Barnstorming to the Big Leagues: Part 1 of Cincinnati’s Professional Baseball History

Posted on Mon, Jul 13, 2015 | HOMAGE Blog

As Cincinnati finishes the final preparations for tomorrow’s MLB All-Star Game—the city’s fifth time hosting and first since 1988 when it took place at Riverfront Stadium—it’s time to take a spin down memory lane and revisit the city’s legendary baseball tradition.

Spanning three centuries, Cincinnati’s professional baseball roots run deeper than any other city. On June 23rd, 1866 the Cincinnati Base Ball Club was formed and the Queen City fielded its first organized team, complete with a club constitution. After setting up matches throughout the summer, the team joined the first organization responsible for presiding over competitive clubs: the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP). As Cincy’s team—nicknamed the “Red Stockings”—initiated a deal to play at the Union Cricket Club, the club pro, Harry Wright, quickly took interest and groomed the team to become a dominant force. Acting as team manager in addition to playing center fielder, he implemented rigorous workouts and imported talent from the East Coast—most notably his younger brother, George, who the National Baseball Hall of Fame has called “baseball’s first superstar player.” By 1869, Harry ensured salaries for the entire squad, and the Red Stockings, now the team’s official name, became the first fully professional ball club. As such, the team finished 1869 with a 57-0 record, the only team in professional baseball history to post an undefeated season.

Following the season, Harry Wright took the team south to New Orleans for a pseudo barnstorming tour of matches, one of the earliest precursors to the idea of spring training. The team continued their unbelievable form into the 1870 season, and if you’re curious just how sharp the Red Stockings were, let us offer the score line of one of their wins: 108-3. No, that’s not a typo. While there may be no record of what the Red Stockings had for breakfast on Wednesday, May 25, 1870, the utter assault it fueled against the Union BBC of Urbana, Ohio is scorched into baseball legend. Union’s poor pitcher, who today is only listed with the last name of Hagenbuck, must have contemplated retiring from the sport altogether after the Red Stockings scored an average of 20 runs an inning from the second through the fourth. And without a mercy rule in place, for nine long innings there was no reprieve from the comprehensive play of the Red Stockings. The very next day the team traveled to Dayton Base Ball Park set on duplicating the feat against Dayton BBC, but, alas, they were only able to score 104 runs in the win. The Red Stockings continued to rack up the wins, 24 straight to start the season, before suffering their first loss in extra innings to the Atlantics of Brooklyn.

The early years of organized baseball were tumultuous as teams attempted to finance themselves, and, while the Red Stockings were a wild success on the diamond, unfortunately after their sophomore season in 1870, the team dissolved due to expenses. Team manager Harry Wright was lured to Boston with a deal for a new team, and he assembled the Boston Red Stockings by signing a number of Cincinnati’s star players, including his younger brother.

It would be five years before Cincinnati returned with another iteration of the Red Stockings. Retooled and renamed the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the new franchise joined the National League (NL) with its inception in 1876, beginning a mercurial 15-year period for Cincinnati professional ball. Just four years after joining, Cincinnati got booted from the league, as the Stockings’ team president rejected a pledge to keep ballparks closed on Sundays and ban beer. Without missing a beat, Cincinnati set up a third and final iteration of the Red Stockings under the same Cincinnati Red Stockings name, and the following year in 1881, became a founding member of rival upstart league, American Association (AA). The team played nine seasons in the AA—ironically referred to as “The Beer and Whiskey League” for permitting alcohol during games, unlike the NL—and in their debut, the Red Stockings captured the 1882 pennant. By 1890, with the AA the weaker of the two leagues, the team transferred to the familiar NL.

Alongside the Queen City’s return to the NL, the Cincinnati Red Stockings officially changed its name to the one we know and love today and spent time rebuilding its roster, acquiring outfielders and big hitters “Wahoo Sam” Crawford and Cy Seymour. In 1912 the Reds opened their new stadium, Redland Field, and after a stretch in the second division, the team channeled the city’s early glory days to rebound by 1918. Behind the strong bullpen of Hod Eller and Slim Sallee and an equally strong hitting lineup of Cincy hall of famers Edd Roush and Heinie Groh, the Reds electrified the league throughout 1919. Following a regular season with 96 wins, the team took the National League Pennant and set up a battle against the formidable Chicago White Sox in the World Championship. Cincinnati raced to a 4-1 game lead in the best of nine series, but Chicago pushed the series to an eighth game. With the prospect of a game nine decider looming, Cincinnati buckled down and delivered a 10-5 beating in game eight to clinch their first World Championship—a triumph the following year’s Black Sox Scandal could not eclipse.

Bookended by the undefeated 1869 Red Stockings and the Reds’ initial baseball World Championship in 1919, the first 51 years of professional baseball in Cincinnati established a legacy of greatness while providing all the thrills a fan could desire. Stay tuned for more of Cincinnati’s incredible baseball heritage, and in the meantime, gear up for tomorrow’s All-Star Game by snagging our latest Cincy threads here.

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