.
If it ever comes to it, Watson and Fellman would only expand their company within the state, keeping the tradition of a small team working in a small town. He said “handcrafted and locally made” is what the company was founded on and they value that immensely.