When Dan Watson and Zak Fellman were 12 years old, they would go into the woods and find straight pieces of wood. They would shave them into bats using pocket knives for home run derbies with tennis balls.
Fast forward 25 years, and the lifelong friends came together to form Pillbox Bat Co., a custom sports memorabilia shop out of Winona that pays homage to baseball's history with bats, baseballs and other fan-driven products.
Pillbox is on the verge of breakout success after securing Major League Baseball licensing deals over the past 18 months. The company last month rolled out its first major project under the contract: a series of hardwood pennants for 30 teams.
"I am unbelievably grateful for the position that we're in and the relationships that we have with the organizations ...," Watson said. "It's truly incredible."
The duo, who played Little League together, initially went separate ways as adults. Watson joined the military and worked in online sales. Fellman, with another partner, started Sanborn Canoe Co., which is well-known for its line of artistic paddles.
In 2015, Fellman got the idea to work on bats, just like they did as children.
"It's as easy to make a paddle as it is baseball bats," Fellman said.
It took less than a minute for Watson to agree to partner with his old friend.
At first, the two figured the project could make them a little extra coffee money, maybe enough for a nice dinner here and there. After they came up with a name — Pillbox was the nickname of 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," Watson said. "We're going to take this thing to the moon, and there's no other option."
Watson started calling MLB officials and mapping out marketing. Fellman, the artist between the two, got to work designing products.
For the first few years, Pillbox made a name through its custom work: bats designed for corporate gifts, novelty baseballs. Tiny bats with shark decals, nicknamed "Baby Shark Bats," became a hot seller in 2018 and 2019 when people couldn't get enough of the eponymous children's song.
Despite its small size — Pillbox employs seven full-time people and one part-time worker — the shop garnered attention from the Minnesota Twins in 2019 as the club's Bomba Squad shattered the MLB record for most home runs by a team in a regular season.
To mark the occasion, Twins officials ordered custom bats for each player with their names, numbers and other interesting stats.
"They have an incredible aesthetic," Chris Iles, the Twins senior director of brand experience and marketing, said of Pillbox. "Their products are beautiful. They look cool. It's a blend of kind of old-school sensibility meets new-school design."
From there, the Twins offered support as Pillbox secured rights to make 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 he met with Watson at a Target Field event, and the Twins sought more products from the company for various events.
The MLB deal, as well as the new line of hardwood pennants, goes through a process Pillbox built for custom jobs. Workers had to figure out how to meet the individualized requests.
Case in point: The Utah Jazz of the NBA were among the first teams to request hardwood pennants.
"We do something we didn't think we could do and then it works," Watson said. "And then we develop a whole product line around it."
Pillbox has plans to expand, though Fellman admits the company still is perfecting the process to mass produce its pennants. The first wave of pennants has gone to online sports retailer Fanatics, and employees are waiting to see whether the products take off, as pennants aren't usually made of wood.
"We're obviously optimistic," Watson said. "Q4 is going to be really interesting, because we already have our initial orders with Fanatics and a bunch of other major baseball teams, and have some really interesting conversations with other retailers going."
That could include product lines for other pro sports. And while Louisville Slugger has the exclusive rights to make game bats, Pillbox would like to expand into that market as well.
"We'll see what happens," Fellman said with a smile.