Baseball, more than any sport, is a game of history, and there are only a handful of teams that can claim the heritage that equals that of the Cincinnati Reds. The Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, and Cardinals are the ones that come to my mind as being mentioned in the same breath.
My reason for giving these teams the nod? They have all been playing this great game for the longest period of time in the same cities where they started. Their stadiums, though not all of them, the same ones that they originally started with, have remained very close by when they moved into a new one. Two of them play in parks over 100 years old, Fenway and Wrigley. You have many of the greatest players and teams over the years, and in some cases, it was years of frustration that solidified their fan bases.
One thing that the Reds have embraced in celebrating their past is The Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, which is adjacent to the Great American Ball Park. It offers two floors with over 15,000 square feet of exhibit space and for historical perspective, it sits on the site that was once left field in Riverfront Stadium. It has been said by some that it is the second best baseball museum, next to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown.
When I asked the Reds’ Chris Eckes, operations manager and chief curator of the museum that question, he laughed, then said, “I’ve been told that some people in St. Louis might like to argue with you about that.”
Nothing like a little National League Central Division rivalry coming into play, even amongst the team’s museums.
When I visited the museum during the 2018 baseball season, their exhibit was “Reds Threads,” a study of the uniforms worn by the team since its start in 1869 as The Red Stockings, all the way up through what they were wearing for the 2018 season. Over 120 Reds uniform items were on display in cases throughout the main floor. There were also jerseys from 26 major league teams past and present, on display as well throughout the building, which tied into the exhibit. Included were the teams that played against the two-time World Champion “Big Red Machine” back in the 1970s, from both the American and National Leagues. If you are a collector or student of uniforms, it was an exhibit well worth seeing.
“This is one of the largest uniform exhibits ever assembled and displayed for the public to see,” Eckes said. He was quick to point out that Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Frank Grob, considered by many as the foremost authenticator and collector of major league uniforms, was instrumental in helping put it all together. “Several of the pieces came from his private collection.” They also collaborated with the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to help make it happen.
When you first walked in, the exhibit started with a replica uniform of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first all professional baseball team from 1869. Why a replica, you ask? Up until this point in time, no original has ever turned up, or is known to exist. I asked Eckes what if he one day got a call from someone who thought they might have one?
“We would love to talk with them,” he said. He pointed out that they don’t purchase items and what they have on exhibit have come straight from the Reds, been donated, or are on loan. I asked if a benefactor might factor into the equation if such a find was ever made, and he said “That could be a possibility.”
The Reds become a charter member of the National League when it was formed in 1876. I always thought the Reds were the oldest and longest running team in the majors. What I didn’t know, and found out on my trip to Cincinnati, was that the Reds were expelled from the National League in October 1880, due in part to their renting out their ballpark on Sundays, and for refusing to stop selling beer at their ballgames. A month later they became a founding member of the American Association at a meeting in the Gibson Hotel in Cincinnati. It would be in late 1889 before they were granted readmission to the National League. How ironic this seems today when you look at the large roll that beer sales and advertising play into the budgets of major league teams, and that every team now play on Sundays.
The exhibit went into the history of major league uniforms over the years, including the changing of materials. They even had on display a uniform swatch book from 1951 that was used by teams to pick out the material they wanted to use from the McGregor/Goldsmith Sporting Goods Company. From wool flannel in the early years, to the colorful double knits of the 1970s, to the blends of today’s more traditional looking uniforms, the changes over the years were discussed and displayed. There were display cases with the different uniforms used by the Reds for each decade from the 1920s going forward up until what they wore last season.
Here are things from the exhibits that stood out to me:
A case with unique and unusual uniform offerings starting in 1926 and made by the Goldsmith Company. Included were a 1967 Reds home jersey, a 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates away jersey, a 1934 Chicago White Sox home jersey, a 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers away jersey (Jackie Robinson’s rookie year), and a Cleveland Indians away jersey from the 1959 season. All these jerseys were actually made in the city of Cincinnati.
The oldest authentic piece on display was a 1920s Reds home cap from Chuck Dressen, on loan from the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He played in the infield from 1925-1931.
I liked the white batting helmet worn by Johnny Bench in 1983, including a picture of him with it on. Chances are, unless you are a long time die hard Reds fan, you have not seen this before, as it was used only in spring training that year down in Tampa, Florida. The decision was made to not use them in the regular season. Also on display was a black batting helmet that was worn by catcher Jason LaRue, listed as a “catchers’ helmet.” He was a Red from 1999 to 2006. His 2002 Fleer Traditions baseball card is a great picture of him wearing this.
There was a display box featuring all the jerseys worn by the Reds during the 2017 season. In it were 15 different ones; everything from your everyday home and away shirts, to one for Jackie Robinson Day with the number 42, some throwbacks, a Father’s Day one, and two different military appreciation jerseys in camo, plus a Hispanic one with ‘Los Rojos’ across the front. Of course some were done to honor others, yet all were done with some marketing in mind as well. Just like going to a hockey game, you see more and more baseball fans showing up with their favorite team and player jerseys on, and it is a great trend. At the stadium the Reds have a program for kids called “Reds Heads” that includes them getting their own jersey when they join. I think this is all great for the growth of the game.
As I mentioned earlier, there was a display case of uniforms from different teams that played against “The Big Red Machine” in the 1970s. As you can imagine, there was quite a bit of polyester in that one.
There were gray away game jerseys from both Pete Rose and Johnny Bench from the flannel era. Here you found two of baseball’s all-time greats and their classic-looking threads. Hey, it doesn’t get much better than that. I always thought those Reds gray jerseys were a classic look.
Speaking of Rose, Cincinnati’s native son is not banned from the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, as he is prominently on display throughout. There is a wall stretching three floors, covered with 4,256 baseballs, representing each of his record major league hits. It is in the south end of the building and you can look out the window and see a rose garden that marks the spot where his record breaking hit to pass Ty Cobb landed in what was left of center field in Riverfront Stadium. In this Hall of Fame he has a plaque, joining all the other Reds honorees. He hangs right above his longtime teammate, Joe Morgan, considered by many as the best second baseman of all time.
I spied a jersey of Ted Kluszewski, the popular slugging first baseman who played for the Reds in the 1950s. Kids from my era remember him for his huge arms that he showed off by having his sleeves cut off up to his shoulders. This one here was altered just as I remembered. He said he did it so as not to rip his jerseys when he swung. Leo Durocher once remarked, “He was so strong that I didn’t think he was human.”
Now I’m stepping inside Great American Ball Park for this one, but no trip to Cincinnati is complete without checking out the two frescoed murals in the stadium. One is of the 1869 Red Stockings and the other is of the eight everyday starters of the ’75-’76 “Big Red Machine.” The famous Roebling Bridge is in the background of both. It is beautiful artwork that embraces the town’s love and history of baseball, located in the main entrance to the stadium, directly behind home plate.
Last thing: It was great to see lots of school groups taking in the exhibit, with little kids sitting spellbound as they listened to their tour guides. Afterwards, they were going next door to the afternoon game. Hats off to the Reds and the museum for putting together this great program.
Make a trip to Cincinnati and check out the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum before you take in a game at Great American Ball Park. I guarantee that you will enjoy it.
Barry Blair is an author/writer who lives in Jonesborough, Tennessee. He is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit his website www.rightfieldpress.com.