I was eastbound and down last week as I hit the highway for a brief vacation to northern Kentucky and the Land of Mellencamp (Indiana). I’d been to both Louisville and Indianapolis before, so these weren’t new frontiers for me at all, but there were some new things to do in each place since my prior visits, so here’s a little visual coverage with commentary…
THE HOME WHERE MADONNA AND ROSIE ONCE ROAMED
My first stop on my little journey was Evansville, Indiana, where I finally got to see Bosse Field, home of those dreaded Evansville Otters of minor league baseball’s Frontier League. BF opened just a couple months after Chicago’s Wrigley Field did in 1915, making it the third-oldest professional ballpark in America still in use behind Wrigley and Boston’s Fenway Park. The place might look familiar to you—it served as the home field of the Racine Belles in the 1992 hit film A League Of Their Own, and apart from the modern scoreboard and current-day signage on the outfield wall, the place doesn’t look much different than it did in the movie. And in a nifty touch, the “Support your Racine Belles” sign still remains behind the third base grandstand. While in town, I took a quick swing through downtown Evansville, and was quite underwhelmed—a lot of history here, but sad to say, it’s a bit of a dive.
“THE GREATEST” MUSEUM? NOT QUITE
Once I got to Louisville, I headed right to the Muhammad Ali Center, located on the southern banks of the Ohio River. Muhammad Ali was/is a polarizing figure, and I have rather mixed feelings about him myself. As I was growing up, he was generally despised in our household, thanks mostly to my narrow-minded (and somewhat bigoted) old man. I, in turn, generally disliked Ali until after his fighting career ended when I began to appreciate his witty personality and humorous bravado and understood his impact on popular culture a lot more. Still, I have issues with a lot of the racist crap Ali uttered about white people back in the day and I can honestly do without the whole Islam thing, but then again, I think all religions are bullshit anyway, so take that for whatever it’s worth. Not trying to offend anyone, here—just being honest, folks!
I’m not even a terribly big fan of boxing (even though I like the Rocky movies) but it was impossible to ignore Muhammad Ali when I was a kid, and he was every bit the ‘70s cultural icon that Kiss, the Bee Gees, Joe Namath and Elton John were, so I decided to give the Ali Center a try, but I came away somewhat disappointed with the place, overall. I thought there was way too much emphasis on the racial/religious/socio-political aspects of Ali’s life and career. By no means should all those issues be ignored, but I would like to have seen more emphasis on his actual boxing career, the Parkinson’s disease he now suffers from, and even his friendship with Howard Cosell, etc. I also felt a sense of self-righteous preachiness emanating from the place, almost as if a guilt-trip was being laid on us “white folks” for the “suffering” Ali went through, and I didn’t like how they practically canonized the man and made him out to be some sort of martyr—he was a professional boxer, for crimeny’s sake! Yes, he’s a legend to millions and a great humanitarian too, but he’s hardly a saint. And somehow, even though it’s his hometown, I get the feeling the city of Louisville never really gave a rip about Ali until they realized they could make a boatload of money off him with this museum. On my grading scale, I give the Ali Center a C, overall. It would’ve gotten a C+ if it wasn’t so stifling hot in the building—fix yer damn a/c, will ya!
“SOMETIMES YOU’RE THE LOUISVILLE SLUGGER, SOMETIMES YOU’RE THE BALL…”
Next on the hit parade was the Louisville Slugger Museum and manufacturing plant just a few blocks from the Ali Center. The museum portion wasn’t all that impressive, but the factory tour more than made up for it, as they take you through the actual work areas where millions of America’s wooden baseball bats are created. The tour winds through the various automated lathes that cut and shape the bats, including the super-duper computerized mega lathe machine that produces bats for Major League players. Us peons get the standard-issue bats that LS produces, but this particular machine is designed to cut and mold bats to the exact specifications of the individual players (minus the cork), the templates for which are all stored inside the computer and can be dialed up at any time at the click of a mouse. On the day I was there, they were doing up a shipment of Mark Teixiera bats. You also get to see how they brand the bats with the company logo, as well as the dyeing/painting process, etc. I also admire the actual plant employees—I don’t think I’d much care for having hundreds of strangers gawking at me all day while I was on the job. I give the Slugger museum a B, overall.
IS THAT ANOTHER CHICKEN JOKE?!?
“Laugh-In”’s JoAnne Worley would no doubt get a kick out of this little fowl exhibit near Louisville’s riverfront, which is some sort of ersatz tribute to Col. Sanders. I guess…
TO THE BATCAVE!It didn’t dawn on me until after I got to Louisville Slugger Field on the NE corner of downtown that I was attending my first Triple-A ballgame ever. I’ve done minor league games on the AA level and whatever level the K.C. T-Bones exist on (A-minus?), but never AAA. Grandpa Munster’s favorite team, the hometown Louisville Bats (as in the rabid winged critters, not the wooden weapons) took on Cpl. Maxwell Q. Klinger’s beloved Toledo Mud Hens. Jamie Farr was nowhere to be found, but he no doubt would have enjoyed the outcome, as Toledo prevailed 6-1. Dandy little stadium too, with its retro/old school design, not to mention (relatively) cheap beer. Constant motion seems to be the theme here, as you have cars whooshing by on I-64 to the north and on I-65 to the east, jet planes overhead taking off and landing at Louisville International to the south, and a huge merry-go-round spinning in the right field corner. Nice atmosphere too, worthy of a B+. I hate this time of year though, because even though this game started at 7:10PM, it was still daylight when it ended! So much for night games…
SPEAKING OF MAX KLINGER…
“I can’t believe you actually talked me into giving away my hard-earned money to a bunch of grown men named Newk, Duke and Pee Wee!”—Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III
When I saw this statue of late Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese outside the ballpark, I was reminded of those immortal words spoken by Maj. Winchester on “MASH” after he’d been suckered by Klinger into betting on the Brooklyn Dodgers in the famed 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” playoff game against the Giants. Harold Henry Reese was a native Kentuckian and spent a couple years in the minors with the Louisville Colonels in the late ‘30s before moving on to stardom with Dem Bums in the ‘40s and ‘50s. His nickname didn’t refer to his size, but rather to his love of playing marbles as a kid, with “Pee Wee” being one of the denominations, so to speak, of marbles. Reese was also known for being one of the first white players on the Dodgers to befriend Jackie Robinson during his early days on the team.
JUST HORSIN’ AROUND
The first time I visited Louisville in 2005, Churchill Downs was undergoing major renovations, thus the museum and grounds tour thereof were unavailable, so I dropped by the world’s most famous horsie track to try again. Not unlike the Slugger plant, the museum itself was just so-so (floppy hat exhibit notwithstanding), but the tour of the paddock and grandstand was worth the price of admission. I’m not a huge equestrian fan, but I always enjoy the Triple Crown races every year on TV, and this was very educational for me. First off, I always thought the paddock was out in the track infield somewhere instead of behind the main grandstand, thus the horses are led through one tunnel under the stands, then mounted by the jockeys in the paddock stalls, then paraded back to the track through another tunnel. I was also surprised to learn that the track itself is composed of about 75% sand instead of dirt. Youse environmental enthusiasts will be pleased to know that all the horsie doody at the track is rounded up each day and recycled into fine mulch and is stinking up lawns throughout America at this very minute.
Churchill Downs would’ve received a B-minus from me, but I have to take points off for where they made their customers park for the museum/tour. Even though the nice asphalt parking lot adjacent to the main entrance was virtually empty, for some reason only FEMA could explain, us visitors were sent off to park in a crappy gravel lot in Outer Mongolia at the edge of complex and forced to hoof it a country mile back to the museum. WTF?!? Being as I drove my late father’s car on this trip, I could’ve been a crap-weasel and whipped out his still-valid handicapped tag and parked in one of the cushy wheelchair spots close to the building, but that’s not my style. And for an able-bodied person like me who needs to drop a few pounds anyway, this little hike was actually beneficial, but I saw an awful lot of elderly people being forced to walk a long way for nothing (on a hot humid day, no less), so I’m downgrading the Downs to a C instead. Come on, Derby peeples—you can do better than that, especially considering this was a WALKING tour!
Just as an aside, for those of you who’ve never been there, you’re in for a shock when you see the neighborhood Churchill Downs resides in. If you’re envisioning picturesque rolling hills and country club farmland surrounding the track like I did years ago before my first visit, forget it. The track complex abuts a very ordinary and borderline-seedy part of town—for my K.C. area friends, think the Leeds district where the GM plant used to be or the Independence Avenue corridor, and you’ll get the picture. While I wouldn’t quite call it the ‘Hood, it ain’t exactly the Ewing ranch either…