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The Familiar Crack of a Louisville Slugger Bat

When I was growing up, we kids who lived here in the Falls City took particular pride, especially during baseball season, when big league players stepped up to the plate wielding Louisville Sluggers.

In those days, baseball was indeed the national pastime, far more than it is today. As with symphony orchestras and mainline churches, people talk about the problem getting youngsters interested in baseball, fearing that declining fan bases will mean lost profits.

In summer, when we enjoyed long, lazy days of reading, playing outdoors and watching TV, my mother tried to find educational excursions. One day we went to the Sealtest plant to watch them bottle milk (the treat was a carton of ice-cold chocolate milk). Another day we went to the Coca-Cola plant. Then one very warm afternoon we went, along with my grandmother and two cousins, to the Hillerich & Bradsby plant, where they made Louisville Sluggers.

Its location is difficult to find in reference books, but I remember that it was east of downtown, in a frame building with lots of stairs. Fans, but no air conditioning. The floor was covered with wood shavings, and all around there were signs that said, “No Spitting on the Floor.”

All around we saw tin cans, and a few cuspidors, for the workers to expectorate their chewing tobacco. I guess if anyone had smoked cigars or cigarettes in that place, the plant would have gone up in huge billows of flame.

Hillerich and Bradsby had been making baseball bats since 1884, when a young guy named John A. “Bud” Hillerich watched a game of the Louisville Eclipse team, in which a guy named Pete Browning was the big star. Browning’s bat split during the game, so Hillerich took him to the family’s woodworking business, where a fine new bat was fashioned for the Eclipse center-fielder.

When I was young, the schools practically shut down during the daytime games of the World Series. We were excused from dressing by the gym teacher in 1963 when the New York Yankees played the Los Angeles Dodgers. We settled ourselves on the floor of the stage of Seneca High’s gymnasium and watched the Dodgers and Sandy Koufax sweep the championships.

When at bat, Sandy carried a Louisville Slugger. So did the Yankee stars like Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. So even if the actual games were being played off in Los Angeles or the Bronx, we all felt like a little bit of Louisville was there too.

Besides the Slugger, Louisville had another link to Major League baseball. Pee Wee Reese, the Hall of Fame shortstop, grew up in Louisville and attended DuPont Manual High School in 1937. He quickly drew the attention of the major league scouts after his first season with the minor-league Louisville Colonels team. In 1940 he went to Brooklyn to play for the Dodgers, where the diminutive but powerful Pee Wee became a star.

History records him as one of the key figures in the integration of the game, for when Jackie Robinson, the first African-American signed to play major league ball joined the Dodgers in 1947, Reese publicly stood up to hostile crowds in Cincinnati. He put his arm around Robinson and gave a clear sign that he was acceptable.

Reese had another strength besides being a quick shortstop and a symbol of racial brotherhood. He was a natural on television. During the 1960s, he and Dizzy Dean, the popular former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, teamed up as announcers for the CBS Game of the Week, which they continued to do through 1965. Reese switched to NBC in 1968 and his new partner became Curt Gowdy. He retired from broadcasting in 1970, and returned to Louisville, where he worked for Hillerich & Bradsby and pursued other business ventures (including a fancy bowling alley on Eastern Parkway at Preston Highway). He died of prostate cancer in 1999.

Though Pee Wee was gone, he was not forgotten. He’s one of the Louisville Originals whose photo hangs prominently (together with Jackie Robinson) on East Main Street not far from Slugger Field, the city’s baseball field that opened just a few months after Pee Wee’s death. There’s a statue of Reese at Slugger Field and another--this one with Robinson--in Brooklyn, which was home of the Dodgers until they moved to Los Angeles in 1958.

This nostalgic look at baseball history in Louisville brings us back to 2015, when only a few weeks ago the descendants of the original bat makers decided to sell Hillerich & Bradsby to Wilson, the sporting goods giant, for $70 million. The step was taken to ensure that in a world of growing competition the Slugger will remain the most popular and familiar bat in baseball. What is more, the plans call for the bats to still be produced at the iconic Louisville factory at 800 West Main, and the big bat that adorns the city’s skyline is not going to go away.

Still, whenever a strong company with local ownership is sold to a big out-of-town corporation, something is lost in the fabric of civic life. We’ve seen this here with so many institutions, not the least of which is The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times, the big banks and so forth. But one thing that is reassuring – this week, as all the major league teams come out to play, at least half of the cracks you hear will be those of Louisville Sluggers.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. He provides commentary for 89.3 WFPL.

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