Opening day engenders the same intense, passionate interest and rich sentimentality in Cincinnati as the Kentucky Derby does in Louisville. Admittedly, certain out-of-town cynics, who follow the National League pennant race with overly dispassionate eyes, have referred to Cincinnati's annual renascence of hope as a form of self-hypnosis, similar to that practiced by Indian fire walkers. This viewpoint, however, could only be held by someone with the soul of a statistician and is, therefore, unworthy of consideration.
To be in Cincinnati in the weeks just before the first baseball game of the season is to regain belief in the resiliency of man. This is the time of reborn faith, when all previous disappointments and frustrations are forgotten and confidence in the future gleams with pristine beauty. For Cincinnatians, Opening Day is the unfailingly effective spring tonic for the weary spirit.
As the great day approaches, bits of gossip from the Reds' training camp are gathered, repeated and magnified with childlike faith in the improbable. The rookie outfielder is reported to hit like Williams, run like Cobb and field like Mays. The pitcher Cincinnati received on waivers from St. Louis is said to have completely regained the form which made him famous a decade ago and to be currently baffling the finest batters in the Grapefruit League. Last year two Cincinnati sluggers who were supposed to break the hearts of the seven competing teams had some difficulty maintaining .250 averages, but now, rumor has it, they've corrected the minor flaws in stance and swing, and balls are sailing over fences with awe-inspiring regularity.
Even the most knowing fans—and Cincinnati has a larger percentage of true baseball aficionados than any other city in the country—are caught up in the wave of optimism. Only someone with the sadistic impulses of a Caligula would point out that the same kinds of folk tales were being told the previous year and that, if history serves as a guide, the rookie outfielder will be back in the Pacific Coast League by June, the retread pitcher will, on the average, take his shower in the fourth inning of every game he starts and the two sluggers will again cause a minimum of insomnia among managers of opposing clubs.
The baseball fever mounts and stories become more and more glowing as the Reds start their trek northward. Meanwhile, at the club's offices in the Union Central Building in Cincinnati, a frantic but happy scene is being played. A politician pleads that hara-kiri is the only alternative course for him if he fails to provide two extra tickets for a big campaign contributor. A fan who has not missed an Opening Day in 30 years explains that he was desperately ill when tickets first went on sale and implores the box office not to besmirch his record of attendance. A businessman claims that only a pair of grandstand seats will save the account which is life or death for his firm.
Although all the reserved-seat sections could easily be sold out a year in advance—an enormous number of boxes are held on a year-after-year basis by various companies and by families who pass the privilege down from father to son—the management tries to maintain the good will of the fans by using a quota system to keep tickets out of the hands of scalpers. A sellout for the game is as automatic as for the first night of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, even if the team finished at the bottom of the league in the previous season.
This curious, but highly profitable, devotion of the fans to the annual debut of the team has given Cincinnati a unique privilege in the National League. The Reds are the only team in the circuit that always plays its first game at home. The fiscal reason for granting this prerogative is obvious. Although Cincinnati is the second-smallest city in the nation with a major league franchise and Crosley Field is the smallest ball park in the National League, the crowds drawn by the Reds on Opening Days are always among the largest in the country.
Two days before the opening game last year I stopped in to see Gabe Paul, general manager of the Reds, to find if the annual pattern was being repeated. It obviously was. In the outer office two overwrought young women were courageously attempting to cope with a switchboard which was lit up like a jukebox. Clerks scurried from office to office at a pace somewhere between a trot and a canter. One man opened the door of his office, took one look at the host of waiting visitors, muttered "Oh" in a stricken voice and rebarricaded himself in his lair.
When I finally was ushered into Gabe Paul's office, he was talking to someone on the telephone. He waved me to a chair as he continued to explain with the soothing tact of a career diplomat why the urgent request for a box just above the Reds' dugout could not possibly be honored. When the conversation ended, I offered my sympathy on the ordeal he was undergoing.
"You don't offer condolences to a prospector who's working his tail off shoveling gold into a wheelbarrow," he said with a benign smile. "This problem I'd like to have for every game of the season."
"Full house?" I asked.
"Full house, over 32,000 including those 4,000 temporary seats we'll have in the outfield for this one game," he said. He frowned. "The pitchers hate those extra seats—every long fly becomes a ground-rule double—but when we talked about not using them one year, the fans were ready to organize a lynch mob. Pitchers, like other artists, must suffer," he added with a not unhappy sigh.
Even this brief exchange was interrupted so often by the telephone that I began to feel like a referee trying to converse with one of the participants in a prizefight. As I rose to leave, I wished Paul luck in the forthcoming game.
For the first time his face became solemn. "Just say a small prayer that it doesn't rain," he said. "If we had to honor all those rain checks...." He shuddered.
As a baseball man with, presumably, a total, unquestioning faith in percentages, Paul had little reason to fear. The Reds played their first National League opening game in Cincinnati in 1876 and, with the exception of 1877, the team has begun all other seasons at home. Only twice during all of these years has weather forced a postponement. This astonishing record of benevolent behavior on the part of the elements may explain, in part, why the natives have such a strong, mystical feeling about their spring rite.
When I left Paul's office, I walked around town to observe the impact of the forthcoming game upon the commerce of Cincinnati. Each of the large department stores and many of the small shops had one or more window displays devoted to baseball. Festoons of Red pennants decorated almost all establishments. Miniature balls, bats and gloves were being combined in arrangements with carnations, roses and other flora at Jones The Florist. Numerous offices and places of business bore cards notifying the public of a noon closing hour on Opening Day. Local courts also close at noon, and all Cincinnati public high schools dismiss pupils for the afternoon.
The day before the game, I went to Crosley Field. The newly painted seats and stands, the geometric perfection of the seemingly lacquered infield, the straight, white foul lines, the lush, vivid green of the outfield—all gleaming under a bright, warm April sun were as oddly stirring as that moment before the curtain rises on a highly anticipated play.
"Doesn't look too bad," said Matty Schwab, who has been park superintendent since 1903. Matty and his father, John, are the only two superintendents the Reds have ever had. But even after Matty retires there is little likelihood that the clan's connection with baseball will end. Matty's younger brother, Leonard, is in charge of the Crosley playing field and Matty's grandson, Mike Dolan, works with the maintenance crew in the stands. In addition, Matty Jr., who was trained in Cincinnati, is supervisor of the Giants' park in San Francisco.
Matty took me on a tour around the infield, and afterward I went below the stands to see Bill Schwartz, the concession manager at Crosley Field. Bill was surrounded by cases of candy, soft drinks, cigars, cigarettes, beer and similar items—enough, it seemed to me, to stock all of the post exchanges in the U.S. Army at home and abroad.
"We'll have a hungry, thirsty, smoking crowd tomorrow," Bill said. "We'll sell tons of hot dogs and bratwurst, fish sticks, shrimp and hamburger and who knows how many peanuts. There'll be 250 uniformed vendors working in the stands, plus all the girls who do the cooking at the counters underneath the stands. I figure we'll sell about 15,000 score cards, maybe a couple thousand of the Reds Yearbooks that cost 50¢ each and a thousand souvenir caps and bats."
"How about the beer?" I asked. "This is supposed to be a beer-drinking town."
"It sure is," he said. "If the weather's mild like today, we'll probably sell 30,000 bottles, that's way over one apiece for every adult who'll be here. If it's hot, we'll top that figure. Of course, if it's cold, we may sell a few less."
After leaving the ball park, I drove to the northern section of the downtown area to see how the Findlay Market merchants were coming along with their plans. The pregame parade of this association of store owners and operators of open stalls has been an integral part of Opening Day ceremonies in Cincinnati for 40 years and I wanted to make certain that the tradition would be continued.
"They can't start the game until Findlay Market appears," Chester A. Lathrop, chairman of the 1959 and 1960 programs said proudly. Lathrop, who has been proprietor of a drugstore on the square for 35 years, poured coffee for us at the soda fountain and then joined me in one of the booths. I asked him how the annual custom had started.
"We're all red-hot fans around here," he said, "and right after World War I, we decided to go to the Opening Game in a body. Each year we try to do something a little different. Last year we all carried gas-filled balloons. This year we'll all be wearing red carnations. In addition to our band, the mayor and a flock of judges, there'll probably be about 200 of us in the procession this year. That's almost our entire membership. We start from here at 12:30 tomorrow and parade all the way to the ball park. Takes about an hour. We draw good crowds, too. Did you know that all the grade schools along the route let the kids out to watch us pass? When we get out to the park, we and the band march all the way around the outfield and assemble at home plate for the ceremonies." He shook his head. "Yes, sir, it's a big day, I can tell you."
It was, too. The Redlegs won 4-1. But that was last year.