Louisville has a history in baseball.
Home of the Louisville Slugger, the city has also hosted several teams of Colonels and Eclipses, the negro league from the White Sox to today’s Louisville Bats.
Photos acquired by the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory in 2018 helped curators uncover a team lost to history: the Louisville Unions.
These photos have been enlarged to take up the space of an entire wall. Three images show the Unions players in various poses, ready to play. Between the sepia images are plaques containing information detailing the discovery and the team’s history. Large white letters read: “The Greatest Black Baseball Team You’ve Never Heard Of”.
When museum curator Bailey Mazik first received the photos in 2018she thought they were Louisville White Sox players, but upon closer inspection, the details began to paint a different picture.
“Bailey started doing a lot of extensive research, including looking very meticulously at the backs of these photographs where there was handwritten information,” said John Hughes, assistant director of tours at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory.
Mazik managed to improve the faded handwriting enough to get a date, February 22, 1909. This predates the existence of the black leagues by over a decade and the creation of the Louisville White Sox by even longer.
Using more clues from the photos, including a bourbon distillery in the background, Mazik was able to discover that the Unions were playing at a lot on 28th and Broadway in Louisville’s West End.
Jack Peterson is a museum tour guide, Louisville native and lifelong baseball fan. He, like many, had never heard of unions, but was happy to find out who they were.
“Any time you find stuff that’s been lost like this story, it’s really cool that it doesn’t get lost and comes back into people’s minds,” Peterson said.
Mazik took the information she had and went digging to find even more.
Newspaper reports from the time revealed more information about the team. Museum staff were able to learn the names and positions of some of the players, but they also got a glimpse of how their matches went.
Not only did the Unions play other black teams in the area, they also played white teams, which Hughes said was unusual at the time.
According to Courier Journal reports, the unions were good. Very well.
“They were such a good team that sometimes white teams would bring in special players to play against them. Pitchers, because they thought it would give them a better chance of winning games,” Hughes said.
The Louisville unions are not just an important black story, according to Hughes, but an important baseball story.
“It’s important that we remember these things, that we don’t forget what it was like and the experiences these guys had,” Peterson said.
The unions and the league they were playing in at the time began to establish what would become the black leagues.
“Having our own team that was part of this development story is very exciting,” said Hughes. “Not every city can boast of it.”
Beyond bringing to light a lost history, Hughes hopes the exhibit can help the museum track down some of the Union players’ descendants. He also hopes the legacy can help baseball continue to diversify its players and fans.
Since the exhibit opened early last year, visitors have been just as surprised by the find as museum staff were initially.
Kai Anderson saw the exhibit on Saturday.
“It makes me wonder what else we haven’t heard of,” Anderson said.
The exhibition “The Best Black Baseball Team You’ve Never Heard Of” will run until the end of 2022. It is part of the Unfiltered Truth Collection that several museums in the region are participating in during the Month of black history. Visitors can get a special presentation on the exhibition throughout the day every Saturday.