By Lonnie Wheeler and John Baskin; Orange Frazer Press, Inc., Wilmington, Ohio; 271 pages.
Cincinnati does not have the most impressive winning tradition in baseball, but it may have the most eminent history. Ever since Harry Wright turned his Cincinnati Red Stockings into the first professional baseball team, in 1869, the city has regularly sprung on the major leagues such innovations as doubleheaders, night games, and Pete Rose. This energetic book combines a fan’s enthusiasm with a historian’s grand sweep to show how much baseball and Cincinnati have meant to each other.
Baseball in Cincinnati of course means the Reds, and this book is packed with anecdotes and trivia about the team and its players. The authors bring a surprising intimacy and an astounding amount of detail to their descriptions of the first years of organized baseball in the city. Traveling by barge and stagecoach and scoring runs by the dozen, the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869-70 were the first important team in baseball’s lineage and the most dominant, playing ninety-two consecutive games without losing. For this performance, probably the most overpowering in baseball history, the team showed a two-year profit of $1.23, provoking the team’s president to be the first sports executive to complain about overpaid athletes: “A nine whose aggregate salaries exceed six or eight thousand dollars can not . . . be self-sustaining.” His best players, setting a precedent of their own, played the next year for Boston.
From these swashbuckling origins arose the game played by today’s clean-shaven young millionaires. As one would expect from the story of a child’s game played by adults, this history has episodes of silliness. The Reds’ general manager once had to post a notice in the team’s shower requesting that his irascible manager, Rogers Hornsby, not urinate on his pitcher after a losing game. The infielder Rocky Bridges was renowned less for his hitting than for his ability to spit tobacco juice on sportswriters’ white shoes without their feeling it. The relief pitcher Pedro Borbon put a voodoo curse on the Reds after they traded him in 1979; it still appears to be working. Even American politics has contributed to the game’s absurdities: because of the Cold War, the team was known for a few years in the 1950s as the Redlegs. When in 1961 the Reds unexpectedly made the World Series against the Yankees, well-intentioned Americans clamored to have the name changed again to avoid the disaster of such headlines as REDS BOMB YANKS . Fortunately for our national security, New York won the series.
The winters between baseball seasons are long indeed; books like this one, awash in nostalgia and statistics, are what get the true baseball fan through them.