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In a true Louisville, Kentucky mash-up - bourbon and baseball came together as Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory discovered the truth behind mysterious and fascinating photographs of a black baseball team that had been exceptional in its time but lost to history.
In June of 2018, the museum acquired two photographs of ballplayers posed in action shots. The information with the images suggested the players were part of the Louisville White Sox, a Negro Leagues team in 1931.
But the museum’s Curatorial Specialist, Bailey Mazik, wanted to learn more. In the process of searching for clues and sifting through research, she discovered the photos actually depict the Louisville Unions, a pre-Negro Leagues team that dominated the Southern baseball circuit in 1908. This rare find is an important addition to the documented history of black baseball before the game’s integration.
“During a curatorial investigation it’s incredibly rewarding for me to find meaningful connections that broaden the understanding of baseball in our country and in our culture through time,” said Mazik. “There’s still more I’d like to learn about these photos and this team, but it’s so gratifying to know the Louisville Unions have been rediscovered as a part of baseball’s story, where they belong.”
When Mazik noticed the letters on the players’ uniforms were not consistent with the team being the Louisville White Sox she began scrutinizing the images.
One of the important clues Mazik noticed was a bourbon distillery beyond the outfield fence. The Sunny Brook Distillery Co. was located at 28th and Broadway from 1897 – 1909. This discovery eventually helped place the team at what turned out to be a historically significant ballfield.
The Louisville Courier-Journal was also a vital resource in the investigation, providing the necessary information to confirm the Louisville Unions identification. Numerous stories about the Unions in the paper’s 1908 baseball coverage included a description of the squad as being, “the best colored team in the South.” According to the Courier-Journal, the Unions played other semi-professional and amateur teams, both black and white. Their opponents included other Louisville teams and teams from other states including Ohio, Indiana, and New York. They played in their own ballpark on the west side of Louisville. Today, the site is home to Elliot Park in the Parkland neighborhood.
“I commend Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory on finding the images and conducting the great detective work in piecing together a partial history of the Louisville Unions. Early 20th-century black baseball history, before the start of the formal Negro Leagues in 1920, is still an underappreciated area of baseball research,” said Dr. Raymond Doswell, Vice-President/Curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. “We are fortunate that more and more historians are exploring the time between 1860 – 1920. Much of the detailed information and photographs are hidden away in regional archives still to be uncovered. Discovering the baseball information also illuminates our understanding of black life during this period.”
Details of Mazik’s quest to learn more about these talented ballplayers and black baseball in Louisville are captured in an engaging blog post she authored.