By Walter Munday
Metro Parks and Recreation Outreach Manager
On the morning of the opening of the 2016 Major League Baseball World Series, many native and replanted Louisvillians are unaware of the significance our city has played in America’s game of baseball. The Encyclopedia of Louisville indicates that in December of 1875, Louisville was the site of the initial organizational meetings for the creation of the National League, the first stable major league backed by businessmen.
From the Encyclopedia of Louisville:
“While local legend holds that the meetings were held in the back room of baseball enthusiast Larry Gatto’s saloon on Green Street (now Liberty Street), newspaper accounts indicate that the meetings took place at the Louisville Hotel on Main Street. League members were the Chicago White Stockings, the Hartford Dark Blues, the Boston Red Stockings, the St. Louis Browns, the Mutuals (of New York), the Athletics (Philadelphia), the Cincinnati Reds, and the Louisville Grays.
The National League opened its season in Louisville on April 25, 1876, as 6,000 people paid 10 cents to see the Louisville Grays lose to the Chicago White Stockings 4-0 at a facility on the site of present St. James and Belgravia Courts. The Grays, whose president was Courier-Journal founder and publisher Walter Haldeman, finished next to last in 1876. During the following year, several Grays players were accused and later banned from baseball for gambling. This scandal caused Louisville to lose its National League entry in 1878.”
A semi-pro team was playing baseball in Louisville around the same time. Their name was the Louisville Eclipse. In 1882, the Louisville Eclipse club joined teams from Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Baltimore to form the American Association, a league that would rival the National League.
One of the first standout players for the Louisville Eclipse was a man named Pete “The Old Gladiator” Browning. Browning was a dominate player in the American Association taking the batting titles in 1882 and 1885. He finished with a lifetime batting average of .341.
But what Browning is more famous for is an item he debuted in 1884. Legend has it that a 17-year-old John A. “Bud” Hillerich, a lover of baseball and a player himself, slipped away from work at his father’s woodworking shop one afternoon in 1884 to watch the Louisville Eclipse. Bud was in the stands as the team’s star, Pete Browning, mired in a hitting slump and broke his bat.
Sensing an opportunity, Bud invited Browning over to his father’s shop where he offered to make him a new bat. With Browning at his side giving advice, Bud hand-crafted a new bat from a long slab of wood. Browning debuted the bat the very next day and got three hits.
Browning told his teammates about his new bat, which sent a surge of professional ball players to the Hillerich shop. Yet Bud’s father had little interest in making bats; he saw the company future in stair railings, porch columns and swinging butter churns. For a brief time in the 1880s, he even turned away ball players.
But Bud persisted; he saw the future in bats. His father, pleased with his son’s enthusiasm, eventually relented. The rest is baseball history.
In 1894, Bud Hillerich took the business over from his father, and the name “Louisville Slugger” was registered with the U.S. Patent Office. In the early 1900s, the growing company pioneered a sports marketing concept by paying Hall of Fame hitter Honus Wagner to use his name on a bat—a practice continued today with Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and many other professional athletes across virtually all sports. By 1923, Louisville Slugger was selling more bats than any other bat maker in the country. Legends like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig all swung Louisville Sluggers—the #1 bat of the most popular sport in America.
Oh… back to the Louisville Eclipse… they won the American League pennant in 1890, and played the National League’s Brooklyn Bridegrooms in a World Championship series that was never completed. It was supposed to have been a nine-game series, but cold weather along with rain/snow postponed the series with each team having three victories. So… the Brooklyn Bridegrooms and the Louisville Eclipse were 1890s Co-Champions.
The World Series, the modern championship series of Major League Baseball which is being played tonight, began in 1903, and was established as an annual event in 1905. Before the formation of the American Association (AA), there were no playoff rounds—all championships went to the team with the best record at the end of the season.
Also… for clarity as to where Eclipse Park was located, here you go. Eclipse Park was the name of three successive baseball grounds in Louisville, Kentucky in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were the home of the Louisville baseball team first known as the Louisville Eclipse and later as the Louisville Colonels. Semi-pro baseball had been played at the first Eclipse Park as early as 1874. The Louisville Eclipse played there from 1882 to 1884. The team was then renamed the Louisville Colonels and continued to play under that name from 1885 to 1893. The team was a member of the American Association until 1891 when it joined the National League when the American Association folded. The original park was located at 28th and Elliott streets in west Louisville. The second Eclipse Park was built across the street from the original at 28th and Broadway.
The Louisville Colonels played there from 1893 to 1899. This is the ground at which Hall of Famer Honus Wagner made his Major League debut on July 19, 1897. Today, the site is now called Elliott Square Park, an approximately four-acre public park just north of Broadway on 28th Street. Of course it’s important to note that Boone Square Park has the distinction of being the location of the first organized baseball game in Louisville back in 1865. And now you know…