Bruce Frankel

Author of the new book "What Should I Do with the Rest of My Life? True Stories of Finding Success, Passion, and New Meaning in the Second Half of Life."

Tigers Fans Hope Kentucky Colonel Revives Success

March 22, 2010

The image of white-suited and goateed Kentucky Colonel Harland Sanders, who was in his sixties when he founded a little fried chicken business, remains for many Americans the ultimate icon of success in later life. But in Japan his effigy has had a little different history for the last 25 years—one, until recently, associated with a curse on baseball’s legendary Hanshin Tigers.

The team hasn’t won a championship since the Tigers victory in the Japan Series in 1985. Following the win, fans grabbed a life-size statue of the Colonel from in front of a Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken and, to celebrate, pitched it into the Dontonburi Canal because it resembled slugging first baseman Randy Bass. Baseball lore had it that the Tigers would never win a championship again until the statue was found. In March, hope resurfaced for the Tigers when a construction crew, building a boardwalk along the canal, discovered the statue.  The refurbished statue, now glass enclosed for protection,  was placed on display last week at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet near Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya.

Over the last couple of decades, Bass, 56, the greatest foreign slugger in Japanese baseball history, has also reinvented himself. After retiring from play in Japan, he returned to his hometown, Lawton, Oklahoma, where, in 2004, Bass, a Democrat, was elected to the Legislature as a state senator. During his years with Hanshin (1983-1988), Bass—who played in the Major Leagues for the Kansas City Royals, the Montreal Expos, and the Texas Rangers—set eight national records in Japan. He still holds the season high batting average mark of .389, set in 1986, and remains the only player to win back-to-back Triple Crowns.

Colonel Sanders was, it may seem, almost pure self-invention. He was neither an authentic colonel nor a native Kentuckian. He was born in 1890 in Henryville, Indiana, where he grew up in poverty on a farm and claimed to learn to cook from his widowed mother. He dropped out of school when he was in seventh grade, and in the years that followed he worked as a farmhand, buggy painter, streetcar conductor, and life insurance salesman. At age 40, he began serving food in the living quarters attached to his service station in Corbin, Kentucky. By 1935, Governor Ruby Lafoon made him a “Kentucky Colonel” for his contribution to the state’s cuisine. He moved the restaurant and expanded it, but when Insterstate 75 was built and bypassed Corbin, it devastated his business. In 1955, at age 65, he was virtually broke when he sold the restaurant.

Using $105 from his first Social Security check, he began crisscrossing the country at a clip of 250,000 miles a year and selling the secret recipe to his “finger lickin’” pressure-fried chicken to franchisees. In 1964, he sold the U.S. corporation for $2 million to a group of investors and moved to Canada, where he retained control over the Canadian company. He died in 1980 in Louisville, Kentucky, at age 90.

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