Road trip to a home runA pilgrimage of love for America’s favorite pastime
America is full of baseball pilgrimages and road trips. Fenway Park in Boston turns 100 this year. Wrigleyville, the neighborhood around Wrigley Field in Chicago is the best baseball neighborhood in the country.
By: McClatchy Newspapers, INFORUM
America is full of baseball pilgrimages and road trips. Fenway Park in Boston turns 100 this year. Wrigleyville, the neighborhood around Wrigley Field in Chicago is the best baseball neighborhood in the country. California has five major league teams to visit. New York City has two major league teams and two minor league ones. Road-trippers can enjoy the Pioneer League with stops in Montana, Idaho and Utah.
But for me, a road trip from Louisville to Cooperstown is the quintessential baseball journey. From the place where bats were built to its greatest shrine, with stops along the way at great baseball parks, major and minor. All but one day requires less than 200 miles of driving. You’ll have to get out the team schedules to match up your drive dates with when teams are playing. But even in early spring or late fall, there’s plenty for a fan to see along the way.
Baseball’s favorite lumber yard
Over 125 years, Hillerich & Bradsby have made more than 100 million bats, with the Louisville Slugger wooden bats used by top professionals finished in the old brick factory in downtown Louisville that visitors can tour.
It’s the one with the six-story tall bat out front.
Bats are made of various quality grains of white ash and maple, with the best and tightest grain going to the pros. Though its onetime near-monopoly has been undercut by newcomers like Mizuno and boutique batmakers like Marucci (Albert Pujols’ favorite), Louisville Slugger still accounts for 60 percent of the bats used in the American and National leagues. Along with a museum to the history of the bat, visitors can stop by and have an ash wood bat fashioned with their own name emblazoned on the barrel.
Home of baseball’s oldest franchise.
Distance from Louisville: 100 miles
The Reds’ history goes back to the year after the Civil War ended, when a group started the Red Stockings as an amateur club. It went pro in 1882, eight years before the National League was born. The oldest major league club plays at the Great American Ball Park on the banks of the Ohio River. When the Reds hit a home run, a steamboat whistle goes off near the scoreboard. It’s usually easy to get walk-up tickets except for games against the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals Cleveland Indians. The Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame is adjacent and open even when the Reds are out of town.
Baseball’s best minor league team
Distance from Cincinatti: 106 miles
The Columbus Clippers are the reigning champs of the highest level of minor leagues, having won the Triple-A Baseball National Championship Game for the second straight year in 2011. Now affiliated with the Cleveland Indians, the team formerly was affiliated for nearly three decades with the New York Yankees. The team plays in 10,100-seat Huntington Park, which has won accolades for incorporating an old sawmill and other industrial buildings beyond its fences into the park layout.
The best new ballpark in America
Distance from Columbus, Ohio: 185 miles
The Pirates have been perennial losers in the National League, but their stadium is the best modern stadium in the major leagues.
When they decided to move from Three Rivers Stadium, the Pirates wisely realized that their fan base wouldn’t support a huge ballpark. Instead they built a two-tiered instant classic that incorporates the city’s steel-making history into its design. Its capacity of 38,496 makes it the second smallest stadium after Boston’s Fenway Park. The view across the Allegheny River to downtown Pittsburgh is one of the best backdrops in baseball. The city turns its attention to football and the Steelers beginning in late summer and seats are even easier to come by. Even the worst seats are just 88 feet from the playing field.
Distance from Pittsburgh: 203 miles
The Harrisburg Senators play in one of the most unusual settings, the modern Metro Bank Park on City Island, in the middle of the Susquehanna River. The team is an AA affiliate of the Washington Nationals. Visitors to the stadium over the past two years have seen two of baseball’s top prospects, pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper, play for the team. It’s an easy walk from the ballpark to the Pennsylvania state capital or the many bars and restaurants along State and Front streets.
South Williamsport, Pa.
Home of the Little League World Series
Distance from Harrisburg, Pa.: 85 miles
Each summer since 1947, teams from across the country and later, around the world, have come to this town in rural central Pennsylvania in the Little League World Series tournament. Games are played at Little League Volunteer Stadium and Howard J. Lamade Stadium, both located in South Williamsport, and televised around the world. Last year, Huntington Beach Ocean View beat Japan to win the crown.
This year’s tournament will run Aug. 16-26. Tickets for World Series games have already been sold through littleleague.org, with entries closing at the end of March. Tickets will go on sale again next winter. Other times of the year, visitors can stop in Little League’s museum and Hall of Excellence.
Nearby Williamsport is home to the Crosscutters, a short-season A-level team in the New York-Penn League, who are affiliated with the Philadelphia Phillies. They play in Bowman Field, erected in 1926. Williamsport has seen its pro baseball fortunes rise and fall several times over the decades, so visit soon since things seems to be on the upswing.
Through the baseball bat forest
Distance from Williamsport, Pa.: 139 miles
The road north out of Williamsport takes drivers into the rural “T” of Pennsylvania, the area made up of everything outside of Pittsburgh in the southwest and Philadelphia in the southeast. Farm country gives way to the Appalachian Mountains. Here, on the border between the Keystone State and Empire State are the forests of pine and ash that are turned into baseball bats. Most of the operations are to the west of our route, around the Larimer & Norton lumber company in Russell, Penn. Each day, two truckloads of logs from the company are turned into 8,000 “billets” – basically tube shaped wood cores ready to be made into bats, which are then shipped to Louisville for the final fashioning of the bat. Think of all the home runs in those endless miles of trees as you drive over the border to Binghamton, where you can catch a game of the Binghamton Mets, the AA affiliate of the New York Mets. The “B-Mets” play at NYSEG Park.
Baseball how it used to be
Distance from Binghamton, N.Y.: 60 miles
Built in 1939, Historic Damaschke Field is on the endangered ballpark list. The minor-league Oneonta Tigers blew town for Norwich, Conn., in 2010. But the park has stayed alive with the Oneonta Outlaws, part of the New York Collegiate Baseball League, a 12-team summer league for college players. The Outlaws won the 2011 league championship. The ballpark claims some of the closest seats to the action in professional baseball. Teams have played on the site since 1906 and the backdrop of the forested hills beyond the outfield wall is one of the prettiest in the region. For our road trip, it’s a great stop because it’s just a half hour to the end of the line.
Baseball’s holy of holys
Distance from Oneonta, N.Y: 23 miles
The legend goes that an Army officer named Abner Doubleday invented the national pastime in a cow pasture on Elihu Phinney’s Cooperstown farm in 1839. It is up there with George Washington chopping down a cherry tree when it comes to American myths that have been debunked. But the idea held long enough for Cooperstown to be selected as the site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It would be worth a visit just for the hall and the adjacent museum, a treasure house of bats, balls, gloves, seats, hats and other souvenirs from great and infamous moments in the games history.
But the town itself has a 19th century feel that will appeal to any baseball fan, the most nostalgic of any sport. Special games are still played at Doubleday Field, built in the 1920s on part of Phinney’s farm. The Hall of Fame Classic, featuring two teams, including Hall of Famers, is played every Father’s Day weekend. A great time to visit is during the playoffs, when fall foliage wraps the towns in leafy reds, golds and browns.