As you can read in my Official Cincinnati Sportswriter Declaration of Stance on Pete Rose, I’m fine with his banning and the reason behind it. So people are often surprised when I don’t find gambling ads in the park hypocritical or uncouth. We’re here, after all, because of money.

The issue of money in professional sports– particularly baseball– is touchy, and I’m mostly a purist about it… except for when I’m not. Except for when civic pride is on the line. So I like establishing that even though baseballs were not-bouncing across the nation prior to 1869, we natives are fairly adamant about pinpointing Cincinnati as the birthplace of the game.

And why is that?

It’s because the Reds (or this early form of them, anyway) were baseball’s first professional team. Until this point, players weren’t paid–on the books at least–and the game existed under a general agreement that we were all in this for the honor and glory of spitting on the basepaths. But then Harry Wright said screw it, we’re gonna pay these guys, and signed his brother George to the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

What was pretty great about Harry doing this was that he was in the holy grip of a pure and passionate love of baseball. He wasn’t even strongarmed into it. The boys’ father, an immigrant from England who hauled his boys with him, went all-out on the cricket field.

But his sons preferred this most American of American games. Harry was good, but his little brother George was even better.

The personal merit that best recommends George Wright to the ages and best represents his philosophy towards the game is the fact that he switched from catcher to shortstop because… why? Because he’d suffered a foul tip to the throat, and his only reaction to that was “Okay, where else can I play?”

These guys were tough. And Harry Wright wanted himself a tough team. So he signed his best player– his brother, George– to his new club in Cincinnati. Then he caved to the obvious reality that the best players came to play for the best teams, and the best teams were the ones willing to lure the best players. Harry drew up a budget and payroll. A big one.

And then– it’s almost as if this process has modern-day applications–and then the players flooded in, the good and the strong, the great and the mighty. And the Cincinnati Red Stockings won and won and won. They won at home; they won on the road. They won in exhibition and they won in officially scored tilts. They won until they stopped winning on November 11, 1869, 64 days after they started winning on the first day of the season on April 23.

And then? Well, then the team lost six games in a row. They’d stopped paying the players. The players stopped playing. The attendance bottomed out. And the original Cincinnati Red Stockings folded after its first year, in the most part because they’d lost six games.

This seems… harsh. But consider: What if every team faced this kind of threat of extinction? Would it drive desperation or lay on the cutthroat quality of modern sport a bit too savagely?

I don’t know, but in an era in which the home team once again languishes in the sub-basement of the sub-basement, sometimes I’d like to find out.

16 Responses

  1. greenmtred

    I think it might leave us with a small handful of wealthy teams and either no others or just a few utterly hopeless organizations that would have no top-flight players. The Reds, despite being in last place (currently, but just wait!) have some good and exciting players with the prospect of a significant influx of talent from the minors. My solutions to MLB’s problems would include no further expansion (and possibly contraction), and a salary cap that wasn’t enforced by a luxury tax but by reassignment of some of the offending team’s stars to other teams. Think the owners would go for any of this? I’m retired, and would happily serve as commissioner as long as I could do the job without leaving Vermont.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I think the idea of a commissioner operating in (relatively) neutral territory like Vermont is a terrific idea. And yes, contraction might be part of the answer here.

  2. Rednat

    Mary Beth. YOU ARE MY LAST HOPE. Everytime I bring up attendance on tis site i get lambasted to the nth degree. But you hit the nail on the head. We go undefeated the first year. then year 2 we have a tiny losing streak and guess what?…”attendance bottomed out”!
    Can we Cincinnatians just admit that as fans we are a little fickle, a little unreasonable at times and that this is AT LEAST A tiny, eanie weanie factor in why ownership throughout the years is just a little hesitant to “go all in” at times. I am counting on you to back me up MBE. lol

    • BK

      I’ll back you up a bit. Attendance is twofold–the city (or in the Red’s case the region) needs to support the team. However, ownership must put a good product on the field. While the relationship is symbiotic, ownership needs to begin to demonstrate a commitment at this point. They have been able to recover COVID losses but repeatedly made tone-deaf public statements. Baseball has many structural problems, and the world dealt the Reds a tough blow. Ownership exacerbated these issues and must rebuild trust with the fanbase. That’s how business works in America.

      Boosting attendance is a crucial lever for small-market teams. The Reds can’t compete with the large market payrolls, but they can generate sufficient revenue to bring in one or two elite players and absorb occasional bad contracts. Couple those actions with a robust farm system, and you have a model to sustain fielding competitive teams year after year. That will boost season ticket sales and fund future teams.

  3. BK

    It is fascinating that in my lifetime, pro sports have evolved to the point where teams are incentivized to tank/rebuild. While the level of play has improved, the entertainment value has been diminished. One could argue that the Oakland A’s face extinction at least as they currently exist in Oakland. So, what you are pondering may be occurring now. The other major sports leagues in America have made structural changes over the last couple of decades. MLB must do the same, as the current business model seems unsustainable in multiple markets over the long term.

  4. jmb

    1) Baseball is not life, it’s just a part of life, in some ways a beautiful part, in others a pathetic part–it was created by and involves human beings, right? So it’s going to have both a positive and a negative aspect. 2) At first no one was paid to play baseball. Then only certain players were. Cincinnati is not where baseball began. It’s merely where the first “all-professional” team played. That’s its claim to fame. And, if memory serves, only the starting 8 were paid professionals. And the team moved to Boston after it failed in Cincinnati, taking about half of those paid professionals with it. 3) The finances of the game today are nothing like in the early days, when baseball was seen mostly as a pastime, not a profession. No one was walking around wearing “Red Sox Nation” or “Property of the Yankees” t-shirts. No parents were screaming at little league umpires or hiring pricey private coaches for their ten year old future stars. It’s almost an $11 billion/yr. industry nowadays–almost doubling over the past 15 years or so. It’s just an entirely different animal these days.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      The column title acknowledges that baseball reflects life– so, as you state, it will innately carry a broken quality. And, as such, it will also fumble as it grows and contracts. But I do think we can find some elements of today in its origin.

  5. LDS

    I couldn’t read your post on Rose. The fonts are a mess. Regardless, I’d take my chances with Rose and all his gambling over the current debacle in Cincinnati. Marge Schott & Pete Rose would be a huge improvement. Can’t Cincinnati do better than the Castellini and Bell?

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      That happened when the site migrated to WordPress (or a different form of WordPress, I think.) Sometimes I go in and clean it up, but mostly I give it a “nah.”

  6. Scott C

    With the millions rolling in there is no excuse whatsoever to not pay for better players. We just lost another 1 run game with a reclamation project pitching 6 shutout innings and an assortment of youngsters and average players. Put a Nick Castelano (oh what could have been) on this team or any player with an above average bat and we may not win the division but we would be over 500 and in this division that would put us close. But we come up in the bottom of the ninth with a chance to tie the game and Luke Maile coming to the bat, the hope that springs eternal, died in my breast. But who were you going to pinch hit? Casali? Barrero? Myers? Newman? Of the group Newman was probably the best option, and he isn’t going to scare anyone. Sorry, just venting.

  7. Mark Moore

    I took a special and instant like to the phrase “languishes in the sub-basement of the sub-basement”. It evoked a dark, dank space with a single 40-watt bulb that audibly fizzles and the WiFi is just strong enough to get your hopes up with a connection, but then never actually load anything at all.

    As for the solution, I’ll admit I don’t know. The current trajectory has the game in trouble. That much I’d bank on. It’s just not sustainable.

    Yet I watched the whole game again today and will tomorrow. Because Reds baseball is definitely a part of life for me.