Louisville’s Long, Tortured Professional Sports History

There is no doubt that Louisville does big sporting events extremely well, which might be expected given its practice with 138 Kentucky Derbies.  Churchill Downs has also hosted eight Breeders’ Cup Championships, more than any other racetrack.  Down the road in Lexington, the Kentucky Horse Park hosts the annual Rolex Kentucky Three Day, the premier equestrian-estate/”>equestrian event in the western hemisphere, and hosted the World Equestrian Games in 2010, the first time the event was ever held outside of Europe.  The Keeneland Sales Yearling Auction is a global sports event in and of itself.  An easy case can be made that the Louisville-Lexington corridor is the epicenter of the four-legged sports world, cheered on by enthusiastic two-legged fans.

Valhalla's signature 13th hole.

Valhalla Golf Club in eastern Jefferson County is building a reputation as a premier venue having now hosted two PGA Championships, two Senior PGA Championships, one PGA Club Professional Championship and one Ryder Cup—all in the past 15 years—with the PGA Championship scheduled to return again in 2014.  Impressed by tremendous local support and sold-out crowds, the PGA eventually acquired Valhalla.

The 2000 PGA Championship created the first real Valhalla golf moment.  Tiger Woods fell behind and then stormed back to tie Bob May on the 17th hole and force a playoff by matching May’s birdie putt on the 18th in an epic Sunday duel, which Woods subsequently won giving him the third leg of his Tiger Slam.  Their twin 18 under pars are still a co-record for the PGA Championship.

The 2008 Ryder Cup cemented Valhalla’s place in American golfing lore after the U.S. team trounced the Europeans giving America its first Ryder Cup victory since 1999 and its biggest margin of victory since 1981.  All in front of one of the most excited and exciting galleries a golf tournament has ever seen with boisterous local fans cheering on the American team, cheers which only grew louder when the team’s two Kentuckians—Kenny Perry and J.B. Holmes—were playing.  A slightly more refined Happy Gilmore-type crowd.

In an ode to Louisville’s boxing legacy, Freedom Hall hosted the 2004 Mike Tyson-Danny Williams fight before 17,273 fans.  In 2013, the city will host the Cyclocross World Championships.

Between Horse racing, golf and assorted other sports, Louisville and the rest of Kentucky have proven the ability to stage and host fantastic championship events.  These are wonderful sporting events that the community supports passionately, proving there is a local appetite for big-time professional sports.  However, these events do not generate the sustained community-wide excitement of a local team marching towards a season-ending championship; there is no March Madness, no pennant race, no playoff run to captivate the city for weeks, months or a season at a time.

Ali is not only Louisville's most famous athlete and native son, but one of the most recognized figures in the world.

Individually, Louisville has also had its fair share of sporting native sons and daughters make the city proud.   From the late 1950s through the late 1970s, local boxing gyms produced Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Ellis, Greg Page and James Pritchard, giving world heavyweight championship fights a consistent Louisville flavor.  Ali is perhaps the most famous sportsman of all time, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated 37 times, became a world-renowned humanitarian and has been honored with a hometown museum dedicated to his athletic and non-athletic achievements.  Madame Butterfly, Sacred Heart Academy grad and Lakeside Swim Club product Mary T. Meagher, dominated her specialty from 1979-1985, twice winning female world Swimmer of the Year and bringing home three gold medals from the 1984 Olympics.  Her 100- and 200-meter butterfly world records stood for an astonishing 20 and 21 years, respectively.  Flaget High’s Paul Hornung, the Golden Boy, is a football icon and arguably the city’s most famous professional team athlete.  duPont Manual High’s Pee Wee Reese was a Hall of Famer in both a baseball sense and a human sense.  His shortstop play earned him his spot in Cooperstown, but his support of Jackie Robinson earned him a legendary place in baseball lore.  Southern High alum Phil Simms’ MVP effort in the 1987 Super Bowl was a performance for the ages and finally endeared him to the Big Apple fans.  Danny Sullivan took the checkered flag at the 1985 Indianapolis 500.  Elite jockeys Pat Day and Calvin Borel have adopted Louisville as their hometown.

Louisville honors its Golden Boy with a statue near the outfield entrance of Louisville Slugger Field.
Louisville honors Reese with a statue in front of Louisville Slugger Field.

These great athletes did Louisville proud, but they either excelled in individual sports or starred on teams far from home.   Hornung won the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame before earning professional fame with the Green Bay Packers.  Reese spent his career with the Dodgers in Brooklyn and then Los Angeles.  Simms’ tenure with the New York Giants never resonated locally as the Cincinnati Bengals capture most support among Louisville professional football fans.  This includes my step-father, Frank Simms, who remained loyal to the Bengals even after his cousin was drafted by the Giants.

However respectable, like the previously mentioned championship sporting events, these athletes’ individual and team accomplishments did not generate the sustained community-wide excitement of a local team marching towards a season-ending championship.  Again, there was no March Madness, no pennant race, no playoff run to captivate the city.

Unfortunately, Louisville’s professional sports franchises have suffered a much more ignoble past with a total of only two U.S. professional sports league championships since the city’s first professional team, the National League’s (NL) Louisville Grays baseball club, was established in 1876, and almost immediately folded after the 1877 season.  Not much time to win a championship.

Pete Browning, Louisville's first professional sports star.

From 1882-1889, the American Association (AA) Louisville Colonels (called the Louisville Eclipse from 1882-1884), gave the city its first superstar athlete, a hard-drinking, deaf and illiterate local named Pete Browning, who became the inspiration for the Louisville Slugger baseball bat in 1884.  Browning was an elite Major Leaguer winning AA batting titles in 1882 and ’85, hitting .402 in 1887 (along with four HRs and 118 RBI) and retiring with a career average of .341, still good for 13th best in Major League Baseball (MLB) history.  Browning left Louisville for the Cleveland Infants in 1890 and promptly won his third ML batting title.  You can find a bronze caste of Browning’s Louisville Slugger bat just in front of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, where it is the first stop on the Louisville Slugger Walk of Fame along Main Street between the Museum and Louisville Slugger Field. [Point of information:  The American Association of the 19th century (1882-1891) was a Major League rivaling the NL; the 20th century incarnation of  the American Association was a triple-A minor league.]

Despite the loss of Browning, the Colonels captured half of the 1890 World Series title after tying the NL’s Brooklyn Bridegrooms 3-3-1 in their seven-game series.  Due to weather limitations, the eighth game was never played so the teams were forced to share the title.  Worse still, Major League Baseball does not officially recognize World Series champions prior to 1903.  So Louisville can lay claim to only half of an unofficial World Series title 122 years ago.

The Colonels joined the National League in 1892 and stayed until folding in 1899.  The franchise, founded in 1882, started out strong with winning records in ’82, ’83, ’84 and ’87, but after the ’90 season, never managed another winning season and ended with an all-time winning percentage of .429, and its lone 1890 pennant.  The Louisville Grays had fared slightly better over their two seasons winning at a .516 clip.

To add insult to injury, Louisville owner Barney Dreyfuss surreptitiously purchased an interest in the Pittsburgh Pirates the same year the Colonels folded and took his best young Colonels players with him, including star player and future Hall-of-Famer Honus Wagner—yes, that Honus Wagner, he of the eight batting titles, .328 career average and most valuable baseball card in the world.  Dreyfuss owned the Pirates until 1932 and watched them, with his core of ex-Colonels players, win NL pennants in 1901, ’02, ’03, ’09, ’25 and ’27 and the ’09 and ’25 World Series.  The Pirates later won three more World Series titles in 1960, ’71 and ’79 and claimed division titles from ‘90-92.  Down river in Louisville, there would be no more professional sports titles until 85 years after the Colonels lone World Series co-title.  Fans could only imagine what might have been.

After losing its MLB team, Louisville took a stab at the National Football League (NFL) and actually fielded two teams for four seasons over six years.  From 1921-23, the Louisville Breckenridges, Brecks for short (I did not make that name up), compiled a 1-8 record and were no more than fodder for better teams, i.e. an NFL version of the Harlem Globetrotters’ stooge team, the Washington Generals.  They were outscored 27-0, 140-13 and 90-0 in their three seasons.   Thank goodness for the Evansville Crimson Giants, whom the Brecks defeated 13-6 in the 1922 season finale or the franchise would have gone not only winless, but scoreless, as well.  After the Brecks were shut down, the Louisville Colonels team was fielded in 1926 and promptly went 0-4 while being outscored 108-0 before being disbanded.  Overall, the fours teams were outscored a Bill Curry-esque 365-13 over 13 games, being shut out in 12 of them.  Not a strong legacy in professional football for Louisville.  The fans could only watch and think WTF?

Louisville took stabs at various minor league baseball, basketball and football teams, but never fielded another team in a major professional sports league after 1926 until the American Basketball Association (ABA) was formed in 1967.  The upstart league was to challenge the National Basketball Association (NBA) for world basketball supremacy.  Louisville was granted a franchise, the Kentucky Colonels, who soon developed into a powerhouse.  And by the early 1970s, a legitimate claim could be made that the ABA had overtaken the NBA in terms of supremacy.  Louisville was finally on the big-league sports stage.

A 1975 Kentucky Colonels ABA Championship ring.

In 1975, the magnificent trio of Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel and Louie Dampier, coached by Hubie Brown, finally brought a championship home to Louisville, the ABA title.  After agonizing game-seven losses in both the 1971 (to the Utah Stars) and ’73 ABA Finals, the Kentucky Colonels defeated their bitter rival, the Indiana Pacers, in five games in a rematch of the ABA Finals from two years earlier.  The Colonels claimed their title at Freedom Hall on the back of Gilmore’s monstrous 28-point, 31-rebound game.

Finally, Louisville’s first professional title since 1890!  This was especially sweet given the Colonel’s failure to win the 1972 ABA title with a team that finished 68-16, bowing out to Rick Barry and the 44-40 New York Nets in the first round of the playoffs.  Only the 1996 and ’97 Chicago Bulls and the ‘72 Los Angeles Lakers, with a role player named Pat Riley, have ever won more games in a single professional basketball season than the ’72 Colonels.

And what a season it had been.  On March 18, 1975, the Colonels trailed the New York Nets by five full games.  In a stunning run, they won their final nine games to force a one-game playoff for the Eastern Division title, which Kentucky also won.  The team then stormed through the playoffs losing only one game in each of its three series, finishing with a 12-3 playoff record.  From March 18 to through May 22, the Colonels played 25 pressure-packed games and won 22 of them!  Not only were the 16,622 game five fans at Freedom Hall jubilant, but the entire city was, as well.  The Colonels had just given the city two months of near basketball perfection and a breadth of emotions.  From the fear of another underachieving season with two weeks left to the anxiety and thrill of chasing down the Nets to the hyper-confidence and sense of pride while steamrolling though the playoffs.

From 1971-75, there was no finer a professional basketball team in the world than the Kentucky Colonels in terms of talent.  Immediately after the Colonels won the title, ABA Commissioner Dave DeBusschere challenged the NBA champion Golden State Warriors to a one-million dollar, winner-take-all, best-two-out-of-three championship  series.  The NBA and the Warriors declined.  Infuriated at the NBA’s refusal to determine the best team on the court, Colonels owner John. Y Brown, Jr. inscribed the team’s ABA championship rings with the title of ‘World Champions’.

The A-Train dominated in the paint from the moment he suited up for the Colonels.

In 1975, Artis Gilmore was in the midst of a Hall of Fame basketball career that eventually ended with the ’72 ABA MVP and Rookie of the Year Awards, 11 All-Star Game appearances (five ABA/six NBA), the ’74 ABA All-Star Game MVP Award, the ’75 ABA Playoffs MVP, five All-Defensive team selections (four ABA/one NBA), five rebounding titles (ABA) and three blocked shot titles (ABA).  Today, the A-Train is still the 20th-leading scorer, fifth-leading rebounder and fourth-leading shot blocker in professional basketball history.  He is also the NBA all-time career leader in field goal percentage.  In ABA history, he is the 17th-leading scorer, second-leading rebounder and top shot blocker despite playing in only five of the league’s nine seasons.  As a bonus, he may have had the baddest afro-and-goatee combo in basketball history.

Dan Issel, the iconic Kentucky Colonel, left no smaller a legacy than Gilmore.  The championship year was Issel’s final season in Louisville before being traded away.  His Hall of Fame career eventually ended with the 1971 ABA Rookie of the Year Award, seven All-Star Game appearances (six ABA/one NBA), the ‘72 ABA All-Star Game MVP Award and one scoring title (ABA).  Today, the Horse is still the ninth-leading scorer and 28th-leading rebounder in professional basketball history.  In 1985, the Denver Nuggets retired Big Dan’s #44, one of only four numbers retired in team history.  In ABA history, he is the second-leading scorer and sixth-leading rebounder despite playing in only six of the league’s nine seasons.  Plus he may have had the ugliest game face in professional basketball history.

Little Louie helped keep the middle clear for Gilmore and Issel with his deadly outside shooting.

Last but not least, was the lovable Louie Dampier.  Though not a Hall of Famer, Dampier played for the Colonels for all nine years of team’s and the ABA’s existence and appeared in seven ABA All-Star Games.  Today, Little Louie is still the 122nd-leading scorer—just below Shawn Kemp and right above Rip Hamilton–and the 65th-leading assist man in professional basketball history.  In ABA history, he is all over the record books and is the career league leader in points scored, assists, games played, minutes played, field goals made and attempted and three point goals made and attempted.  He also may have worn the shortest shorts in professional basketball history.

The 1971-75 Kentucky Colonels run gave Louisville a front-row seat to some of the best basketball being played in the world at that time and the city was finally rewarded with a championship in 1975.  Had the Kentucky Colonels not folded and entered the NBA in 1976, Gilmore, Issel and Dampier would probably have their retired numbers hanging from the rafters and statues standing in the plaza of the KFC Yum! Center.  All three are members of the 30-man All-Time ABA Team selected in 1997.  The Colonels finished as the ABA’s all-time franchise wins leader with a 448-296 record for a winning percentage of .602 (55-46/.545 in the playoffs), along with two division titles (’72 and ’75), the ’75 ABA Championship and two more ABA Finals appearances (’71 and ’73); more wins and a better winning percentage than the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets or San Antonio Spurs, all of whom became established NBA franchises.  Only the Pacers appeared in more ABA Finals.  The Colonels finished 36-42 in their first year and never had another losing season and made the playoffs all nine years of their existence.

Fan support was strong with the Colonels averaging 7860 fans per game after moving to Freedom Hall for the 1970-71 season.  Over their six years in Freedom Hall, only the Indiana Pacers (8144) drew more fans per game.  Average attendance for the Colonels outpaced the San Antonio Spurs (7386), the New York Nets (7231),  the Utah Stars (7098) and the Denver Nuggets (6205).  Average NBA attendance over the same time period was 8684.  Freedom Hall also drew 15,738 for the 1972 ABA All-Star Game, not far off from the 17,214 who showed up at the Forum in Los Angeles for the 1972 NBA All-Star Game.  In the context of the times, fan support was very strong; stronger than three of the four teams that were merged into the NBA.  Louisville fans can only imagine what might have been.

Since the Colonels’ 1975 title and their subsequent demise in 1976, there has been no major professional sports franchise in Louisville, although like the dark period between 1926-1967, Louisville has dabbled with minor league baseball (successfully), and minor league basketball, ice hockey and soccer (unsuccessfully).

In the absence of professional sports, the city has developed a fanatical following for collegiate sports.  Since the Colonels’ departure, the University of Louisville claimed the 1980 and ’86 NCAA Championships.  They also made the Final Four during the Colonels’ championship year (’75) and additional appearances in ’82, ’83, ’05 and ’12.  While the Cardinals maintain fantastic support in Louisville, they don’t unify the entire community as the University of Kentucky maintains about a 33% fan base in Jefferson County while Indiana University and others claim an additional 10%.  With all due respect to Duke-North Carolina, Auburn-Alabama, Texas-Oklahoma, Miami-Florida St., Harvard-Yale, et al, there is no more acrimonious rivalry amongst college programs in America than UK-UofL.  So as impressive as these titles are, they caused more arguments locally between UofL and UK fans than collective warm and fuzzy community moments.

Despite UK’s strong support in Louisville, the center of the Big Blue Nation lies squarely in Lexington so its titles in 1978, ’96, ’98 and ’12 do not resonate as strongly in Louisville and cause the same fractious community debate as UofL championships do.

The Louisville Redbirds/Bats claimed AAA minor league titles in 1984, ’85, ’95 and ’01 but hardly rallied the community together.  Bellarmine University captured the 2011 Division II basketball championship while Trinity High School pulled off an impressive feat last season being voted national football champions by numerous national polls.  But again, neither united the community.

Louisville's last national champions, the 2002 Valley Sports American Little League title team.

Realistically, the most exciting community-wide team sports moment since the 1975 Colonels was the 2002 Louisville Valley Sports American Little League champions.  That team rolled through state and regional play undefeated to advance to Williamsport.  From there, local excitement built as the team went undefeated in pool play to advance to the elimination round. By this time, people were skipping work and going to sports bars to watch the little guys play during the work week.  On Sunday, they defeated Sendai, Japan in the title game to win the championship.  The team finished 17-0 in its postseason march to the title and the team members were named Grand Marshals of the 2003 Kentucky Derby Festival Pegasus Parade.

As the world watches Miami celebrate its sixth professional sports title, Louisville sits back, watches and tries to remember distant glories, the 2002 Little League World Series title notwithstanding.  This is more disheartening when one considers Miami’s first professional franchise, the Miami Dolphins, was established in 1966–just a year before the Kentucky Colonels–and captured the city’s first title in 1972.  Since that time, the city has become home to another Super Bowl champion, two World Series champions and now two NBA champions.  During this same period, regional peer cities Charlotte, Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis, Memphis, Nashville and Raleigh have all welcomed new major professional sports franchises to their cities.

While Louisville has an impressive history of hosting championship events and a long list of local athletes who have impacted the national and international sports scenes, the 1975 ABA Championship represents the city’s only officially recognized professional team championship.  It’s difficult to explain the energy and excitement that builds when a hometown team starts advancing towards a championship.  Suddenly everyone is a fan and everyone is proud to call that place home.  Petty rivalries are cast aside and for once, everyone is rooting for the same team.  Oklahoma City almost experienced it this year.  Hopefully, Louisville will have the opportunity to experience it sometime down the road.  But we need a team first.

In the meantime, Louisville sports fans can only imagine what might have been.