Pillbox Bat Co. Reaches MLB Agreement | New

by CESAR SALAZAR

Tucked away in its small pocket of town, Winona’s Pillbox Bat Company has scored a home run: a contract to produce Major League Baseball merchandise. With its eight-person team, the company is stepping up to the plate and rivaling the big players in the field of baseball memorabilia.

Pillbox manufactures all of its wooden bats, pennants, leather goods and baseballs by hand and in-house, from carving to painting. It had humble beginnings compared to what it is now.

Owners Zak Fellman and Dan Watson originally started the company in 2015 to make beer and extra money. To say that baseball was an influence for them growing up is a huge understatement. They lived, breathed and ate baseball, and it got them to where they are today. Even the company name is based on an obscure baseball park in St. Paul, Minnesota from the early 1900s.

“I didn’t even know at first if [the company] was going to be a big thing one day – it’s just going to be something we can do together,” Fellman said. “We talked about baseball stories, baseball stuff, maybe we’ll have fun with it, but a few years later it was like, ‘OK, we can’t do this part-time anymore.’ “

Pillbox doubled its sales every year for the first few years, according to Fellman. He joked that it’s easy to double your sales when your income is zero in the beginning. The company recently won a license agreement from Major League Baseball to produce MLB team merchandise and memorabilia.

When the business started, Fellman said, “… [MLB licensing] wasn’t even something we considered as a possibility,” Fellman said. “It was a super big pie-in-the-sky type dream.”

Although Pillbox now offers products for the big leagues, the company initially began producing for local and national Little League teams and ordering parts. In 2019, the company actually started working with the Minnesota Twins to celebrate their record breaking season.

“They called and asked if we could make custom bats to celebrate them breaking records,” Fellman said. “It turned into a really good partnership with the Twins. We’ve done projects every season since then, and we’ve just built a really strong relationship with them.

Fellman added that through the partnership with the Twins, Pillbox was able to come to terms with MLB to secure a licensing deal. Pillbox originally requested to produce MLB baseball bats for team commemorations and memorabilia, but were denied due to other companies holding these exclusive licenses. Eventually, MLB awarded Pillbox production of other baseball memorabilia, such as wooden pennants, coasters, and baseballs. So far, the deal has worked out favorably for the company, according to Fellman and production manager Carrie Frederich.

“So far it’s been crazy,” Frederich said. She continued, in reference to a large room that had a large table full of wooden pennants, “It’s not even the whole order for fanatics. It’s just one piece. We haven’t stopped – our laser engravers and our mines have not stopped since we obtained this license.

“Overall, MLB art is our niche,” Fellman said. “We will always hold out for bats at some point.”

While the business is able to meet MLB’s demands, Pillbox hopes to grow the business even further in the future.

“Zach jokes that he would like to hire five people,” Frederich said with a laugh. “I think another full-time person would definitely be beneficial. With the middle school students back… it would be nice to hire a few part-time people as well.

While Pillbox has worked with some local organizations in the past, Fredrich said she would like the company to continue to grow locally. “I think we’re still ready and interested in expanding our presence in Winona,” she said. “Always ready to collaborate with different people, different efforts and different ideas that people have. We are always open.

“It’s a big step forward, I think it will take a few more years to get to where it’s really successful,” Fellman said. “Even if we have licenses, good sales and team partnerships, the scale of it has to be really able to do it very well. It will take some time. We really focus on the success of this license and we live up to what is expected of us.

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Neal T. Doss