Reds Baseball: A Tale Of Memory And Memorabilia
On June 2, Great American Ball Park returns to full capacity, the first time in more than a year when fans can fill every seat. In honor of what the Cincinnati Reds are calling ‘Re-Opening Day,’ we are dusting off this 2017 column by Howard Wilkinson on how baseball is a game for making memories.
Monday, on the streets of Over-the-Rhine, at the party on the Banks, and, most importantly, in the packed stands of Great American Ball Park, thousands of memories will be made.
Memories for the young and the old – but mostly for the young. The kids who will be going to their first Opening Day and will carry with them memories that they will be able to recall to their children and grandchildren in vivid detail.
Baseball is a game made for making memories. It is played at a pace where the special moments are easily etched into the recesses of our minds where our best memories are stored.
And it is a game that produces prodigious amounts of memorabilia – the physical objects you keep forever to jog those memories and keep them fresh in your mind.
I went to my first Cincinnati Reds game in 1959 at Crosley Field. With my grandparents. The Reds were playing the Giants. I saw the great Willie Mays and my hero, Frank Robinson, up close and personal.
I remember every moment of it.
And since then, I have been collecting memorabilia from my countless trips to Crosley, Riverfront and Great American Ball Park. Not because they might be worth money some day, as if I would sell them.
But because they are part of me.
Here are a few:
The McCormick-Rose ball:
I have carried around this ancient baseball for over 50 years now.
I was with my dad at Crosley Field; it was either 1963 or 1964 – not clear on which. Doesn't matter.
What I remember matters: Dad and I went up to the concourse before the game to load up at the concession stands. Walking along the concourse was former Red Frank McCormick, the National League MVP in the Reds' World Series championship year of 1940. In the 1960s, he was working as an analyst on Reds TV broadcasts.
He was one of my dad's favorites as a kid. I could tell he was excited at seeing one of his boyhood heroes.
We walked up to Frank.
"Mr. McCormick,'' my dad said. "I just want you to know I loved watching you play ball. Would you sign this baseball for my son?"
McCormick said sure, and wrote a nice legible autograph and handed the ball back to me.
"Now, listen to me, son,'' Frank said to me. "You're going to get your hands all greasy with popcorn and what-not at the game today. So I want you to go in the bathroom and wrap this ball in a paper towel. That will protect your autographs."
Yes sir, I said, and we did just that.
A few minutes later, a young Red by the name of Rose signed my ball, right under McCormick's signature. But, honestly, I have no recollection of that.
All I remember is Frank McCormick being worried that my greasy paws would ruin that baseball.
The 1962 Reds yearbook:
I have a nice collection of Reds yearbooks from each year since the year I was born.
Trust me, that's a lot of yearbooks.
This, though, may be my favorite.
It's the 1962 edition, and the cover celebrates the Reds' 1961 National League Championship. My dad bought it for me at Crosley.
In recent years, I've been taking it to events at the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum when members of the National League championship team have been there signing autographs.
Here, you can see the autograph of left-handed pitcher Jim O'Toole, who, sadly, is no longer with us. And there is Jim Maloney, who, in my humble opinion, is among the top five starting pitchers in Reds baseball. And there is Leo Cardenas, also known as "Chico" or "Mr. Automatic,'' a very slick-fielding shortstop from Cuba. And, last but not least, catcher Johnny Edwards, who held down that position admirably in the 1960s, until a youngster from Oklahoma named Bench came along.
The Pete Rose and Frank Robinson photos:
The year was 1965. I was 12 years old. It was Photo Day at Crosley Field, a day when fans could come on the field before the game and take close-up photos of their heroes, who mostly stood around looking bored.
I had our family's old-fashioned box camera.
I snapped off photos of several players, including these two – a young Pete Rose, with a nice view of the wonderful Crosley Field scoreboard in the background.
The other is a photo of a rather glum-looking Frank Robinson, in his last season with the Reds. He is flanked by reliever Jim Duffalo on his right and outfielder/pinch hitter Marty Keough on his left.
The Rose photo was used in a Crosley Field story I did for the Enquirer years ago. When I left the Enquirer in 2012, one of my going-away gifts was a framed print of the Rose photo.
I treasure it.
The Popcorn Megaphone:
Anyone who went to Crosley Field as a kid knows what this is.
It's a container you could buy at the concession stands, filled with hot, fresh popcorn. This is one of the originals.
The narrow end was perforated, so that when you finished your popcorn, you could rip the bottom off and use the container as a megaphone.
You can only imagine the racket several thousand kids yelling through these things could produce.
I personally annoyed thousands of "veteran Reds fans" with these megaphones. And the popcorn was really good too.
Johnny Bench night: My last ball game with my dad.
Sept. 17, 1983. Johnny Bench was about to retire after 16 incredible years with the same team, the Cincinnati Reds. The greatest Major League catcher of all time was going to catch one more game on a night dedicated to him.
My dad drove down from Dayton to go to the game with me. Little did I know it would be the last we would see together before he passed away the next year.
But, on this night, it was pure magic.
Riverfront Stadium was sold out – 53,790 souls in the seats.
My dad had argued with me for years that, as good as Bench was, his boyhood hero, Reds catcher Ernie Lombardi, who won a National League MVP award in 1939, was better. We had argued back and forth about it for years.
It was the third inning. Mike Madden of the Astros was on the mound. Bench was at the plate. He swung from his heels and smashed one over the outfield wall – the 389th and final home run of his Hall of Fame career.
The sold-out crowd went berserk. The cheering, the screaming – it was louder than an airport runway. Even my dad was up on his feet, jumping up and down.
And, through the din, I could hear him as he leaned over and said something to me.
"You were right,'' he said, "Bench is the greatest."
Mom's birthday present:
Before my father passed away, my mom wasn't really much of a baseball fan.
She would go on family trips to the ball park, but it wasn't her thing.
But, after dad was gone, I started taking her to ball games, first at Riverfront and then at Great American Ball Park, just to get her out of the house and give her something to do.
And she became hooked.
She had a complete wardrobe of Reds shirts, jerseys and hats; and she became a true Reds fanatic. Mom always had a favorite Red (usually the guy on the team who was considered the most handsome). Nick Esasky was first. Then it was Paul O'Neill. Then came her Aaron Boone infatuation. And, finally, she fell head over heels for Joey Votto.
April 7, 2011 was her 84th birthday; and I took her to Great American Ball Park for a game. As it turned out, her health began to decline after that; and it was one of our last games together. She passed away in 2013.
But this was one of the best days of her life.
Tom, the usher in our section, always treated my mom like the Queen of Sheba and always saved a seat for her in the shade if she became too hot in the stands.
That day, Tom went over to the customer relations booth and had them print out a birthday certificate with her name on it.
She was absolutely thrilled. She was convinced that Bob Castellini, Walt Jocketty and Dusty Baker had personally signed it for her. I just dummied up.
She had it framed; and from that time on, everyone who came into her apartment at the retirement community had to look at her signed certificate.
When she passed away, I inherited it and it is prominently displayed where I live too.
And, now, I share her memory with you.
The ceremonial first pitch:
This is something I had never imagined would happen.
But when my friend Michael E. Keating, the brilliant photographer, and I decided to leave the Enquirer at the same time, our friends arranged for us to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at Great American Ball Park.
It was May 23rd, 2012. The Reds versus the Atlanta Braves.
There were dozens of our friends on a party deck down the right field line when Michael and I strode on to the field. Michael was throwing to Reds third baseman Todd Frazier. I threw to my old friend, John Kiesewetter.
It was just a little taste of what it is like to stand out there in the middle of the diamond before thousands of fans as a major league ball player.
But, of course, we weren't major league ball players. We were just a couple of old journalists who were really lucky that day.
After a little video tribute on the scoreboard, Michael and I walked out, took our positions on each side of the mound and fired our pitches.
I was trying not to overthrow with a little two-seam fastball; and it sunk out of the strike zone fast. But Kiese scooped it up.
As I walked off the field, I shook hands with Reds manager Dusty Baker.
"Good job,'' Dusty said.
"Thanks, man,'' I said. "Drew Stubbs would have swung at it."
Dusty just grinned.
And, yes, I still have the ball.
This article was first published on April 2, 2017.