An Opening Day Like No Other


“A baseball holiday. Ain’t no other place in America got that.” — Sparky Anderson

The love affair between our city and baseball began in July 1866 when plans for the Cincinnati Base Ball Club were formalized at a downtown law office. The Cincinnati Club played just four games that summer but then joined the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) in 1867. The team played at the Union Cricket Club grounds, a site where the Union Terminal sits today. [For a terrific historical account of early cricket/base ball in Cincinnati back to 1858, check out this 2020 article co-authored by John Erardi and Larry Phillips.]

In 1869, the NABBP, which had been an all-amateur league, allowed players who were being paid. Prior to that, it was well known or suspected that a few players on many teams were being paid by various sponsors. The newly renamed Cincinnati Red Stockings then became the first above-board, all-professional baseball team, putting together a 57-0 record. It remains the only perfect season in pro baseball history.

Origin Story

In 1876, the Cincinnati Reds joined as a charter member of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs (NL). And from that year forward, the Reds have been scheduled to open the season at home, every year except two.

At first, weather played a role in that designation. Cincinnati was the southern-most city in the NL, so field conditions were presumed to be better. As you might imagine over nearly 150 years, adverse weather has forced postponements a few times. But only twice have the Reds been scheduled to start with a road game. Both were due to workplace lockouts by team owners. Last year was one of those exceptions, as the Reds opened in Atlanta.

For decades, the Opening Day game was not only in Cincinnati, it was timed to start before any other National League game. The Detroit Tigers had the same honor in the American League.

The first time the Reds put on “festivities” with ballpark decorations for Opening Day was 1889. The Cincinnati Orchestra held a concert before the game.

Commercial success also played a role in Opening Day in Cincinnati becoming an annual affair. Aided by effective local promotion, by 1900 the game was an annual sell out. The tradition of skipping school and work for the game can be traced all the way back. Newspaper cartoons at the turn of the century showed folks telling lies so they could watch the game.

Enthusiasm for Opening Day was so high in the 1930s, the Reds added a dozen temporary rows of wood chairs in the outfield against the terrace wall at Crosley Field, adding to the park’s 30,000 permanent seats. If the ball went into the seats, it was ruled a double. Kind of like the ivy at Wrigley. The cost of a seat on the field was a quarter. If you wanted to pop for a box seat, that set you back a dollar. The tradition of Opening Day seats on the field lasted until 1959.

Fans on Opening Day (1955) seated in the Crosley Field outfield. The practice was continued until 1959.

The Parade

The Opening Day parade began in 1890, organized by team owner John T. Brush. It featured three streetcars: One carrying Reds players, one carrying the visiting Chicago Cubs players and a third that carried a marching band. The parade was run by local shop owners, their friends and families and was blue-collar in character.

In the 1970s, the parade route took the team into the heart of downtown. That was after Riverfront Stadium had become home for the Reds. Local television also covered the parade. For 2020 and 2021 the parade was canceled for public health concerns. Last year, an estimated 130,000 people lined the streets for the parade’s return. Barry Larkin was the Grand Marshall. The Cincinnati Enquirer has put together a great collection of parade photos dating back decades.

The Findlay Market Connection

Findlay Market became connected with the parade in 1920.

The market itself was built in 1852 on land donated to the city by the estate of General James Findlay and Jane Irwin Findlay. General Findlay had commanded a regiment of the Ohio militia near Detroit during the War of 1812. He built an outpost named Fort Findlay near what is now the city of Findlay. The General later served in Congress and was twice the Mayor of Cincinnati.

The market opened three years later in 1855 and remains Ohio’s oldest surviving municipal market house, listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. During the 1700s and 1800s, public markets were an important source of food for the growing number of city residents. At the start of the Civil War, nine public markets operated in Cincinnati. Of those, only Findlay Market remains.

Outdoors at Findlay Market

If you wonder why there are so many butcher shops in present day Findlay Market, that’s a legacy of a policy that until the 1930s, only butchers could rent stalls inside. Others — produce, dairy, fish and egg sellers — used outdoor spaces.

Great Opening Day Moments

1956 20-year-old Frank Robinson (SABR biography) played his first Major League game on Opening Day in Cincinnati. Robinson was from Beaumont, Texas, sharing that hometown with Jay Bruce. The future Hall of Famer batted 7th in the lineup, between 3B Ray Jablonski and SS Ray McMillan. All-Star Joe Nuxhall pitched a complete game, but the Reds lost to the Cardinals despite Robinson going 2-for-3 with a walk. He doubled in his first at bat. Robinson would go on to win Rookie of the Year. 

Frank Robinson playing on Opening Day at Crosley Field. Note fans sitting on temporary seats in the outfield. Photo: Life Magazine

1974 The Reds hosted Atlanta on Opening Day. Hank Aaron (SABR biography), who himself had debuted in Cincinnati twenty years earlier, needed one home run to tie baseball’s most legendary record — Babe Ruth’s career 714 home runs. At the age of 37, Aaron came to the plate in the first inning with two runners on and one out. Per reporting, Reds catcher Johnny Bench whispered “Henry, congratulations if you get it.” Hammerin’ Hank worked the count against Reds ace Jack Billingham to 3-1 before smashing a pitch on the outer half of the plate over the left field fence.

1984 Pitcher Mario Soto (SABR biography) began his streak of three consecutive Opening Day wins with a complete-game victory over the New York Mets. Soto allowed just one earned run in nine innings. He struck out eight and walked one. At the plate, the Reds were led by Eddie Milner and Davey Concepcion, who each homered. Dave Parker also had a couple hits. The 36-year-old Concepcion had hit only one home run the previous season in 143 games.

2003 Great American Ball Park itself debuted on Opening Day in 2003. Two years later, the Reds rallied for a thrilling 7-6 over the New York Mets. Adam Dunn gave the Reds a 3-1 lead in the first with a 3-run homer off Pedro Martinez. But that’s all the Reds would get in six innings off the future Hall of Famer. The Mets bats, led by Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Mike Piazza had put the New Yorkers in front 6-4 heading into the 9th. Austin Kearns led off with a single. Dunn followed with his second homer of the day to tie the score. Then Joe Randa worked a 3-2 count before hitting game-winning homer to deep left field. The first walk-off on Opening Day in Reds history. George Grande with the call.

Opening Day 2023

This Thursday, the parade starts at noon, of course. Former Reds pitchers Danny Graves and Bronson Arroyo will serve as Grand Marshalls. The parade departs the historic market and heads south down Race Street toward the Ohio River. At Fifth, it turns east, passes Fountain Square, and ends at the Taft Theater.

Todd Frazier will throw out the honorary first pitch. The Reds play the Pittsburgh Pirates. Game time is 4:10 pm. The weather forecast is sunny and 58º, just as the founders of the National League expected more than 100 years ago.

23-year-old Hunter Greene will take the Opening Day mound to start. “It means the world. It’s a huge honor considering the history in Cincinnati,” said Greene (AP). “It’s a baseball city. We want to win as much as the fans do to bring that atmosphere back to the city.”

[Special thanks to the incomparable Cam Miller who provided several of the historical photos.]

Steve Mancuso

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.

1 Response

  1. kmartin says:

    I lived in Cincinnati until I was 26 and then moved to Chicago in the Autumn of 1980. My first opening day away from Cincinnati was in the Spring of 1981. To this day, I will never forget the culture shock I experienced. I felt like I had landed on Mars. In Chicago Opening Day was just like any other day of year. You have to have grown up in Cincinnati to truly understand the significance of Opening Day. And yes, I have skipped school to attend Opening Day.