Standing amid a reproduction of Baltimore's Camden Yards baseball stadium, a boy more interested in watching Garret Anderson than Pamela Anderson picks up a headset and listens to the hitting secrets of Ted Williams and Stan Musial.
In another room, a Red Sox fan watches once more as Dave Henderson hits his improbable 1986 ninth inning home run, yanking the pennant out of the California Angels' clutches. "You're looking at one for the ages here," announcer Al Michaels marvels. Nearby, kids climb on a 15-ton granite sculpture of a fielder's mitt clasping a baseball. Not far away, weekend athletes pick up a bat like one used by Jackie Robinson or Manny Ramirez, step inside a batting cage and take a cut at a fastball coming straight out of a new pitching machine.
This isn't Cooperstown. This is Louisville.
The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory in downtown Louisville is not far from where the company's first bat was turned more than a century ago. One might call this place Cooperstown with clout, a paean to power, an ode to offense, a love letter to lumber.
As in Cooperstown, baseball is king here. Like the Baseball Hall of Fame's museum, this one uses interactive exhibits, life-sized reproductions, video, audio and a forest full of facts to tell baseball's story. What differentiates this place from Cooperstown's museum is that the forest here is a literal thing — a diorama of a Northern white ash forest shows where the bats are born.
Emphasis on hitting
To show what the batters are up against, visitors stand behind a net. On the other side of the net is a life-sized dummy of a catcher made of metal, foam and padded quilts. The visitor pushes a button. The image of a modern-day pitcher of your choice — Gregg Maddux or Bartolo Colon perhaps — appears on a video screen 35 feet away.
The pitcher winds up and throws; a baseball shoots out of a hole in the screen and comes right at you. You wince. The ball plunks the artificial catcher. You read that a batter has two-tenths of a second to decide not only whether or not to swing, but also to judge what part of the plate the ball will cross.
In other exhibits, short films selected by visitors are shown on a screen on a reproduced baseball scoreboard. All these exhibits have one thing in common — the hitter is the star.
Elsewhere, via headsets, bat boys tell batting secrets of the best. Stan Musial, for instance, scraped the wood on his bat handle with a bottle cap until it was "super thin." In a mock press box one hears snippets of noted announcers such as Mel Allen, Red Barber, Curt Gowdy and Vin Scully broadcasting legendmaking hits as they happened.
Getting into the act
Thanks to visitors' requests, two pitching machines and batting cages were added a few years ago. Named "Bud's Batting Cage," they are similar to those you find in your hometown, but with one difference. Visitors bat with the same Louisville Slugger models used by baseball's greats past and present, such as Robinson, Ramirez, Williams, Babe Ruth and Derek Jeter. Modern aluminum bats are also available.
Yes, the museum also offers a tribute to the folks who make the bats. Louisville Sluggers are made by Hillerich & Bradsby Co., and one reads that if it weren't for input from John Andrew "Bud" Hillerich in 1884, the company might have happily continued producing butter churns.
In the 1880s, woodworker, company founder and Bud's father J.F. was successfully making bed posts, wooden bowling balls, tenpins and the immensely popular butter churns. It was know-it-all son Bud who helped Pete Browning of the American Association's Louisville Eclipse end a slump by crafting him a custom-made bat.
Bud suggested to his father that they make more bats. J. F. nixed the idea, saying bats were trivial, not practical like butter churns. Regardless, Bud went ahead and made bats for other players on the Louisville Eclipse. The bat business took off and by 1894 they were known as "Louisville Sluggers." In a reproduction of the J.F. Hillerich 1890 woodworking shop, a half dozen bats in progress sits near an old lathe.
Today's wooden Louisville Sluggers are made in a factory adjacent to the museum and the singular scent of burning wood penetrates your olfactory nerves during an insightful 20-minute-long guided tour, free with your museum admission. Television monitors are spaced about the factory, offering views of bat crafting in progress. Most bats are turned by machine today, but two artists still hand-turn custom bats. Bud Hillerich would be proud, and J.F. Hillerich, well, would he be surprised.
Michael Schuman is a freelance writer based in Keene, N.H.