Batty Legends and Atmosphere – Louisville, Kentucky, USA
I can watch a live baseball game for three to four hours without moving. There’s a serenity about it I don’t feel in any other sport. I’ve seen many professional games. Once I went to Baltimore’s Camden Yards for five games; one of the first retro-baseball parks created. With the Colorado Rockies being only 100 miles away from where I live, I’ve seen them several times. Until I visited Louisville, though, I’d not witnessed one minor league game. Louisville is known for its baseball bats which have contributed to baseball history for over 120 years!
I held Derek Jeter’s bat before he did
At the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory tour, I touched New York Yankees star Derek Jeter’s bat before he did. I picked it up in its rough maple tree cylinder form before it became a finished product. Guests can see their favorite stars’ bats being made from start to finish. The friendly tour guides give presentations in the midst of the loud machinery of the factory for about 40 minutes.
Louisville Slugger is used by over 60 per cent of Major League Baseball players, including Jorge Posada and Manny Ramirez. In the company’s history, they’ve crafted over 100 million bats, currently producing one million wooden bats per year. Each year, the Major League baseball teams pay $45.00 to $60.00 per bat so their players can have 60-120 bats made of white ash (stronger), or maple (better hitting performance but more brittle).
During the 1884 baseball season, John A. “Bud” Hillerich created a baseball bat from a white ash tree for the Louisville Eclipse star Pete Browning, who was in a pinch because he had broken his bat in his last game. The Hillerich-made bat helped Browning get three hits the very next game. More players started going to Hillerich to ask that he make bats for them. Hillerich’s father, who ran the woodworks shop, wasn’t interested. Instead, he kept on making other wood items like swinging butter churns and beer keg faucets.
Bud didn’t relent in his pursuit of wanting bat making to be a part of the business. The first bats were called Falls City Sluggers (Louisville is at the Falls of the Ohio River). By 1894, the name “Louisville Slugger” was born. Baseball legend, Honus Wagner, was paid to put his name on a bat in 1905, with Ty Cobb following suit a few years later. The first youth bat was produced in 1915; by 1923, they were making a million bats per year. These wood bats are deemed the “Official Bat of Major League Baseball”.
The longest bat is 36 inches long, even though the major leagues allow for 42 inches. The barrel of the bat can only be 2.75 inches in diameter. The company makes bats for special occasions, including pink ones for Mother’s Day.
Museum – a Hit
After the tour, baseball fans can go through the gallery that’s full of historical and interactive exhibits, feasting their eyes on some of the legendary bats of past stars like Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. I went to the Batter Up exhibit, pressed a few buttons and saw what it’s like to have a 90-mile-per-hour fastball thrown at me from an umpire’s view! I even sat in some old Wrigley Field seats.
One of the most popular exhibits is Bud’s Batting Cage, where visitors can swing replica bats of Ted Williams and Derek Jeter. For safety measures, a helmet has to be worn in the batting cage. I paid my dollar for ten 50 mile-per-hour pitches. I only got a foul tip of one pitch. I realized how hard it is to hit a baseball, and that was at half the speed the pros face. Hitting a baseball has been deemed the hardest sport skill to master; no wonder the pros make millions! At the replica ball field, I walked through a dugout, down some stairs to a painted club house, and went into a small press box to hear the radio calls of such notable broadcasters as Red Barber and Mel Allen, while looking out at a diorama of the Baltimore Orioles’ Camden Yards.
The theater features a 12-minute-plus big screen film on hitting, showcasing stars such as Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey, Jr. Special temporary exhibits take place throughout the year that have honored Peanut’s baseball comic strips and women’s baseball.
The Museum is easy to find; it’s on Louisville’s Main Street. When you see a big bat outside a building that’s 120 feet tall and weighs 34 tons, you’re at the right place! The bat is a giant replica of Babe Ruth’s 34-inch Louisville Slugger. Baseball season or not, this venue is open year round!
Bats’ Haven at Slugger Field
Before the Louisville Bats played the Toledo Mud Hens (a team that Corporal Klinger of M*A*S*H was a fan of), the local college baseball team was introduced to the spectators. Then a hometown writer threw out the first pitch. Afterwards little girls who play softball yelled “Play Ball!” to the small crowd to get the event going. It was a clear night with the game time temperature reading 90 degrees. Later, the team mascot (who’s dressed in a bat suit) raced a kid around the four bases. Children and their parents rode on a carousel beyond the right field fence, or they relaxed on a lawn in left center field that can hold 750 people, close to 400 feet away from home plate. This is minor league baseball at its family-friendly and hometown best!
It’s quite an experience to see a Louisville Bats contest at their home ballpark. The 13,100-plus seat venue is called Louisville Slugger Field; main entrance is the façade of a restored rail depot from the late 1800’s. This park was built in the spirit of the retro-style ball parks that have been created over the last 15 years.
No matter where fans sit, they will be pretty close to the ball action. While the Bats lead their league in attendance by far (averaging well over nine thousand fans per game over the last several seasons, great for a minor league team), the school night was a big factor in the vast majority of the 8,209 “paid attendance” disguising themselves as empty seats. Nonetheless, I could feel the festive mood in the muggy atmosphere from the two to three thousand “actually” in attendance who did share the ballgame with me. The Bats won 3-2.
Such major leaguers like Jim Fregosi and Rick Burleson have managed here, and sports stars, Deion Sanders and Rick Sutcliffe have played some baseball in Louisville. Pro baseball has been happening in Louisville since 1876, so each ensuing pitch and hot dog sold keeps on making baseball history off the banks of the Ohio River!
Roy’s Travel Tips
I stayed at The Galt House, which overlooks the Ohio River. Beds are comfortable and there is plenty of workspace for free high speed internet. The fitness center has a 360-degree view of the Louisville area from the 18th floor rooftop of the East Tower.
You can read Roy’s first Louisville article here.
Roy A. Barnes has been a baseball fan since the 1977 World Series when he saw Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in the deciding Game Six. That instantly made him a Yankee fan, still so to this day. He’s a frequent contributor to Bootsnall.com.