Chris and Ronnie’s grand night

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Agony & Ivy on July 6, 2010.

I lost interest in the All-Star Game long ago, but when I was a kid the Midsummer Classic was a very big deal.

The evolution of the separate but equal major leagues into the baseball equivalent of the NFC and AFC was well underway by 1983, but the National and American leagues of that era had distinct identities. Interleague play was a gimmick that was still far ahead in the future.

The AL was the league of old, dumpy ballparks like Cleveland Municipal Stadium and Fenway Park. It used the designated hitter. It was over-reliant on home runs and under-reliant on strategies like the double-switch.

The NL was the hip, modern league with futuristic ballparks like the Astrodome and Riverfront Stadium. Pitchers batted. Astroturf was the playing surface in six of the league’s 12 ballparks, and the parks generally had spacious dimensions. Such an environment placed a premium on speed and defense. It was an exciting brand of baseball.

There were players like Dave Winfield, Ted Simmons, Nolan Ryan, and Greg Luzinski who switched leagues – but more players tended to play their entire careers in the same league back in those days.

I was 13 – heading into eighth grade – and still enjoying the time in my life when summers seemed to last for years. There were few worries and plenty of time for watching Cubs games on Channel 9, Little League, pickup ballgames, pool hopping, and trading baseball cards with my friends.

The 50th anniversary All-Star Game was scheduled for July 6, 1983 at the old Comiskey Park – exactly 50 years to the day of the first showcase that was played on the South Side during the 1933 Chicago “Century of Progress” World’s Fair.

My 11-year-old brother, Ronnie, and I didn’t dare dream of attending the game. It was an event reserved for Sox fans and big shots. We were neither.

My Aunt Bea was a huge White Sox fan – almost annoyingly so. She never could understand why we were Cubs fans. We were South Siders and as far as Aunt Bea was concerned, it was our duty to back the Sox. The Sox were cooler. They played night games. They had fireworks. They had a Diamond Vision scoreboard.

The Cubs played on the North Side, and as far as Aunt Bea was concerned, anywhere north of Madison Street may as well have been a foreign country.

Aunt Bea recognized the significance of an All-Star Game in Chicago and she was determined to have my brother and me experience it. When the Sox announced that they were selling non-reserved tickets for $5 each for the All-Star workout day and an old-timers game on July 5, she jumped at the chance and bought tickets.

We sat several rows behind the third-base dugout. I remember that it was claimed the old-timer’s game represented the biggest gathering of Hall of Famers at a place other than Cooperstown. It was the only time that I ever saw Joe DiMaggio in the flesh and, as an added bonus, I got to see a 45-year-old Billy Williams hit an upper-deck home run to right.

The All-Star workout was also very cool. We were able to see some of our favorites up close, like Dale Murphy, George Brett, and Robin Yount. Future major leaguers Bret and Aaron Boone, who sporting Phiadelphia Phillies uniforms and were there with their All-Star father Bob, played catch in the outfield.

And I’ll never forget the power display of San Francisco’s Darrell Evans during batting practice. Evans hit towering fly ball after towering fly ball on top of and over the right-field roof. It was breathtaking.

The next day, I was eating lunch in our kitchen when the phone rang. It was Aunt Bea. She told me that she had scored two tickets for the All-Star Game and wanted to know if my brother and me wanted to go. I didn’t even have to ask. The problem we had, though, was finding a ride to my aunt’s home in Bridgeport. My parents were both working.

Fortunately, I soon learned that our across-the-street neighbor, Mr. Quinn, was attending the game and he said he’d be glad to give us a lift.

It was the first time we had ever attended a ballgame without adults and the sellout crowd made it somewhat intimidating. But we were blessed to have aisle seats in the right-field upper deck and and a couple cool middle-aged guys seated to our right. They bought us soda, gave us some Babe Ruth postage stamps, and asked me a trivia question I remember to this day:

Who was the last switch-hitter to win a league MVP award?

My answer: Pete Rose.

The correct answer: Vida Blue in 1971.

The seats weren’t that great, but there were very few decent seats at the old Comiskey. There was very little leg room, less elbow room, far too many obstructed view seats, and too many seats that were much too far away from the field.

The highlight of the game, of course, was Fred Lynn’s grand slam off Atlee Hammaker – still the only grand slam in All-Star Game history – during the American League’s seven-run third inning. The AL rolled to a 13-3 victory to end an 11-game NL winning streak. Lynn’s home run sailed high into the air and disappeared into the lower deck below us.

Fourteen of the players who participated in the contest, if you include the soon-to-be-inducted Andre Dawson, were Hall of Famers. It was the final All-Star Game for Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski.

The outcome of the game had long been determined by the time Cubs representatives Leon Durham and Lee Smith saw action. We saw Morganna “The Kissing Bandit” unsuccessfully attempt to plant one on Fernando Valenzuela and I suspect that actor George Burns had to be awakened in the middle of the seventh in order to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

As we exited the ballpark with fireworks filling the sky, I was certain that it was my favorite baseball experience at a ballpark other than Wrigley Field – and it remains so more than 30 years later.

Louisville Slugger: the making of an American icon

“I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.”
– Babe Ruth

BY CHRIS REWERS
EDITOR

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Since Babe Ruth was bigger than life, the 129-foot, 68,000-pound Ruth model replica bat – the “Largest Bat in the World” – that is displayed next to the entrance of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is a fitting tribute to the legendary slugger.

The museum, which is located in downtown Louisville and celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, is a slice of Americana, a candid look at the manufacturing process of an iconic product, and a celebration of a batter’s essential tool.

In 2015, a record 314,149 attended the museum, making it one of Louisville’s most popular attractions.

The Hillerich Company, which remains family owned, opened as a woodworking shop in 1855. For much of its first three decades, the company specialized in manufacturing an array of products like bedposts, table legs, stair railings, porch columns, and butter churns.

All of that changed in July, 1884.
Photo of Pete Browning
John “Bud” Hillerich, the 17-year-old son of company founder J. Frederick Hillerich was an avid baseball player and fan who was a regular at Eclipse Park – the home of the American Association’s Louisville Eclipse. The younger Hillerich developed a friendship with Eclipse star Pete Browning (right) – AKA “The Louisville Slugger.” Browning, who was mired in a hitting slump, broke his bat one afternoon.

The broken bat was a traumatic event for the eccentric Browning, a three-time American Association batting champion. It’s likely that no hitter prior to Ted Williams obsessed over bats as much as Browning. The slugger, who liked to swing a mammoth club that was 37 inches long and weighed 48 ounces, named each of his bats – often times after biblical figures. He spoke to his bats and, believing each one only contained only a certain number of hits, retired them on a regular basis.

After the game, Bud Hillerich invited Browning to his father’s shop and handcrafted him a replacement bat to the slugger’s exact specifications. The next day, Browning collected three hits. His teammates immediately placed bat orders. The Louisville Slugger was born.

J.F. Hillerich didn’t see much of a future for his company in bats but his son was persistent. The reputation of the bats began to spread throughout baseball and a steady stream of visiting players continued to visit the shop and place orders. By the time Bud assumed leadership of the company in 1897, the Louisville Slugger was its primary product.

In 1905, eight-time National League batting champion Honus Wagner signed a first-of-its-kind exclusive endorsement deal with Louisville Slugger and by 1923, the company which by then was known as Hillerich and Bradsby, was the nation’s top-selling bat manufacturer.

Upon entrance to the museum, visitors are greeted by an impressive wall display featuring the autographs of thousands of players, past and present, who had their signatures burned into Louisville Sluggers – ranging from Wagner to present day stars like Joey Votto, Curtis Granderson, and Dustin Pedroia. According to the display, over 80 percent of batters elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame used Louisville Sluggers.

On display in the museum gallery are models of Ruth’s 42-ounce bat in which he carved notches for each of his 60 home runs in 1927; the 36-inch bat Joe DiMaggio swung during his famous 56-game hitting streak in 1941, a bat Williams used when he became the last man to hit over .400, in ’41; and the P72 model bat that was used throughout the Hall of Fame careers of legends like Robin Yount, Cal Ripken Jr., and Derek Jeter. There are life-size mannequins of Ruth, Williams, Jeter, and Jackie Robinson spread through the center of the room.

Visitors are given the opportunity to swing a Louisville Slugger themselves in on-site batting cages. Among the bats available for use are replicas of the models used by Browning, Ruth, Williams, and Mickey Mantle. The pitching machines can be geared to slower speeds for novices including children ages 6 and older or, for the courageous, can be jacked up to reach speeds up to 90 MPH.

But the main attraction is the 30-minute factory tour which gives guests a thorough demonstration of how more than 1.8 million bats a year are made. And it’s no demo. The sight of flying wood chips, the smell of sawdust and the sounds of machinery upon entry makes it clear that real work is being done.

Typically, the factory produces 3,000 full-sized bats per day. In peak production during spring training, about 5,000 bats are manufactured.
Our family’s tour last November, which concluded with the presentation of a souvenir mini bat to each visitor, included roughly a dozen people. Our guide, Larry, was friendly, informative, and paused regularly to answer our questions.

Larry gave us an overview of the company’s history and of the bat-making process. We then made several stops along the production line.
We were shown how bats were handcrafted prior to the computer age. A block of wood called a billet, which matched the weight and length of the model requested, was guided onto a lathe machine by a highly-skilled craftsman and carved into a bat. A model bat was placed on a rack above and behind the lathe. The craftsman then revolved the billet on the lathe, sanding and shaving it until it was an exact replica of the model.

Each bat was custom made to the exact specifications of each player. Ruth, for example, demanded that each of his bats include pin knots in the barrels. Williams would visit the factory each offseason to personally oversee the production of his bats.

The heaviest bat – 48 ounces – was ordered by Edd Roush, a Cincinnati Reds star a century ago. The lightest bats on record – 30 ounces – were ordered by 1950 AL batting champion Billy Goodman and 1975-76 NL MVP Joe Morgan. The longest bat – 38 inches – was brandished by 1920’s and 30s slugger Al Simmons. The shortest Louisville Slugger used by a big leaguer was owned by late 19th and early 20th century star Willie Keeler.

On our next stop on the line, we witnessed the branding process that goes into every Louisville Slugger. Each ash bat is branded with the familiar Louisville Slugger trademark – one-quarter of a turn from the sweet spot.

Each player’s model is also branded with his signature, taken directly from his endorsement contract. The sizzle of the branding process is audible and the smell of burning ash permeates the room.

On the harder maple bats, branding decals are applied.

After branding, some bats are dipped into a staining vat (including the pink models many major leaguers use on Mother’s Day) and all of the clubs are varnished. They are inspected. Bats that pass inspection are packed and shipped. Bats that don’t pass muster are repurposed for souvenir use.

Shavings from the bat production are sold to area farmers and are primarily used as livestock bedding.

We were then shown how contemporary bats are made. Williams pioneered and modern players like Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn popularized the theory that how heavy a bat was wasn’t as important as how fast a batter could swing it. Therefore today’s batters are lighter than ones that were used in the old days. Today’s players have more than 8,000 variations to choose from but they typically order from a list of approximately 300 popular models.

The bat specifications for each player contracted by Louisville Slugger are entered into a computer and with a touch of a button, bats are produced from billets. Players are shipped bats, usually in sets of 12, several times throughout the season and some players’ specifications change as the year progresses. Most players prefer a lighter bat later in the year as the hot summer months take their toll. A typical major league batter will order 120 bats during the course of a season.

A common specification of modern players is a cupped bat in which a portion of the top of the bat is carved out. This specification, according to our guide, was invented by Chicago Cubs outfielder Jose Cardenal during an MLB All-Star tour of Japan following the 1973 season and quickly caught on with other players. Cardenal’s model, the C271, remains the company’s most popular today.

Bats have traditionally been made from northern white ash cultivated from company owned forests – about 6,500 acres – in New York state and Pennsylvania, but surprisingly, roughly 80 percent of the bats used by current major leaguers under contract by Louisville Slugger use maple.

The maple bats, which were popularized by Barry Bonds, are a harder wood but tend to shatter easier than ash models. In the past, hickory was a popular wood for bats but today the material is deemed to be too heavy.

The featured product of the museum’s gift shop is the customized bat which must be pre-ordered. The shop also features an array of souvenir bats (world championship Cubs bats were a hot item during our visit), replica bats of legends like Ruth and Williams and of current stars like Granderson and Evan Longoria, and usual gift shop fare like postcards, T-shirts, and coffee mugs.

The museum is located at 800 W. Main Street in Louisville. Admission is $14 for adults, $13 for seniors 60 and older, $8 for children ages 6-12, and free for children 5 and younger. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.