Crosley Field (Cincinnati)
Crosley Field was the “married” name of Cincinnati’s beloved National League ballpark. Situated at the intersection of Findlay Street and Western Avenue, it lived the first 23 years of its life using its “maiden” name, Redland Field. Then in 1934, Powel Crosley appeared, swept it off its feet and blessed it with his own name.
In 1909 the Reds averaged 5,515 fans per game in a ballpark that held only 6,000. The Reds had clearly outgrown the Palace of the Fans with its grandiose, yet outdated grandstand. Attendance throughout the major leagues had grown almost fourfold in the decade.1 Times were good and bound to get better. So Reds president Garry Herrmann, engaged the architectural firm Hake and Hake to design a new ballpark. The Reds weren’t alone in their optimism. Charles Ebbets was thinking the same way in Brooklyn, as were the McAleers in Boston and Frank Navin in Detroit. Baseball had come of age and it was time to show the world its grandeur.
In keeping with a trend started by Shibe Park, Forbes Field, and Comiskey Park, Cincinnati’s new ballpark was built with concrete and steel construction. Wooden stadiums were too susceptible to fire and wouldn’t hold the crowds projected for the future. Harry Hake designed the ballpark to hold 20,696 fans.
Immediately after the 1911 season ended, construction crews tore down the wooden Palace of the Fans, and cleared the site in only 15 days. Five months and $400,000 later, Redland Field greeted the 26,336 fans who showed up for Opening Day on April 11, 1912. Almost 6,000 overflow fans stood in the outfield and in foul territory to watch the Reds inaugurate their new ballpark by beating the Chicago Cubs 10-6. As of Opening Day, the field still had not been named. Hermann resisted suggestions to name the ballpark after himself, deciding the next day to name it Redland Field. The name incorporated the team’s name and the color that had become its identity. If their stockings were red, why not their field as well? Nine days later, both Fenway Park and Navin Field (later called Briggs Stadium and then Tiger Stadium) opened for business. Ebbets Field opened the next year.
The lot upon which Redland was built was bounded by York Street on the north, Western Avenue to the northeast and Findlay Street on the south. Home plate sat in the southwest corner, with Findlay Street paralleling the right-field line. When the batter looked at straightaway center field, he was looking toward the northeast. League Park, used by the Reds from 1890 to 1901 on the same site, originally had the batter facing northwest, but the late-afternoon sun shone right in the batter’s face. The lot had been the Reds ballpark as far back as 1884, but prior to that it was an abandoned brickyard.
Redland Field’s exterior architecture was nothing to brag about. It was strictly utilitarian and blended in well with the other brick buildings in the surrounding warehouse and industrial neighborhood. Like all solid citizens, its beauty lay on the inside, not the outside. Paul Sommerkamp, who walked to games as a boy and who would 30 years later become the Reds’ PA announcer, described the park well: “There it sat, in kind of a dilapidated neighborhood, like a jewel. It was sort of an oasis. You’d walk up through the portals to the seats; the sight of that bright green grass would hit you, and you’d think you’d walked into another world.”2
That other world was Matty Schwab’s artwork. Matty served as the park superintendent for the Reds for 60 years, after serving a 10-year apprenticeship under his father, John Schwab, the Reds prior head groundskeeper for League Park. League Park, Palace of the Fans, and Redland/Crosley Field all shared the same address. The grandstands were different, but the dirt remained the same.
Matty became the park superintendent of Palace of the Fans in 1903 when his father retired. He continued as the head groundskeeper when Redland/Crosley was built in 1912 and remained in charge until he retired in 1963. For 60 years no one touched a blade of grass without Matty’s permission and oversight. Upon retirement, he turned his hallowed sod over to his grandson, Mike Dolan, who remained in that position until the sad day that the grass gave way to Riverfront’s artificial turf.
Matty’s brother Leonard also apprenticed under their father before becoming the head groundskeeper at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Matty’s son, Matty Jr., served as the head groundskeeper for the Giants at both the Polo Grounds and Candlestick Park. Schwab blood must have run green.3
But Matty knew much more than how to grow grass. He was an innovator who applied his best ideas to Crosley Field. He devised the modern “post” method for holding bases firmly in place. He designed an underground drainage system for the field that he constantly improved and other parks copied. Never satisfied with the look of the grass, he reseeded the outfield and resodded the infield every season.
Schwab’s greatest innovation was the scoreboard. He designed Crosley’s scoreboard format and went on to design major-league scoreboards in New York (for the Yankees and Dodgers), Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. His original format for showing team lineups is still in use today in ballparks everywhere. Matty died in 1970, the same year the grass withered and died at Crosley Field.
In 1919 Redland Field provided front-row seats to the baseball crime of the century. New York gamblers persuaded a group of White Sox players headed by Chick Gandil to throw the World Series. Game One was played at Redland. In keeping with the fix, Eddie Cicotte, who went 29-7 in the regular season, surprisingly to fans but not to the gamblers, gave up five runs in the fourth inning. Reds pitcher Dutch Ruether, threw a six-hitter and the Reds won, 9-1. The gamblers smiled. Game Two further enthralled Redland fans and the fixers when the Reds won 4-2. By the time the series returned to Redland Field, the Reds had won four games, but in that year’s best-of-nine format, they still needed one more win. The gamblers hadn’t paid all of the promised payoff money, so the Black Sox, as they came to be known, went all out in Games Six and Seven and won both. The Reds won Game Eight and the Series, but their championship celebrations were dampened by the well-traveled rumors that the Series had been hijacked by gambling interests.
There’s nothing like a world championship to keep the turnstiles twirling, and Redland’s combined attendance for 1919 and 1920 exceeded a million fans.4 The Reds performed well in the Roaring Twenties and attendance continued to grow. They finished in the top half of the league six times.
Redland Field’s original field dimensions gave outfielders lots of room to roam. The left- and right-field lines extended 360 feet from home plate. It was 420 feet to straightaway center field. In the Deadball Era, it was hard to hit a home run unless one of the outfielders fell down. In fact, more than nine seasons came and went before Reds outfielder Pat Duncan, on June 2, 1921, became the first major leaguer to hit a fair ball over Redland’s fences. The ball cleared the left-center-field wall by five feet and hit a policeman patrolling York Street. Babe Ruth hit two home runs in an exhibition game a month later; one was a grand slam.
In 1927 the Reds added 5,364 field-level box seats in foul territory, requiring a readjustment of home plate that shortened the fences by approximately 20 feet. The park’s capacity jumped to 26,060.
That same year, Garry Herrmann resigned as Reds president and C.J. McDiarmid took over the reins. But Sidney Weil had his eyes on the prize. He was a prominent local attorney and the owner of the largest Ford dealership in town. He was also a huge Reds fan, but he wanted more. In September 1929 he approached McDiarmid about buying the Reds. McDiarmid, the largest minority stockholder, declined his offer. Weil then approached the other shareholders, offering them four times the market value of their shares. In less than a week he acquired a majority interest in the team and ousted McDiarmid. Having paid an inflated price for the team, he had to borrow heavily from Central Trust Company to complete the deal. If he had known two key facts, he might have taken pause before making his dream purchase with borrowed funds. First, he soon discovered it was a lot harder to run a team than it was to root for it, and second, the stock market was about to crash and plunge the world into the Great Depression. (The crash occurred less than a month later.)
Weil had no experience running a baseball team at any level. Still, his lack of expertise didn’t much matter since he spent every waking hour desperately trying to keep the team afloat. His baseball decisions were driven by financial necessity rather than baseball wisdom. He traded star player Babe Herman for four players and cash. His best attempts at solvency failed and he began looking for a buyer. No one was interested. Finally, in 1933, the bank foreclosed and took everything: the team, his capital, his other businesses, and even his home.5 Weil started anew, this time in the insurance business, and rebuilt his wealth. Years later he turned down family friend Bill Veeck when Veeck tried to get him to buy a minority interest in the Cleveland Indians.6
Central Trust Company hired Larry MacPhail to run the team for it. MacPhail’s first priority was to find a buyer for the team. He targeted Powel Crosley, who had earlier declined Weil’s overtures to buy the Reds. MacPhail convinced Crosley that unless he purchased the Reds, Cincinnati would lose its team to an out-of-town buyer. Crosley made his decision more out of loyalty to Cincinnati than any other factor.
An entrepreneur who had earned his wealth in the radio and automobile industries, Crosley bought the Reds in 1934. Unlike Herrmann, he liked the idea of the ballpark being named after him. Redland Field became Crosley Field soon thereafter.
MacPhail’s second priority was to increase attendance. For that, he turned to night baseball. The other major-league owners resisted the idea, but MacPhail knew it would work. He’d already done it in Columbus, Ohio, when he ran a minor-league franchise there. Further, night baseball had worked for other minor-league teams, and the Negro Leagues had also used portable lights. It had even been tried at Crosley Field when the Reds played an exhibition game against a minor-league team from Dayton, Ohio. Still, night baseball had never been tried at the major-league level. Trusting his judgment, Crosley spent $50,000 installing more than six hundred 1,500-watt bulbs atop eight light towers scattered around Crosley Field. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a telegraph key in the White House on the evening of May 24, 1935, the lights lit up Crosley Field like a heavenly host of angels. The Reds won the game and went on to draw 448,247 fans that year, more than double their 1934 attendance. The Reds drew 130,337 of those fans in only seven night games. In spite of its obvious success in Cincinnati, it took more than a decade for the other teams to follow suit. The Chicago Cubs held out until 1988.7
In January 1937 the flood-prone Mill Creek once again spread its liquid bounty throughout Cincinnati’s West End neighborhood. Matty Schwab’s underground drainage system betrayed him, allowing water to backflow into the park. The water level over the field eventually reached 21 feet. Matty and two Reds pitchers rowed a boat onto the field right over the center-field wall. But Matty worked his magic another time and the field was ready for Opening Day.
The Cincinnati Tigers of the Negro American League shared Crosley Field with the Reds in 1936 and 1937. They also used the discarded uniforms worn by the Reds in prior seasons.
The following year, 1938, was a momentous one for the Reds. The Reds shortened Crosley’s fences again (left field – 328 feet, center field – 387 feet, right field – 366 feet). On June 11, Johnny Vander Meer pitched a no-hitter against the Boston Bees. In the seventh inning the Bees manager, Casey Stengel, started taunting Johnny about the no-hitter. That’s when Johnny first realized he had a no-no going. The scoreboard didn’t show hits at that time, only runs. Up to that point, he’d faced only one batter over the minimum. He’d walked three batters, but two of them had been caught trying to steal second. Despite Casey’s best attempts to rattle him, Vander Meer mowed down the Bees in the final two innings for his first of two consecutive no-hitters. Four days later he pitched another one against the Dodgers during Ebbets Field’s first night game.
Just a few weeks after that, Matty Schwab had Crosley Field looking festive when Crosley hosted the sixth All-Star Game on July 6. Vander Meer started and tossed three shutout innings. The National League won, 4-1.
In the offseason Crosley added more than 3,000 seats by expanding the upper deck from the infield to the foul poles down both the first- and third-base lines. The extra seating gave Crosley an expanded capacity of 29,401 seats.
In 1939 Mill Creek flooded again, but this time it waited until April to do so. As a result, the Reds had to postpone two games, the first time a major-league game had ever been canceled due to flooding. That year the Reds drew a record 981,443 fans and hosted their first World Series since the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. This time, the opposing team came to win and the Yankees swept the Reds in four games. Crosley hosted Games Three and Four. With their backs to the wall in Game Four, the Reds led 4-2 going into the ninth inning. Reds shortstop Billy Myers dropped a double-play ball and before the inning ended, the Yankees had tied the game, 4-4. The Reds committed three errors in the 10th inning and the Yankees won their fourth World Series championship in a row.
The World Series returned to Cincinnati in 1940 and Crosley hosted the first two games and the last two games of the seven-game series. The Tigers’ Bobo Newsom beat the Reds 7-2 in Game One. His father, who had come to watch him pitch, died of a heart attack the same day. He came back to beat the Reds again in Game Five, shutting them out 8-0. With the series knotted at three games apiece, the Reds finally beat Newsom in Game Seven, 2-1, behind the complete-game pitching of Paul Derringer.
On August 29, 1943, the Reds beat the St. Louis Cardinals 5-3 and 38,017 fans saw them do it. It was the largest crowd to ever see a game at Crosley Field.
World War II decimated major-league rosters and all teams were searching for replacement players wherever they could find them. The Reds found 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall in nearby Hamilton, Ohio. On June 10, 1944, Nuxhall became the youngest player to ever appear in a major-league game. His reaction: “I was pitching against seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders, kids 13 and 14 years old. ... All of a sudden, I look up and there's Musial and the likes. It was a very scary situation. … Holy smoke, I’m in trouble now.” He was right. Two hits, five walks, a wild pitch and five runs later, he’d retired only two batters and had an ERA of 67.50. The Reds lost to the Cardinals 18-0. Joe did not return to the majors for eight seasons.8 After his playing days ended, Nuxhall broadcast Reds games for 37 years, partnering with the likes of Waite Hoyt, Al Michaels, and Marty Brennaman.
On June 22, 1947, the impossible almost happened at Crosley Field. Crosley had already been part of Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back no-hitters in 1938 and it was happening again. Ewell Blackwell had no-hit the Boston Braves four days earlier and he’d already gone 8 1/3 innings without giving up a hit in this first game of a doubleheader. If he could somehow scare up two more outs, he would become the second major-league player to throw back-to-back no-hitters. But the next batter, Eddie Stanky, hit the ball back up the middle, through Blackwell’s legs and on into center field for a no-hitter-wrecking single.9
Crosley Field hosted the 20th All-Star Game in 1953. In the early ’50s the American League dominated the World Series (the Yankees won five in a row, 1949-1953) and the National League dominated the All-Star Game. So it was no surprise when the National League won the contest 5-1. The American League scored a run in the ninth inning to avoid the embarrassment of a shutout, but the AL All-stars managed only five hits in the game.10
No one predicted 1961 would be anything more than another disappointing year for the Reds. They’d finished with a losing record in 9 of the previous 11 seasons. Yet something clicked for them that year. Jim O’Toole and Joey Jay had banner seasons. Jim Brosnan and Bill Henry combined for 32 saves. Frank Robinson was the National League MVP. Before anyone could say Cinderella, they had won 93 games and the National League pennant. Matty Schwab dressed Crosley Field in its Sunday best in preparation for another World Series appearance.
Unfortunately for the Reds, it was the year the M&M boys chased Babe Ruth and each other for the single-season home-run record. Along the way the Yankees won 109 games. Crosley hosted Games Three through Five, but the only competitive game was Game Three, with Roger Maris hitting the game-winning home run in the top of the ninth inning.
Crosley Field was much more than the few major events it hosted over the years. For ballparks, as with our relatives, it’s their quirky characteristics that often make them charming and lovable. If so, Crosley Field had charm oozing out of every portal. Its flagpole stood 82 majestic feet above the ground in left-center field. Any ball hitting the pole and caroming back onto the playing field was in play.
The scoreboard grew in size and grandeur over the years and eventually reached 58 feet in height with its signature seven-foot Longines clock perched on top, proudly declaring itself Crosley Field’s “Official Watch.” At the peak of its glory, the Art Deco-style scoreboard was both electronic (balls, strikes, outs, and at bat) and manual (lineups and scores of other games). It took five men to man the board and they once had to scurry when a Wally Post homer crashed through a panel showing second-inning runs, showering them with shards of glass.11
Crosley Field was the only major-league ballpark that had the outfield ground rules painted on its walls. Even the casual fan could clearly see that: “Batted Ball Hitting Wall On Fly To Right Of White Line – Home Run.” Another sign to the right of the scoreboard informed fans that balls trapped beneath it were doubles.12
Crosley’s right-field bleachers had a sunburst sign painted on the rear wall declaring it the “Sun Deck.” For night games, the sign was changed to “Moon Deck.”13
Both the home and visitors’ clubhouses were located in a separate building behind left field. As a result, both teams had to walk among the fans when leaving and entering the field.14
For most of the ballpark’s history, the Superior Towel and Linen Service building formed the backdrop for left field. Most fans referred to it as “The Laundry,” but radio announcer Waite Hoyt called it “Burgerland” whenever someone homered there, in honor of his main broadcast sponsor, Burger Beer. A huge advertising sign crowned the top of the building. Siebler Suits rented the right side of the sign, declaring, “Hit this sign – win a suit.” Wally Post was the best-dressed ballplayer in Cincinnati. He hit the sign 11 times.
In 1953 Crosley added a slice of 700 seats in front of the 366-foot right-field fence that reduced the distance Ted Kluszewski had to hit a home run to 342 feet. Eventually this area became known as the “Goat Run.” The “Goat Run” was taken out when Klu was traded to the Pirates in December 1957.
But surely the signature feature of Crosley Field was the Terrace in front of the left-field wall. It served the same purpose as a warning track, but warning tracks seldom trip the left fielder unfamiliar with their treachery. The Terrace was a 15-degree incline in front of the wall. Many a visiting left fielder found himself flat on the ground as he ran after a fly ball over his head. Babe Ruth had that indignity on May 28, 1935, less than a week before he retired. York Street was four feet higher than the playing field and the steep incline eliminated the need to build a retaining wall to keep the street from falling into the field. In 1935 Marty Shwab added a gentler terrace to both center and right fields to accommodate a tiered effect for standing-room-only crowds.15
The on-the-field Reds players attracted fans to Crosley Field and made them fall in love with the team. But it was the on-the-street and in-the-stands personalities faithfully playing their roles year after year that caused fans to fall in love with the park and the total baseball experience.
Harry Hartman was the public-address announcer for the Reds in the 1930s. Paul Sommerkamp, and his deep, rich voice took over the job in 1951 and retired in 1985. He announced batters for every Cincinnati home game from his field-level seat beside the visitors’ dugout.16 His style never changed: “Now batting fourth for Cincinnati, the first baseman, number 18, Ted Kluszewski … Kluszewski.” He always said the last name twice with a pause in between for fans keeping score.
Ronnie Dale manned Crosley Field’s Hammond organ for decades. During the seventh-inning stretch, fans could count on hearing the “Mexican Hat Dance.”17 When a Red hit a home run, Dale played that player’s signature song. For catcher Ed Bailey, it was “Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home.” When Vada Pinson homered, Dale played “Show Me the Vada Go Home”; “Jingle Bells” accompanied Gus Bell whenever he circled the bases.18
Harry Thobe, a bricklayer from Oxford, Ohio, was the Reds super fan for 55 years (1895-1949). He claimed to have never missed an Opening Day. Harry was hard to miss in his white suit, red-striped trousers, one red shoe, one white shoe, straw hat with red band, and his red and white parasol. Harry loved to flash his 12 gold teeth and dance a jig whenever he got excited, which was pretty much all the time. During the 1939 World Series, the Reds allowed 68-year-old Harry to circle the bases before the Crosley Field games and slide into home.
Outside the park, for 50 years (1932-1982) fans at Crosley and Riverfront could expect to hear the voice of “Peanut Jim” Shelton singing “Wanna-bag-o-peanuts? Wanna-bag-o-peanuts.” Dressed in his tuxedo tails, bowtie and stovepipe hat, Peanut Jim roasted the peanuts right on the street in his “Cadillac,” a coal-fired pushcart.19
Beer vendors filled the air with their catchy oral advertising: “Get moody with Hudy,” “Rock and Roll with Hudepohl,” and “Burger Beer here.”
Over the years, besides hosting the Reds, Crosley Field was used for a Wendell Willkie political rally in 1940,20 a Roy Rogers rodeo in 1948,21 and even an Ice Capades show in the 1950s,22 but no doubt its proudest nonbaseball event occurred when it played host to a Beatles concert on August 21, 1966. The concert was originally scheduled for the evening before, but was rained out. Rather than disappoint thousands of fans, the Beatles agreed to perform a rare Sunday noon concert before flying on to their next concert that evening.23
Fenway Park, Tiger Stadium and Crosley Field (under an assumed name) all opened within a week of each other in 1912. Tiger Stadium lasted until 2000, when it finally yielded to Comerica Park, but Fenway is still going strong. By the late ’60s though, the Reds’ owners decided Crosley Field had reached retirement age. They chose architects Heery & Heery to design a new ballpark on the banks of the Ohio River. Multipurpose, doughnut-shaped stadiums were all the rage and the result was Riverfront Stadium, a modern facility mostly devoid of character and personality. But that’s another story about another ballpark.
The Reds played their last game at Crosley Field against the San Francisco Giants on June 24, 1970. With his team behind 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Johnny Bench hit a game-tying home run and Lee May followed with a game-winning homer. The Reds won their first and last games at Crosley Field. In between, they lost a few.
After the game, no one wanted to leave. So they lingered and sang along while organist Ronnie Dale played his traditional end-of-game songs: “Auld Lang Syne,” “God Bless America,” and “Good Night, Sweetheart.” The crowd stuck around until well after 11 P.M., and those who did witnessed the grounds crew digging up home plate. Mike Dolan handed it to the mayor, who helicoptered it to Riverfront Stadium for installation at its new home, linking the old ballpark to the new.24
After retirement, the City of Cincinnati used Crosley as a vehicle impound lot for two years before demolishing it in the summer of 1972.
But old ballparks who’ve become dear friends never completely die, and loyal fans made sure Crosley Field lived on, even though in a slightly less grandiose fashion. Real-estate agent Larry Luebbers bought parts of Crosley Field at auction and by 1974 had reassembled a facsimile Crosley Field, including advertising and a partial scoreboard, on his farm in northern Kentucky. Larry’s son, Larry Jr., later played for the Reds in parts of three seasons. Luebbers eventually sold the farm and the memorabilia.
But Crosley Field still lives. The fine citizens of Blue Ash, Ohio, a Cincinnati suburb, built a new facsimile stadium, including a full replica of the final Crosley scoreboard. The Blue Ash Crosley Field still stands and is the focal point of the Blue Ash Sports Center.25
Boxerman, Burton and Benita. Jews and Baseball: Vol. 1, Entering the American Mainstream, 1871-1948 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2009).
Gershman, Michael. Diamonds: The Evolution of the Ballpark (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1993).
Lowry, Philip J. Green Cathedrals: The Ultimate Celebration of All 273 Major League and Negro League Ballparks (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1992).
Rhodes, Greg, and John Erardi. Cincinnati’s Crosley Field: The Illustrated History of a Classic Ballpark (Cincinnati, Ohio: Cleresy Press, 2009).
2 Greg Rhodes and John Erardi, Cincinnati’s Crosley Field: The Illustrated History of a Classic Ballpark (Cincinnati: Cleresy Press, 2009) 6.
3 John Erardi, “Caretaker and Innovator Schwab Made Crosley Field the Classic That It Was,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 2, 2002.
5 Burton and Benita Boxerman, Jews and Baseball: Vol. 1, Entering the American Mainstream, 1871-1948 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2009).
6 Bill Veeck, “Sidney Weil: Remarkable Man, Friend,” Pittsburgh Press, January 22, 1966.
7 Rhodes and Erardi, 6.
8 Rhodes and Erardi, 116-117.
11 Rhodes and Erardi, 146.
13 Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals, (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1992), 141.
14 ballparkdigest.com/201002132500/major-league-baseball/visits/crosley-field-cincinnati-reds-1. Accessed February 2015.
15 Rhodes and Erardi, 94.
16 Rhodes and Erardi, 113.
17 Steve McLister, Cincinnati Enquirer, April 6, 2012.
18 “Cincinnati Hit Parade,” Sports Illustrated, July 13, 1959, 26.
19 Jim Rohrer, “ ‘Peanut Jim’ Soared Above the Crowd,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 30, 2012.
20 Robert Earnest Miller, World War II Cincinnati: From the Front Lines to the Home Front (Cincinnati: The History Press, 2014), 36.
21 Robert E. Phillips, Roy Rogers: A Biography, Radio History, Television Career Chronicle, Discography, Filmography, Comicography, Merchandising and Advertising History, Collectibles Description, Bibliography and Index (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 1995), 35.
22 Rhodes and Erardi, 37.
23 Rhodes and Erardi, 180–181.
24 Rhodes and Erardi, 198–199.
25 blueash-oh.gov/content/87/195/2639/303/default.aspx. Accessed February 2015.