CINCINNATI — The Reds’ season-long celebration of 150 years of professional baseball in Cincinnati moves into high gear this weekend with festivities to mark the debut of the 1869 Red Stockings, baseball’s first all paid-to-play team.
A century and a half after their first game launched them into sports history, the 1869 Red Stockings Pavilion will be officially dedicated at 5 p.m. Saturday south of the Reds Hall of Fame on Joe Nuxhall Way. The event is open to the public.
In addition, the Reds will wear the first sets of 15 throwback uniforms during Saturday and Sunday games against the San Francisco Giants, and the first 20,000 guests at Saturday’s 7:10 game will receive a commemorative Mr. Redlegs bobblehead in an 1869 uniform.
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Saturday’s uniforms will be from the 1902 style that was worn in the inaugural season of the famed “Palace of the Fans” ballpark. Sunday’s uniforms will feature an all-blue look from the 1911 road uniform.
Other throwback uniforms represent historic events, such as baseball's first night game in 1935, and the best Reds teams such as the 1976 "Big Red Machine" team that swept the postseason. There will be no 1869 throwbacks, because that early, bulky style could hinder players, Reds COO Phil Castellini said.
The pavilion is the first permanent recognition of the Red Stockings’ starting nine from that remarkable 57-0 season, plus an alternate player and the club’s president and secretary. Twelve bronze busts adorn the top of the pavilion, designed by local sculptor Tom Tsuchiya, who created the statues of 20th century Reds greats at the entrance to Great American Ball Park.
The pavilion is near where the Rose Garden used to mark the spot where Pete Rose's record 4,192nd hit landed in left field at Riverfront Stadium.
How Pro Baseball Began In Cincinnati
Four years after The Civil War, the Red Stockings debuted on May 4, 1869, with a 45-9 victory over Great Westerns of Cincinnati Base Ball Club. That first game was played at Union Grounds, a ballfield with a 4,000-seat grandstand located near present-day Union Terminal and Cincinnati Museum Center.
In their first season, the Red Stockings took the nation by storm, playing coast-to-coast with swings through the East and a transcontinental railroad trip to California, and they defeated all challengers. Their success paved the way for baseball to transition from an amateur sport and earned Cincinnati the title of “The Birthplace of Professional Baseball.”
"From a historical point of view and in the evolution of baseball as the national pastime, the 1869 Red Stockings were the cornerstone," said Greg Rhodes, the Reds team historian and co-author of "The First Boys of Summer." ''It's hard to imagine the modern game of baseball without the Red Stockings."
Who Were The Red Stockings?
The powerhouse team grew out of the goal of a couple Cincinnati attorneys to build their local baseball club into one that could beat the best teams in the East. Baseball's postwar popularity had swelled and paying players, often under the table, became more common in what had begun as a gentlemen's game.
The Red Stockings became the first openly all-salaried team after a quest for talent Major League Baseball historian John Thorn compares to New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's free spending more than a century later.
"This is a team comprised of the very best players that could be found and induced to come to Cincinnati," Thorn said.
The biggest coup was signing player-manager Harry Wright's younger brother George, a star who had been team-hopping.
That first payroll totaled around $10,000 for 10 players.
How Good Were They?
Thorn considers the 1869 squad among the best all-time teams. They averaged more than 40 runs a game and remain professional baseball's only undefeated team.
Thorn says 19 of their 57 wins came against teams also classified as "professional." Rhodes says Harry Wright didn't count in the win total more than a dozen other victories against teams that weren't recognized by baseball's national association.
His older brother's records show George Wright batted about .630 with 49 home runs while averaging nearly six runs scored per game. Thorn compares George in all-around ability for his time to Alex Rodriguez at his peak; a feared hitter who was also a superb fielder (in the pre-glove era) with a powerful arm that allowed him to play unusually deep at shortstop.
With players under contract, Harry, an England-born cricket star, worked them hard on baseball technique and physical training. The Red Stockings developed calling fly balls, using relay throws, making defensive shifts, and intentionally dropping pop-ups to turn double plays (not allowed under today's infield fly rule). They ran the bases more aggressively than opponents, and Harry Wright was a relief pitching innovator, coming in with his slow "dew drop" to disrupt batters' timing after fast-throwing regular pitcher Asa Brainard.
How Big A Deal Were The 1869 Red Stockings?
Wearing knickers with bright stockings instead of long pants gave the young (seven of the 10 were age 22 or younger), muscular players an eye-catching look that, the Chronicle of San Francisco observed, "shows their calves in all their magnitude and rotundity."
Author Darryl Brock, who retraced their travels for his historical novel, "If I Never Get Back," describes women greeting the players by lifting their skirts to show their own red stockings. The team arrived at games singing a ditty that concluded: "Red Stockings all will toss the ball, and shout our loud Hurrah!" They showed off their skills in crowd-pleasing warmup drills.
Before mass media, they became a national sensation through telegraph reports, newspapers and national weeklies.
"The nation had been so badly divided (by war)," said Brock. "They were kind of a bonding influence ... the enormous excitement they generated."
What Happened To The Team?
The players got $50 bonuses and returned for 1870. They ran their streak to 81, traveled south to play in New Orleans, and compiled a 124-6-1 two-season total.
Then they folded.
"They were a terrific success on the field," Rhodes said. "They could never quite figure out how to make it work financially."
Home attendance tumbled in 1870 after the first losses tarnished their mystique. With stepped-up spending by other teams, the club's management saw salaries rising beyond feasibility.
"Like today, there was this tension between the bigger markets and the smaller markets," Rhodes said.
The Wrights headed to Boston, using the Red Stockings name, and helped form the club in 1871 that today calls itself baseball's oldest continuously operating team. Surprise: it's not the Boston Red Sox, but the Braves, who became the Braves while in Boston, moved to Milwaukee, and settled in Atlanta.
Who Is Represented By The Busts In The 1869 Pavilion?
The busts represent:
• Asa Brainard, pitcher/outfield
• Doug Allison, catcher
• Charlie Gould, first base
• Charlie Sweasy, second base
• Fred Waterman, third base
• George Wright, shortstop
• Andy Leonard, left field
• Harry Wright, center field/pitcher (team captain)
• Cal McVey, right field
• William “Dick” Hurley, substitute
• Aaron Champion, club president
• John Joyce, secretary
What Other Events Are Planned?
On July 5, an off day, the Reds plan an "open house" allowing fans to visit Great American Ball Park for free, mingle with the team, and finish with an on-field concert and a fireworks show.
In the meantime, the Reds are offering fans a chance to win a daily prize of a Reds autographed baseball in the Mr. Redlegs Benches Sweepstakes. Share your photo of a 150th anniversary Mr. Redlegs bench on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #BornToBaseball. The sweepstakes runs Saturday through May 13. Each photo you post is an entry. Follow @Reds on Twitter and Instagram for official rules and more details.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.