September 13, 1945: Only 281 fans show for a Thursday night game to watch the 7th place Reds defeat the fifth place New York Giants, 3-2, in Cincinnati. Read on for a historical pattern of Reds’ attendance figures.
The Giants were leading 2-0 entering the bottom of the seventh inning. 26-year-old rookie Jack Harrist was on the mound for the Reds on the way to winning his second and last game of the season (finished 2-4, 3.61 ERA in his only Reds’ season) had scattered nine hits and three walks in allowing two runs before leaving for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the seventh inning. Gee Walker, Dain Clay, and Steve Mesner drove in successive runs to give the Reds a 3-2 lead. Veteran pitcher Vern Kennedy, in his last season (only season with the Reds), held the Giants scoreless over the last two frames to preserve the victory.
With 1945 being the last year of World War II, many teams were without their regular starting players and most of baseball was being played at what we would describe a Triple A level of play (here’s a link to The Hardball Times discussing player performance during World War II). For all but one of the players listed above, 1945 was their last year with Reds. 1945 was the last year of major league baseball for Walker, Messner, and Kennedy, and 1946 was the last season for Clay. Harrist didn’t play in the major leagues in 1946, but did return to play from 1947-48 and 1952-53 for American League teams, bu this lifetime record was 12-28 with a 4.34 ERA.
In fact, of the 13 Reds players that played in this game, nine did not play for the Reds in 1946, and one played only 23 games that season. Three were still with the Reds in 1947 and only Hank Sauer returned to the Reds by 1948.
On January 14, 1942, Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt regarding the continuation of baseball during the war, called the Green Light Letter. In this letter, the commissioner pleaded for the continuation of baseball in hopes for a start of a new Major League season. President Roosevelt responds “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”
So, disposable income was hard to come by and baseball quality of play was down. Remember, even Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, and the Reds’ Johnny Vander Meer all served their country during World War II. To make matters worse for Cincinnati, the 1940 World Championship team was getting old and the Reds had no pipeline to replenish the players.
The Reds had been an awful team from 1929 through 1937. In six of those nine years, the teams won less than 40% of their games and attendance was poor. When the Reds were competitive in the 1920’s, attendance averaged nearly 6500 fans per game. 1930’s attendance was barely more than half than, averaging nearly 3500 fans per game. But, things changed in 1938 when the Reds began to win. Average attendance nearly doubled from 5140 to 9179 and jumped to 12,117 for the 1939 World Series team. The 1940 World Championship team averaged 11,041 and the Reds’ attendance was second in the National League those two seasons.
The war affected the economy at that time and the Reds attendance dropped right away. By 1942, their attendance was sixth in the league despite having a winning team. By 1945, the bottom had dropped out and the Reds averaged 3767 per game, their lowest total since 1934. After the war ended, attendance figures throughout baseball increased with the Reds doubling their average to about 7500 per game, but they remained seventh or eighth in attendance every year from 1945 through 1955. Not coincidentally, the Reds had bad baseball teams during that time, too. The Reds posted losing records from 1945 through 1955.
Things changed in 1956. The Reds (or Redlegs, as they were called at that time) started winning. The Redlegs blasted 221 home runs and won 91 games, finishing in third place. Likewise, the Redlegs’ attendance jumped to third in the league, jumping from an average of 9009 to 14,622. The Redlegs won again in 1957, finishing fourth, and their attendance was fourth in the league as well. Then we were losers from 1958-60 and attendance once again bottomed out, finished last or next to last each season.
Then something odd happened. The Reds fielded winning teams every year but one from 1961-69, finishing in the top four of 10-12 teams seven times, but attendance didn’t really grow. In fact, despite having big hitters including Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, and Pete Rose as well as the strikeout pitching of Jim Maloney, Reds’ attendance finished 7th-9th for all but two seasons (exceptions were 1961-62). Even the World Series team of 1961 finished fourth in the league of eight teams in attendance.
The fans didn’t start coming until 1970 when the 1970 Big Red Machine was bludgeoning opponents and raced off to a 70-30 record to start the season. Even through the first 15 dates of 1970, Reds attendance was 12,949 per game, an increase of about 800 people from 1969 (12,197). But, as the team took off and Riverfront Stadium opened, the Reds finished the year averaging 22,266 folks per game. Attendance declined in 1971 (the only losing season of the 1970’s decade) to 18,532,, but the Reds averaged nearly 30,000 fans per game for the entire decade.
But, how quickly the fans forgot…after being swept in the 1978 National League Championship Series, attendance dropped nearly 5000 per game despite the team winning 89 games–but, we only finished third. We were second in each half of the 1981 split season format, but attendance dropped by more than 4000 per game–most likely due to the fans throwing their hands up in disgust over the player strike. We dropped nearly 4000 more the next year when the team was awful and lost more than 100 games for the only time in Reds’ history. When Pete Rose returned as player-manager, attendance jumped quickly, rising from 15,752 in 1984 to 22,650 in 1985 and climbed through most of the decade. The Reds were contenders every year, finishing second place in every season but 1989 when they finished fifth and Rose was banned from baseball for his gambling activities. Attendance did drop that season by 1500 per game, but 5000 per game were added in 1990 when the Reds led the National League Western Division wire-to-wire and the Reds won the World Series.
The fans gave the Reds grace for seasonal missteps in 1991 and 1993, and in 1994, the Reds averaged 31,628 fans per game, the highest seasonal average for any season since 1978. However, the season was then canceled due to an impasse in labor negotiations. Reds fans stayed away in 1995, attendance dropping by more than 6000 fans per game despite having a first place team. The Reds finished sixth that season in the league in attendance.
There has been two other recent large spikes of attendance. In 2000, when Ken Griffey, Jr. was acquired and after the 1999 96-win season, Reds attendance jumped back to 31,431 per game. Besides that, we’ve averaged 22,000-26,000 nearly every year. We did get a jump in 2003, increasing from 22,911 to 29,077 despite having a losing team, when Great American Ballpark opened, but that declined again by 2005 as we had settled into a decade long losing streak.
Attendance is up nearly 4000 fans per game this year, but our average of 25,797 is still lower than our 2006 average of 26,353. I believe history has shown that the Reds fans demand a winning team for them to come and spend their entertainment dollar on this enterprise. And I believe they want to see proof that the change is real and not just a seasonal blip. History has shown that Reds fans come to see a winner play baseball and they stay away when the team is losing. They’ll forgive one year of losing if the team is winning, but the early 1960’s prove they just won’t show up if the team suddenly turns it around. They want some evidence of permanence and consistency. I don’t find that unreasonable. Winning this year will help a lot and I would invest a lot of money in promoting our youthful investments: Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and our “Young Guns” pitching staff in Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Aroldis Chapman, Edinson Volquez, and Travis Wood.