Columns

A salute to Louisville Sluggers (and pitchers) 2014.07.09

By RICH FOLEY

Next Tuesday, Major League Baseball’s annual All Star Game is scheduled for Target Field in Minneapolis, home of the  Minnesota Twins. What better time to share a  few baseball stories?

First, a shout out to Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who died of cancer last month at age 54. Gwynn spent his entire 20-year major league career with the San Diego Padres, turning down big money offers from other teams to stay in San Diego.

After winning seven batting championships through 1996, Gwynn signed a contract extension, agreeing to less money than more than 100 other players were earning. Gwynn then added an eighth batting title in 1997, leading the league with a .372 average. Following his election to the Hall of Fame in 2007 (with 97.6% of the vote), the Padres commissioned a bronze statue of Gwynn, with a plaque reading simply, “Tony Gwynn, Mr. Padre.” It was probably the least they could do.

Then there was Gwynn’s knack for historic birthday presents. In 1993, he racked up his 2,000th major league hit on his mother’s 58th birthday. Pretty cool, right? Unbelievably, six years later to the day, he got his 3,000th career hit on her 64th birthday. I wonder if he gave her the baseballs?

After 20 years with the Padres, Gwynn retired following the 2001 season, even though he had recorded a batting average of .324 that year at age 41. Most players never hit for an average that high even once. For Gwynn, that was an off year. 

Gwynn had a career batting average of .338, one of the highest of all time. In 20 years, only one pitcher was ever able to strike him out three times in a game.  Somewhat ironically, that pitcher, former Los Angeles Dodger Bob Welch, also died last month, seven days before Gwynn.

At least that statue should ensure that no one ever forgets Tony Gwynn. For the late Bob Feller, I’m not so sure. 

Feller, a star pitcher from 1936 to 1956 for the Cleveland Indians, was known as “Bullet Bob” for the speed of his fast ball. He made the Hall of Fame in 1962 and in 1995, residents of his hometown of Van Meter, Iowa, opened a Bob Feller Museum to honor him.

For years, Feller helped the museum stay afloat by bringing in other Hall of Famers to sign autographs in a series of fund-raising events. Local folks also bought memberships in the museum, at one time reaching about 450 in a town of 1,100.

An Associated Press story quoted Feller as saying the museum would die three years after he did unless changes in its operation were made. As usual, Feller, who seemed to always have an opinion on baseball issues, was right.

Feller passed away in December 2010 and the museum closed in 2013. Memberships had dropped to under 100 and visitors to the museum had fallen off to just a handful a day, if any came at all. The museum re-opened earlier this year with reduced weekend-only hours, but no one is promising it will make it through the summer, barring a miracle.

A much more successful baseball-related museum is the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory in Louisville, Kentucky.   With three million visitors in its first 15 years, attendance is now about 250,000 a year.

Celebrity visitors include Muhammad Ali, President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush (who used to own the Texas Rangers) and actress Geena Davis (who played both the President on television and a professional baseball player in a movie). With about 60 percent of major leaguers using Louisville Slugger bats, many of them have been to the museum as well.

In 2007, Houston Astro Craig Biggio visited the museum during the final week of his career to thank workers at the factory for the part they played in his success. The future Hall of Famer shook hands with every employee and autographed a bat for each of them. In return, the company custom made a hand-turned bat for Biggio, who used it in one of his final games, getting a hit and driving in two runs.

Finally, I have some useful information for anyone planning to propose marriage at a major league baseball game. The Los Angeles Dodgers will put your proposal on their scoreboard, but it will cost you $2,500.

A much cheaper option would be a road trip to Pittsburgh, where the Pirates will  display your plea for a bargain-basement $39. That’ll leave you enough money for some peanuts and Cracker Jack.