If I hadn’t been a grown man in a public place, I might have started jumping up and down with delight when I heard there was a new Indiana Baseball Heritage Trail this past April. I knew it was coming, and immediately asked Jessica Lindauer of Visit Dubois County (and the creator of the IBHT) to see if she could set up a trip for me and my son.
It was important for me to take my son, Ben, who’s 11, because he doesn’t get baseball. Doesn’t watch it, doesn’t understand it, doesn’t appreciate it.
When a father has a son, one of the things he hopes for is that his son will like some of the things he likes. If he likes music, he wants his son to like music. If he likes cars, he teaches his son to like cars. And if the dad is a baseball fan, he wants his son to be a baseball fan.
I wasn’t too worried about my daughters, 17 and 11, because they already like sports. They’re both Colts fans, Indiana Fever fans, and my oldest daughter is becoming a dab hand at fantasy football.
So this trip was my chance to get my son interested in baseball. The best way to do it is to show him that some of the greats came from our own state.
The Indiana Baseball Heritage Trail runs near I-64, from Louisville to Evansville (or vice versa, if you’re driving from the west). For our particular 2-day trip, we were starting in Louisville, and heading west. But because there wasn’t a home game on the Evansville Otters’ schedule this week, we weren’t going to make it to Evansville on this trip, but would instead go another time.
To get Ben ready for the trip, I had put together a playlist of past Baseball History Podcast episodes. BHP was an old podcast of, well, baseball history, focusing on different players each week. For this playlist, I included a couple of my favorites: Johnny Bench, my boyhood hero; Stan Musial, the hero of St. Louis; and Gil Hodges, the Indiana star who’s considered the best player to never make it into the Hall of Fame. I was a little surprised to see he was interested in the podcasts and asked questions after each episode.
Ben has watched Reds games with me in the past, and I’ve told him about some of the other players in the past, so he’s at least familiar with the basics.
We arrived in Louisville, found a parking space right on the street near the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, next to the 21C Hotel. I’ve stayed there a couple times, and it’s one of my favorite hotels. They’ve got some great artwork throughout the building, and if you’re in the area, it’s at least worth a stop to look at their art gallery.
The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory really is just that: Not only is there a baseball museum where you can check out different artifacts from games in the past, but they actually make the bats in the factory right there in Downtown Louisville. The bats aren’t made in China or Mexico; they’re made right here in the United States on some of the most state-of-the-art machines I’ve ever seen.
When you first walk into the factory, you see people working on the machines making bats, including a young man working a lathe, looking a little nervous that the bat’s going to fly out and catch him under the chin. It turns out this is only the demonstration area to show how bats were made 50 years ago and longer. Nowadays everything is done on a high speed lathe.
In the old days, it took 30 minutes to create a single bat on the lathe. But the lathes they use now can create a single bat in 90 seconds. Think of it: in the time it takes one man to create one bat, this machine could create 20 bats in the same amount of time. Somewhere in West Virginia, John Henry turned in his grave.
Ben and I also walked through the commemorative plaques area, where the names of every ballplayer (or at least well-known ballplayer) who used a Louisville Slugger was placed on the wall. We spent a lot of time in the 1970s and 1980s where I pointed out every Cincinnati Reds player I knew when I was his age.
We also had a chance to hold some game-used bats in the museum. There is actually a small area where you can don a pair of white cotton gloves and hold bats that some of your favorite players used in the game. The breath caught in my throat when I got to pick up a real Johnny Bench bat in my hands.
“He held this bat,” was my only thought. “He held this bat.”
I also had a chance to hold Mickey Mantle’s bat, as well as Cal Ripken, and Joey Votto, my current Reds favorite. I left Derek Jeter’s bat untouched.
Finally, we wrapped up our visit in the gift shop, where I bought a laser engraved bat with my own signature on it. In addition to all the Louisville Slugger memorabilia, there were also a lot of “seconds” available for a fraction of the price of a new bat. Lots of bats that were used as demos in the factory, a lot of commemorative bats like the pink breast cancer bats from Mother’s Day, and a whooooole lot of bats bearing the name Alex Rodriguez, who’s currently serving a one-year suspension from baseball for steroid use.
Jasper County is home to a major stop on the Baseball Trail — the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame in Jasper, and League Stadium in Huntingburg — so you should plan on spending the day there. We were going to meet Jessica Lindauer and Kevin Manley of Visit Dubois County for lunch.
Since Jasper is a German town with a strong German heritage — they even call their annual festival “Strassenfest” which is German for “street festival — there’s only one place to eat, the Schnitzelbank. It’s so German that it’s even pronounced the German way: Shnitzel-bonk.
And being the Indiana boy that I am, I’m always interested in trying out a pork tenderloin wherever I can find it. And those of us with German backgrounds know the tenderloin by its original name, wienerschnitzel. So I continued my usual tradition and ordered the tenderloin, but pretended I was eating a German sandwich.
After a hearty lunch, it was off to the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame, where Ray Howard, the manager of the Hall met us and told us about all the different names, exhibits, and memorabilia decorating the hall.
Of course there were names and uniforms from players like Don Mattingly (Evansville), the manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers; Chuck Harmon (Washington), first African-American player for the Cincinnati Reds; Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (Logansport), the first Commissioner of Major League Baseball; and, Ford Frick (Wawaka), the third Commissioner of MLB. But I also spotted a couple names I knew, like Gene Bottorff, my high school government teacher (who Ray actually knew), and Matt Mauck, the LSU quarterback (I knew his dad from earlier days).
The hall itself is not very big; it sits inside the Ruxer Student Center on the campus of Vincennes University’s Jasper campus. But Ray Howard takes great care of the hall, keeps in touch with a lot of the players, and is happy to show anyone around who shows up.
League Stadium, if you’ve never heard of it, was prominently featured in the movie, A League Of Their Own, about the women’s professional baseball league in the early 1940s. Most people know that the Evansville Otters’ Bosse Field was the home of the Racine (Wisconsin) Belles, but I always wondered where the Rockford (Illinois) Peaches — the stars of the movie — played.
Turns out it’s in little Huntingburg, Indiana, in the southern part of Dubois County, and it’s the home to the Dubois County Bombers.
I met team owner Mike Uebelhor and Huntingburg mayor Dennis Spinner, and they gave us a tour of the entire facility. The park still looks like it did in the movies, complete with bench seating, a roof over the fans’ heads, and even some ceiling fans to move the air around. Ben and I picked up a couple of Bombers hats that look like authentically vintage, and we wear them on occasion when we want to match.
The Bombers are part of the Wooden Bat League, which is a sort of developmental league that college coaches nominate players for. They play with wooden bats, rather than the aluminum bats of college, partly because they want the players to get a jump on a minor league career, but mostly because real baseball doesn’t go *TINK*!. (I have a personal bias against aluminum bats, and believe them to be used only by those with reprehensible morals.)
It’s a program that seems to work. The league gets players who have a shot at the big leagues — the Bombers have had 13 players make it into a pro organization — the town gets a professional sports team, and there’s a strong, very strong, sense of community in little Huntingburg, Indiana. I could tell Mayor Spinner was proud of the team and the fact that they were in his town.
The ushers/hostesses/food vendors are dressed as the Rockford Peaches, complete with peach baseball dresses and red knee socks, and they provide that feeling of nostalgia. Even the players’ uniforms look like the uniforms of the 40s and 50s, although they’re not the original heavy wool kind that weighed 30 pounds and creaked like leather when you ran.
The Bombers ended up beating the Fulton (Kentucky) Railroaders, 4 – 1, providing a great end to a great day.
The Hampton Inn was easy to find. It’s on one of the main streets, 3rd Street, right next to the Schnitzelbank. That’s always Ben’s go-to hotel, because they have a breakfast buffet. Any time we go on a travel trip, we always stay at a Hampton Inn, and invariably the breakfast buffet is one of his favorite parts of the trip.
He may not appreciate baseball the way I do, but he’s a kid after my own heart.
Tomorrow, Day 2 of the Indiana Baseball Heritage Trail.