In October of 1890, the Cincinnati Reds finished their first season in the National League (NL) after spending the prior decade in the colorful, yet rough, American Association (AA), known as much for Sunday Baseball and beer as its “working man-friendly” ticket prices of 25-cent seats—three things the NL was not known for. The Reds finished the season with a respectable .583 winning percentage and drew 131,000 patrons to the park, good for third in the league, averaging 1,780 patrons a game. Considering that they had lost their legendary Sunday dates by moving to the “Fifty-cent seat league” this was quite a good number. If anything, it proved that owner Aaron Stern was correct when he said, “Cincinnati is a fifty-cent city and would no doubt make out well in the League.” Yet, despite the team’s success, Stern decided the time had come for him to step away from baseball, selling the club to Albert L. Johnson of Cleveland for $40,000 ($1,247,103.30 in 2022). Pocketing the fee, Stern’s parting comment was “There is no money in the game, with salaries being too high.”
Typical Cincinnati owner.
Taking the helm of the Cincinnati franchise in early autumn, Johnson’s idea was to take the Reds out of the NL and into the Brotherhood (Players) League, which he had been involved with since its beginning. They say God laughs at those who make plans, and Johnson’s plan crashed when a peace agreement between the League and the Brotherhood was forged. This forced Johnson to reevaluate. Rather than extending his risk, he chose to back away from the game. With guidance from the League, who wanted to retain the Cincinnati franchise, he sold his shares to John T. Brush before he had owned the team for an active season.
Brush, who had prior experience as an owner of the NL Indianapolis Hoosiers, quickly aligned the Reds within the structure of the League and ever since the two have been entwined. In the future, both the League and the Commissioner would have adjacent office space in downtown Cincinnati. Brush was not a baseball man per se. He was a businessperson interested in the business of baseball, a common theme throughout the history of the game, especially in Cincinnati. After one season as owner, Brush hired Frank Bancroft to run the baseball side of the club. A popular baseball man and a promoter of the game, it was Bancroft who introduced the Opening Day Parade to the city, a tradition firmly ingrained in the consciousness of the Reds fanbase
129 years later, the structure of the game and its many traditions remain.
Due to the lock-out, 2022 is a year that the Reds fan scratches their head and ponders, “Where is my anointed opening game? They surely can’t be opening on the road, can they?
But of course, we all know that, yes, it already happened.
But it is weird, is it not?
The Reds are entering their 141st season. In that time, they have opened on the road a grand total of FOUR times
- 1885 – Louisville
- 1888 – Kansas City
- 1966 – Philadelphia
- 1990 – Houston
The first two were in the AA days, before the team made the contest a tradition. 1966 was the result of three straight days of home rainouts, an unfortunate incident, and 1990, of course, was affected like this season by labor issues.
So yes, opening on the road is weird.
Then there is the contest pitting the Reds against Cleveland in the first home game of the year.
That is also weird.
But it has happened before; way back in the 19th Century, when steampunk was in vogue and men wore wool suits in the summer. Back in 1888, the Reds had their first home contest of the season against the Cleveland Blues of the AA. Following Brush’s purchase of the Reds, they met in 1891, later in 1895, and one more time in 1898—the last Reds home opener against Cleveland until this year. The 1898 contest was a 3-2 win against Cy Young in a NL game that featured two umpires on the field for the first time in League history.
Back to Frank Bancroft, his approach to the Opening Day festivities in 1895 created a rich cultural tradition that became a pillar of the city’s association with the Reds. Bancroft’s idea to usher in the season with the first Opening Day Parade was patterned on the grand circus parades that would alert the whole town of their arrival and heighten excitement and attendance. Piggybacking on this event was the introduction of Bancroft’s new manager and hometown hero Buck Ewing, a larger-than-life player, famous across the country but even more so in Cincinnati where he was canonized for his hall of fame skills and long association to the city. From that year on, Opening Day would become a holiday that locals savored all winter. Celebrating the event the Enquirer wrote, “Cincinnati has taken a half-holiday and paid a most eloquent tribute to the occasion by sending such another crush and jam of humanity to the park as has never been seen in the local history of the game.” A crowd of 13,297 squeezed into League Park that day to see the great Buck Ewing and his Reds. The squad did not fail the diehards with a late inning 10-9 win over their Northern Ohio rivals. After the contest Ewing proclaimed, “I have had some very bright spots in my life, but I say without equivocation that this is the proudest moment of my life.” Ewing had spent his formative years in the East End of town on Worth Street, near the banks of the river and adjacent to Pendleton Park, where Buck had honed his skills before he set out to play professionally. Sagging homes from that era still stand on Worth Street, a short, pockmarked side road only a few blocks from Jeff Ruby’s steakhouse, “The Precinct”—a popular meeting place known for the finest cuts of meat, often named after local sports celebrities such as, Marty and Joe, Joe Burrow and Joey Votto.
In short, Cincinnati legends.
Speaking of legends, Joey Votto has just begun his 16th season as a Red, recently playing a few contests over 1900 games. When he reaches the two thousand games played plateau, he will become the 247th player in MLB history to reach that milestone. 22,500 men have appeared in an MLB game, less than 250 of them have played over 2K games, an even smaller number achieved three thousand. Of the 247 players with 2K games played, we see a unique subgroup, the player who logged more than 2K games with just one franchise, which at this moment would include Joey Votto.
Longevity creates “Player Brands”, players such as Stan Musial (3026 GP) or Carl Yastrzemski (3308 GP) are ingrained in our minds for the era in which they played as much as the teams they represented. You can close your eyes and see the Cardinal or Red Sox uniform. Of the 2K+ games played members, just thirty-five have achieved the distinction wearing one city’s uniform. Of this group only seven have not been elected to the Hall of Fame: Dave Concepcion, Lou Whitaker, Frank White, Bill Russell, Jim Gilliam, Todd Helton and Javier Molina. However, Helton will eventually be voted in, perhaps Molina as well. The others might be termed as undersized middle infielders who played during an era that produced prodigious amounts of ground balls. When Joey Votto plays his two thousandth game, the Reds will become the only team to have five players who played 2K games for the just the Reds; the current group consists of Bid McPhee, Johnny Bench, Dave Concepcion and Barry Larkin.
This game is difficult and achieving a thousand games played is a major accomplishment. The prior 2K group represents an elite squad of players, a mere 1% of all the players who have stepped on a professional diamond. Adding in the roughly 1,400 players who have topped one thousand games played, represent just 5.4% of all players who have ever been in MLB. Archibald W. “Moonlight” Graham had a taste of the big leagues for one brief moment and faded from our memory, while others stuck around and became etched in our memory wearing one uniform.
Or at a certain position.
Such as shortstop.
Seventy years ago, one can see the beginning of a great dynasty at the shortstop position in Cincinnati. Between 1953 and 2004, the Reds played 8,219 games and four men played shortstop in 7034 of those games, a stunning 85.5%. They all came to the organization in their early twenties and early on were praised for their superb fielding. Shortstop in MLB has always been a young man’s position, a position for the nimble and elegant fielder. In the history of MLB, the Reds are the only team to have five shortstops play one thousand plus games, and the only one to have two with 2K+.
Tommy Corcoran was the first, but that was long time ago, for he played the game gloveless his first few seasons. He does have one unique fact attached to his lengthy career outside of his affiliation to this group; he is the only player in MLB history to have scored over one thousand runs in his career (1184) with an on base percentage below .300 (.289)
A record that will surely never be broken.
In 1947, a 16-year-old Roy McMillan attended a Reds tryout in McKinney, Texas. He was not invited; he had only played baseball once as a 10-year-old. He did play third base on the city softball team, could palm a basketball, and ran a 10.2 in 100-yard-dash. In short, he was a really good athlete. The Reds scout immediately noticed his hands. He did not care that it was the first curveball Roy ever saw or that he had never played hardball before, he just saw those hands and the smooth way the kid moved. A year later he was in the Reds lower minor league in Texas and came to the attention to the Reds GM Warren Giles when Branch Rickey called him unexpectedly and offered $40,000 for the 18-year-old. Giles politely said no and marked a star next to Roy’s name on his prospect list.
In 1953, Roy McMillian took over the shortstop position for the Reds. He would be lauded throughout the decade as the smoothest shortstop in the game, winning a place as a starter on two all-star teams, three Gold Gloves, and receiving the first two-year contract ever offered by Reds GM Gabe Paul. The zenith was when he appeared on the cover of the September 9, 1957, issue of Sports Illustrated. Alas, he also had holes in his game. He never learned how to do much damage with the bat and finished his career in Cincinnati with only an OPS+ of 75, but his glove got him over 1000 games played and high praise from pitchers.
“McMillan was the king of kings, the greatest shortstop I ever saw. He had great hands and always positioned himself in front of the ball. He was real battler and I liked that he stayed on the bag to make sure he got the out, even if meant being hit by the runner. He had knots all over his legs.”
~ Jim O’Toole
Despite this praise, McMillan was hearing rumors that his replacement was playing for a Reds minor league affiliate, the Havana Sugar Kings. Leo Cardenas had first signed with the Reds in 1956 and by 1959 he was the starting shortstop for the AAA team and his future seemed destined for Cincinnati. During the 1959 season he was involved in a freak accident during a game. At a nearby street party, Castro supporters honored the 26th of July Movement, a revolution milestone from 1953, by issuing celebratory gunfire. A coach was injured and Cardenas was grazed in the shoulder by a stray bullet. Incidents like this and the never-ending chaos created by the Cuban Revolution forced the franchise to relocate to Jersey City midway through the 1960 season. One year to the day of his wounding Leo Cardenas made his start at SS for the Reds, stepping in for an injured McMillan.
Five months later, the 30-year-old McMillan was traded.
“Cardenas was almost six feet tall with long, thin arms, and less body fat than a reptile. He looked something like an oversized spider.”
~ Bill James
By 1962, the shortstop position belonged to Cardenas. He played in 790 of the 809 games the Reds played from 1962 to 1967, an astonishing 97.7%. Known for his hair-trigger temper and occasional sullen bouts, he slowly wore down Reds manager Dave Bristol. After the 1968 season, the new front office team headed by Bob Howsam, executed the classic Rickey move and traded him to the Minnesota Twins four weeks before his 30th birthday.
As a Red, he compiled four All Star Game appearances and won a Gold Glove, he also became the all-time leader for extra base hits for a shortstop on the Reds with 289, usurping Tommy Corcoran.
When Cardenas left the club, the Reds had played 2522 games over the previous twenty-five seasons. In those contests, McMillan and Cardenas played in 2,444 of those games, a mind boggling 95.6%.
The heir apparent was 21-year-old Darrel Chaney, who Bob Howsam felt was ready to take the reins.
That did not work out as planned. After the 1969 season there were rumblings of another 21-year-old in the system, one who was even rangier than Cardenas, skinnier too. At 6’2” and a mere 155 pounds, Dave Concepcion did not look like a professional ballplayer. It would be three seasons before he could hit MLB pitching. However, he could field like a MLB player the moment he stepped onto a professional field.
The same could be said for Barry Larkin… but listen, we all know about these two, they spent a decade and a half on the team, they appeared in numerous All-Star Games, won a handful of Gold Gloves, and played shortstop for World Champions.
In the lifetime of Riverfront Stadium, they were the team’s shortstops; the rest were just giving them a break.
So, I will not bore you with their stories.
From 1970 to 2004 the Reds played 5701 games, and in 77.7% of those games Dave Concepcion or
Barry Larkin played shortstop. In the other contests, forty-six other players appeared at the shortstop position. Both Pokey Reese and Darrel Chaney tied for third with 222 games played at short for the Reds. The irony of this tie is that both Chaney and Pokey were once considered the shortstop of the future for the franchise, only to lose the position to the two players at the top of the list for games played.
It has been 18 years since Larkin retired, and in that time forty men have played shortstop for the Reds, quite different from the days of continued shortstop excellence in Cincinnati. During that period, only Zack Cozart topped 290 games played (721), and currently they have a 31-year-old shortstop who once was a catcher.
Meanwhile, looming in the background is a 24-year-old player who, yes, has had challenges with MLB pitching in his first two visits to the show, and yes, is currently on the inactive list.
A change is bound to happen sooner rather than later. History gives us many hints of why this will happen, nestled in the stats and the careers of the players who came before. One just needs to look. A few examples can be found in the size of the aforementioned players in the article.
Fun Fact: Kyle Farmer is the largest regular shortstop in team history.
Another piece of evidence is age. Kyle Farmer is 31-years old, and the shortstop position is traditionally a young man’s position, evidenced by the trade of Roy McMillan and Leo Cardenas at the end of their twenties. In the past 120 years the Reds have only had three players who played more than 250 games at shortstop beyond the age of thirty-one. Maybe you have heard of them?
Barry Larkin, Dave Concepcion, and Tommy Corcoran.
If you have time to go to Baseball Reference and check out the first couple of seasons of the players listed above, marvel at how poorly they performed when they first came up. Yet, they all persevered and compiled a collection of stats, memories and hardware that make them stand tall among their peers on the Reds and across MLB.
There is no reason to think that José Barrero cannot join them and restart the tradition.