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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Cincinnati Reds
Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from Cincinnati Reds History
By Mike Shannon
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 Mike Shannon
All rights reserved.
Cincinnati is a conservative midwestern river town located on the mighty Ohio in the southwest corner of the Buckeye state, known for, as much as anything else, the game of baseball. In fact, it is difficult to think of Cincinnati without associating with it the city's most famous progeny, the Cincinnati Reds of the National League, who are direct descendants of the very first "base ballists" to ever play professionally. Oh, sure, the city has other claims to fame — including its delicious Skyline Chili, the mighty Procter & Gamble Company, and the Delta Queen paddle wheeler — but the conversation always comes around sooner or later to those red-and-white-clad boys of spring, summer, and (sometimes) fall, who give the city so much of its identity.
Like every city more than a few decades old, Cincinnati has seen its share of troubles. Its good citizens have endured disease, natural disasters, wars, economic downturns, and social unrest. Through it all the people have persevered, in large part because the Almighty programmed that sort of spirit into mankind, but also because the people of Cincinnati, as well as Reds fans everywhere, have had for almost a century and a half a ballteam of their own to follow religiously and to find comfort in. It is comforting that the Reds are there, playing almost daily in the spring and throughout the summer, and even when they fail to win the laurels, Reds fans stay loyal to the colors and the fellows because they know that if they canmake it through the winter they will see the Reds begin again when the calendar brings a new season.
Like the Queen City itself, the Reds have had their ups and downs, their Good, their Bad, and their Ugly. Ask any Reds fan, though: they've had much more Good than anything else.
YOU CAN'T DO BETTER THAN PERFECT!
The invention of baseball, like that of many other great things in this world, was for many years misattributed — to General Abner Doubleday, who had nothing whatsoever to do with the founding of the game. For his codifying of baseball's most elemental parameters and rules, Henry Chadwick is now recognized by historians as "The Father of Baseball," even as the search for the game's earliest precursors and appearances takes us further and further back in time. The most important thing about the game's early history that is not unknown or in dispute is the origin of professional baseball. Every American schoolchild knows, or should know, that the first baseball team in the world to play professionally was formed in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1869, and that that team was known as the Cincinnati Red Stockings. That honor, my friend, is about as Good as it gets in baseball.
The honor is not merely academic — it means something to the fans, and players who pull on a Reds jersey feel a sense of pride and tradition that is inspired by few other teams. Reds players are also often quite demonstrative about revealing their pride in the franchise's heritage. I remember standing around the batting cage one day while the Reds were taking BP in Riverfront Stadium before a game with the San Francisco Giants. The Giants' general manager, Al Rosen, and his adolescent son were also standing nearby when Pete Rose stepped into the cage to hit. In between two of the line drives he was spraying all over the park, Rose turned toward Rosen's son and said with a big knowing grin, "How do you like being in Cincinnati, the birthplace of professional baseball?"
On the other hand, comedian George Carlin has asked, "If the Cincinnati Reds were the first professional baseball team, who did they play?" Carlin's joke hinges on the zanily logical assumption that since pro teams play pro teams today, whoever the Red Stockings played in that initial contest of the 1869 season must have been a professional team, too, thus making Cincinnati's opponent an equally "first" professional team!
Carlin obviously was not trying to dis the Red Stockings; he just wanted to make a funny. All joking aside, though, Carlin raises an interesting point, which many fans have not thought about. Who did the Red Stockings play? Other pro teams or amateur teams? If they only played amateur teams, what was the big deal about them winning all the time? And what league were they in?
To begin with, at the time there were no leagues for the Red Stockings to join, as the first professional baseball league, the National Association, was not formed until 1871. All teams were amateur and independent, which means they made their schedules themselves, usually on a home-and-away two-game basis with other clubs. Furthermore, the Red Stockings were the first overtly professional team that paid every player on the club a salary and then expected the players to take their participation seriously in all respects, as if playing ball were their job. Finally, as Greg Rhodes and John Erardi have pointed out in their wonderful book, The First Boys of Summer, the Red Stockings did play some strictly amateur outfits in 1869, who were invariably overwhelmed, but the top clubs that went up against the Red Stockings had their own professionals in uniform. The difference was that the Red Stockings' opponents did not pay all their players, nor did they pay them openly. The Red Stockings in essence took an occupation that was being practiced partially and in secret and transformed it into a legitimate and public profession.
The Red Stockings also proved the superiority of professional teams over amateur ones. This is something we take for granted, but in 1869 the concept was not the truism it is today. Once the 1869 Red Stockings got off to their fast start and began to gain a national reputation, the best clubs in the country, all technically amateur ones, looked forward to challenging, and defeating, these new professionals, the Cincinnati Base Ball Club (as the Red Stockings were officially called).
Led by former cricket pros Harry and George Wright, the Red Stockings opened their 1869 season in Cincinnati with a 45–9 victory over another local club, the Great Westerns. The date of the game, little remembered even in Cincinnati, was May 4, 1869. On May 31 the team embarked on a monthlong tour of the East that would thrust them into the national sporting spotlight and send the baseball fans of Cincinnati into a rooting frenzy. The Red Stockings went 20–0 on the road trip, defeating a number of well-known top clubs, including the Troy (NY) Haymakers, Harvard College, New York Mutuals, Brooklyn Atlantics, New York Eckfords, Philadelphia Atlantics, Washington Nationals, and National Olympics. Back in Cincinnati on July 1 the Red Stockings were hailed as heroes. They enjoyed a parade and a luncheon in their honor, and after easily winning an exhibition match they were awarded a 28-foot-long trophy bat, inscribed with their names. On July 25, the team's winning streak reached 30 games — barely. It took a three-run rally in the bottom of the ninth to defeat the Forest Citys of Rockford, Illinois, 15–14.
The Red Stockings became so famous so quickly that they were invited to California to play. With their record standing at 43–0, the team made the unprecedented "Western trip," demolishing the inferior competition they faced on the way there and back — the average score in their six games against San Franciscan teams was 56–6. Playing their final game at home in a rematch on November 7, the Red Stockings beat the Mutuals of New York 17–8 to finish 57–0.
The perfect season of 1869 ensured the fame of the Red Stockings, and it ushered in the dawn of professional baseball. The one thing it did not do was ensure the existence of the Red Stockings. The Red Stockings continued their perfect ballplaying into 1870 and acquired an image of invincibility, but the winning streak could not last forever. It came to an end on June 15 after reaching 81 games. The Red Stockings lost in New York to the Atlantics in extra innings, 8–7. Club president Aaron Champion was crushed by the loss and sent a telegram back to Cincinnati that would become famous:
The finest game ever played. Our boys did nobly, but fortune was against us. Eleven innings played. Though beaten, not disgraced.
In reality, the Red Stockings were done in by their poor fielding. It wouldn't be the team's only loss in 1870 either, as the Red Stockings finished their second season with a 67–6 record. Despite the fact that this record made for the best winning percentage in the country, the Mutuals and not the Red Stockings were considered the champions of baseball for 1870, because of the prevalent screwy system for determining the champion.
Just as astonishing as the 1869 perfect season and the 81-game winning streak was the demise of the club — the Red Stockings disbanded after 1870. The club never did attain the profitability that the directors had hoped for; fan support had dwindled; and some of the players (particularly second baseman Charlie Sweasy) had sullied the image of the club with ungentlemanly behavior. Worst of all, the Red Stockings were driven out of business by their own success. The market for top ballplaying talent escalated overnight, and the Cincinnati Base Ball Club felt that paying the salaries it would take to retain its players would push the club into bankruptcy. Thus the first professional baseball team in history and the only one to ever complete a perfect season brought about but did not join the first professional league in baseball history, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (the NAPBBP), which was formed in 1871. Professional baseball returned to its birthplace five years later, when the Red Stockings joined a new league, the National, in 1876. There have been no more perfect seasons in the Queen City since 1869, just a perfect match between a team and its legions of adoring fans that has its origin in the famous Red Stockings of '69.
MORE FIRSTS AN1 INNOVATIONS
Because the Red Stockings were the first professional team, Cincinnati established a number of other, collateral firsts. For instance, under the leadership of manager Harry Wright, the Red Stockings were the first team to hold regular, organized practices that included drills designed to inculcate the fundamentals. The club was the first professional team to sign players to contracts calling for specific, predetermined salaries; the first to wear knickers and colored (red) baseball stockings; the first to pull off a triple play (on August 4 against the Central Citys of Syracuse); the first, and probably the last, to play a game with eight players (nevertheless, Cincinnati defeated the Kentuckys 58–9 on November 3 in Louisville); and the first to play games on both coasts of the country. In addition, the term "ace," meaning a team's best pitcher, came into use as a derivative of the first name of the Red Stockings' undefeated pitcher of 1869, Asa Brainard. And the first glove was used by Red Stockings catcher Doug Allison, who cut the fingers off of a winter mitten and used it to protect his sore left palm from the hard pitches of Mr. Brainard.
All of these firsts and innovations (and many more) accomplished by the Red Stockings were just the beginning, as once in motion Cincinnati kept the momentum going and continued to be a pacesetter for the game of baseball.
In 1877, when the Reds were members of the first National League, one of their outfielders, Bob Addy, became the first player to steal a base by sliding into it. Pitcher Will White, the winningest pitcher in team history, was the first professional player to wear glasses during competition. When Deacon White, Will's older brother, became the Reds' catcher in 1878, the Reds fielded the first brother battery in history; and sometime in 1880 Reds catcher Buck Ewing became the first backstop to assume a squatting position behind the batter.
The firsts and innovations continued when the Reds played in the American Association from 1882 through 1889. The Reds were the driving force in the formation of the AA after being kicked out of the National League for their insistence on selling beer in their ballpark. The American Association, which allowed the sale of beer as well as games on Sunday, became known as "The Beer and Whiskey League." The Reds won the new league's first championship in 1882, which would be Cincinnati's only pennant-winning season until 1919. The club's 1882 record of 55–25 is still the highest winning percentage (.688) in team history. Team president Aaron Stern introduced two baseball innovations during this time, one kooky and one elemental but still ahead of its time. In 1882, Stern sought to brighten up the diamond by having each of his players wear a different colored uniform. Bad idea, quickly abandoned. A year later Stern put numbers on the backs of Reds uniforms, but the players, noting that prison inmates wore numbers, objected and convinced Stern to discontinue the experiment.
The Reds claimed the game's first ambidextrous pitcher when Tony Mullane retired Pittsburgh's Tom Brown on a left-handed pitch after getting two strikes on Brown with right-handed pitches, and Cincinnati sportswriter Ren Mulford introduced the terms "hot corner" and "fan" (from fanatic) into the baseball lexicon.
The most significant innovation of the Reds' American Association days happened after the conclusion of the 1882 regular season, when they invited the National League champion Chicago club to play a two-game exhibition series in Cincinnati. Chicago accepted the invitation, and the two teams split the series, the Reds winning the first game 4–0, Chicago the second 2–0. The pair of exhibition games between league champions was not the first World Series, as the two teams refused to play a rubber match despite the pleas of fans in both cities for them to do so. Yet it was definitely the precursor to the first World Series, which were staged between the two leagues beginning in 1884.
Even after they rejoined the National League in 1890 — the league in which they have played ever since — the Reds pulled more innovations and firsts out of their sleeves. The Reds introduced the submarine pitching delivery, dugouts (actually awnings), the team trainer, shin guards for catchers, the bottle bat, dragging the infield during a game, air travel, the hitters' background, the practice of posting an "E" on the scoreboard to indicate a fielding error, night baseball, air-conditioned press boxes and dugouts, and the all-synthetic infield. And these are merely the major innovations the Reds intentionally introduced. In many other instances either the Reds were one of the parties involved in a baseball first (the installation of the screen on the foul pole) or a baseball innovation came about because of the actions of a Reds player (umpires' hand signals, for instance).
Of course, Reds players, both as individuals and as a team, have been the first to accomplish many playing feats. Two of the greatest of these feats involved pitching performances that will likely never be repeated. The first came on May 2, 1917, when the Reds' Fred Toney hooked up with the Chicago Cubs' James "Hippo" Vaughn in the ultimate pitching duel, a game during which the pitchers on both teams pitched no-hitters! During the first nine innings only two men reached base against Toney, both via the free pass. Three batters reached against Hippo Vaughn — two by walks and a third on an error — but Vaughn wound up facing the minimum as the first two runners were erased in double plays and the third when he was caught stealing. As the ninth inning of this historic game ended, the fans at Chicago's Weeghman Park delivered a standing ovation intended to salute both pitchers. The Reds quickly brought the fans and the game back down to earth, scoring in the top of the tenth on hits by Larry Kopf and Jim Thorpe sandwiched around an error. Ironically, it was the first run the Reds had scored in 35 innings. Toney then set the Cubs down 1–2-3 to finish the game with his no-hitter intact, but not before receiving a scare. The closest thing to a Cubs hit came with one out in the bottom of the tenth when Fred Merkle hit a drive into deep left field. It appeared as if the ball was headed for the bleachers, but at the last moment Reds left fielder Manuel Cueto reached up and speared it over his head at the wall.
Excerpted from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Cincinnati Reds by Mike Shannon. Copyright © 2008 Mike Shannon. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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