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Swing for the Fences with a Trip to Louisville

Forget bourbon (just for a moment) and consider another theme for a visit to Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city: sports. 

A variety of iconic sports phrases have roots in Louisville. Consider “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Or perhaps you’ve heard, “It’s outta here! Another home run!” or “the fastest two minutes in sports.”

Those phrases come to life at the Muhammad Ali Center, the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, and the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs. The Ali Center and the Louisville Slugger Museum are barely four blocks apart in the center of the city, and Churchill Downs is just 15 minutes away.

Plan stops at all of these memorable sports attractions next time you bring a group to Louisville.

Remembering the Greatest

Boxing thrust Muhammad Ali onto the world stage, but the Ali Center is far more than a tribute to one of the most impressive stories in sports history. The facility delivers a full accounting of Ali’s boxing career and then delves deeply into the life of a man whose humanitarianism, outreach and example touched millions.

After a stirring biographical film provides an introduction, an exhibit about Ali’s “Red Bike Moment” illustrates how serendipity can change a life’s trajectory. 

When Ali was 12 — and then called Cassius Clay — a thief stole his new Schwinn bike. A tearful Clay reported the theft to a police officer and said he wanted to “whup” the thief. Officer Joe Martin, who trained boxers, encouraged Clay to learn how to box first. He trained Clay for six years. 

Consider Clay’s fate had his bike not been stolen, had he not met Martin and had he not developed his skill. No Olympic gold medal, no heavyweight championships, no resistance to war, no comfort for the afflicted in nations around the world.

The Ali Center illuminates Ali’s six core principles — confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. A walk through the center — accented by Ali’s famous quips and profound declarations — inspires admiration for Ali and prompts self-reflection.

An especially touching exhibit is a curved video screen showing a courageous, Parkinson’s-affected Ali carrying the Olympic torch to open the 1996 Atlanta Games — 36 years and an impactful lifetime after winning Olympic gold in Rome.

Swinging for the Fences

Finding your next tour stop is easy. Just look for the building on Main Street with a 120-foot-tall baseball bat sculpture out front. It’s an exact-scale replica of Babe Ruth’s 34-inch Louisville Slugger bat. It is steel, of course, instead of wood, and it weighs 34 tons.

Yes, the factory where the famous Louisville Slugger baseball bats are made is in the heart of downtown Louisville, and tours walk right through the production floor.

Your visit begins in a room populated with several life-size statues of famous players, all wielding Louisville Sluggers. Stand right beside Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Ken Griffey Jr. and other superstars for keepsake photos.

Company legend says it made its first professional bat in 1884 for Pete Browning. Browning played on the Louisville Eclipse baseball team, and the legend says Browning got three hits with that bat in his next game.

Almost no one remembers Pete Browning, but they do remember his nickname: the Louisville Slugger.

A video projected on a Jumbotron-size screen begins in the lush Pennsylvania forest where all Louisville Sluggers are born as ash, maple or birch trees. A tree bound for Louisville is straight, healthy and about 65 feet tall. Roughly 60 bats are hidden under the bark.

Extracting those bats is more complex than you might imagine. Major League Baseball players are quite precise about size, weight, grip and other factors. Some visit the factory to select the pieces of wood that will become their bats. Hall of Famer Ted Williams famously did that.

Once a season, players who swing Louisville Sluggers play with pink bats. It is a Mother’s Day initiative called “Going To Bat Against Breast Cancer,” which has raised more than $1 million for cancer research since 2006.

At the end of every tour, every visitor gets a miniature Louisville Slugger bat and the opportunity to visit a batting cage right there in the building and swing a real one. Plunk down $2 for 10 swings and hope that someone yells, “It’s outta here!”

Running for the Roses

Plunking down $2 is key to another Louisville sports attraction, Churchill Downs. A $2 bet there can turn into a fistful of dollars if you pick the right horse at the betting window.

The year’s biggest race day, of course, is the Kentucky Derby the first Saturday in May. Upward of 150,000 people pack this famed racetrack for “the fastest two minutes in sports.”

Tours on non-Derby days, of course, are more relaxed and probably more informative. The Kentucky Derby Museum offers several, and even the basic one wraps you in excitement and immerses you in history.

The core of every tour is “The Greatest Race,” an 18-minute film projected in high definition on an oval screen. Scenes pop all around you as you sit on a rotating stool in the middle of the theater. Quiet moments of horses in their stalls suddenly give way to the thunder of the Derby — and you’re sitting in the very middle of the track.

After the movie, a guide leads you into the stands and to the track’s edge. The famous spires are just down the way, and it is easy to imagine the seats filled with expectant race fans. Less easy to imagine are thousands of people filling the infield. They depend on a massive video screen three times the size of an NBA basketball court to see any action, according to the tour guide.

Back in the museum, a substantial “Black Heritage in Racing” exhibit tells the poignant story of how Black jockeys and trainers were central to the Derby’s early years (12 Black jockeys rode Derby winners, but the last was in 1902), but they were mostly pushed aside by Jim Crow laws and attitudes. 

The first Kentucky Derby was in 1875, and Churchill Downs is gearing up for the 150th race in 2024. A museum and track tour before then will make the 150th “Run for the Roses” all the more notable to Louisville visitors.