Each spring the baseball season returns to bring fans a new basket of hope. Like spring itself, baseball emerges from the cold, gray winter to remind us that renewal is here. That all things are possible. Even for fans of the worst baseball teams.
In Cincinnati, the first baseball game of the season is special. It’s opening with a capital “O”, it’s day with a capital “D.” In Cincinnati, folks take Opening Day off from work. Kids stay home from school. People get their Reds caps out of the closet. They dust off their Pete Rose bobblehead. (It nods repeatedly “Yes, I belong in the Hall of Fame…Yes, I belong in the Hall of Fame…“)
But why does Cincinnati have a unique tradition with baseball’s opening day?
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Why Do The Reds Have a Special Tradition with Opening Day?
Someone once said, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”
That’s a little of why Cincinnati is a traditional opening day host. The city rests in the southern, more temperate part of Ohio, across the river from Kentucky. One could toss a silver dollar across the Ohio River from one state to the other. Well, you could do it if you could throw a coin a third of a mile, which is about the shortest distance between Cincinnati and the Bluegrass State. In 1914, a Reds catcher named Thomas Aloysius Clarke attempted just that. He tried to throw a silver dollar across the Ohio River in a pre-game festivity on Opening Day. He failed. But he still retained that amazing middle name.
Cincinnati can trace professional baseball back to the 1860s when the famed Cincinnati Red Stockings were the grandest team in the country. That team went 64-0. In those days, when a team won a game, they were awarded the baseball. They would paint the ball (usually gold) and record the date and score on the sphere. Then the team would display the balls in a case at their honorary home, like an athletic club or a saloon.
How great is that? Why don’t we bring that tradition back? Imagine how cool it would be to go to a pub and see a trophy case with the baseballs from your favorite teams’ victories. Cheers!
Cincinnatians who love Opening Day can also thank Frank Bancroft, a crusty Civil War veteran who managed many baseball teams in the 19th century but made his most indelible mark as business manager of the Redlegs. In 1908, determined to establish a spectacle that would draw folks to the first game of the season, Bancroft instituted an “Opening Day Caravan” which included horse-drawn buggies, Civil War veterans on horseback, and members of the Cincinnati team in early Mercedes Benz automobiles. The party traveled the dusty streets of the city, which at that time smelled rather strongly of the thousands of pigs that were slaughtered daily in the profitable pork industry. Yum! and Play Ball!
Thanks to Bancroft, Cincinnati was the first city to have a pre-game Opening Day parade, the first to have fireworks, and the first municipality (apparently) to mandate the date as a holiday. Annually, the Mayor of Cincinnati, typically a middle-aged man with a bushy mustache and/or spectacles, was required to make a speech and possibly toss out the first pitch at Crosley Field. No one enjoyed the task more than Mayor Julius Fleischmann, a millionaire playboy who once owned a semi-pro baseball team called The Shamrocks, who were (in spite of the name), not very lucky. Julius also bought and sold thoroughbred horses like it was a bodily function, chased women like it was a sport, and later built his family’s yeast business into the Fleischmann company, which went on to make oodles of money selling margarine and dairy products. Yum again!
The confluence of history, geography, economics, and politics led Cincinnati to become the king of opening day in baseball. And you thought education stopped when you were 18?
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Findlay Market, Opening Day, and the Reds
In 1919, the Reds finally won a modern World Series. The next spring when Opening Day came around, local business people and city leaders gathered to plan a special celebration. Thus was born the Findlay Market Parade.
On April 14, 1920, thousands of citizens congregated in the Findlay Market area of Cincinnati, where shopkeepers closed their businesses and offered drinks and food for free to attendees. The annual caravan took off from there, and ballplayers and team officials traveled the streets to Crosley Field for the first game of the season. The Reds won 7-3, and superstar Edd Roush — one of the best Cincinnati Reds of all time — even hit a home run.
For decades, the Findlay Market Parade has remained a staple, traveling to Crosley, and then to Riverfront Stadium, which opened in 1970 in time to host The Big Red Machine.
Today, the city hosts a parade that winds through the Findlay Market neighborhood and ends a few hours before game time, hosted at Great American Ball Park. The entire event is a holiday in the Queen City. The 2022 season marked the 101st Findlay Market Parade.
“Baseball’s Opening Day is meant for Cincinnati, and Cincinnati is meant for Opening Day,” Rose said in 1986 when he was player-manager of the Reds.
AP Photo/Aaron Doster