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MLB's First Team: The Cincinnati Reds

Updated on August 24, 2020

Prior to the turn of the century baseball was the most popular sport in the United States. Leagues were popping up all across the nation following the Civil War and their was one problem; no organization. Tons of leagues were being formed but they had no governing body. The players themselves owned a portion of the team that they played for and had to work other jobs outside of the game to be able to afford to live comfortably. However, amateurism was tolerated under this “no organization” policy and from that many of baseball’s modern teams sprouted from it. In fact, in one of America’s oldest cities the first official professional team would form and with it the sport would grow monumentally. Following its formation other teams began classifying themselves and professionals and the organization of professional baseball began. That team was the Cincinnati Red Stockings, now referred to as the Cincinnati Reds. This is their story from the formation all the way to the 2020 season; they had ups and downs, winning years and disastrous existences throughout but they remain baseball’s first professional franchise and are an all-important staple in the game’s history.


Cincinnati along the Ohio River.
Cincinnati along the Ohio River.

Cincinnati is one of America’s oldest cities dating back just past the American Revolution. It was recorded initially as a portion of the Northwest Territory which would later become the states of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin Indiana, Illinois and a portion of Minnesota. However, with the turn of the century the area was used as an avenue for supplies as it was located along the Ohio River. It was a city of vital importance to the US military as along the routes up the Ohio there were over 30 installations and hundreds of thousands of lodgings, and places to travel. It was commonly referred to as the “Queen of the West” and it earned its namesake as by that point in time America was still developing much of its Northern territories. It was a major port for steamboats, manufacturing, meatpacking and woodworking. Prior to the Civil War, Cincinnati was America’s 6th largest city with a population of 115,000. During the US Civil War, the city was used as a station on the Underground Railroad and is now home to the museum that honors those who traveled it. After the Civil War, the population went to 300,000 as it possessed many jobs for incoming immigrants and impoverished Americans alike. However, their was an underlying sport that the city loved and the game would find its first professional home there in 1866.

Baseball in Cincinnati

Cincinnati Red Stockings, 1869.
Cincinnati Red Stockings, 1869.

During the Civil War there was documentation of a game being played around the Union camps that appeared very similar to the English game rounders. Rounders was thought of as a game that was disrespectful to Nativists because it came from England and for over a century the United States has attempted to dispel itself from its previous colonizers. However, the game that the Union soldiers played was nevertheless very similar with some differing rules. Players were allowed gloves and the bats in rounders were shorter and only allowed to be swung with one hand. In distancing itself America made the game more American by adding some obstacles to it. They subtracted players, created grounds built for the game and furthermore, wanted it to be the official sport of the United States. Amateur teams began forming across the United States from New York all the way down to Georgia. As they were amateurs, they made no money on what they played for but in retrospect they were not officially owned by anyone which technically did not make them amateurs at all. Cincinnati’s team was referred to as the “Resolute Base Ball Club of Cincinnati”. The team was formed by several lawyers and officials who felt that the city being so large needed a team to rally behind with the growing popularity of the sport. By the end of the 1860s the Cincinnati Red Stockings began signing professional players to their team which no longer classified them as an amateur squad. Players at the time made $10 to every $1 of an average workers wage. Even back then they were grossly overpaid compared to their fanbase but people continued to watch them play. They were given the name Red Stockings in 1869 because their uniforms included red stockings which became an identifier for one of baseball’s most popular teams the Boston Red Sox who had not been formed yet. They won 130 games in a row and still hold baseball’s longest winning streak. However, in 1870 the team dissolved due to other professional teams offering bigger contracts for players. The team in 1871 decided to move and would become the Atlanta Braves many years later.

With the formation of the National League in 1876 the funding grew for baseball to return to Cincinnati and the Red Stockings became one of the first members of the newly formed league. The Red Stockings experience moderate success but were never champions. Instead they received a fate worse than death. Due to various team violations they were expelled from the league permanently. At Red Stockings games concessions included alcohol which was a no-no at the time and they allowed their park to be used for recreational activities on Sundays that did not include baseball. These violations caused the National League to exterminate the team. It was not until 1882 that professional baseball would return to Cincinnati when the Red Stockings officially became known as the Reds. They could not claim their previous name due to the violations that had occurred previously but also because the Boston Red Sox had formed and the names would be too similar.

Turn of the Century

Cincinnati Red Stockings, 1909.
Cincinnati Red Stockings, 1909.

With the formation of the American League and the National League professional baseball had officially created a united body after 30 years. The Red played as representatives of the National League and remain there to this day. The Reds again returned to moderate success during the early 1900s. They had a future Hall of Famer in Sam Crawford and they had the unofficial stolen bases leader in Bob Bescher. They were not at all a championship squad and spent much of their time in baseball’s second tier. As of 1911, they were officially given a trademark as the Reds and remained so permanently.

Baseball in Cincinnati changed for the better after 1911. As a team they finished 4th in the league and won the National League Pennant in 1919. Their first championship in 1919 would come under controversy as it was not considered legitimate due to the White Sox being accused of losing the series on purpose. The White Sox were a well superior team that year and in response to their owner Charles Comisky underpaying them. The Reds were given the title and the White Sox were never convicted of point shaving but were banned from ever playing again. This put the Reds in a difficult spot. They had beaten the New York Giants who were considered to be baseball’s best team of the decade but in their strive to winning baseball’s ultimate crown, the World Series, were under sold because of the White Sox mistake. This was to be the last time that the Reds would remain at the top of baseball as they soon made their way back to the second division of baseball.


By 1933, with the early years of the Great Depression the Reds were going bankrupt. No person wants to see a losing franchise and the Reds were not exactly winners. The Reds were brought by Powel Crosley Jr., a broadcasting tycoon of the time. He hired Larry MacPhail to be his general manager to turn the team back into a contender. The Reds started by re-evaluating their minor league franchises. They secondly started to become the team to do several things first. They were the first team to host a night game in 1935; in 1938 they were the first team to throw back-to-back no-hitters. The team developed and improved in the late 1930s and Crosley and MacPhail were attempting to bring the first legitimate championship to Cincinnati. The Reds developed their offense and at one point had the highest batting average and most hits in the league over a certain period. They also changed managers in 1938 and hired Bill McKechnie. McKechnie turned the roster around and wanted more hitters in the lineup. He wanted a team to compete with the American League Champions New York Yankees. The Yankees had dominated baseball up to that point in and had won the most championships at that point. The Reds made their way into the top 4 in the National League in 1938 and in 1939 the Reds won the National League Pennant and made their way to the World Series against the New York Yankees. The Yankees led by one of the best lineups ever destroyed the Reds in four games to earn their 8th championship.

Finishing in runner up to the Yankees put the Reds back in the spotlight but not getting the ultimate prize haunted them that year. The following year the New York Yankees were again a tough competitor but did not finish atop the American League. The Champion Detroit Tigers made their first trip in almost 20 years to the World Series. While this was happening, the Reds won 100 games and lost 53 games. They outscored their opponents 4:1 making them one of the best single season ratios ever. None of their players were atop in batting average or hits that year either which makes this statistic even more impressive. They again won the Pennant in 1940 and played the Tigers in the World Series. It took 7 games for the Reds to eventually take the title in 1940. They had won a legitimate championship finally, but their best years were still ahead of them.


Outfielder and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.
Outfielder and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

The Post-war era was not very kind to the Reds. Initially towards the end of the 1940s the Reds were not at all a World Series contender. However, they had individual achievements in their ranks. They were led by the hard-hitting Ted Kluszewski who would go on to be a four-time All-Star with the Reds. He led the league in Home Runs in 1954. In 1956 they would possess one of the greatest players in MLB history in Frank Robinson. Robinson won Rookie of the Year in 1956 and the Reds hit 221 Home Runs leading the league. Robinson played for the Red for another 9 seasons with the Reds. They even had controversy regarding their name. The 1950s were important because of the rise of the phobia of communism. With tensions with the Soviet Union the world was frightened by communism spreading into the Western World. The Reds were forced to change their name in the late 1950s because they felt that “Reds” promoted communist thought. Instead they were referred to as the “Redlegs” which reflected the teams earlier name the “Red Stockings.” Furthermore, as a result of issues with Major League Baseball the Redlegs were being considered to move out west as Major League Baseball was looking to have more than simply the Dodgers. However, this decision was quickly disbanded because the Reds ticket sales were one of the highest in the league. Not to mention, Frank Robinson was working his way to becoming one of the best in the game which furthered the decision to keep the team in place.

In the 1960s we began to see the Reds that we came to know as legends. In their farm system the Reds possessed almost an entire Hall of Fame roster. To name a few, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Johnny Bench all were brought up as Reds and would remain there for almost their entire career. These players and more began the development of one of the greatest teams ever assembled. They would be referred to as “The Big Red Machine” but that would not amount until the 1970s. With the building of a new stadium the Reds again avoided moving as an expansion franchise to San Diego. What made the Reds was some front office moves most notably at the General Manager position. In 1967 the Reds hired Bob Howsam. He had moderate success with the St. Louis Cardinals and had improved their farm system making them a contender for the World Series almost annually. What was impressive about Howsam was that he had never played in the sport professionally. He became a great General Manager all on his own. Howsam not only improved the team but changed their culture similar to what was seen in New York years later under George Steinbrenner. The rules included no facial hair of any kind and no hair below your collar. This rule helped and hurt the Reds who were trying to put together a championship caliber team. They lost Rollie Fingers to this rule because he refused to shave his mustache which was his trademark. This rule remained in place until 1999. Aside from winning the NL Pennant in 1961 and losing to the Yankees in the World Series they were no other opportunities in the 1960s to win the World Series.


Members of "The Big Red Machine"
Members of "The Big Red Machine"

The late 1960s were successful but they failed to excel past the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1970 they looked to thwart the Dodgers from the ultimate crown. Howsam hired “Sparky” Anderson to get the team in shape. For the next decade the Reds would experience their greatest success. Referred to as “The Big Red Machine”, the offensive production was something never seen before by Major League Baseball. In 1970 they won 70 of their first 100 games and were led by Pete Rose, Lee May, and Tony Perez. Furthermore, their pitching was just as good; they had veterans Tony Cloninger and Clay Carroll. The Reds won the Pennant and were the favorite to win the World Series for the first time since the 1919. Unfortunately, they fell short to the Baltimore Orioles who had their previously famous outfielder Frank Robinson. It would 13 years before the Orioles would win a World Series. 1971 was a disaster for the Reds this would be their first losing season in over a decade, but the Reds did make a major pickup in George Foster. Foster had been playing in San Francisco but was overshadowed by Bobby Bonds who was a better hitter and fielder with the Giants. Foster would come into his own later by earning 5 All-Star appearances all with the Reds. 1972 was a great year for the Reds who returned to the World Series. They faced the Oakland Athletics but again lost as Oakland posssed the Reggie Jackson. 1975 and 1976 belonged to the Reds. The greatest batting order ever arguably took the field those two years under “Sparky” Anderson. The team was headlined by Pete Rose but also contained Joe Morgan at 2nd base, George Foster at Leftfielder, and Ken Griffey Sr. at Right. The 1975 series was one of the greatest in baseball history. The Reds faced the Boston Red Sox. The Reds and Red Sox matched up pretty evenly and went all the way to a Game 7. A Carlton Fisk home run in Game 6 brough the series to a winner take all Game 7 which the Reds won decisively. Joe Morgan who the Reds had signed in 1972 hit an RBI single to win the game and earn the Reds their first championship in 35 years. 1976 was more of the same, the Reds demolished their competition and did not lost a single game in the playoffs that year. They were the first team since the 1921-1922 New York Giants to win back-to-back championships. The Reds won 4 pennants and 2 World Series championships in the decade.

This success though would be brief for the Reds as the team would be disbanded by 1981. Pete Rose left in 1979 to go to Philadelphia where he would win a World Series in 1980. Johnny Bench retired in 1982 and Ken Griffey went to the Yankees. The 1980s were a disappointing decade to be a Reds fan. They came in second four times in their division and did not win a single World Series. They had a new owner who was not well liked by those that she employed. Marge Schott was accused of being a racist and homophobic which would not fly in today’s world. Along with this Rose’s return to the Reds was short-lived as he became a player manager. His success with the Reds gave him the all-time hitting crown as a Red but it was the last great thing to happen to Rose in his life. In 1989, under Commissioner Bart Giamatti’s watch Pete Rose received a lifetime ban for gambling on games. The Reds were down on their luck in the 1980s because of these shortcomings.


Barry Larkin
Barry Larkin
Ken Griffey Jr.
Ken Griffey Jr.


The 2010s started with a division championship in 2010 and 2012, a wild card appearance in 2013 but nothing more since then. The Reds had some noteworthy hitters in Jay Bruce and Joey Votto but Bruce left and Votto now in his late 30s is the last remaining Red to remember the inaugural season at Great American Ballpark. The 2010s saw more of the same. The Red were a playoff contender but never seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as they could not keep their talent in Cincinnati. The Reds had minor success in 2019 but failed again to contend for a playoff race.

The Cincinnati Reds were one of the greatest franchises in all of Major League Baseball and through the 1970s won more games during the time period than any other team. Their swift back-to-back World Series made them household names in the state of Ohio and they have since been the last professional team until the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 to bring a championship to the state. Their role in the ever-growing Major-League Baseball is as important as the game has been to its fans for over 100 years. It is hard to believe that it started all the way in 1882 in a city that was building itself up to become the “Queen of the Midwest.”


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