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April 27, 2012

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Aaron Burt Champion and the Cincinnati Red Stockings

Ohio’s own Aaron Burt Champion (1842–1895) entered the Preparatory Department of Antioch College in 1856 when Horace Mann was still its president. He left school in 1860 without a degree, though that did not prevent him from becoming a successful Cincinnati attorney in just a few short years. Champion’s meteoric rise in the legal world led to a life in baseball, by that time fast developing into the national game. In July 1866, still in his mid 20s, Champion helped establish the Cincinnati Base Ball Club at the law offices of Tilden, Sherman and Moulton on West Third Street (an address long since displaced by Fort Washington Way), and was elected the team’s vice president. The “Resolutes” as they were called, were mostly attorneys themselves, and they played their first official game the following September.

Though strictly an amateur pursuit in the mid 1860s, baseball began to professionalize when cricket stars showed interest in the game. Cricketers had been getting paid to play their game for several years, and in 1868, Champion’s club offered former star bowler of the New York Cricket Club Harry Wright $1,200 a year to play baseball. That year the team sported new uniforms to go with its new winning attitude that featured an Old English “C” on the shirt and bright red hose that went up to the knees. One story credits Champion with the club’s new look, which resulted in its fans (then known as “cranks”) referring to them by their now famous name: The Red Stockings.

That year, Champion became president of the Red Stockings, and he resolved to capitalize on their popularity (by then the club was considered a point of Cincinnati pride) and make them competitive with more famous teams in the East where professionals were routinely paid under the table. Champion would have no such dishonesty on his club, however, insisting that all his players would be paid openly as long as they agreed to abide by the high standards that he set for their conduct both on and off the field. He placed Harry Wright in charge of recruitment, and set about organizing games for a national tour that would see them travel over 12,000 miles to both coasts (a trip made possible by the newly completed Transcontinental Railroad), play before more than 200,000 spectators, and dominate the opposition, outscoring their combined opponents 2,395 to 575.

Early Cincinnati Reds poster

That historic season was supposed to begin in an historic location: Yellow Springs, Ohio, on the grounds of Antioch College where Champion had been a student. Inclement weather is the only reason that it did not, and consequently Mansfield, Ohio—and not Yellow Springs—holds the distinction of site of the first professional baseball game. There the Red Stockings rapped out the first of 57 consecutive victories in an undefeated season and a winning streak that extended all the way to 84 before they finally lost 8–7 in extra innings to the Atlantics of Brooklyn in June 1870.

A smashing success on the field, the Red Stockings could not duplicate the same fortunes in their accounts. Already $15,000 in debt at the start of their extraordinary run, in 1870 they cleared $1.39 after expenses as player salaries consumed what little profit could be made. Champion managed to retire the debt before resigning his position to return to his law practice. Following his tenure, the club purged itself of expensive salaried players in order to remain solvent, yet disbanded in 1871. Champion would live just long enough to see professional baseball finally return to Cincinnati in 1890, but died in England of complications from disease and was buried in London.

The story of the first major league rainout (reprinted below) was told by a reporter for The Cincinnati Commercial assigned to travel with the Red Stockings. “H. M. M.” relates several details worth pointing out, including the team’s noted base of operations, the elegant Gibson House, a hotel so fine that Rutherford B. Hayes stayed there while President of the United States. The hastily partaken lunch was served to them at the Yellow Springs House hotel where the village’s Bryan Center stands today. Crestline, Ohio, where they change trains, is not much bigger than Yellow Springs, but in the mid 19th century it was one of the most important rail junctions in the country. The use of the term “match” in the last paragraph referring to the game in Mansfield is a holdover from cricket. The words to one of the club songs potentially sung on the trip, goes like this:

We are a band of Baseball Players
From Cincinnati City.
We come to toss the ball around
And sing to you our ditty
And if you listen to the song
We are about to sing,
We’ll tell you all about baseball
And make the welkin ring.
The ladies want to know
Who are those gallant men in
Stockings Red, they’d like to know.

Early Cincinnati Reds poster

From The Cincinnati Commercial, Thursday, June 3, 1869:


Correspondence Cincinnati Commercial

The Cincinnati Base Ball Club—Their Voyage Eastward

Mansfield, O June 1.

When the Cincinnati Base Ball Club left the Gibson House, on Monday morning, in good spirits, the air was bracing, and “old Sol” was endeavoring to peep from the corner of an eastern cloud. Breakfasting, and then proceeding to our special car on the Little Miami Railroad, they began singing the club songs, and passing the time in pleasant manner to Yellow Springs. But the predictions of the “oldest inhabitant,” whoever he may be, are not always correct, neither were ours, for as we reached Milford “black double-banked clouds promised twenty-four hours moist misery,” and as for the sun, it had entirely disappeared. Falling at first in drizzling showers, and steadily increasing, it was falling in bucketfuls by the time we reached Yellow Springs. Notwithstanding this unexpected drawback, the members of the Antioch Club gave us a hearty welcome, but were sorry to inform us that the grounds would not be fit to play upon in case it should cease raining.

The President of the club, after expressing his regrets to the Antiochs, informed them that they would try to meet them soon, and hoped under more favorable auspices. They then telegraphed to Xenia to Mr. CS Rodgers, of the Little Miami Railroad, stationed at Xenia, who promptly dispatched a special train to the Springs, and after hastily partaking of a lunch, spread by EP Johnson Esq., of the Yellow Springs House, we returned to Xenia; and taking the Columbus accommodation, were soon at Columbus, where we were obliged to change cars, and from there to Crestline had gay times. The boys, weary after riding so many miles, with the dampness of the moisty atmosphere coming in at the open windows, and at intervals almost suffocating, and again obliged to turn up coat collars and bind handkerchiefs around the throat to prevent catching a cold, determined to keep warm by hustling about and playing jokes on the members of the Nine. Several of the latter, having traveled a great distance, were enjoying a peaceful “snooze,” and one of the members who plays at “short stop,” and wears a handsome gold medal, presented him for best playing in the season of 1868, provided himself with a hideous Yankee contrivance, in the shape of a large bug with long legs made of wire, attached to a string. Passing along the car he would gently drop it upon the face of the individual, who would manifest the unpleasant feeling of the “critter” by slapping at it with his hand.

Then ballads would be sung, the whole of our party, numbering thirteen persons, joining in the chorus. In the midst of a drenching rain we once more changed cars, at Crestline, for this place, having but twelve miles to go before we would reach our journey’s end for the time being. The cars on the Pittsburg, Fort Wayne, and Chicago road, on which we were placed, were small and dingy—in fact, the meanest road, as far as accommodations are concerned, in the country. This beautiful city we entered about 7 o’clock, and were quickly “bussed” to the Wiler House, where everything is done for our comfort. The hotel is conducted on the country plan, fresh milk and sweet butter being placed on the table in abundance. When nearing this place, the prettiest rainbow we ever saw extended over the heavens, and the sun shone brilliantly.

Last night one of our members distinguished himself by defeating the champion billiardist of Mansfield some hundred odd points in a friendly game. The boys retired early last evening, and this morning are looking splendidly.

The Independent Club of this city have a very strong Nine, and will give the boys all the work to do that they can in the game this afternoon. This is a beautiful day, and a large crowd is expected to be on the grounds at the match.