Curator rediscovers lost pre-Negro Leagues team in Louisville

The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory acquired two photographs in June of 2018, thinking they were pictures of the Louisville White Sox, a short-lived team in the Negro Leagues that played a single season in 1931 before being replaced the next year by the Louisville Black Caps who would play even less than a full season before relocating and then folding altogether. The pictures, posed shots recreating gameplay, featured a player sliding into base being called safe by the umpire, and a baseman reaching out with his gloved hand with a player behind him. The scant documentation accompanying them marked them as pics of the 1931 White Sox.

Museum curator Bailey Mazik was researching the new acquisition when she spotted a contradiction: two of the players’ jerseys had the letters L and U on the front, not the W and S of the White Sox. She then noticed a factory looming in the background of the field. Its large sign identified it as the Sunny Brook Distillery Co., maker of Kentucky’s most famous native product, bourbon. Last but not least, her eagle eye spotted the faintest of inscriptions written on the back of one of the photos. It includes the date “February 1909.” By scanning the inscription and increasing black and white contrast, Mazik could make out one phrase of the inscription in addition to the date: “Charles is a sleep.” She hopes more of it can be made legible with greater scanning and imaging tools.

With team initials, the factory location and the date, Mazik was able to dig through old newspapers and identify the team. They were the Louisville Unions, a semi-professional team that played against other Louisville teams and ones from out of state for yet another single season. Unlike their Negro Leagues descendants in the 1930s, the Unions shone for their one season. In a July 12th article in the Louisville Courier-Journal, they were acknowledged as “the best colored team in the South,” with a record of 24 wins out of 27 games played.

They played on hallowed ground, as baseball history goes.

This successful team had its own playing field located at 28th Street and Broadway. In 1908 newspaper articles, this field is referred to as either “Unions’ Park” or “old League Park”; it is also known as Eclipse Park II. About 15 years earlier in 1893, this field was formed into a sort of complex for the Louisville Colonels team, where Honus Wagner hit his first professional home run in 1897. The 13-acre plot consisted of a full-size field for the Colonels to play on, a smaller field for amateur teams, bike paths, and picnic areas, and was enclosed by a wooden fence. This was in the residential neighborhood of Parkland and was intended to serve the community in a variety of ways. The Colonels played here for 6 years until an electrical storm caused a fire and rendered the field and stands unusable for the professional National League team after the 1899 season. This didn’t matter much anyway because in 1900 the Colonels ceased to exist when the National League downsized from twelve teams to eight, and cut Louisville from the league. Colonels’ owner Barney Dreyfuss took over the Pittsburgh club and relocated a number of Louisville’s best players to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1908, after repairs were made, the Unions team was based at this historically important lot.

That was a heady year for African-American baseball in Louisville. The city was replete with teams popular with blac In April 1908 Local leaders met with counterparts in St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland and Nashville to discuss the creation of a formal league for black players. Even with financial backing secured the project was deemed “impracticable” and the proposed National Colored Baseball League never did come to fruition. Twelve years would pass before the Negro National League played its first game.

The photographs are now on display at theĀ  Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory at The Louisville Unions Rediscovered exhibit which runs through September 7th of this year.