Near the beginning of his brilliant documentary â€œBaseball,â€ Ken Burns speaks about the mythic contradictions present in the sport of his focus. Perhaps it is these same inherent ironies that have always made baseball and the city of Louisville so compatible.
A city with both Southern and Northern roots that is technically considered Midwestern, and a highly engaging democratic sport that tolerates cheating. A slightly blue city in an overwhelmingly red state, and a profoundly conservative game that has often proven to be years ahead of its time.
Though now synonymous with basketball and horse racing, there was a time – of which we aren’t all that (relatively) removed – when America’s favorite pastime was king in these parts.
One of the first Major League Baseball cities in America, Louisville’s Colonels played in the American Association from 1882-1891. The club won the pennant in 1890 and went on to play in an early version of the World Series, where they tied the Brooklyn Bridegrooms three games apiece.
Though irrelevant in the broad scheme of things, and absurd because it ended in a tie, the series is historically important because legend has it that during one of these games, Colonels star Pete Browning used a bat made by young Bud Hillerich at his father’s woodworking shop. This first bat would eventually evolve into the Louisville Slugger brand that would dominate the game at every level.
The greatest Louisvillian of all, Muhammad Ali, exuded courage throughout his career, but one of the most noble acts in the history of sport occurred in the summer of 1947 when universally respected Dodger captain – and Louisville native – Pee Wee Reese walked outside of his dugout and draped his arm around a rookie named Jackie Robinson, who was being given a particularly hard time by the home crowd in Cincinnati.
Though he would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984, it was this act – as well as his refusal to sign a petition started by Dodger players during Spring Training in ’47 that said they would boycott the season if Robinson was brought up – more than anything he did on the field that made him one of the most revered men in the history of baseball.
Of course, times have changed, and modern Louisville has become less receptive to the sport than it once was.
Being a baseball fan requires commitment, and watching a game on television demands heightened levels of attention and involvement that few modern Americans are willing to surrender. In an age where one-line quips are far preferred to lengthy statements that actually address issues, it’s no wonder that high-action, low-involvement sports like football and basketball are thriving while baseball worshipers continue to convert or denounce the religion entirely.
Still, there’s something special about the glorious game of ball and its relationship with Louisville, something that anyone who’s dedicated a solid chunk of their life to the sport could tell you about.
I’ve experienced few joys in my life that can compare with taking the mound under the lights in front of a packed crowd at Derby City Field, or stepping into the batter’s box at beautiful Louisville Slugger Field (where someone, I’m not gonna say who, still owns the highest all-time batting average). Even taking the field at some of the best high school parks in the state – PRP, Ballard, Eastern, Male – was a pleasure that plenty of folks who grew up around this area can relate to.
And even though Louisvillians are unable to play year-round like the boys down South or out on the Left Coast, the brand of ball being played in the city is typically very high. Just look at the notable players the area has sent on to the professional ranks, or the guys from local high schools who have played major roles in UofL’s recent ascent to national prominence.
And of course, that’s the reason all this talk is relevant. With two weeks left to go in the regular season, Dan McDonnell’s Louisville Cardinals are again ranked in the top 10 and playing like a national title contender.
The excitement over the hard-hitting, smooth-fielding breed of Cardinals is still in its early stages, but its also perpetually blossoming. Many people wondered aloud whether Louisville baseball was just a flash in the proverbial pan after the Cards’ incredible run to the College World Series in 2007, but the team has continued to win big â€“ making it back to Omaha just a season ago â€“ and the fan support and fan interest has accordingly grown alongside it.
If you haven’t paid attention until now, that’s okay. Dan McDonnell and company are quite used to playing backup keyboard until balls have stopped bouncing inside the Yum! Center and horses have stopped running around the track inside Churchill Downs. Haven’t been to a game? Can’t name UofL’s record? Don’t care for baseball? None of those things change the fact that the 2014 installment of the Cardinal Nine appear good enough to make it back to Omaha and compete for a national championship. Love the sport or loathe it, the preceding statement should be enough to at least catch your eye, if not your head and heart, for the next month or so.
As Walt Whitman simply put it: “The game of ball is glorious.” Well, this is the time for the glorious game and a glorious team to take center stage in our glorious city.
You might want to start paying attention now so you can truthfully say you did later.