When the Greensboro Grasshoppers’ beloved black Labrador retriever Miss Babe Ruth retired from her duties as the team’s bat girl last season, she solidified her place as a local legend in North Carolina. Only a handful of minor league teams across the country employ dogs as ball and bat retrievers, and Miss Babe Ruth left her mark. The bucket she used to carry balls to the umpire even went to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
As major and minor league baseball players begin Spring Training this week, the team’s general manager Donald Moore must replace the bat-fetching and ball-carrying wünderhound Babe. First he looked to Babe’s younger brother, Master Yogi Berra. “He is smart, but his whole focus is retrieving balls,” Moore says. “He can’t fetch bats, he just wants to play catch.” That wasn’t the worst of it. On a trial run a few seasons ago, he had a little accident. “Yogi has got to be the only player ejected from a game for relieving himself. The umpire threw him out for doing number two in center field.” Strike-out for the friendly black Lab.
So Moore looked to another dog, one who has helped out on the field from time to time. From the same bloodline as Babe and Yogi comes Miss Lou Lou Gehrig. For the past couple years, Babe had been showing the younger Lou Lou her secrets—like how to run from base to base at the end of the game. So Moore called her up to the big leagues.
“It’s time for Lou Lou to go into spring training” Moore says. “She needs to get the rust off like the players do.”
This is where dog trainer Linwood O’Briant of Leatherwood Kennels in Winston-Salem comes in. He’s like a manager, umpire, and fan all in one. For the next five or six weeks, he’ll train Lou Lou to take over all Babe’s duties. Lou Lou needs consistency (retrieving foul balls from near the dugout), endurance (shuttling buckets of balls to the umpire), and strength (picking up bats between innings).
“Don’t tell her,” Moore says, “but she has a big couple of weeks ahead of her.”
O’Briant has been working to get Lou Lou calm under pressure. A few years ago, she was nervous around home field crowds and weekend fireworks, so the trainer tapped her hunting instinct.
“I train dogs for duck hunting, so what we did with Lou Lou was throw birds for her like a gun dog, and then we would shoot the shotgun. She loved it,” O’Briant says. “Then I took her to the ballpark. When they started shooting the fireworks, she perked up like she was out to get a duck. She was ready to go.”
Nerves calmed, Lou Lou is now ready for the more difficult task of understanding multiple commands. She’ll learn all the bases by name, and learn when and how to take extra balls to the umpire.
“It’s just like the athletes when they start getting themselves in shape,” O’Briant says. “We’ll start out at a slower pace until it clicks.”
Fans will have a chance to watch Lou Lou in action at seventy home games this season, starting with the opener against West Virginia on April 7.
And Master Yogi Berra will play a position that stays within his skill set—he’s the designated ball boy, says Moore. “He’ll just be carrying a ball around his mouth like a chew of tobacco.”