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A three-sport trifecta in Louisville
By Tom Adkinson
September 16, 2022



Kentucky Derby
The crowd at a Kentucky Derby pushes 150,000. Tours of Churchill Downs are comfortably smaller. Image by Louisville Tourism

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky – Three of the most famous phrases in sports have roots in Louisville, and it’s easy to tie them together, even if you have only a short while to spend in this historic city along the Ohio River.

• The fastest two minutes in sports
• It’s outta here! It’s a home run
• Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee

You can learn what’s behind those famous one-liners at the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs, the Louisville Slugger Museum and the Muhammad Ali Center.


kentucky derby museum
A video attraction in the Kentucky Derby Museum lets you pretend to be a skilled jockey on a powerful Thoroughbred horse. Image by Tom Adkinson
 

Of course, the fastest two minutes in sports are the Kentucky Derby, the event that draws the world’s attention the first Saturday in May. Upwards of 150,000 people pack into Churchill Downs for the storied race, but you can sense the thrill of the Derby under much calmer conditions by visiting the Kentucky Derby Museum other days of the year.

louisville slugger museum
A 120-foot-tall baseball bat that is an exact-scale replica of Babe Ruth’s bat leads you to the Louisville Slugger Museum. Image by Louisville Tourism
 

The museum offers several tours, and the highlight of all of them is an 18-minute film called “The Greatest Race.”

To view this movie, you sit on rotating stools in the middle of an oval room while scenes from the big race pop up all around you. Early scenes are quiet – even relaxing – until the gates burst open and almost two dozen powerful Thoroughbreds thunder right at you.

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 to see any action, according to the tour guide.

The first Kentucky Derby was in 1875, and the museum’s “Black Heritage in Racing” exhibit tells the poignant story of how Black jockeys and trainers were central to the Derby’s early years. A Black jockey won the first Derby, and 11 more followed him. However, the last was in 1902, after which Black jockeys were mostly pushed aside by Jim Crow laws and attitudes.

babe ruth
You can stand next to life-size figures of Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and others and take souvenir photos at the Louisville Slugger Museum. Image by Tom Adkinson


There’s no problem finding the Louisville Slugger Museum in the heart of downtown. It’s in the only building 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 weighs 34 tons.

The company museum is inside, but more importantly, so is the factory where Louisville Sluggers are made. 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 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 museum video 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.

Everyone gets a miniature Louisville Slugger bat after the tour and the opportunity to swing a real one in a batting cage. Two dollars gets you 10 swings.


muhammad ali center
The bold statements and memorable facial expressions of Muhammad Ali make the Ali Center come to life. Image by Tom Adkinson


The Muhammad Ali Center obviously highlights the boxing career of the Louisville native, but more importantly, it delves deeply into the life of a man whose humanitarianism, outreach and example touched millions.


muhammad ali red bike
One of the Ali Center’s greatest stories is about Ali’s “Red Bike Moment” and how it changed his life. Image by Tom Adkinson


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 told 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.


Trip-planning resources: ChurchillDowns.com, SluggerMuseum.com, AliCenter.org, and GoToLouisville.com


(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available on Amazon.com.



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