150 years ago, pro baseball began in Cincinnati
The Cincinnati Base Ball Club, also known as the Cincinnati Red Stockings, fielded the first known openly professional team in 1869 and played its first game against an opposing club on May 4.
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On May 4, Cincinnati took on its first NABBP opponent, the Great Western Base Ball Club of Cincinnati. That morning’s Cincinnati Daily Enquirer announced that “[b]oth clubs will send forth the whole of their first nines, and a very interesting game may be expected.” What level of interest there was is uncertain, but the Red Stockings proved dominant, besting their crosstown foes, 45-9.
Nearly a week later, they thumped the Kekionga club of Fort Wayne, Ind., 86-8. Not all the scores would resemble modern football scores – on June 15, the Red Stockings played a tightly contested match with New York’s Mutual Base Ball Club, one of the east coast’s best. The club from Cincinnati eked out a 4-2 victory.
In September, Cincinnati traveled to San Francisco for a handful of games, making them the first baseball club to play on both coasts of the United States. On Nov. 6, the Mutual club visited Cincinnati for the Red Stockings’ final NABBP match of the year. It was not as close as their June tilt, but the result, again, was in the Red Stockings’ favor, 17-8. That win capped a 57-0 record against NABBP opponents, and Wright’s squad also gained seven additional wins for a total record of 64-0.
With the same lineup in place for 1870, the Cincinnati Red Stockings scheduled another tour against opponents throughout the eastern and central United States – though there was apparently a proposal to tour Europe. On June 14, with 24 wins in as many decisions, the Red Stockings visited the Capitoline Grounds, home of Brooklyn’s Atlantic club. Before 20,000 fans, the clubs were knotted at five runs apiece after nine innings were played. Harry Wright declined the Atlantic club’s offer to end the game, instead calling for extra innings. Cincinnati scored twice in the top of the 11th inning, but in the bottom half of the frame, the Atlantic club plated three, winning when George Zettlein drove in Bob Ferguson.
According to a telegraph sent after the game, this was the “finest game ever played. Our boys did nobly, but fortune was against us. Eleven innings played. Though beaten, not disgraced.”
The next day, the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer devoted two columns to game coverage, including a box score and the play-by-play account. The newspaper described the game’s drama like this:
The excitement was intense from beginning to last, the silence being so great at time that one could hear the suppressed breathing of the players, and the vast crowd at time – a study of the game will tell when – breaking out into the most tumultuous cheering ever heard on a ball ground. Nearly all our nine played splendidly, but they were beaten squarely and fairly, two or three not playing up to their high mark.
Cincinnati finished its 1870 tour with five more losses – including another to Brooklyn’s Atlantic Club on Oct. 25 in Philadelphia – and a tie, but still with 67 wins.
In November 1870, with the cost of employing professional becoming burdensome, the Cincinnati club’s board elected not to field a team for 1871. Harry Wright left for Boston, taking three teammates including his brother and the team’s nickname to Massachusetts, to help start a new ballclub in the nascent National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NAPBBP, also known simply as the National Association or NA). Other Cincinnati Red Stockings found homes with other clubs. The Wright brothers and ex-Cincinnati ballplayers Cal McVey and Charlie Gould led the Boston Red Stockings, along with pitcher Albert Spalding, in the new league in 1871. Falling short in the inaugural season, the Bostonians took four straight league championships (1872-1875) before the team became a part of the National League.
The Cincinnati Red Stockings made their mark as the first openly professional baseball club in 1869. Members of the team would go on to form a club that still plays ball 150 years later, the Atlanta Braves.
Baseball has changed in many ways over the years; some would argue it has developed for the better and others might posit differing opinions. While pay rates have ballooned in 150 years, the basics of baseball remain largely steadfast and civic pride for a club, as Cincinnati felt for its erstwhile Red Stockings, is as strong as it ever was.
Matt Rothenberg is a freelance writer from Ossining, N.Y.