Minnesota town small business licensed to make MLB memorabilia
It all started with a tree branch, some house paint, and two baseball-loving boys in southern Minnesota.
The Pillbox Bat Company in Winona was born from the hands of Zak Fellman and Dan Watson in the 1990s. And now their company has been officially licensed to manufacture Major League Baseball memorabilia for all 30 teams.
The company manufactures specialty baseball bats that are not typically used for the game itself. The bats are sold to baseball fans, collectors and art lovers. However, the Bats have yet to be licensed with MLB due to Louisville Slugger’s exclusive contract with the league. But the wooden pennants, coasters and everything else on its website are exclusive to MLB starting this summer. In addition, the company also manufactures 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 were two sides to the coin, when it came to how the company came about.
In 2015, Fellman was the owner and founder of a Winona business called the Sanborn Canoe Company, which makes hand-painted wooden paddles. Meanwhile, Watson was at other businesses when Fellman contacted Watson and asked him a question that would lead to a new business approach.
“He called me and said, ‘Hey Dan, I’m thinking of doing some custom painted baseball bats. Want to do it with me?'” Watson recalled. “It took me about two seconds to respond, ‘Yeah, let’s go! Sounds awesome.'”
The name “Pillbox” comes from the old baseball stadium in downtown St. Paul that 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 it was nicknamed the “Pillbox”, with hits over the left and right field fences awarding the batter only two bases.
“You might find it an odd choice of stadium to honor with our company name. But for us, the story of the ballpark is the story of what baseball is all about. It’s like that sand court in the back of your house that’s just big enough to throw in a few mitts and a hat for the basics, anoint someone an all-time pitcher, and throw a game of stickball.” , reads the website.
Watson also recalls a younger, more innocent time around age 12 when he and Fellman started making wooden bats from logs and sticks in the woods.
“We would go into the woods and find logs and sticks, things that could look like whatever weight and length of bat we wanted,” Watson said, adding that they would take pocket knives and them. would cut to the shape and size of bats to use for home run derbies in their backyards.
Early on, Watson said he and Fellman made it their goal to get an MLB license. During the first months of activity, they contacted the league and began licensing discussions. The talks lasted for months, then turned into years. Finally, an agreement was reached on July 1.
“Getting an MLB license is huge and opens up all kinds of opportunities,” Watson said, adding that a deal with Fanatics is also in the works.
Some MLB players have already shown interest in the company, including a Minnesota Twins pitcher.
“Joe Ryan saw one of the bats made for a project involving Twins season ticket holders and decided he wanted one,” Watson said.
The team contacted Pillbox and worked out a trade involving Ryan. The 26-year-old starting pitcher sent in a photo with the bat and an autographed baseball in exchange for the personalized coin. 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 display on a wall in their store, located at 460 West 3rd St.
Then Cincinnati Reds second baseman Jonathan India, the 2021 National League Rookie of the Year, reached out to make the same deal as Ryan. Watson says he worked with the Reds to finalize this.
And the interest doesn’t stop with professional baseball players. Watson said the company had conversations with musical artists such as country singer Chris Stapleton; groups Green Day, Fallout Boy and Weezer during their Hella Mega Tour; and Guns N’ Roses when they performed at Target Field.
“When [artists] playing in ballparks, there’s some interest in creating memories specific to that location,” Watson told Bring Me The News.
Pillbox employees also made a custom bat for the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club store in New York. PSG is a professional football club based in France.
The Pillbox team is one person short of filling all nine baseball positions, as it has eight employees consisting of carpenters, designers, painters and logistics.
“I think people are surprised at how efficiently we can run orders, especially larger orders from a small team,” Watson said, noting that they’ve been able to complete orders for 1,000 bald. -mice 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 that were to happen, Watson and Fellman would just expand their business 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.