Museums and special games.

Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory

“The pitcher has got only a ball. I’ve got a bat. So the percentage in weapons is in my favor, and I let the fellow with the ball do the fretting.”

Hank Aaron 1

Fans focus on a pitcher’s pitch. The question is which of his pitches is the best. Is it his fastball? His curve? Maybe his splitter? Or his slider? Regardless of the pitch, the ball is always the same. Notwithstanding the issues about possibly “juiced” balls, each pitcher uses the sport’s current version of the ball.

The ball itself is not terribly interesting unless it’s the one used when something unusual happens. An ordinary ball becomes distinctive if it was used in a no-hitter or a record-breaking hit or home run. Besides that, one pitcher’s baseball is not different from another’s ball. Baseballs aren’t exciting.

Babe Ruth Bats – Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum

Hitters’ bats are different. Each player’s bat is unique. Their bats are like medieval knights’ swords. Each one is different and has a special relationship with its owner. Similarly, the bat is what hitters take into battle, and fans revere them. Many fans who cherish the game and its traditions, want to see and hold their favorite players’ bats.

I was in the middle of a drive through Ohio, and Pennsylvania. My goal was to see the Indians, Reds, and Pirates. Since Louisville – home of the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory – is only 100 miles from Cincinnati, I had to include it in my itinerary. After all, the Louisville slugger was synonymous with the “official” Major League’s bat for most of its history.

The Louisville Slugger a Brief History

“Baseball just came as simple as the ball and bat. Yet, as complex as the American spirit symbolizes. A sport, a business and sometimes almost even a religion.”

Ernie Harwell 2

The legend tells us that 17-year-old John Andrew “Bud” Hillerich was watching the major league Louisville Eclipse in 1884. At that game, the team’s superstar, Pete Browning, whose nickname was “The Louisville Slugger,” broke his bat. Bud, who was an apprentice at his father’s woodworking shop, “J. Heinrich, Job Turning,” offered to craft a replacement. When Browning got three hits with his new bat, Heillerach’s baseball bat business was born. 3

However, Bud’s father, J. Fred Hillerach, was not interested in the baseball bat business. He didn’t like baseball and didn’t think bats would be a valuable addition to his burgeoning business. Instead, J. Fred felt that the future of the company was in his “very popular, swinging butter churn.”

Undeterred, Bud continued to build their bat-making business and even invented some patented manufacturing processes. As the bat business grew, the company trademarked the name “Louisville Slugger” in 1894.

In 1897, Bud became a partner in the business, which became J.F. Hillerach & Son.

As their business grew, they started garnering endorsements. The first was from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ superstar shortstop, Honus Wagner, in 1905. In so doing, Wagner became the first professional athlete to endorse an athletic product. Additionally, his autograph was the first to be used on a bat.

In 1911, Frank Bradsby, a successful salesman, joined the company. Bradsby’s sales and marketing skills, combined with Hillerich’s manufacturing capabilities, pushed their success even higher. In 1916, the Hillerich & Bradsby Co. was born when Bradsbury became a partner.

Friday – August 16 – Louisville

”I never blame myself when I’m not hitting. I just blame the bat, and if it keeps up, I change bats.”

Yogi Berra 4

On Friday morning, I drove the few blocks to Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park to take pictures in the daylight. Unfortunately, the ones I took the previous night were too dark. After I captured the photos I was hoping for, I drove about two hours to Louisville to visit the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory.

The museum and factory are in a red brick building on West Main Street. Leaning against the two-story building is a very tall replica of a Louisville Slugger bat. I’d seen the bat from the highway when I drove by years ago and always wanted to visit.

There are four parts of the location to visit. Once I had my tickets, I spent a little time in the store where I ordered a personalized bat. Then I went to the museum to meet my group for the factory tour. After the tour, I went to the Bat Vault, which was the highlight of my day. Finally, I went back to the store to pick up my bat, buy a t-shirt, cap, and a few gifts.

Museum and Store

“They give you a round bat, and they throw you a round ball, and they tell you to hit it square.”

Willie Stargell 5

I started my visit in the store to order a personalized Louisville Slugger bat. It wasn’t something I had planned to do; frankly, I hadn’t realized I could do so. But when I saw people leaving the museum with bats, I couldn’t resist memorializing my journey with a “Baseball Nomad” inscribed Louisville Slugger. I’m so glad I did as it’s one of my treasured souvenirs from my eight-month adventure. I like the small souvenir bat that they give you after the tour, but the real, engraved bat is great!

The museum is a large room with displays that describe the company’s history. It has artifacts, pictures, and bats from famous players and the company. While the items are interesting, they’re reminiscent of things I saw at the Hall of Fame and other museums. The real fun was in the Factory and the Vault.

The Factory

“I don’t like to sound egotistical, but every time I stepped up to the plate with a bat in my hands, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the pitcher.”

Rogers Hornsby 6

My experience became much more enjoyable when a guide led us into the factory for the tour.

First, we watched a film about how they select white ash trees from forests in Western New York and Pennsylvania. These trees were traditionally the most popular bat material. However, maple bats now dominate due to the devastation of white ash forests caused by the Emerald Ash Borer beetle. For the record, the Emerald Ash Borer, is an exotic beetle whose larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees, disrupting the tree’s ability to transport water and nutrients. The beetle is destroying Ash trees, especially in the northeast part of the country. 7

The guide led us through the factory where we saw every stage of the bat creation process. It started at a display of three inch diameter, cylindrical pieces of wood called “billets.” After the billets are aged in kilns for six to eight weeks they are sent to the factory. 8

At the factory, lathes are used to form bats according to specific dimensions using a template. Initially, workers used lathes to carve the bats, but the process is computerized now. After lathering, the bats are hardened with heat treatments, and finished with lacquer and/or paint. Finally, labels are burnt into the bats or decals applied. The bats are ready for action. On average, Hillerich & Bradsby makes 3,000 bats per day. 9

The Bat Vault

“Are you tall? Are you strong? How big are your hands? You must be honest with yourself, or you will end up using the wrong bat.”

Pete Rose 10

Now it was time for the most fascinating and memorable experience of my entire summer journey. My premium ticket permitted me to visit the Bat Vault. [9] The Vault contains the models used as templates during the lathing process. The Vault is small, and there is only room for small groups. I was with another couple and a guide who was responsible for selecting exciting models for us to see. Of course, the most interesting were the models of bats used by some of baseball’s greatest hitters.

After we put gloves on, our guide gave us famous bat models to hold and examine as he told us stories about the players that used them.

He explained that the models were necessary to tailor bats to each player’s specifications. Through a series of iterations, they create a model of the player’s ideal bat. Then they use the model to form the bats used in games. In the old days, when they manually lathed the bats, workers used calipers to measure the bats at critical points. Workers drew six to eight lines a few inches apart on the model to identify the bat’s measurement points. Of course, today, the process is more precise since they use computers that make more accurate measurements.

Ted Williams’ Bat

“God gets you to the plate, but once you’re there, you’re on your own.”

Ted Williams 11

Ted Williams, of course, is legendary for his scientific approach to hitting. The science was part of his bat creation process.

Instead of measurement points a few inches apart, Ted’s bat model has markings at every inch. In effect, there are thirty or so rings drawn on his bat. It’s quite different from the other bats we held. Williams expected the bat to meet his specified measurements at each of these points on the bat.

Our guide recounted that once when Williams examined a new order, he felt that one bat was a little off. They measured the bat once they received it at the factory. Surprisingly, they found a variance of less than a sixteenth of an inch at one point on the bat. The difference was amazingly small, only the thickness of a sheet of paper, but Williams noticed it.

Mickey Mantle’s Bat

“Somebody once asked me if I ever went up to the plate, trying to hit a home run. I said, ‘Sure, every time.'”

Mickey Mantle 12

If Williams was likely the game’s best left-handed hitter ever, Mickey Mantle was possibly the best switch hitter. However, their approach to hitting and their bats were very different. Where Williams was the scientist with a very analytical approach, Mantle was more primitive. Mantle did not think that much, he just found a pitch and hit it. In contrast, Williams thought about every phase of his swing,

”One time before a game, Williams confused Mantle with a series of questions of his own. When Ted asked him which hand was his power hand and which was his guide hand, Mickey had no idea what he was talking about. After listening to him, Mantle tried applying his theories at the plate, but imitating Ted only made batting more difficult. He didn’t get a hit for about twenty-five straight plate appearances.”

…“Hell,” Mantle said years later, “I just used to go up there swinging.”

Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith 13

Their process of selecting bats followed this pattern. Where Williams was extremely precise about his bats, Mantle was not. When Mantle started his career, he tried a model created for Chuck Klein (model number K55)14, and he liked it. It was the only H&B model he ever used as he batted .298 and hit 536 home runs in his career. 15

Jackie Robinson’s Bat

“Above anything else, I hate to lose.”

Jackie Robinson 16

I revere Jackie Robinson. I don’t just admire his desire, determination, and skill that revolutionized the sport and opened the door for so many. Moreover, I also admire his courage to change the game and fight for Civil Rights in all walks of life.

So imagine my excitement when he pulled out Jackie’s #R-17 17 bat and gave it to me. The bat was surprisingly heavy with a thicker handle than most. It was an honor to have the chance to hold the bat model that he likely held.

Roberto Clemente’s Bat

“I dedicated the hit (his 3,000th) to the Pittsburgh fans and to the people in Puerto Rico and to one man (Roberto Marin) in particular. The one man who carried me around for weeks looking for a scout to sign me.”

Roberto Clemente 18

During the hour we spent in the Bat Vault, we heard many stories and held many bats. One of the last was unforgettable.

Roberto Clemente was one of my favorites. Fortunately, I saw him on television a lot when I was growing up, since the Pirates and the Mets were in the same division. I likely saw him play in person at Shea Stadium, but don’t have any memories of that. He was a graceful, beautiful ballplayer.

I’ll also remember his last hit. The Mets were in Pittsburgh at the end of the 1972 season. I was watching on television when Clemente hit a double in a near-empty Three Rivers Stadium off John Matlack. Standing at second, he raised his helmet to acknowledge the crowd’s applause and flicked his neck like a proud thoroughbred. It was his last hit in his storied career. At the time, he was just the eleventh man to reach 3,000. 19

In the Vault, the guide explained that they were working on a new bat for Clemente and had a model ready for him to examine in December 1972. However, he never did so, since he died a few weeks later in his infamous plane crash on New Year’s Eve. I was near tears as I held the bat.

Driving to Columbus

“When you play this game for twenty years, go to bat ten-thousand times, and get three-thousand hits, do you know what that means? You’ve gone zero for seven-thousand.”

Pete Rose 20

I left Louisville in the early afternoon for the three and a half-hour drive to Columbus. I was retracing the route to Cincinnati that I took that morning. Moreover, I was retracing the course to Columbus that I took the day before. In my mind, I was replacing my life’s route that took me through two careers and into Louisville’s Bat Vault.

It was just another beautiful summer day on the road. I had now been on my journey for five months and traveled thirty-five thousand miles. Over time, a new consciousness was forming. By this time, I had few regrets about not working. I didn’t harbor resentments for the way my career ended. I was just happy to be where I was and ready to head to Pittsburgh tomorrow.

Continue ReadingLouisville Slugger Museum and Factory

One More Ride For The Nomad

They were hiding behind hay bales,
They were planting in the full moon
They had given all they had for something new
But the light of day was on them,
They could see the thrashers coming
And the water shone like diamonds in the dew.

Neil Young – “Thrasher” 1

It would be one last ride for the Nomad, the would-be vagabond. For the last fifteen years, my baseball travel tended to begin and end with my regular trip to Spring Training in March. The exceptions were the occasional trip to Queens to see my Metsies or a visit to a ballpark while traveling for business. This year, my baseball travel continued to opening day, throughout the summer and into the fall.

That season’s long baseball travel ended on Saturday night October 12th at the Arizona Fall League’s “Fall Stars Game.” However, when I booked my journey, I didn’t realize that the AFL had an all-star game. Moreover, I didn’t know that they took an All-Star break after the game. As such, there were no games scheduled for Sunday. Since I didn’t leave until Monday, I had a free day.

However, I was confused. As the trip ended, I knew I was entering a “new normal” where I didn’t have a big baseball trip to occupy my time. The trip was supposed to give me time to decide what my new direction would be. Unfortunately, as I write my latest post, I still haven’t figured that part out.

Moreover, I am struck by some equally profound questions. Do I understand why I made the trip? Why did I need to go away? Why didn’t I do the expected, and find another job?

What to do? I took a lonely, revealing, and rewarding drive.

Morning – Drive North Past Flagstaff

And I was just getting up, hit the road before it’s light
Trying to catch an hour on the sun
When I saw those thrashers rolling by,
Looking more than two lanes wide
I was feelin’ like my day had just begun.

Neil Young – “Thrasher”

My goal for Sunday was to see as much of Arizona as possible, so I left early. My first stop was to be the Sunset Crater Volcano, just north of Flagstaff, about 180 miles away. Since it opened at 9:00 AM, I left the hotel around 5:30.

Morning drive passed Flagstaff

The drive took me up through the Coconino National Forest. As I drove, the altitude grew from 1,000 feet in Phoenix to 6,000 feet in Flagstaff. The sun was rising as the terrain transitioned from desert to forests and grassland filled with ponderosa pines. The brilliant orange sunrise cast a hopeful glow on the hills.

I drank my Monster Energy drink and ate a couple of granola bars (bought the night before) as I drove. Energy drinks are a new find for me. I first tried one as I was making a similar drive from Dallas to Houston earlier in the summer. They don’t taste bad and keep me more alert than coffee. Also, I can get sugar free versions – so they don’t add calories.

I entered the park a little before 9:00 and drove onto the 35-mile “Loop Road.” The road connects the Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments to the main highway.

Humphrey’s Peak

The first stop was Bonito Park. I saw the volcano on my left and the San Francisco peaks to my right. The San Francisco Peaks dominated by Humphrey’s Peak – the highest point in Arizona. The vista is covered with trees and grass and is so much different from the desert in Phoenix.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Where the eagle glides ascending
There’s an ancient river bending
Down the timeless gorge of changes
Where sleeplessness awaits
I searched out my companions,
Who were lost in crystal canyons
When the aimless blade of science
Slashed the pearly gates.

Neil Young – “Thrasher”

I arrived at the park gate to the monuments and had a dialogue with the booth attendant: “I need a pass.”

“How old are you?”

“61 – will be 62 in December. Does that help?”

“Any disabilities?”

“Colorblind, pre-diabetic, a tad overweight and a bad sense of humor.”

“It’s $25 unless you want to buy the national park pass for $80.”

I bought the $25 pass and traveled on.

Plants growing through the lava

As I drove, the scenery started to include large, dark lava rocks and ash — an apt setting for a location named the Cinder Hills. I stopped again and walked the short A’a Trail, a jagged lava trail with bright-colored plants growing through the black rocks.

Lava, trees, and ash

Further up the road, I spent about an hour walking through the Lava Flow Trail that winds around ash hills and lava rock mounds. It is the closet location to the foothills of the volcano. The trail slopes downhill, and there are stairs on the other side to take you back up to the road. Along the way, I passed weathered and twisted trees.

Sunrise Crater

However, the better view was at the “Cinder Hills Overlook,” just another short drive up the road. From there, I could see the volcano’s crater surrounded by ash and the vegetation that was slowly recapturing the landscape.

In my questioning loneliness, the trip around the volcano reminded me that nature is all-powerful. That when things are destroyed, life goes on.

It was around 10:30 AM, and I had to move on to stay on schedule.

Wupatki National Monument

It was then I knew I’d had enough,
Burned my credit card for fuel
Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand
With a one-way ticket to the land of truth
And my suitcase in my hand
How I lost my friends I still don’t understand.

Neil Young – “Thrasher”

I started the 18-mile drive up the Loop Road toward the Wupatki National Monument. The terrain changed from the tree-covered mountains to the grassy Antelope Prairie. In the foreground rose the Painted Desert.

Antelope Prairie and Painted Desert

The Wupatki National Monument consists of a series of pueblos that are roughly 800 years old. My first stop was the small Wukoki Pueblo, which is about two miles off the Loop Road. The structure has just a few rooms on two levels. A small group of people likely occupied it.

Wukoki Pueblo

In contrast, the largest dwelling at the Wupatki Pueblo has about 100 rooms. The site also includes other smaller structures. The indigenous population arrived in the area around 1100. They likely left their previous farms that were closer to the volcano. This new area was hospitable because the volcanic ash provided good nutrients for their farming. However, by 1250, they were gone. Their diaspora started due to drought, disappearing nutrients in the ash, and other natural resources. 2 Another lesson remembered: times change and people move on. People have been doing it for thousands of years.

Wupatki Pueblo

I was barely on schedule. It was getting close to 12:30, and I had to keep going. I drove by a few other smaller pueblos that seemed similar to Wukoki and headed down to Sedona.

Afternoon – Sedona, Oak Creek Canyon, and Montezuma’s Castle

Oak Creek Vista Point

They had the best selection,
They were poisoned with protection
There was nothing that they needed,
Nothing left to find
They were lost in rock formations
Or became park bench mutations
On the sidewalks and in the stations
They were waiting, waiting.

Neil Young – “Thrasher”
Back down to Sedona

It took 15 minutes to head down route 89 to the point where I entered the Loop Road in the morning. Then I drove another 30 minutes to Flagstaff, where I grabbed a couple of McDonald’s burgers. As I ate, I continued to retrace my morning’s route by going west on Interstate 40 for about ten minutes. However, instead of going south on route 17, I took 89A the “Sedona – Oak Creek Canyon drive.” The drive is a designated Arizona scenic route that spans more than 2,000 feet of elevation between Flagstaff and Sedona. 3

Oak Creek Canyon

I stopped about eight miles down the highway at the Oak Creek Vista Point. The overlook is, “a spectacular overlook perched on the lip of the Mogollon Rim.” It is “the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau and Oak Creek Canyon.” The canyon floor is 2,000 feet below the rim. 4

The canyon was my third ecosystem of the day. Sunset Crater was mountainous terrain covered in lava and ash, the Wupatki Pueblos were in the prairie, and Oak Creek Canyon was a windy, deep gorge covered in trees. Native Americans selling handcrafted ceramics and jewelry lined the path to the overlook. Yes, after bargaining a bit, I bought a couple of ceramic bowls for Mrs. Nomad. I thought they were an excellent way to say thank you for her support during my long trip.


So I got bored and left them there,
They were just dead weight to me
Better down the road without that load
Brings back the time when I was eight or nine
I was watchin’ my mama’s T.V.,
It was that great Grand Canyon rescue episode.

Neil Young – “Thrasher”

I continued my drive down to Sedona. Google Maps reported that the 16-mile trip should take 30 to 45 minutes or so. However, the journey took me closer to 90 minutes. There are a series of switchbacks on the road right after the Vista Point that slowed me down. I stopped to take pictures, and as I arrived in Sedona, the traffic was stop and go. It was Sunday afternoon, and the tourists were out in force.

The drive took me to the bottom of the canyon, and tall rock formations started to appear to my left and right. It was challenging to drive around the people parked along both sides of the two-lane highway. They stopped to enter the state park or to venture down to the creek that ran along the side of the road.

From the bottom of the canyon

So far, my travels had taken me through the Desolation Row” of the volcano, and Puebloan ruins to a relatively new paradise. With all of this breathtaking scenery, I remembered that life goes on and times change.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to stop in Sedona. It was late, and the traffic was heavy. Even if I had time to stop, what would I do and where would I go? There were too many things to see and too little time to see them. A short stop wasn’t a way to experience the town. I guess I have to go back.

Red Rocks near Sedona

So I drove slowly through the town as the scenery changed from the treelined canyon to the barren, sandstone, and limestone rock formations of Red Rock National Park.

Montezuma’s Castle

Where the vulture glides descending
On an asphalt highway bending
Through libraries and museums, galaxies and stars
Down the windy halls of friendship
To the rose clipped by the bullwhip
The motel of lost companions
Waits with heated pool and bar.

Neil Young – “Thrasher”

Toward the southern end of Sedona, I took route 179, heading southeast to Route 17 and Montezuma’s Castle. I made frequent stops on the 26-mile drive to take pictures of Red Rock’s beautiful rock formations. The 40-minute drive took closer to an hour, and I arrived at Montezuma’s Castle around 4:15. There was just enough time to see the Castle.

To Montezuma’s Castle

The Castle is a “20 room, 5-story structure built into a recess in a white limestone cliff about 70 feet adobe the ground.” The Sinagua Indians inhabited the area in the 14th century. 5

A little further down the path are the ruins of “Castle B.” From the trail, you can see a few rooms carved into the limestone wall. More interesting are the holes in the wall that held beams used to support an exterior five-story complex.

Montezuma’s Castle

Needless to say, the Castle was a reminder that the Sinagua Indians were another civilization that moved on and left its great works behind. I need to reconcile with the idea that change is necessary.

Long Drive Home

But me I’m not stopping there,
Got my own row left to hoe
Just another line in the field of time
When the thrashers comes, I’ll be stuck in the sun
Like the dinosaurs in shrines
But I’ll know the time has come
To give what’s mine.

Neil Young – “Thrasher”

A little before 5:00, I left Montezuma’s Castle for what I thought would be a less than two-hour drive. After all, it was only 120 miles back to Mesa. I planned to stop for Mexican food as I got close to the hotel. The day had been great, and I was ready to relax and watch the night’s playoff game. Maybe have a beer or three.

The Astros were playing the Yankees in Game Two of the league championship. Instead, there were travel delays on the way back. I stumbled into the hotel at 8:30 and settled for a flatbread pizza at the Courtyard by Marriott’s Bistro.

The Astros won the game in the bottom of the 11th inning. Yankee pitcher J.A. Happ tried unsuccessfully to sneak a fastball passed Houston’s, Carlos Correa. The ball landed in the rightfield stands – 394′ away.

I flew home the next morning, understanding that people come and go. There are powers higher than us and – as people say – sometimes you hit the ball over the fence, and sometimes you strikeout. Sometimes your fastball gets by the hitter, and sometimes it doesn’t.

I don’t have the answers to all my questions, but I now understand the situation.

Note to my loyal readers. Please don’t despair about the end of the baseball season. I have a lot more stories to share. Stay Tuned.

Continue ReadingOne More Ride For The Nomad