“Opening Day is the best day of the year; it’s a national holiday in my world,” said Jodi Ayres, who co-owns the Lowbrow bar and restaurant in Kingfield with her wife, Heather Bray. “Heather grew up a Cubs fan, I grew up a Twins fan, so on Opening Day we have our traditions. We usually watch a couple games, make hot dogs, do it up.”
Thursday’s Opening Day—the earliest in major league baseball history—won’t be the same for Ayres this year. On March 22, before the Lowbrow opened its doors, she got emotional when talking about the birth of the Lowbrow’s baseball card bar-top, which happened in part thanks to her baseball-loving father, Glenn Ayres, who passed away Feb. 27 after battling Alzheimer’s.
“I’ve been obsessed with baseball since I was a little kid,” said Jodi, as a framed photo of her playing Little League baseball and portraits of Mudcat Grant, Jackie Robinson and Harmon Killebrew hovered on a shelf above her shoulder. “My dad loved baseball. He and I had Twins season tickets in 1986, at the height of my baseball mania. They were really bad that year. He took me to 50 games and by the end of the season it was like 1,500 people in the dome, and he suffered through all of them with me.”
She pointed to a vintage Topps Harmon Killebrew card that rests almost ceremoniously in the center of the bar.
“My dad grew up a Twins fan, he was a huge Harmon Killebrew fan, so that one is special. That’s the only really valuable card,” she said. “The rest are just fun to look at.
“I think my dad fell in love with it again because I did, and it was a thing that we shared. He loved playing catch with [me], and I got really into collecting cards. I was a really quiet kid, and I think baseball lends itself to introspective kids, because there’s all the stats and the stories.
“He had one of those classic stories about how his mom threw away his baseball card collection when he went to college, so I never got any of his cards, which was totally brutal for me. But I had a great-uncle who gave me some of the old ones in the bar.”
The Lowbrow’s 8-year-old bar-top is made up of Ayres’ personal collection of baseball cards, preserved forever and for beer-y conversation under glass (hard epoxy resin, actually). The Lowbrow isn’t a sports bar, but the bar-top is a slice of vintage Americana that gives the joint character and originality.
“It’s definitely very lo-fi; anytime people comment on it, I get really excited,” she said. “We worked on opening this spot for six years, so we would always dream about what we’d want to do. We did it on a total shoestring budget. We didn’t have a lot of money for a lot of nice finishes or anything; bar-tops can be tens of thousands of dollars.
“I really wanted to incorporate baseball into the feel of this place in some way, just because it’s so reminiscent to me of sitting at a bar with my dad when I was a little kid and watching a game and talking to people about it. That was kind of the vibe I wanted to bring in to the place, so it just occurred to me one day that I could cover ‘em. I originally thought they could be covered in glass, but the designer said, ‘You should get someone to pour epoxy over them.’ So that’s what we did.
“It was so scary to do. Heather and I laid out all these cards by hand and stuck ‘em in with glue sticks. We had one night to do it, he was coming to pour epoxy over it in the morning, we were here until 2 a.m. to and it was like, ‘One shot, it’s gotta work, or they’re all destroyed.’ I had to leave. I was, ‘You guys just pour it, I can’t watch.’ And I came back, and it had dried really well.”
Ayres’ passion for baseball and its preservationist history started early. She grew up in the Roseville-Arden Hills neighborhoods of St. Paul, and played T-ball and baseball (second base) until graduating from Mounds Park Academy in 1991.
“I wanted to be the first woman in the major leagues; that was my goal from 5 until 13,” she said. “I played Little League and on the guys team in high school. They were great to me. We had to petition the Minnesota State High School League and argue that baseball and softball aren’t comparable sports, and that’s the rule: If the sports aren’t comparable, then girls are allowed to compete with guys, and vice-versa.
“I grew up idolizing Hank Aaron. The first chapter book I read was about Hank Aaron, and I became super into Hank Aaron. My dad took me to a card convention once and he was signing. We stood in line for an hour and a half and he’d been signing all day, and I went up to him and he shook my hand. I was 10 or 11 and I said I was going to be the first woman in the major leagues, and he was like, ‘It’s going to be a hard road, but I bet you can do it.’ Such a classy response.
“So that got me into the older cards that aren’t of my generation. A lot of the cards here are from the ‘80s when I was watching and playing. But the older cards stem from falling in love with Hank Aaron and his story, and getting into the history of baseball.”
Much of which can be seen at the Lowbrow, in the staring-back-at-you-while-you-scan-the-ever-amazing-Lowbrow-menu visages of Roy Smalley, Rod Carew, Jack Morris, Juan Berenguer, Mike Smithson, Pete Rose, Dave Winfield, Tim Laudner, Frank Viola and more.
“We never wanted to open a sports bar,” said Ayres. “We’re restaurant people, but we wanted that cozy place where people could talk and neighbors could come, and I just think baseball is really meditative. … It’s just my kind of game.”
Like all things at the Lowbrow, the bar-top feels one-of-a-kind. Look close and you’ll find a card-size photo of the bar’s co-owner as a Little Leaguer, wedged between Hall-Of-Famers. Look closer and you’ll see that most of the cards are dog-eared, well-loved and well-played, which adds to the Lowbrow’s family-friendly pub vibe: It’s hard to feel bad about the world when you’re having a beer with some of baseball’s greatest ghosts.
“Cards are so funny. They meant so much to me as a kid,” said Ayres. “Me and the couple guys I traded with, we played with the cards and read them and played with them, so they’re not in mint condition. We didn’t collect them like collectors collect them; I carried them around for years and years and years.
“People sit at the bar and reminisce about players they saw play, and a lot of people point at cards and, ‘Oh, I know that guy, and that guy, and that guy.’ I also tried to put in lots of guys with big mustaches and crazy facial hair. I was hoping it would be a good conversation piece, and sometimes little kids will just stare at it. Even if baseball’s not their thing, they like the pictures.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].