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Albrecht Stahmer: ‘The Curse of the Colonel’ still haunts Japan

by Albrecht Stahmer

The Colonel’s plunge into the river is still haunting Osaka after all these years ….

As March Madness television ratings will tell you, roundball is sporting royalty around these parts and the University of Louisville’s NCAA title further entrenched the Cardinals as kings of the local sports scene.

Yet despite this devotion to basketball, the city’s earlier sporting legacy was built squarely on horseracing, boxing and baseball.

While the Kentucky Derby and Muhammad Ali remain synonymous with the River City, Louisville’s Major League baseball history is long since forgotten.

The once proud National League Louisville Colonels folded in 1899 and the remaining players merged into the Pittsburgh Pirates, with professional baseball at the highest level never to return.

Despite more than a century without a big league team, the city has imprinted a surprising historical legacy on America’s past time.

When the 2013 season opened  this month, more than half of all players were swinging the official bat of Major League Baseball, the iconic Louisville Slugger manufactured at Hillerich & Bradsby’s downtown factory on West Main Street.

Stroll down Main Street along the Louisville Slugger Walk of Fame and you can see bronze cast replicas of bats swung by America’s most famous baseball players. The first stop celebrates Pete Browning, a deaf, mute, hard-drinking star slugger for the Colonels who also managed to combine baseball with one of Louisville’s other iconic products, bourbon, “I can’t hit the ball til I hit the bottle.”

After breaking his bat in the midst of a hitting slump during the 1884 season, Browning had a bat made for him by a 17-year-old woodworker named John A. “Bud” Hillerich, giving birth to the Louisville Slugger brand known throughout baseball today.

Browning would go on to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, largely on his body of work in Louisville. Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke also began their careers with the Colonels before ending up as the backbone of the Pittsburgh Pirates that captured the 1909 World Series.

The Colonels also lay claim to half a World Series title, drawing the Brooklyn Bridegrooms in the 1890 World Series with the series-deciding game being canceled due to weather and never being made up.

(Major League Baseball does not officially recognize World Series titles before 1903 as they were considered exhibitions before that).

Louisvillian Pee Wee Reese played his way into the Hall as the shortstop and captain for a later iteration of the Bridegrooms, the Brooklyn and then Los Angeles Dodgers. While his on-field performance punched his ticket to Cooperstown, Reese’s support of Jackie Robinson as he broke baseball’s color barrier and paved the way for integration earned him the admiration and respect from generations of fans long after he left the game.

Beloved in his hometown, a statue of Reese now stands in front of Louisville Slugger Field on East Main Street.

But Louisville’s baseball legacy does not end at American shores. Across the Pacific, the Hanshin Tigers call Osaka home, the second-largest city in Japan behind Tokyo.

The hapless Tigers could be considered a Far Eastern version of the Boston Red Sox (pre-2004 World Series title) with their failures on the field exacerbated by their arch-riva l— the big-budget, title-winning Yomiuri Giants in Tokyo (the Japanese equivalent of the evil empire, the New York Yankees).

Everything suddenly changed in 1985. While Americans were riding around in fuel efficient Japanese imports, the Tigers were riding the back of a power-hitting American import, Oklahoman Randy Bass.

Bass had been a journeyman outfielder who batted .212 over parts of six seasons with five different Major League teams before making his way to Japan at the age of 29 and blossoming into a superstar.

His ’85 season saw him win the Triple Crown and set the all-time single season batting mark (.389) while leading the Tigers to their first-ever Japan Series title.

Osaka went wild, especially after having had to endure watching arch-rival Yomiuri capture 16 Japan Series championships over the years. Fans congregated in the Dotonburi area of town, a local Bardstown Road-type area.

In their drunken revelry, those who facially resembled members of their beloved title-winning baseball team were encouraged to jump off the Ebisubashi Bridge into the Dotonbori River below.

One by one, fans deemed as doppelgangers threw themselves off the bridge and into the water … until it came to Bass. At 6-1, 210 pounds, fair-haired and bearded, the chances of finding a resemblance in the crowd of Japanese fans were extremely slim — less plausible than the Tigers actually winning a title.

The deliriously industrious fans came up with a solution. Outside the nearest KFC outlet stood a statue of a white-haired goateed Colonel Harlan Sanders welcoming passersby into his restaurant.

Tigers fans kidnapped the Colonel from his perch and hauled him off to the Ebisubashi Bridge and, in homage to Bass, away he went into the murky depths and muddy river bottom beyond.

The season and subsequent celebration appeared to have been an unmitigated success. However, unbeknownst to the fans above, the Colonel apparently stewed in the dirty waters below.

Despite Bass producing Hall of Fame worthy numbers over the next three seasons before retiring in 1988, the Tigers had returned to their losing ways. Frustrated fans wondered why the Tigers could not sustain their 1985 success and watched the Giants claim four more titles over the next 20 years.

After cash-strapped ownership traded away star player Babe Ruth to the rival New York Yankees back in 1920, the Boston Red Sox failed to win another title for the next 84 years while the Yankees went on to win 26 championships during the same span, including four during Ruth’s tenure. Fans blamed all of the losses, the ineptitude and the heartbreak squarely on the trade–the Curse of the Bambino.

As losses, ineptitude and heartbreak mounted in Osaka, fans eventually established a similar cause-and-effect scenario for all the failure. Clearly, Colonels Sanders was not happy about his unplanned swim with the fishes and hexed the team. The Curse of the Colonel was born.

After 22 seasons without a title, things seemed poised for a change in 2009. A work crew doing underwater construction stumbled across the long-departed Colonel a couple hundred yards downstream from where he’d gone into the river.

Though missing his eyeglasses and left hand, he was generally recognizable.

He was cleaned up and returned to KFC with almost ritualistic respect in hopes of reversing the curse.

Alas, nothing changed. The Tigers continued their losing ways while Yomiuri won the Japan Series that year and then again last season, their 22nd Japan Series title. One might assume the Colonel is still upset about his missing appendage and eyewear.

Perhaps the curse could be reversed if Randy Bass, now a state senator in Oklahoma, went back to Osaka and threw himself into the Dotonburi River to assuage the Colonel.

“We fully understand the story of our fans and the media talking humorously (about the Curse of the Colonel), however, unfortunately, we would like to decline official comment on this matter,” came the answer from the Hanshin Tigers PR staff when asked for comment.

“We will aim for victories in both league play and the Japan Series. Your continued support would be greatly appreciated,”

When contacted about the possibility, Bass ignored emails seeking comment.

Much like Louisville’s impact on baseball history, the Curse of the Colonel lives on.

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