June 14, 1870 may qualify as one of the saddest baseball days in Cincinnati baseball history.
On June 14, 1870, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first “professional” baseball team, lost their first professional game, 8-7, in extra innings, to the Atlantics of Brooklyn. The loss broke a streak of 81 consecutive wins since the Red Stockings publicly professed to being a base ball club of paid players. Overall, the Red Stockings had won 130 consecutive games dating back to their amateur ranks.
Many players were being paid at the time, but apparently not all players were being paid, and there were questions as to how the players were even being paid. Gambling was rampant, “fixes” were common, and the use of local “ringers” and defections were common. For the 1869 season, the Red Stockings base ball club decided to “go pro” and pay their players, have them sign contracts, and force the players to practice to prepare them to beat the better respected teams of the east.
The 1869 team had gone undefeated. Hall of Fame shortstop George Wright was the star of the team, batting .633 with 49 home runs and scoring 339 runs in those 57 games. Overall, the team scored 2396 runs and allowed 574, with the average game score being 42-10. Players didn’t wear gloves and most teams consisted of local guys just wanting to play baseball. Pitcher Asa Brainard was also highly regarded, and some think today’s use of the term “ace” in regards to a team’s best starting pitcher references Asa Brainard’s abilities on the mound.
The 1869 team’s final win was over the Mutuals of New York, 17-8, in Cincinnati, on November 6, over one of the better teams from the east. The Mutuals had tied the score at 7-7 in the fifth, before the Red Stockings secured the win.
The 1870 season got off to another rousing start. On June 13, they won their 24th consecutive game, 16-3, again over the Mutuals of New York, but this time on the Mutuals’ home field. According to “Redleg Journal” by Greg Rhodes and John Snyder:
“This was the first game against a top-ranked eastern club in 1870 and the easy victory led to predictions by the sporting press and the gambling community that the Red Stockings would again go undefeated.”
The predictions were unfounded, though, as the Red Stockings lost to the Atlantics on the very next day. The game was tied after nine innings at 5-5, but the Red Stockings scored twice in the top of the 11th to take a 7-5 lead that they could not hold. “Redleg Journal” tells the story best:
“The score was tied 5-5, after nine innings and according to the rules of the day, extra innings did not have to be played unless one team wished the game to continue. This rarely happened, however, and after the final out of the ninth innings, the crowd headed for the exits, the umpire left the field and the Atlantics started for their clubhouse, happy to record a tie with the great Red Stockings. But (Hall of Fame Red Stocking manager) Harry Wright insisted on continuing the game and the umpire and the Atlantics returned to the field. In the bottom of the 11th, with one on, the Atlantics sent a long fly deep into right field that rolled into the crowd. Cal McVey chased it down, but ran exuberant spectator jumped on his back. McVey shook him off and returned the ball to the infield, but the batter reached third on the interference. The next two batters singled, tying the game and putting the winning run on second. George Wright then cleanly fielded a grounder and tossed to Charlie Sweasy at second to start a double play. But Sweasy cold not handle the toss and the winning run scored on the misplay.”
The Red Stockings eventually lost a few more on the road, were accused of sloppy play, and team management even went to a local newspaper trying to get support for the team. They eventually lost a home game on July 27, and by August executives of the team were resigning. Then, star shortstop George Wright suffered a knee injury early in the month and was out of action until October. To make matters worse, according to “Redleg Journal,” the team expelled Sweasy, the team’s leading home run hitter with 18, for “disgraceful conduct” stemming from an incident on a steamboat.
The 1870 team finished the year with a 67-6 record, giving them a two-year record of 124-6-1. Yet, due to the losses, which led to declining profits, fewer sponsorships, and lack of public support, the team decided to not hire any professional players for the 1871 season. The 1869 season earned the team a profit of $1.39. 1870 saw the team falling into debt. Club President A.P. Bonte is quoted as saying
“You can…talk about the glory of the Red Stockings and the nine that knows no defeat, but you must put your hands in your pockets and pay the bills. You can’t run the club on glory.”
Unfortunately for Cincinnati baseball fans, several of the players and principals (both Wrights, McVey, and first baseman Charlie Gould) started a new team in Boston, the Boston Red Stockings, which eventually evolved into the Atlanta Braves. The Braves are the longest continuously operating professional baseball team in the world despite their original players having their start on the world’s first professional baseball team in Cincinnati.
And, oh…the tour guide for the Atlanta Braves didn’t really appreciate me bringing that up while I was on his tour at their stadium a few years ago…