By Chris Meiman, Curator & Exhibits Director
This year is a banner year for Louisville Slugger contract players at the Baseball Hall of Fame. All three player inductees –Jeff Bagwell, Ivan Rodriguez and Tim Raines – signed promotional contracts and we couldn’t be happier to celebrate their inductions. Of course, this isn’t anything new for Louisville Slugger’s family of players. For players who started their MLB careers after 1905, when Louisville Slugger signed Honus Wagner to the first ever player endorsement contract, more than 90% of hitters inducted in Cooperstown endorsed Slugger bats. Lots of tributes will be paid to these players, and as I started writing in a similar vein, I realized each one of these players was connected to a specific memory from years past.
April 8, 1991 was a very special day as it was the day my beloved Cincinnati Reds honored the 1990 World Championship team and the players received their rings. We were usually allowed at watch Opening Day at school most years with the sound down, and this year especially because of the festivities. Little did I know that a young first baseman making his MLB debut for the visiting Houston Astros would be a leading cause of my Reds not winning another banner any time soon. That player was Jeff Bagwell , and before long, he would establish himself as one of the premier power hitters of his generation. Bagwell was named Rookie of the Year in 1991 and by 1994 was the National League’s MVP, winning his first of three Silver Slugger Awards.
In late July of 1994, the Astros came to Cincinnati down only one game in the division. I went to a lot of games at Riverfront that summer, mostly sneaking in with a baseball teammate of mine whose father was a security guard. I remember going to the Sunday game after the Reds and Astros split the first two. The rubber match had gone to 12 innings and of course, it was Bagwell who drove in the deciding run, leading to a rare six-run extra inning win. The 1994 season famously ended in the Players’ Strike with the Reds and Astros separated by only half of a game, but that didn’t stop the Bagwell onslaught. “Bags” would go on to terrorize the Reds, and the rest of the league for ten more seasons. It wasn’t just my imagination, by the way. A quick check of Baseball Reference confirmed by memories of Bagwell as he hit 49 home runs against the Reds in his career, the most against any team. I guess Bagwell put some of those 2600 Louisville Slugger bats he ordered to good use!
Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez ordered his share of Sluggers as well – more than 4000 in his career. Pudge (pictured below) was good at using those bats too, winning seven Silver Slugger Awards, hitting over .300 for eight straight seasons and belting over 300 home runs in his career, all while being an outstanding everyday catcher. It was Rodriguez’s defensive ability that made him stand out for most. Statistically speaking, Rodriguez was in the Top 10 in Defensive Wins Above Replacement seven times, and his 28.7 career mark is 9th best all time. Not to mention, he also won 13 Gold Gloves.
Pudge’s defensive prowess was on display in October 2003. My older brother was getting married, and as we were waiting for the ceremony to begin the wedding party was watching the Giants play Pudge’s Marlins in one of the NL Divisional Series playoff games across the street from the church at a firehouse that had been renovated into a sports bar. The Giants, who were down 2-1 in the best-of-five series, had scored once in the top of the 9th inning and had the tying run on second base. With two outs, Jeffrey Hammonds lined a hit to left that seemed to tie the game as Marlins left fielder Jeff Conine’s throw was up the 3rd base line a bit. Pudge Rodriguez had to retrieve the ball and then get back to tag JT Snow who came barreling into Rodriguez. Pudge held onto the ball and the series was over. However, just as Ugueth Urbina and the rest of the Marlins dogpiled on Rodriguez, I fell backward off my stool!
Somehow, I managed not to ruin my tux, which was good because the wedding was still later that afternoon! Rodriguez wasn’t finished either, as he went on to win the NLCS MVP award against the Cubs and guide young starters Josh Beckett (23 years old) and Brad Penny (25) in defeating the vaunted New York Yankees, who had three Hall of Fame caliber pitchers in their rotation.
The first baseball game I remember seeing was memorable for pitching as well, mostly because I nearly saw a perfect game. In May of 1988, I went to a “Kid Glove Game” at Riverfront Stadium where the Reds would give away tickets to youth baseball and softball players. We sat in the nosebleed seats with some of my Knothole League teammates watching the Reds play the Montreal Expos.
Reds starter Ron Robinson threw 8 2/3 perfect innings and had a full count on Wallace Johnson after the pinch hitter had just barely made contact on a foul ball. Just as the crowd rose again to cheer on Robinson, Johnson blooped a single into left field to end the no-hitter and perfect game. We barely had a chance to exhale when the Expos’ leadoff hitter, Tim Raines (pictured below), lined a home run to bring the visitors to within a run of the Reds. We had gone from a near no-hitter to having to bring in closer John Franco to seal the game. Thankfully, Franco did just that, but the memory of Raines lining the home run somehow stuck with me more than the hit to break up the perfect game.
Perhaps Raines’s hit was so jarring after Robinson had been so dominant all game or maybe Johnson’s hit was lost in the shrieks as Reds’ left fielder Kal Daniels was forced to play it on a hop, but in any event, I like to tell that story whenever Raines comes up. Of course, Raines is well deserving of his Hall induction as probably the best leadoff hitter in National League history and certainly one of the best base stealers ever. He won the 1986 Silver Slugger and Silver Bat Award for leading the league in batting and was a seven-time All-Star.
This year’s Hall of Fame class is special for Louisville Slugger and me personally. For Louisville Slugger, it adds three more names to the list of contract players in Cooperstown that includes Ruth, Gehrig, Robinson and Griffey, leaving Louisville Slugger’s place in the history of the game is as secure as ever. As for me, this is a chance to relive some interesting moments of my life that these three players were a part of.