Our Baseball Heritage

Photo Courtesy of the Filson Historical Society The Grand Stadium at the Kentucky State Fair & Exposition Center.

The Grand Stadium at the Kentucky State Fair & Exposition Center.
Photo Courtesy of the Filson Historical Society

By CHASE CUNNINGHAM
The Voice-Tribune Intern

Today, Louisville’s sports fans are usually partial to hardwood or horses. But for most of the city’s history, baseball was the spectacle that captivated the city’s minds. America’s pastime owes much of its identity to Louisville’s people and ballparks, and the ups and downs of professional ball here are truly a marvel to behold. In the spirit of summer, here are 11 of the most iconic names and events in Louisville’s baseball heritage.

In the beginning – 1865

The first documented case of Louisville “base ball” took place on July 19, 1865. The Louisville Grays defeated the Nashville Cumberlands 23-1 in a confusing match. A female spectator had to call an end to the action, because the players didn’t understand the rules well enough to know when the game was over. Meriwether Lewis Clark, founder of the Kentucky Derby, was one of the players.

Genesis of the league – 1875

Team owners and “magnates” of the time, including Walter Newman Haldeman, owner of the Courier-Journal and the Grays, met in Louisville in 1875 to structure and standardize the sport. They ultimately formed baseball’s National League, of which the Grays were charter members.

Photo Courtesy of the Filson Historical Society Fans watching a Louisville Colonels game at Parkway Field, 1937.

Fans watching a Louisville Colonels game at Parkway Field, 1937.
Photo Courtesy of the Filson Historical Society

An inside job – 1877

Only a year after becoming the city’s first professional baseball team, the Grays were undone by baseball’s first gambling scandal. John Avery Haldeman, son of Walter Newman Haldeman, worked for his father as both a writer and liaison to the team. He often traveled with the Grays, sending reports back to the Courier and occasionally filling in at second base.

When the first-place team inexplicably lost seven straight near the end of the season’s pennant race, Haldeman became suspicious. Several telegrams involving insider trading and the codeword “sash” were discovered, ultimately resulting in the banning of four players from baseball and the loss of the city’s team.

The stunning offense was “a black eye for Louisville,” according to Anne Jewell, executive director of Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory and author of “Baseball in Louisville.” “It was devastating. Unforgiveable, really.”

Photo Courtesy of Hillerich & Bradsby Co. Pete Browning.

Pete Browning.
Photo Courtesy of Hillerich & Bradsby Co.

“The Gladiator” – 1882

Pete Browning was “one of the first true national superstars of baseball,” Jewell said. He was famous for his crushing swing, but also his afflicted body and mind. Browning suffered from an ear complication since childhood, and a faulty operation left him in severe chronic pain. He fell into alcoholism and even spent some time in an asylum. He is mostly remembered, however, as a peerless hitter and heroic man. Legend has it he once saved a child from being run over by a wagon cart.

German engineering – 1884

John Andrew “Bud” Hillerich skipped work at his father’s German woodworking shop to watch a Louisville Eclipse baseball game, where he saw Pete Browning shatter his bat during a spell of bad play. Hillerich offered to make Browning a new one, and the pair worked through the night spinning and carving wood. At his next game, Browning found revived success with the new Hillerich bat.
Hillerich’s father thought the future of the family business was swinging butter churns and wanted nothing to do with baseball, but John continued to make bats regardless, eventually under Browning’s second nickname, “Louisville Slugger.”

Photo Courtesy of Hillerich & Bradsby Co. John Andrew “Bud” Hillerich.

John Andrew “Bud” Hillerich.
Photo Courtesy of Hillerich & Bradsby Co.

The best losers –1890

During a fit of horrible play, the Louisville Colonels became the first professional team to lose 100 games in a single season. Owner Mordecai Davidson was infamous for his treatment of his players—he would fine them for poor play, even though he hardly understood the game of baseball. Ultimately, the players decided to strike.

At the time, the Colonels were members of the American Association, a league born through dissention between the restrictive National League and a handful of team owners. “They were looking to broaden the appeal of baseball,” said Andrew Clark, graduate student with the University of Louisville History Department. “The National League’s target demographic was what you would call the ‘carriage set.’ They wanted the ‘genteel’ atmosphere.”

The following year, the Player’s League, yet another professional league of the day, raided all of the talented players from the American Association, commonly known as the “beer and whiskey league,” offering them higher pay. The Colonels were so awful, however, their roster remained nearly intact. The following year, they won the American Association pennant playing against severely weakened teams, and went on to tie the 1890 World Series against the Brooklyn Bridegrooms of the National League.

The doctor is out – 1909

Michael Riley “Doc” Powers left the field of medicine and became a catcher for 11 years, beginning with the Louisville Colonels in 1898. He had previously played ball at Trinity High School and Notre Dame. Judi Sikes, Powers’ granddaughter, recalled her grandmother teasing him, saying that no patient “would want to have you touch them with those knuckled fingers of yours.”

Some believe Powers was the first baseball man to pass away due to injuries sustained during play; after a collision with a wall, surgical complications ended his life. However, Powers himself thought he originally fell ill on the day of the injury due to a questionable cheese sandwich.

Segregated teams – 1900s

Louisville was home to several African-American baseball teams during the 1900s. These teams would often play multiples games in multiple cities a day. At one point, in 1949, Louisville possessed two professional baseball teams – the Colonels in the American Association and the Buckeyes in the Negro American League. The Louisville Black Colonels played from the 1930s until 1954, when baseball’s integration effectively brought an end to the African American leagues. Kentucky Governor A.B. “Happy” Chandler played a key role in the integration of major league baseball.

Photo Courtesy of the Filson Historical Society Select members of the 1926 American Association championship team.

Select members of the 1926 American Association championship team.
Photo Courtesy of the Filson Historical Society

An unprecedented friendship – 1947

Reese began his professional career with the Louisville Colonels in 1938. He went on to become a 10-time All-Star and two-time world champion. He is most famous, though, for his support of teammate Jackie Robinson, an early African American player in major league baseball. A statue of Reese now stands as the “greeting landmark” outside Louisville Slugger Field.

The ballparks

Several historical ballparks have risen and fallen in Louisville. The Grays played at Louisville Baseball Park, which has now been developed into the St. James Court neighborhood. Three consecutive Eclipse Parks were home to the Louisville Eclipse and Colonels teams. All three were destroyed by fire.

Fairgrounds Stadium, home of the second Colonels team and the Redbirds, is still standing. Louisville Slugger Field, current ballpark of the Louisville Bats, contains an old train shed that was a hub of train-based commerce from 1890 into the 1900s.

“We’ve taken great pride in the role that Louisville Slugger Field has played in the redevelopment of the Eastern Downtown Area, and in particular the Waterfront,” said Greg Galiette, senior vice president of the Louisville Bats Baseball Club. “We feel it’s a facility that the whole city can enjoy and call their own.”

Photo Courtesy of the Filson Historical Society The Brinly-Hardy Building, now a part of Slugger Field, during the Great Flood of 1937.

The Brinly-Hardy Building, now a part of Slugger Field, during the Great Flood of 1937.
Photo Courtesy of the Filson Historical Society

Present and future

The Redbirds came to Louisville’s Fairgrounds Stadium in 1982 and immediately began setting minor league attendance records, even surpassing the attendance of some major league teams. Now known as the Bats, the club is still one of the most valuable and successful minor league teams in the country.

“Our team has a rich and deep baseball tradition and history, and we honor that and keep that in mind as we build and develop our franchise,” Galiette said.

Louisville Slugger is celebrating 130 years of craftsmanship and is still family-operated by the Hillerichs. Jewell believes that baseball is synonymous with America and Louisville Slugger is synonymous with baseball. “It’s the type of brand that connects generations,” she said, “and that’s what we love to see happen here.” The museum set an annual attendance record last year with 300,000 visitors.