Batter up: History of Center's Slugger collection

(Jan. 21, 2016) LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Autographed bat display features lineup of Center's Distinguished Speaker Series.
Batter up: History of Center's Slugger collection

McConnell Center Director Gary Gregg presents President George W. Bush a personalized Louisville Slugger bat.

The McConnell Center may not have autographs from actual baseball players, but we do have an impressive stock of autographed Louisville Sluggers. From U.S. Vice President Biden to former U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner, we foster a proud tradition of having our Distinguished Speakers sign a bat for our collection.

It all started unintentionally.

As a life-long baseball fan, I knew when I came to Louisville in 2000 that I somehow wanted to incorporate the Louisville Slugger into the McConnell Center’s programming. One of the first major speakers I was able to host at the Center was West Virginia’s legendary Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who delivered an important lecture on the history and operation of the U.S. Senate.

We purchased a personalized Louisville Slugger for Sen. Byrd, and student Scott Jennings (who would later go on to work in the George W. Bush White House) presented it to him as a gift from the McConnell Scholars. However, Sen. Byrd had made it pretty clear that he was not a sports fan, viewing them as a distraction from work of consequence.

Not wanting to offend the senator, I offered to take it back. He graciously replied, “If the students would enjoy it, then by all means, please take it back to them.”

I asked Sen. Byrd if he would consider signing it for us. He agreed to autograph the Slugger if I helped him. I held the bat down with both hands as the legend of the Senate added a signature that started a tradition.

Ever since that moment, the McConnell Center has purchased two bats for each major speaker: one for them to take as a gift and one for them to sign and keep for our Scholars. Our collection now sports autographed bats on display outside Ekstrom Library's Chao Auditorium.

Our collection includes bats signed by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and former Secretaries of State Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton. We boast Sluggers autographed by former presidential candidate John McCain and former vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman. Columnist and baseball writer George Will signed a bat during his visit with us, as did Doris Kearns Goodwin, a New York Times bestselling author and life-long Red Sox fanatic. We are proud to have shared a rich history with such a diverse group of individuals, and we hope to continue the tradition.

For those of us not born and bred in Kentucky, our first knowledge of Louisville came from the name on the barrel of our favorite bat. It only seems appropriate that we give our special guests their own Slugger to remember their time in Louisville. We hope you will stop by our display as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the McConnell Center. Batter up!

Gary L. Gregg, PhD, director of the McConnell Center