CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Reds are fashionably celebrating the 150th anniversary of the professional baseball-pioneering Red Stockings team.
Joey Votto and crew will play games in 15 sets of throwback uniforms, including a navy blue and a red-pants “Palm Beach” version, during a season-long celebration of the city's baseball heritage highlighted by the undefeated 1869 Cincinnati team that barnstormed coast-to-coast in post-Civil War America. Baseball's first openly all-salaried club, the Red Stockings popularized eye-catching uniforms with knicker-style pants and bright red socks while elevating the sports with a variety of innovations.
“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."
Six questions and answers about the anniversary:
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 after going 57-0.
Thorn says 19 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 they?
The Red Stockings took the nation by storm, playing coast-to-coast with swings through the East and a transcontinental railroad trip to California.
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.
What’s planned for tributes?
All Major League Baseball teams will wear uniform patches marking 150 years throughout this season, and there will be special patches for caps for their opening day games, said Barbara McHugh, MLB senior vice president for marketing. There will also be season-long special content on MLB's social media channels, and McHugh said Commissioner Rob Manfred will be in Cincinnati for the March 28 Opening Day festivities and will take part in the annual pregame parade through the city.
The Reds, meanwhile, will have their own commemorative patches, with different versions for home and away uniforms.
And that's just for starters.
“You don't do it in one day or in one homestead or even in a month, so we're really taking the entire season to celebrate that and tell you about the history a little piece at a time,” said Phil Castellini, the Reds’ chief operating officer.
Some 20 benches will be placed around the Cincinnati region depicting handlebar-mustached mascot Mr. Redlegs, ready for fan selfies. The club's Hall of Fame and Museum will re-open in March after a sweeping renovation. On May 4, the Reds will open “The 1869 Pavilion” outdoors in tribute to the Red Stockings who played their first official game that date.
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.
The uniforms will 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. The 1911 blue road uniforms and 1930s lightweight "Palm Beach" style with red pants are examples of unusual styles. There will be no 1869 throwbacks, because that early, bulky style could hinder players, Castellini said.
New Reds manager David Bell is looking forward to the throwbacks, particularly a 1956 version. That's the year his grandfather Gus Bell helped the Reds tie the then-MLB record for home runs with 221.
“Wearing a uniform like that is an honor,” said Bell, whose father Buddy also played for the Reds. “You think about all the great players, the great people who wore those uniforms. It really means a lot.”
What about the current Reds?
After four straight last-place finishes, the Reds have overhauled their pitching and added past All-Star outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp for 2019.
“It's critical because our job on the business side of this franchise is to wrap the show around the game on the field,” Castellini said. “We were already throwing a great party ... It's important that you have that performance on the field, because that good time can only go so far.”
Lifelong fan Steve Pohlman, 47, and son Tyler, 18, turned out for the team's recent winter caravan tour and will be at 150th anniversary events.
“It's something I'll be able to tell my kids and grandkids about,” Tyler said. As for the Reds’ recent struggles: “We've just got to stick with it. This is Cincinnati baseball.”