By Dan Schlossberg
The imitation is never as good as the original.
Since I created, coordinated and hosted the first baseball theme cruise in 1981, many others – including quite a few teams – have tried to copy my concept.
Even former pitcher Stan Bahnsen has gotten into the act. But doing it right is like finding the secret formula for Coca-Cola.
That’s why I was so pleased when the American Queen Steamboat Co., which runs a paddlewheel steamboat on the rivers of Mid-America, asked me to organize two baseball theme cruises for mid-summer.
The back-to-back 2013 "Baseball Legends" cruises run from St. Louis to Cincinnati (July 20-27) and Cincinnati to Pittsburgh (July 27-Aug. 1), with all passengers spending a pre-cruise night at a hotel in the originating city.
Nobody gets seasick or stranded; like Sid Bream, the American Queen is not known for its speed. It is always close to shore and can pull over whenever necessary. In fact, it stops at a different port virtually every day.
Headlining guests on the first cruise are Ron Blomberg, marking the 40th anniversary of the designated hitter; Art Shamsky, one of many heroes on the 1969 Miracle Mets; and former umpire Al Clark, subject of our forthcoming book Nothing to Hide: My Journey from the Big Leagues to the Big House.
Blomberg, who became the first DH in baseball history on April 6, 1973, not only wrote about that experience in our book Designated Hebrew: the Ron Blomberg Story but outmanaged Shamsky to win the only pennant in the short-lived Israel Baseball League. When they appeared together at an American Jewish Historical Society event in New York several weeks ago, Blomberg told a packed house that “the Yankees always beat the Mets.”
Ex-Yankees Jay Johnstone and Fritz Peterson, who also produced books after leaving the game, and Al Clark highlight the second cruise, a five-night voyage hosted by memorabilia expert Bruce Campbell.
According to Campbell, “A baseball cruise is much better than a card show because fans get to share common experiences, like dining, shows and shore excursions with their baseball idols. I know all the players on the American Queen cruises, and they love to be with people and share their baseball memories.”
My memories of baseball theme cruises include trying to teach Stan Musial to fly a kite, watching him entertain passengers with napkin tricks at the dinner table and hearing him play ‘The Wabash Cannonball’ on his harmonica. I also discovered that soft-spoken Carl Erskine, trained in classical harmonica, was so good that the ship’s band played along with him.
Sitting next to Pepper Paire Davis, inspiration for the Geena Davis character in A League of Their Own, was also a treasured experience stashed in the memory bank. She cried during the closing credits, explaining that many of her friends had passed away. Since then, so has she, unfortunately.
During the 2013 program, passengers on both cruises will receive limited-edition posters, suitable for signing, and Louisville Slugger mini-bats inscribed with the American Queen logo and the words ‘2013 Baseball Legends Cruise.’
Each cruise will also include a photo-and-autograph party, question-and-answer session, trivia contest with prizes, private talks by the stars, baseball movies and more.
The seven-night cruise stops at Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Paducah, Henderson and Louisville, Ky.; and Madison, Ind. A tour of the Louisville Slugger Museum and on-board lectures by the museum’s PJ Shelley are also on the schedule.
Itinerary for the second cruise includes Maysville, Ky.; Point Pleasant, W.Va.; Marietta, Ohio; and Wheeling, W.Va.
The American Queen, the largest passenger steamboat ever built, traverses the same waterways familiar to Mark Twain. Company co-chairman Jeffrey D. Krida says it blends 19th century design with 21st century comfort. The American Queen has a gym, pool, theater, and ballroom featuring nightly shows and dancing. A “riverlorian” gives daily lectures on the history of the river.
There is no charge to passengers for the pre-cruise hotel night, shore excursions, beer and wine with dinner, coffee and soft drinks, plus breakfast, porterage and transfers from hotel to boat.
On this year’s celebrity roster, only Johnstone has joined one of my two-dozen previous baseball cruises. That long list includes, in alphabetical order, Ralph Branca, Roger Craig, Davis, Erskine, Darrell Evans, Bob Feller, Ernie Harwell, Monte Irvin, Larry Jansen, Ferguson Jenkins, Jim Kaat, Clyde King, Clem Labine, Eddie Mathews, Gary Matthews, Lindy McDaniel, Musial, Gene Oliver, Brooks Robinson, Enos Slaughter, Red Schoendienst, Jeff Torborg, Johnny VanderMeer, Bill White and Billy Williams.
There’s a pretty good All-Star team right there, although a number of my fellow travelers have moved up to the great clubhouse in the sky.
Some of the ships are gone, too, including the Queen Elizabeth 2, Veracruz, Queen of Bermuda, and the Mississippi Queen. Time marches on but good ideas don’t disappear. And the baseball theme cruise is one of them.
To book the "Baseball Legends" cruise on the American Queen this summer, call (888) 749-5280 or visit www.AmericanQueenSteamboatCompany.com. Mention the words "Travel Itch" when booking and receive a savings of up to $850 per cabin.
Long-time SCD columnist Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, N.J., is baseball editor of LatinoSports.com, ‘Rotation’ writer for USA TODAY Sports Weekly, and author of 35 baseball books. His e-mail is email@example.com.