Thursday, November 29, 2012

Baseball at Crosley Field

Summers on Sander Street:  Baseball at Crosley Field

The old home field of the National League’s Cincinnati Reds from 1912 through 1970, was located on the west side of town  at the Findlay and Western intersection, what is today the Queensgate section, just off I-75 South at the Western Avenue Exit.  

Mid-season, June 24, 1970, the team moved to Riverfront Stadium, and old Crosley Field, built in 1884, was demolished. 

I’m one of the lucky ones to remember watching games played there with my father, mostly during the late 1940s and early ‘50s,  before I became a roaming inner-city teenager. 

I especially remember the night games with Dad, including the dark walks home over the lonesome inner-city streets, where my father would be either happy and joking for the win or quiet because our team lost. We always lived within walking distance of downtown, even if some of our homes were a mile or so away through old Over-the-Rhine streets. 

The night games were magical for me.  I remember the cool night air in the stands and the cold Coke in my hands, the hotdogs and popcorn, the strangely illuminated field and the dazzling bleached white of the players’uniforms. 
 Crosley's lights are visible in this photo, taken in the late 1940s.

 In 1948, I was just a little girl, when my favorite baseball star  was called up to start as first baseman, Ted Kluszewski.   Over the next few years, I watched “Big Klu” rise to super stardom.  It was a thrilling time in baseball, never to be recaptured.

                                                   Kluszewski showing his famous short sleeves

The Reds’ office didn’t like it a lot when Kluszewski cut the too-tight sleeves off his uniform, so he could bat freely, but there wasn’t much anyone could do about it.  When people got a look at those huge biceps, it was plain that this was one strong batter.  He told a reporter, “It was either that or change my swing—and I wasn’t about to change my swing.” 

When Leo Durocher, Hall of Fame manager, was asked to name five of the strongest players in baseball, he did not include Kluszewski, and when later asked why not, he answered, “Kluszewski? I’m talking about human beings!”  (

An added fact about Big Klu, that I could personally brag about among my friends, was that he lived in the same subdivision, Kennedy Heights, as my Uncle Buford on my Mom’s side.  When we visited my uncle’s house for family occasions, it was a thrill just to know I was in my hero’s neighborhood.

If my father wasn’t sitting in the stadium for home games, he was glued to the TV at home with his Hudepohl beer.  It wasn’t as much fun watching the games on television as sitting in the stands, but in my house that’s what was playing.

Another favorite player during the 1950s, of course, was left-handed pitcher, Joe Nuxhall, a local from Hamilton, Ohio. He was only 15 years old when he broke into big league baseball with the Reds, for one game only, on June 10, 1944.  This was during World War II, when players were scarce.  Joe came back to the Reds in 1952 as a permanent player.

I think I remember Joe more as announcer for 40 years, beginning in 1967, when he retired as a player.  That was the same year Johnny Bench came to the team, whom my father loved, along with every other Cincinnati fan. 

I believe we kids had more Johnny Bench paraphernalia and shirts than any other Reds player, including Pete Rose.  Dad began working a second job for the Reds and was known to bring home pennants, bats, pictures, calendars, shirts, and whatever else he could get hold of for the kids and grandkids.  I still have the red Johnny Bench bat somewhere.  I wish I still had my Bench gray shirt.  One year I got a ladies Reds hat, kind of a bonnet-type thing.  It became faded in the sun when I wore it, and now wish I’d kept it safe in the plastic.  You do crazy stuff when you’re young.  At least I did.

By this time, the late ‘60s, Sander Street was just a memory, Dad having moved the family to Mt. Auburn in 1957, and then to Klotter Avenue, back in the Clifton neighborhood, in 1963, the same year hometown boy Pete Rose joined the Reds and won Rookie of the Year. 

Imagine my surprise when Dad informed me of the new start's name that year, and I recalled one of my Catholic high school classmates, Karolyn Englehardt, going steady with Pete Rose. Sure enough, when I saw Karolyn on TV and in the news, I knew it was her.  Her personality was unmistakable.  

I followed Pete's story along throughout his career...and the end of his career.  And I always thought of Karolyn riding the city bus home from school every day, swaying back and forth in middle of the aisle, leading us in singing late '50s hit songs. 

Free and happy times, good memories of being young and loving the excitement.  But the thrills end sometimes in divorce, as both she and I experienced. She married a baseball star; I married a blues musician.      We both grew up one day in different parts of the country.

The Reds continued playing Crosley Field until two years after I moved to Tennessee in 1968.  I knew there was talk of  building a new stadium, but it was still a shock when I heard it was final.  There were so many memories for us.  Old Cincinnati was changing.  The building of Riverfront was one of the first reminders. 

And I was living in Tennessee.  I felt I was losing my sense of home.

The mid-‘50s, when Dad was taking me to the ball games, Crosley Field had already began its decline, mostly  due to its location in the dense West End.  The field was bounded on three sides by factories, and with the increase of automobiles as the new main mode of transportation, parking was a huge factor. 

Additionally, the West End was a major crime area, especially for night games.  We could see the changes in the landscape, the slow deterioration of the city streets, walking home from downtown and West End.  But I guess we just figured everything would stay the same in these old neighborhoods both my father and I had grown up in. 

And there were other factors which demanded the need for a new home for the Reds, including the Bengals football team being granted an American Football League franchise, with the reservation that an appropriate facility be built by the start of the 1970 season.  

The Reds then agreed to build a new stadium on the city’s dilapidated riverfront section, and plans were in place for the last game at Crosley Field. 

The last home game on September 28, 1969, against the Houston Astros was to be the final game at Crosley, but delays in Riverfront’s construction caused the Reds to open the 1970 season in the old location against the Montreal Expos.  New team additions included manager Sparky Anderson and shortstop Dave ConcepciĆ³n.

The last game ended up being on June 24, 1970, against the San Francisco Giants, which the Reds won, and then fans watched mayor Gene Ruehlmann take home plate out of the ground at Crosley and transport it by helicopter, which landed on the field, to Riverfront Stadium and then install it in the new turf.

The first game at Riverfront was on June 30, 1970, against the Atlanta Braves, and the Reds lost 8-2, with Hank Aaron hitting the first ever home run at Riverfront.

Today, Crosley's old left field is now a parking lot, and one can still see the “terrace” area there, next to York Street, probably one of the most famous Crosley Field features. 

Notorious Left Field Terrace ~            

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Sander Street Summers: Coney Island Babies

The absolute funnest day of the year, besides Christmas, the day we waited for all year, was St. George Day at Coney Island, Cincinnati's version of the famous New York’s amusement park.  Our Coney Island was on the Ohio River, in the neighborhood of California, about 10 miles from downtown Cincinnati.

When you're a little kid, that 10 miles seems like an entire state away.

Coney Island Day started the night before, when Mom and Aunt Vera began frying the chicken, baking the beans, and Aunt Vera upstairs fixing her German potato salad and Mom downstairs mixing up the creamy mayonnaise version.  We'd lay our sundresses and sunsuits out for morning, and go to bed early and try to sleep, mostly drifting off in the early morning hours just before daybreak.

After our normal breakfast of cereal and hot tea and toast, Dad and Uncle Norb picked up the heavy picnic baskets loaded with the cold fried chicken lunch, and the cooler full of iced pop and beer, and carried them up the block to the school, where everyone in the parish stood outside waiting for the three city buses assigned to haul the families out to Coney Island.  

The bus ride was a good way to start the celebration with singalongs, usually my father as song leader for our bus.  He and the other men harmonized “The Old Mill Stream,” and a few more old songs of our parents’ era.  

We’d eventually get to “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on The Wall,” and usually never got to "no more bottles of beer on the wall," before we arrived at the bus parking area at Coney.  Once the bus doors opened, yelping children swarmed out onto the covered picnic grounds, the first stop on the way to our version of the Magic Kingdom.  

While the moms spread the flowered and checked cotton cloths over the long wooden picnic tables, the men dug their first beers out of the coolers to whet their appetite for the feast, while the revved-up children yelled to go immediately to the Midway rides.  

We never, in all the years I remember, pursueded the adults to give in on this point.  It was lunch first.  No discussion.  No amount of pouting won out.

After properly fed, we'd run ahead of our fathers in the direction of the tall roller coaster tracks and ferris wheel, while the moms stayed behind and enjoyed a few extra minutes of clean picnic tables and peace, while they sipped a cold Coke or Pepsi.  They'd join their husbands in due time to enjoy the children's fun and excitement.  

Parishoners were able to buy tickets at our school prior to Coney Island Day, and I remember Dad and his big roll of tickets, about the size of a 33-1/3 record, an album – remember those?   Dad got many laughs when people saw him walking around the midway carrying this giant roll of perforated tickets.  

We got to ride everything, and Dad rode the older kids' and adult rides with me after Mom joined him to supervise my younger sisters.  

He was fearless. He talked me into the front seat of the Shooting Star roller coaster, where we let go of the steel restraining bar and held our arms straight up, and I screamed until I was hoarse.  

Then we joined all my classmates on the “Rotor.”  I had the only parent  brave enough to tackle this strange ride.

Interior of the Rotor at Luna Park Sydney. The ride is in mid-cycle, and the riders are stuck to the wall of the barrel by the force of friction due to centrifugal force. The yellow lines on the barrel wall indicate the level the floor is at during different points of the ride; the higher line is level with the floor when the ride begins. ~

I remember the year the Rotor was new at the park, and Dad positioned himself upside down against the wall, and all the coins and keys in his pants pockets fell out.  My friends were screaming and laughing and trying to unstick their hands from the spinning wall to point to him.  

I also remember not realizing at first that the floor would disappear from under my feet as centrifugal force took over.  My breath literally got taken away.  But I rode again.  And again and again.  And so did Dad.

Since one of my brothers inherited all of the family pictures, I don’t have any to post, but Dad took his camera every year and snapped shots of the little ones riding in miniature cars, the airplanes and tiny Jolly Roger boats. 

Strange as it seems, my mother only enjoyed one ride, the “Lost River,”  also referred to as the “Tunnel of Love,” where boats would coast gently through a dark, cool tunnel, gently bumping against decorated walls until the tunnel's light at the end, whereupon the boat you sat in plunged straight down into a small lake, drenching you in a giant splash.  

For someone who was afraid of roller coasters and such, Mom and Dad always rode the Lost River while I watched my sisters, and I wondered if this took my mother back to those carefree years as a young girl, perhaps drifting  through the tunnel with a romantic beau, perhaps my father, before all the children, the work, the bills, heartaches.  She never said, but her eyes would mist over when she talked about her favorite attraction on the Midway. 

Some years we’d go swimming in the "Sunlite Pool."  The year I’d passed my beginner’s swimming class at the Friar’s Club in Clifton, Dad picked me up and tossed me into the 10-foot end of the pool so he could, as he said, see if I could really swim.   Lucky for me, I could.

At day’s end, when the St. George parishoners began loading onto the buses  to carry us back to the school, the whining children protested leaving magical Coney Island land, but allowed themselves to be ushered  onto the leather bus seats, where sleepy eyes gazed out the windows and hands cradled small glass bowls of prize goldfish or Kewpie dolls, while their parents wiped sweat from their foreheads, commented on the humidity and longed to get home to the front porch or stoop and a cold glass of beer.

There will never be days like St. George at Coney Island again.  Some things in life linger only for a while and never return.  I am blessed enough to have it as a well-kept memory.