Hell in the Hall – Louisville Sports Blog

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Baseball in Louisville: Why We Care So Much

Posted by frankpos on April 28, 2010

(Editors note: After the Cards nailed UK yesterday with a comeback in the bottom of the ninth before a record crowd at home, I thought it apropos to  remind us all why the sport of baseball still resonates so strongly with Louisvillians…)

Even as U of L baseball has edged its way into the Card Nation’s consciousness,  fueled by coach Dan McDonnell’s brilliance, some people still ask…

“Hey, what’s the big deal? Who cares about baseball anyway in this community?”

Well…sit back and let me tell you a bit about why we care–a lot.

**************************************************************************************************************

As America flexed its young muscles and bounded onto the world stage entering the 20th century, three sports dominated the public imagination: Boxing, Horse Racing, and Baseball, and continued to do so for the first half of the century.

And Louisville stood at the forefront in all three.

The first in the great line of heavyweight champions from Louisville–Marvin Hart–won the title in 1905.

After almost going broke in 1902, The Kentucky Derby quickly became the premier horse race in this country in the 20’s and 30’s through the efforts of Col. Matt Winn, one of the early great marketing wizards.

And in baseball…well, we were there at the very beginning.

The Louisville Grays were a charter member of the older of the two major leagues–the National League. And the National League itself was formed in Louisville. The Grays played only two seasons, 1876 and 1877. Their home games were at the Louisville Baseball Park –which was located on the spot where St. James Court now stands.

The Grays died a sudden death by being involved in pro baseball’s first gambling scandal. Four key players were banned for life, and the team folded.

In 1882, another pro team was formed, the Louisville Eclipse, who joined the American Association and then changed their name (logically) to the Colonels in 1885.

The Eclipse and Colonels played ball at Eclipse Park–which is actually the name of two (three?) former baseball grounds located in Louisville, Kentucky–from 1882-1899. Both Eclipse Parks were located at the corner of 7th and Kentucky streets.

One of the early stars of pro baseball was Louisville’s “Gladiator” –Pete Browning.

Browning was an outfielder in Major League Baseball from 1882 to 1894 who played primarily for the Louisville Eclipse/Colonels, becoming one of the sport’s most accomplished batters of the 1880s. A three-time batting champion, Browning ranks third among all major league players in career batting average, and fifth in slugging average. His .341 lifetime batting average remains among the top twelve in major league history; his .345 average over eight American Association seasons was the highest mark by any player during that league’s 10-year existence.

His other nickname was the “Louisville Slugger.” He was enormously attentive to the bats he used, and was the first player to have them custom-made, establishing a practice among hitters which continues to the present.

Of course, the story of how baseball bats came to be custom-made is the stuff of legend here in Louisville. On a spring afternoon, Andrew “Bud” Hillerich, then seventeen, witnessed Browning break his favorite bat. Bud offered to make a bat for his hero and Browning accepted. According to the story, after the young wood shop apprentice lathed a quality stick from white ash, Browning got three hits with it in the next game.

Other major leaguers began to inquire…and that’s how Louisville Sluggers became the gold standard for baseball bats.

The Colonels won the 1890 pennant in the AA. The previous year, they had finished dead last–and thus became the one and only team to rise from the cellar to the pennant in one season. (And, with a record of 27-111, they were the first team in major-league history to lose 100 games in a season.)

In 1892 the team moved to the National League as part of a league merger, and played there until 1899. A fire destroyed Eclipse Park in 1899, and contributed significantly to the once-strong Louisville club being contracted after the end of the season. Team owner Barney Dreyfuss moved on to acquire the Pittsburgh Pirates and brought 14 players with him, including future Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke.

This major infusion of talent turned the perennial cellar-dwelling Pirates into a three-peat pennant winner, and a participant in the first modern World Series.

The Colonels played from 1902-1922 at Eclipse Park III, but I cannot find anything about its location. However, then they moved to much-beloved Parkway Field in 1923 and continued there until 1956.

(After the Colonels moved, Parkway became home to the University of Louisville team for several decades until they abandoned it in 1998 and moved to Cardinal Stadium. Parkway was south of Eastern Parkway and west of Brook Street. Prior to its demolition, Parkway Field had become a home run haven for U of L Head Coach Gene Baker’s “Over the Wall Gang.” The Cards led NCAA Division I in long balls in 1991 and 1992 while finishing runnerup in 1995.)

In 1909 the Colonels won the American Association pennant, as they also did in 1921, 1925, 1926 and 1930 while featuring such future Hall of Fame players such as Billy Herman and Earle Combs. Additionally, our own homegrown Hall of Famer, Pee Wee Reese, was a rookie with the 1938 Colonels.



The Colonels were one of few minor league teams to play throughout World War II and they won pennants in 1944 and 1945. In 1944 the Colonels played in the Junior World Series against Baltimore and the game drew attendance of 52,833 – 16,265 more than any single World Series game that year. In 1946 the Colonels played a role in the desegregation of baseball when they faced the Montreal Royals and Jackie Robinson in the 1946 Junior World Series.

They moved to Fairgrounds Stadium(later Cardinal Stadium) in 1957. They won (in 1960, with Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro) one of three appearances in the Junior World Series in that time, but in 1962 the American Association folded.

In 1964, the colorful MLB impresario Charlie O. Finley flirted with bringing the Oakland A’s to Louisville (courtesy of card79):

“On September 18, 1962, after less than two full years of ownership, Finley asked the A.L. owners for permission to move the Athletics to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. His request was denied by a 9–1 vote. In January 1964, he signed an agreement to move the A’s to Louisville, promising to change the team’s name to the “Kentucky Athletics”.[1] (Other names suggested for the team were the “Kentucky Colonels” and the “Louisville Sluggers.”) By another 9–1 vote his request was denied.”

In 1967, Walter Dilbeck purchased the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League and moved them to Louisville, renaming them the Colonels. This last Louisville Colonels team played in the minor league International League until 1972 when they were relocated to Rhode Island . During this last incarnation, stars included Carlton Fisk, Dwight Evans, Luis Tiant, and Cecil Cooper.

The franchise came to an end when the Kentucky State Fair Board announced that their stadium would be renovated for football. Ironically, baseball returned to Louisville when the same stadium was renovated for baseball in 1982 and the great long-time baseball entrepreneur, A. Ray Smith, brought top-notch baseball back to Louisville. The Springfield Redbirds came to Louisville as the Louisville Redbirds, setting minor league attendance records and outdrawing several major league teams.

During the 1982 season, the Louisville Redbirds broke the minor league attendance record by drawing over 800,000 in 30,000 seat Fairgrounds Stadium. In 1983, the Redbirds were the first minor league team to draw over one million fans in a single season.

In 1999, when the Redbirds became affiliated with the Brewers, they took the name Louisville RiverBats and In 2000 the team moved to Louisville Slugger Field, a new stadium in downtown Louisville, seating 14,000 with a more intimate baseball setting than at Cardinal Stadium.

In 2002 the team dropped the word “River” from its name and became simply known as the Louisville Bats. While the logo and mascot still consist of the winged mammal, the bat is also synonymous with the Louisville Slugger baseball bat. (The naming rights for the stadium were purchased by Hillerich & Bradsby, makers of the famous Louisville Slugger baseball bat.)

Louisville has won the attendance title every season since moving into Louisville Slugger Field and the Redbirds have won the American Association title in 1984, 1985 and 1995.

In 2002, a unique sign of the power of baseball fever in this community was the public frenzy and pride displayed as our own Valley Sports Little League team won the Little League World Series.

In 2007, the Cards set the community on fire with a totally out-of-the-blue run to the College

World Series, led by Logan Johnson and Boomer Whiting.

And, In 2008, the Cards won the Big East.

By the way, it’s not just Louisville. Kentucky as a state holds its own over the years, particularly when you consider its small population relative to other states. Besides Pee Wee Reese, Kentucky has two other Hall of Famers- Earle Combs and Jim Bunning.

Add in Pete Browning–who many argue should be in, and we’ve got Kentucky born players in the Hall at baseball origins 80-90’s , then in 20’s-30’s with Combs and the immortal Ruth-Gehrig Yankees, the 50’s with Reese and the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, and  the 70’s with Bunning.

Here’s a link to Kentucky players who have played in Major League Baseball(courtesy of rkblock2): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C…s_from_Kentucky

Look at the great pitchers. Besides Bunning,…Woodie Fryman, fire-baller Don Gullet of the Big Red Machine on the Cincinnati Reds, Steve Hamilton, and more recently Paul Byrd and Jeremy Sowers.

Throw in Gus Bell, Doug Flynn, and Phil Roof and several others….not too shabby.

And current MLB rosters are peppered with local and Kentucky born players: Matt Anderson, Chris Burke, Paul Byrd, Tyler Clippard, Aaron Cook, Scott Downs, Matthew Ginter, Andy Green, Sean Green, Corey Hart, Austin Kearns, Jon Rauch, Mark Reynolds, Jeremy Sowers, Ryan Speier, Jon Switzer, Dan Uggla, Brandon Webb, and Todd Wellemeyer, Bill White, and Brad Wilkerson.

So… for those still wondering about why we care so much about baseball— now you know.

Louisville Colonels
1885
(18851899, 19011962, 19681972)
Louisville, Kentucky


Team Logo


Cap Insignia

Class-Level

  • Triple-A (1946-1962), (1968-1972)
  • Double-A (1908-1945)
  • A (1902-1907)
  • Major League (1885-1899)

Minor League affiliations

Major League affiliations

Name

  • Louisville Colonels (1885-1899), (1901-1962), (1968-1972)

Ballpark

Minor League titles

League titles

1890, 1909, 1916, 1921, 1925, 1926, 1930, 1939, 1940, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1954, 1960, 1961, 1962

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