Louisville, Ky. — To paraphrase Mark Twain's words, those reports we've heard from time to time about the demise of minor league baseball have been a bit exaggerated. Not only did Denver set a single game attendance record this year, but the Louisville Redbirds broke the all-time season mark which had stood since the post-World War II baseball boom.
In accomplishing the latter feat, the transplanted top farm club of the St. Louis Cardinals drew 868,418 fans, easily surpassing the previous record of 670, 563 set by the old San Francisco Seals in 1946.
One factor, to be sure, was that pro baseball was returning after an absence of nine years to a city which has a long and proud tradition in the game. But that attendance figure is pretty impressive under any circumstances - far more, for instance, than ever achieved by cities like Los Angeles, Montreal, Atlanta, Kansas City, and Milwaukee when they were in the minor leagues.
The degree of public enthusiasm is further illustrated by the fact that the season attendance exceeded the total population of the city and surrounding Jefferson County as shown by the 1980 census. Such performances are rare even in the majors.
The ''Louisville Phenomenon,'' as it's being called in baseball circles, came at a significant juncture for this 204-year-old city on the Ohio River. Unemployment had been in double digits for months, major local employers such as General Electric and International Harvester announced massive layoffs, and the community was recently ranked 11th in the nation for its dirty air.
Still lingering under the surface is widespread discontent over court-ordered school busing, which sparked violent protests seven years ago and contributed to the massive defeat earlier this year of a tax referendum designed to raise money for the public schools.
Baseball, observers agree, has given some 700,000 residents of the community a breath of fresh air amid all of the negative news.
''We must have the best fans in the world,'' says Daniel C. Ulmer Jr., a local bank president who was the driving force behind the effort to bring pro baseball back.
''Originally, we would have been happy to have beaten the old Louisville attendance record of 355,000,'' he adds. ''Even if we never come close to the record again, this will give the fans something to hold onto for years.''
Oil and gas magnate A. Ray Smith of Tulsa, Okla., moved his Redbirds to Louisville from Springfield, Ill., after a costly out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit brought by city fathers in the Illinois capital. Initially, he told reporters he would be satisfied with a draw of 350,000 fans in his new Kentucky home. He says the explosion in fan support is ''beyond my comprehension.''
Smith attributes it to the locals' hunger for a pro team of their own, competitive prices in which the costliest seat goes for only $3.50, ''superb'' media coverage in the area, and a ''pretty good ball team on the field.'' The team finished second in the Eastern Division of the Class AAA American Association, the highest level of minor league baseball.
The most important feature in launching the project of bringing baseball back to Louisville was the drive led by Ulmer in which the public and private sectors combined to raise more than $4 million to renovate the town's 25-year-old stadium and equip it with AstroTurf and a computerized scoreboard.
''We now have a preeminent position in minor league baseball and we know what can be done for other projects'' involving public-private cooperation, Ulmer says.
Aside from breaking the attendance record, the baseball played at Cardinal Stadium also attracted considerable attention to the Redbirds. Designated hitter Mike Calise hit home runs in eight straight games in which he appeared. That matched the major league record set by Dale Long in 1956, and baseball executives say it will stand as the minor-league standard until proven otherwise.
Less known is the fact that before he died last June, Hall of Fame legend Satchell Paige had been set to come here as a Redbirds vice-president, a role he had filled in the past.
The ''Louisville Phenomenon'' has been celebrated beyond sporting circles. The ABC television network flew Smith, manager Joe Frazier, and pitcher Dyar Miller to New York for an appearance on ''Good Morning, America,'' and other national media have also picked up the story.
''I've read about what's been going on in Louisville and I think it's amazing ,'' New York Mets manager George Bamberger said recently. ''If Louisville keeps drawing all those people, maybe we'll see a big league club there some day.''
But unlike his counterparts in Denver, where 65,666 fans turned out for one game this year, Smith professes no big-league aspirations. It's better to be kingfish of the minors, he feels, than a relatively small fish in the crowded and expensive ranks of the majors.
Before he sells the franchise to local interests and goes back to Oklahoma three or four years hence, however, Smith hopes to spark a movement to bring more ''progressive'' ideas to baseball management.
Among them is the inauguration of a ''Pan-American Series'' between champions of the Mexican League and American Association. He believes such a series would be popular with the fans and a big revenue-producer as well with the advent of cable televison.
Smith says he's often been in the minority in favoring innovations because many baseball owners resist change. But his clout figures to be on the upswing since the ''Louisville Phenomenon'' has given other owners a chance to ''get a taste of some of that Kentucky green stuff.''