BY TREY MEWES Tribune News Service
MINNEAPOLIS — When Dan Watson and Zak Fellman were 12, they would go into the woods and find straight pieces of wood. They shaved them in bats using pocket knives for home derbies with tennis balls.
Fast forward 25 years, and lifelong friends have come together to form Pillbox Bat Co., a custom sports memorabilia store in Winona, Minnesota that pays homage to baseball history with bats, baseballs and other fan merchandise.
Pillbox is poised for massive success after securing licensing deals with Major League Baseball over the past 18 months. The company launched its first major project under the contract last month: a set of hardwood pennants for 30 teams.
“I’m incredibly grateful for the position we find ourselves in and the relationships we have with organizations…” Watson said. “It’s really unbelievable.”
People also read…
The duo, who played Little League together, first broke up as adults. Watson joined the military and worked in online sales. Fellman, along with another partner, started Sanborn Canoe Co., which is well known for its line of artistic paddles.
In 2015, Fellman came up with the idea of working on bats, just like they did as kids.
“Making a paddle is as easy as baseball bats,” Fellman said.
It took less than a minute for Watson to agree to partner with his old friend.
At first the two thought the project might earn them some extra money for coffee, maybe enough for a nice dinner here and there. After coming up with a name — Pillbox was the nickname for a less-than-desirable ballpark the St. Paul Saints used in 1903 — they quickly decided to take a shot at becoming the next big thing in sports memorabilia.
“I think all entrepreneurs can relate to,” Watson said. “We’re going to take this thing to the moon, and there’s no other option.”
Watson began calling MLB officials and planning marketing. Fellman, the artist in between, got to work designing products.
In the early years, Pillbox became known for its bespoke work: bats designed for corporate gifts, novelty baseballs. Tiny bats with shark decals, dubbed “Baby Shark Bats,” became a bestseller in 2018 and 2019 when people couldn’t get enough of the eponymous children’s song.
Despite its small size — Pillbox employs seven full-timers and one part-time worker — the store caught the attention of the Minnesota Twins in 2019 as the club’s Bomba Squad broke the MLB record for most kicks. home runs by a team in the regular season.
To mark the occasion, Twins officials ordered personalized bats for each player with their names, numbers and other interesting stats.
“They have an amazing aesthetic,” Chris Iles, Senior Director of Brand Experience and Marketing for Twins, said of Pillbox. “Their products are beautiful. They look cool. It’s a mix of old-school sensibility and new-school design.”
From there, the Twins offered their support as Pillbox secured the rights to manufacture products for the MLB Hall of Fame, MLB players and Negro League baseball. Twins president Dave St. Peter wrote a letter of recommendation for Pillbox after meeting Watson at a Target Field event, and the Twins requested more products from the company for various events.
The MLB deal, along with the new line of hardwood pennants, goes through a Pillbox process designed for custom work. Workers had to figure out how to respond to individualized demands.
Example: The NBA’s Utah Jazz were among the first teams to request hardwood pennants.
“We’re doing something we didn’t think we could do and it’s working,” Watson said. “And then we develop a whole line of products around that.”
Pillbox plans to expand, though Fellman admits the company is still perfecting the process for mass-producing its pennants. The first wave of pennants went to online sports retailer Fanatics, and employees are waiting to see if the products take off, as the pennants aren’t usually made of wood.
“We’re obviously optimistic,” Watson said. “The fourth quarter is going to be really interesting, because we already have our first orders with Fanatics and a bunch of other big baseball teams, and we’re having some really interesting conversations with other retailers.”
This could include product lines for other professional sports. And although Louisville Slugger has exclusive rights to manufacture gaming bats, Pillbox would like to expand into that market as well.
“We’ll see what happens,” Fellman said with a smile.