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Remembering the Redbirds' first championship

October 7, 2014

This piece was written for and borrowed from

It was September 1984.

Nationally, the United States was still coming down from the high of the supremely successful Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, where one of the biggest stars was Louisville's own Mary T. Meagher (a.k.a. Madame Butterfly), while also preparing for a Presidential election.

Locally, one of Louisville's favorite sons, Pee Wee Reese, had been inducted into Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame a month earlier. Before Reese was a star with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, he got his start with the Louisville Colonels. The 1939 Colonels team he played on won the American Association title. Louisville would win eight more championships between 1940 and 1962. It would be 22 years, though, before the city produced another title team. This is a look back at that squad, the 1984 Louisville Redbirds, on the 30th anniversary of their first championship.


Baseball returns to Louisville

Despite being a hotbed for basketball Louisville has a rich baseball tradition as well. The city fielded a team that played in the National League from 1876 to 1899.

Minor league baseball arrived here three years later. The Colonels would stay here until the American Association folded in 1962. Baseball left Louisville for six years - although Charlie O. Finley tried to move the Kansas City A's here in 1964, but that was voted down by American League owners - before returning in 1968. The Colonels, then an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, played five seasons in the International League with teams that included future Sox stars Carlton Fisk, Dwight Evans, Cecil Cooper and Luis Tiant. The team relocated to Pawtucket, R.I., however, after the '72 season because the Kentucky State Fair Board announced that it was going to renovate Fairgrounds Stadium for football and therefore wouldn't be suitable for baseball.

Then in 1982 the Springfield Redbirds, the Triple-A affiliate of St. Louis Cardinals, moved to Louisville after the stadium was renovated for baseball in 1981. The city embraced the Redbirds, owned by A. Ray Smith, with open arms. Playing in the renamed Cardinal Stadium, the team broke the minor league attendance record, drawing 800,000 fans in 1982 (prompting a story in The Christian Science Monitor entitled, "Success of minor league baseball in Louisville boosts city's morale"), when it finished 73-62 and tied for second place in the division under manager Joe Frazier. That, however, was Frazier's only season as the team's skipper.  

Enter Jim Fregosi, a likable and outspoken character. The former six-time all-star had been named the manager of the California Angels in 1978 when he was only 36. He guided the team for three-plus seasons. Fregosi's 1979 squad, which featured future Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan, Rod Carew and Don Baylor, won the division title before losing to the Baltimore Orioles in the AL Championship Series. The team finished 65-95 the next year, though, after Ryan left for Houston and Fregosi was replaced in the first half of the '81 season. After Frazier was let go Cardinals Farm Director Lee Thomas brought in Fregosi to run the Redbirds.  

The cupboard was hardly bare for Fregosi when he took over. The 1983 team featured several future major leaguers, including Andy Van Slyke (albeit for only 54 games), Terry Pendleton (a future National League MVP), Tito Landrum, Rafael Santana and Todd Worrell. The Redbirds won the American Association regular-season title in Fregosi's first year while becoming the first minor league team to draw over 1 million fans in a single season. Louisville, which went 78-57 in the regular season, won its first-round playoff series before being swept 4-0 by the Denver Bears in the league championship.

The 1984 team had several holdovers from '83, including Pendleton, Tom Nieto, Jim Adduci, Bill Lyons, Jose Gonzalez (who later would change his name to Jose Uribe when he made it to the majors), Gene Roof, Ralph Citarella and Kevin Hagen, and also several key newcomers. Foremost among those were power hitter Gary Rajsich, pitchers Steve Baker and Mickey Mahler and a speedy outfielder named Vince Coleman.

Coleman, who had starred on the diamond (he set a Division I record in 1981 when he stole 65 bases in 69 attempts) and the football field (a punter/kicker he kicked a game-winning field goal against Miami in 1979) at Florida A&M, was a 10th round pick in the 1982 amateur draft. He played 58 games for the Cardinals' Rookie League team that year, stealing 43 bases in 46 attempts, before playing for the club's Class A affiliate in Macon (Ga.) in 1983. There Coleman set a minor league record with 145 stolen bases. That mark stood for 29 years before future Louisville Bat Billy Hamilton broke it in 2012.

With the remaining talent from the '83 team mixed with the newcomers, the Redbirds flourished. Two-thirds of the way through the season, which had been expanded from 136 to 154 games, they were 20 games over .500 (64-44) and atop the American Association.

However the July call-ups of Pendleton, Lyons, Nieto and Danny Cox took their toll on Louisville. The Redbirds lost 30 of 40 games late in the season and were fighting for their postseason lives the last weekend of the regular season.

The Redbirds beat Indianapolis 4-3 on Sept. 2 in front of 21,801 fans (many probably there in part to see The San Diego Chicken perform his fowl routine) on Roof's RBI single on the penultimate day of the regular season.

Roof was a Kentucky native. Born in Paducah he starred at St. Mary High School before being drafted by the Cardinals in the 12th round of the '76 amateur draft. Roof, an outfielder, rose through the organization quickly thanks in large part to his production at the plate. He hit .300 with two of the Cardinals' Rookie league teams in '77, then .303 two years later at Double-A Arkansas to earn a promotion to Springfield in 1980. Roof's average dropped a bit the next year (.258), but he hit a whopping .348 in '82. He thrived in his first two years in Louisville, hitting .306 in '82 and .309 in '83, earning brief promotions to the parent club in both those seasons. In September of '83, though, the Cardinals placed Roof on waivers and the Montreal Expos claimed him. He appeared in eight games at the end of the season for the Expos, going 2-for-12. Roof played two games with Indianapolis (Montreal's Triple-A team) at the start of the '84 season before returning to Louisville. That season was a memorable one for Roof, who led Louisville with a .302 batting average and drove in 64 runs. The biggest development in his life, though, came in early August when his first child, a son named Shawn, was born. However two days after his birth Shawn became ill, due to a serious spleen problem, and Roof rushed out of Cardinal Stadium to be with his wife and newborn son. Shawn Roof eventually recovered, as did the Redbirds.


From play-in to playoffs

Indianapolis edged Louisville 2-1 on the final day of the regular season to drop the Redbirds into a tie for fourth-place (at 78-76, 13 games behind the league champion Indians) with the Wichita Aeros. The two teams played a one-game playoff the next day, Tuesday, Sept. 4, at Cardinal Stadium for the final playoff spot. 

Behind a superb pitching performance from Rick Ownbey, who tossed a complete-game shutout and struck out 11, Louisville won 3-0 to advance to the playoffs.

"We had a lot of changes in personnel," Fregosi told The Courier-Journalafter the game. "Some things happened, and it added up to a lot of highs and lows.

"What these guys deserve credit for, though, is battling their tails off. They went through good and bad and kept an even temperament. When you see a bunch of guys rise to the occasion, you're proud of them. I'm just very proud of every guy on this team."

A bloop RBI-single by Glenn Brummer, who was down on a rehab assignment from the Cardinals (he was recalled the next day), gave Louisville the only run it would need. Coleman added a solo home run and Rajsich added an RBI-single. Coleman, who led the Association in stolen bases (101) and runs scored (97) while hitting .257 with 48 RBIs during the regular season, and Rajsich, who hit .286 with 29 home runs and 95 RBIs, were named to the American Association all-star team, along with Gonzalez (who hit .279 with 46 RBIs).

"What you've seen the last week or so is just characteristic of this team's attitude," Rajsich told the C-J after the game. "We got a little down for a while, but now you can feel the energy. Guys are picking each other up again. If anybody here is thinking about going to the major leagues, I'm unaware of it. It's always fun to win, wherever you are. There's no joy to being an also-ran."

The Redbirds had little time to rejoice after the victory, though. The next day they began a best-of-seven series in Indianapolis against the Indians. Indy had won 91 games - 11 more than the second-place Iowa Cubs - to easily capture the league's regular-season title. Louisville, however, had had the Indians' number that year, beating them 15 times in 22 meetings.

The Redbirds carried the momentum from the play-in game, as well as their regular-season success against the Indians, into Bush Stadium and beat Indy 5-1 and 1-0 in the first two games of the series.

Southpaw Mahler, an MLB journeyman who had already played for the Braves, Pirates and Angels and had gone 8-12 on the mound during the regular season for the Redbirds, threw a complete-game 4-hitter while Adduci had three RBIs and Gonzalez hit a stand-up, inside-the-park home run in Game 1 on Sept. 5, the day the Space Shuttle Discovery landed after its maiden voyage. 

The next night Baker tossed a 3-hit complete-game shutout and struck out seven in front of only 856 fans. Glenn Gulliver's 2-out RBI-single in the fourth scored Adduci with Game 2's only run.

The Indians finally won a game the next day, blanking the Redbirds 6-0 before the series shifted to Louisville.

Back at Cardinal Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 8 (the same day Martina Navratilova outlasted Chris Evert Lloyd in three sets to win the U.S. Open women's final), the Redbirds blasted Indy 10-0 behind three hits from Roof and four RBIs from Gulliver to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.

The next day, Sunday, Sept. 9 (a day Walter Payton rushed for 179 yards in the Chicago Bears' 27-0 blanking of the Denver Broncos), the Redbirds took a 6-5 lead into the ninth inning. The Indians, however, rallied for a pair of runs to win the game. Roof committed Louisville's third error of the game to help Indy's comeback.

"We just did not really catch the --- balls," a less than happy Fregosi told the C-J after the game.

On Monday, Sept. 10, the day Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro visited Lexington, Louisville beat the Indians 2-1 to win the series. Mahler tossed a complete-game 5-hitter, while Coleman's sixth-inning solo home run gave the Redbirds the win in the game, and the series. It was the 14th game between the two teams decided by one run and it was Louisville's 10th triumph in those games.

"You know I'm up there looking to hit a line drive and run the bases," Coleman told the C-J. "But somehow the ball got up in the air for me. It was a fortunate thing because the way Mickey was pitching that lead dictated the game."

Next up for the Redbirds was Denver, the farm team of the Chicago White Sox. The third-seeded Bears had beaten the Iowa Cubs 4-1 in the other semifinal series. Denver, which had finished one game ahead of the Redbirds in the regular season, had beaten Louisville 13 times in 22 meetings during the regular season. To possibly make things more difficult was the fact that the Redbirds faced the Bears (who would become the Zephyrs one year later) without Gonzalez, who was recalled by the Cardinals after the series-clincher against Indy to replace star shortstop Ozzie Smith, who faced an appeal hearing after receiving a 7-game suspension for bumping an umpire.


The finals: 'Birds vs. Bears

Denver came to Louisville and won the first game, 6-5, to take a 1-0 lead in the series.

The next day, Sept. 12 - a day when Jack Nicklaus was in town to see how work was coming on the new local golf course he was designing called Valhalla, as well as the day a skinny kid named Michael Jordan signed with the Chicago Bulls - the Redbirds beat the Bears 4-2 behind a strong start from Citarella. The right-hander gave up one unearned run on six hits in six innings.

"It had to be Ralph tonight, and if he couldn't go I was faced with a choice between two writers, you or the guy from the other paper," Fregosi told the C-J's Mike Sullivan after the game.

The next night Jack Ayer's walk-off (before it was called a "walk-off) two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth lifted Louisville to a 5-4 win and a 2-1 series lead. 

"I have dreams about situations like this," Ayer told the C-J. "Then it really happens, and you're overwhelmed by it. The fans are the ones I'd really like to thank. They've done so much for us all year."

The series shifted to Denver and Mile High Stadium (the future home of the Colorado Rockies), where Louisville went 3-8 during the regular season.

The high altitude did wonders for the Redbirds' bats.

On Friday, Sept. 14 - the day news broke in Louisville that the city was going to host a Presidential debate between Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan and didn't-have-a-chance Democratic nominee Walter Mondale at the Kentucky Center for the Arts in early October - Dave Clements' three-run home run in the sixth gave the Redbirds a 6-5 win and a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.

Then on Saturday, Sept. 15 - the day Prince Harry was born to England's Prince Charles and Lady Di and five days before a little TV show called 'The Cosby Show' premiered - the Redbirds rode three home runs (two by Rajsich and one by Ayer) to a 10-8 triumph in their 66th consecutive day without a day off. Rajsich - despite a fracture in his foot - hit two two-run homers and Ayer launched a three-run homer in the fifth that put the Redbirds ahead for good. Jeff Keener picked up his second save of the series (he also had a win in relief) to finish off the Bears.

"We deserve it," Roof told the C-J. "Our manager never gave up on us. I'm not ashamed to win the thing. Denver flashed 'champions' on the scoreboard when they eliminated us here last year. They didn't do it tonight. That's weak."

In the final series Coleman went 7-for-20 at the plate with a double, five stolen bases and three runs scored and also made several spectacular catches in the outfield. 

"We held together because the older guys never let the young guys get down or quit," he told the C-J. "It could have gone either way during that bad spell, and the veterans set the tone."

It was quite a finish for the Redbirds, who went 12-5 over their final 17 games while hitting 17 home runs and receiving seven complete-game efforts from their pitchers.

"In 22 years I've had a lot of teams more talented - except for pitching - but none with so much heart," Smith said.



  • Gonzalez went 4-for-19 in his call-up with the Cardinals, but with Smith still in his prime Gonzalez was expendable, so on Feb. 1, 1985 he, David Green, Dave LaPoint and Rajsich were traded to the San Francisco Giants for Jack Clark. Uribe played 10 seasons in the majors. His best was '87, when he hit .291. Tragically, Uribe died in 2006 when he crashed his SUV in his home country, the Dominican Republic.
  • Coleman went on to become the 1985 NL Rookie of the Year, stealing 110 bases that season for the Cardinals. He led the league in stolen bases in each of his first six seasons and would be a two-time all-star in his career.
  • Roof would only play 17 games for the Redbirds in '85 and would never play in the majors again. He retired in 1987. Roof became a minor league manager a couple of years later before becoming the Detroit Tigers' first base coach from 1992-95. Later he guided the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens from 1997-99. More importantly, his son Shawn, went on to lead a healthy life. He played five years of minor league baseball (2007-12), getting as high as Toledo in 2010.
  • With a lot of the same players (Rajsich, Joe Pettini, Ayer, Curt Ford, Lyons, Ownbey, Hagen), as well as some new blood (Jose Oquendo, Tom Pagnozzi, Worrell), the Redbirds won their second straight American Association title in 1985. They would win one more Association championship in 1995 managed by Pettini (a key member of the '84 title team). In 1998, after the Association folded, Louisville became affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers and changed their nickname to the RiverBats in '99. The team moved into Louisville Slugger Field in 2000, the same year it began its affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds, and won the Governor's Cup title in 2001 in a final series shortened to one game because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The next year the team shortened its nickname to the Bats.
  • After Fregosi guided the Redbirds to their second straight Association title he was hired to manage the Chicago White Sox during the 1986 season. He was let go in 1988, but hired by three years later by the Philadelphia Phillies. In 1993 he guided the Phillies (an eclectic team that included Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk, Darren Daulton, Curt Schilling and Mitch Williams) won the NL pennant before losing 4-2 to the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series thanks to Joe Carter's series-ending home run in Game 6. Fregosi was fired by the Phillies three years later. Fregosi returned to manage the Blue Jays in 1999 and 2000, which produced this gem, before he was let go. He died on Valentine's Day this year after suffering multiple strokes while on an MLB alumni cruise.
  • Smith sold the Redbirds in 1986 to Dan Ulmer and a group of local businessmen. Last week the local owners sold a majority interest in the team to Manhattan Capital Sports Acquisition LLC.