Between the Lines / "Louisville Slugger"
The four of us arrive in Louisville on a sweltering June day. It is a lovely mid-sized Southern city with a fascinating history. It's also home to the Louisville Slugger factory and museum. Any kid who grew up in the 1950s has dreamed of posing in his baseball uniform and cap while holding a Louisville Slugger bat in his hands. Old dreams die hard. I am really up for our planned visit to the bat factory.
I know that my sister Mary Ellen is doing me a favor. She has absolutely no interest in baseball and even less in baseball bats. But she is a good sport about it. Charlene is unexpectedly excited to see this shrine to the sport of baseball. She is generally more fascinated with concert halls and art museums. I've tried to love the big art palaces in New York but generally find them boring. Give me Babe Ruth's bat and Satchel Paige's glove and suddenly I am enthralled by history -- the perfectly balanced ash bat, the red-seamed white horsehide ball and the smack of a leather glove. Ah, magic!
Before entering we stop to admire the three stories tall iconic bat that leans against the front of the old brick building. The company still makes its bats here on Main Street in Louisville. The guided tour takes you on a walk through the factory to watch the process before you visit the museum. A pleasant young man with a droll sense of humor gathers us together and warns us not to touch anything. It is still a work site with lots of noisy machinery going and caution is required. He gives us the spiel along with some corny joshing, and the crowd of 50 shuffles through the hot building.
One hundred years ago the Louisville Sluggers were all hand turned on a lathe. We watch a young worker demonstrate the disappearing art by carefully shaping a wood cylinder into a standard sized bat. It is beautiful to see and time consuming, too. The world doesn't seem to have much time to spend on hand work anymore. Even the timeless pastoral sport of baseball has entered the modern world. Almost three million bats a year are turned out now on computerized machines that can cut a bat in an eye-blink. The rest of the tour demonstrates the bats being graded, sanded, branded and varnished along an assembly line.
We stop periodically to observe different aspects of bat-making. The wooden plugs lopped off either end of the bat are given away as souvenirs to the visitors. We all take one, although I can't imagine what I am going to do with it. At one point we are handed some unfinished bats to pass around. The wood feels good in my hands and I step away from the group to take a practice swing. I want to believe I can hit a fastball. Then a little voice inside me reminds me I'm 60 years old with a bad back. One hard swing would probably cripple me for the rest of the summer. Still, I am tempted.
At mid-tour we stop at a bat rack with real professional models on display. I take one of Derek Jeter's bats in hand and think of his classic inside-out swing. I know that the difference between the truly great and the rest of us is unfathomable. Hitting a baseball coming at you at 99 miles per hour may not amount to much in the grand scheme of things, but it imbues you with a godlike quality among mortals. I check out a few other all-star bats. I imagine the whip of the club in the hands of these masters, the great eye-hand coordination, the exquisite timing, the coiled power and the graceful follow through of the unleashed swing.
All of the bats are made to uniform standards, but major leaguers get special treatment for their tools of the trade. Our guide recounted that Ted Williams could judge his own bat's weight right down to the ounce. As the bats roll off the computerized lathe, a man expertly sorts them into piles after a quick perusal. I'm not sure what they look for, but apparently they can spot it right away. The bats are sanded smooth in a matter of seconds. Then they are suspended from and sprayed on what looks like a dry cleaner's carousel. A staining dip is done to bring out the wood grain on the classic sluggers that I prefer. All that is left is for the bats to be packed and shipped before they reach into every corner of America.
We are ushered into a lobby, and miniature bats the size of batons are given to everyone. I take one with more pleasure than I care to admit -- a child's toy but still a sacred totem for me. After the tour we stroll through the museum portion of the building. Here uniforms, bats, gloves and other memorabilia are beautifully displayed in a large round room. I want to read all of the placards and watch the old black and white newsreels that still thrill me. There are wall-sized murals of baseball greats resting a trio of Louisville Sluggers on their powerful shoulders or striking the lethal pose at home plate ready to unload on a fastball and send it into the record books. I am a sucker for these stock photos that sold bubble gum packs and sports magazines by the millions, the only mythology that I knew by heart as a boy. Those players were my Greek gods and my heroic warriors.
I could stay here all morning but I don't want to bore the girls. I find them both browsing in the gift shop. I am sorely tempted to buy one of the authentic Louisville Sluggers for $29.99 but what in the world would I do with it? I have already been given my outright release by all the major league clubs, and it's too late to revive my Little League career. My dream days are over but I do consider storing a bat behind the bedroom door in case someone visits our house in the middle of the night with larceny on his mind. I am sure that I can still get a good swing off if I have to. But that would be sacrilege. Actually I still have the bat I used in high school out in my garage. There are some things you just can't part with in life.
I resist the temptation to buy a bat and wander into the lobby again to discover a display I hadn't noticed before. It is an exhibit of paintings by a young black artist depicting many Negro League players from the first half of the 20th century. Those men are the forgotten heroes of American baseball, and their skill and glory is captured in these dynamic and poignant paintings. They stand looking back at us from bus and railroad stations, under groves of trees and grandstands. Each face is alive with character and dignity. Their absolute devotion to the game is almost palpable, and they were not to be denied in baseball despite the terrible conditions they played under.
As I linger choked up before the beautifully evocative paintings, I realize that all of American history is somehow wrapped up in our great national pastime. Some of my own history is here, too. The real power of baseball is not just in a Louisville Slugger bat, but in the enduring love of the game. As we leave the museum, I find myself wondering whatever happened to my baseball glove. Wouldn't it be fun to play catch with my brother again?
Barry Wallace writes a weekly column for the Fairfield Citizen.