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Louisville baseball fans loved their record-setting Redbirds

The Louisville Redbirds

When 22-year-old Andy Van Slyke hit a home run against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium shortly after being called up by the St. Louis Cardinals at midseason in 1983, the young outfielder found himself surrounded by a gaggle of reporters asking him if he was nervous playing before such a large crowd.

“Nervous?” he asked. “We drew more people than this in Louisville.”

That wasn’t an exaggeration on his part.

Van Slyke had spent the first part of that season playing for the Louisville Redbirds, batting a sizzling .368 while hitting 21 doubles and driving in 41 runs in fifty-four games for the Triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals in the now-defunct American Association.

Large crowds were the norm for the Louisville Redbirds, who shattered the existing minor league attendance records that season by drawing 1,052,438 fans to their home games — surpassing their own attendance-smashing record of 868,418 during their inaugural season a year earlier, which had easily eclipsed the previous minor-league record of 670,565 set by the Pacific Coast League’s San Francisco Seals in 1946, long before there was major-league baseball on the west coast. The neighboring Oakland Oaks — San Francisco’s biggest rival in the PCL — drew an impressive 634,311 fans that same year.

Occasionally drawing crowds of 31,000 or more, Louisville’s achievement that summer was a significant milestone in the annals of minor league baseball.

Baseball returns to Louisville

The city had been without a minor league team since the owner of the Louisville Colonels of the International League, an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, abruptly forfeited his club’s franchise following the 1972 season after learning that Fairgrounds Stadium, where the Colonels played their home games, would be enlarged and used exclusively for football — primarily to accommodate the University of Louisville football program.

The International League subsequently awarded the previous owner’s franchise to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, leaving Louisville without a minor-league baseball presence for only the second time since 1901.

Consequently, fans in the Derby City — one of America’s most supportive sports towns — enthusiastically welcomed the Redbirds when owner A. Ray Smith, decided to relocate his Triple-A team in Springfield, Illinois, to Kentucky’s largest city in the autumn of 1981. The move came after considerable prodding from Louisville banker Dan Ulmer, who was co-chairing a committee to raise $4.5 million in private funds to refurbish Fairgrounds Stadium, making it conducive for both baseball and football.

After considerable wrangling among the league’s other owners while facing legal threats from the city of Springfield, Smith — he preferred to be called “A-Ray” — appeared to back away from his proposal shortly after announcing his decision, but eventually followed through on his promise to bring baseball back to Louisville.

“We’re here, we’ll open next spring, and we’ll have a heck of a time in Louisville,” said Smith, bearing a somewhat sheepish smile of relief, shortly after the owners of the American Association approved his proposal in November of 1981.

Smith, who made his fortune in the construction industry, hit the ground running. His first order of business was to hire a top-flight manager for the Louisville Redbirds — and he came up with a gem a few days later, naming former St. Louis Cardinals star third baseman Ken Boyer to lead the team in its inaugural season.

Boyer, who had been named to the National League All-Star team seven times while winning five Gold Gloves during his fifteen-year major league career, had spent seven years as a minor-league manager before taking over the helm at St. Louis eighteen games into the 1978 season. He was fired in June 1980 and replaced by Whitey Herzog as the Cardinals languished in last place in the National League East.

The 50-year-old Boyer, who led the Cardinals to the World Series championship in 1964 — the same year he hit 24 home runs and drove in a league-leading 119 runs while being named the National League’s Most Valuable Player — was genuinely excited to manage again, saying that he hoped to bring winning baseball to Louisville.

“We’ll play the kind of game that’s exciting to the fans,” he vowed.

Boyer, who managed Smith’s Triple-A team Tulsa in the mid-seventies, had never been to Louisville prior to being offered the managerial role and was immediately impressed by the city itself. “The way this city has been presented to me,” he said during the press conference announcing his hiring, “it’s more like moving into a big-league market than a minor-league one.”

Sadly, Boyer never got the chance to manage the Redbirds. Shortly after he accepted the job, the All-Star third baseman was diagnosed with lung cancer and succumbed to the disease the following September.

Boyer was replaced by former New York Mets manager Joe Frazier, an ex-major leaguer who won five pennants and came within an eyelash of winning a sixth as a minor-league manager for ten seasons before taking over as skipper for the Mets in 1976.

Like everybody else in the Cardinals organization, Frazier was deeply saddened about Boyer’s unfortunate situation. “Kenny and I are real good friends,” he said in reluctantly accepting the job. “It’s too bad that he had to be replaced. God bless him. I’m going to do my best to win a championship for him and Ray (Redbirds’ owner A. Ray Smith).”

The taciturn Frazier, who had been named “Minor League Manager of the Year” after leading Tidewater to the International League pennant in 1975, nearly fulfilled his promise of bringing a championship to Louisville that season as the Redbirds, who at one point in early August were 67-49 — 18 games above .500 and comfortably in first place — finished tied for second in the American Association’s East Division with a 73-62 record, only a game and half behind division winner Indianapolis.

While serving as a supply depot for the world champion St. Louis Cardinals, Louisville remained in contention in the American Association race until the next-to-last day of the 1982 season.

Drawing big league crowds

Winning became contagious that summer and baseball-starved Kentuckians responded in historic fashion.

The Redbirds averaged 13,596 fans in their 64 home games (four of their home dates were rained out) that season at renamed and renovated Cardinal Stadium in the middle of the state fairgrounds, including an average attendance of 21,033 for their final eight home games. In doing so, Louisville broke the all-time minor league attendance record by nearly 200,000 while simultaneously surpassing the average attendance of several major league clubs that year.

That wasn’t too shabby for a franchise that only drew about 92,000 fans a few seasons earlier in Springfield, especially considering that the team only had use of the 12,000 seats in the outfield bleachers a dozen times that season due to continuing renovation work on the stadium.

Noting that his team drew larger numbers than Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Montreal were able to attract when they were minor-league cities, Smith was more than pleased with his first season in Louisville.

“When I look at those numbers,” he modestly observed, “it’s remarkable. It’s a tribute to this city.”

But it was really a tribute to him. The family-fun circus atmosphere that Smith provided night after night made an inexpensive evening at the ballpark something to look forward to in recession-ravaged Louisville — all for a top admission price of only $3.50.

Coincidentally, all three Triple-A leagues — the American Association, the International League and the Pacific Coast League — each drew more than two million fans that same season for the first time in history, leading to some whispered yet serious speculation that several ambitious owners in minor league cities who favored major-league expansion might be prepared to go their own way, a la the old American Football League (AFL) and American Basketball Association (ABA), if the major leagues didn’t come up with a reasonable expansion plan fairly soon.

Devilishly hinting that a rival major league might be on the horizon, Louisville’s A. Ray Smith, who had been named the minor league executive of the year by Sporting News, even had a name for the new league. “We could call it the Super League,” he suggested.

KEEP READING – Part 2: Big changes and major league ambitions drove Redbirds’ success

Darcy G. Richardson is a historian and the author of more than a dozen books. His latest is Loyola's Improbable Ramblers: 55 Years in the Making, available now on Amazon.

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