Who’s On First: Baseball Firsts in Ohio History

The 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. This photograph was taken by Matthew Brady, famous for his Civil War photos and portraits of famous Americans including Abraham Lincoln and Ohio native Thomas Edison. Courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library via Ohio Memory.
Johnny Vander Meer pitching for the Cincinnati Reds. Via Ohio Memory.

Today we’re celebrating the first day of summer by taking a look at a favorite warm-weather pastime: baseball. Read on to see how Ohio played a role in some of baseball’s biggest “firsts.”

The Cincinnati Red Stockings Baseball Club was founded in 1866, and three years later became the first fully professional baseball team in the U.S. by paying all of its players. The team won 130 straight games before disbanding in 1870. However, a newly-formed Cincinnati Red Stockings team became a charter member of the National League when it was established in 1876. After being expelled from the league in 1880 for serving beer at games, a third Red Stockings team formed in 1881.

After spending the 1880s in the newly-established American Association (and winning the inaugural AA pennant), the team shortened their name to Reds and rejoined the National League for good in 1890. In 1919–fifty years after becoming the first professional baseball team–the Reds won their first National League pennant and went on to win the World Series. (This win was later tainted by the Black Sox Scandal, in which eight Chicago White Sox players received lifetime bans from professional baseball for intentionally losing the series.)

The 1930s provided other notable firsts for the team. In 1935, Cincinnati’s Crosley Field hosted the first night game in professional baseball. President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned on the lights remotely from the White House; fans were treated to fireworks and a 2-1 win by the Reds. Three years later, during the first night game in New York City at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, 23-year-old Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer, seen above at right, became the first (and to date the only) major league pitcher to throw two consecutive no-hitters. The Reds returned to Ebbets Field in 1939 to face the Brooklyn Dodgers in the first televised Major League Baseball game.

Branch Rickey (top left) and the 1903 Ohio Wesleyan University baseball team. Courtesy of the Ohio Wesleyan University Historical Collection via Ohio Memory.

However, the Reds weren’t the only Ohioans involved in important baseball “firsts.” Wesley Branch Rickey was born in Stockdale, Ohio, in 1881. In the early 1900s, he played on and then coached the baseball team at Ohio Wesleyan University. After lackluster turns as a player and manager in professional baseball, Rickey moved to the front office, where he excelled. He developed the modern farm system, implemented the regular use of batting helmets, and established the first full-time spring training facility.

Most importantly, he signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking baseball’s color barrier and integrating the National League. Thinking back to an incident during his time at Ohio Wesleyan in which African American player Charles Thomas was denied lodging at an away game, Rickey stated, “I may not be able to do something about racism in every field, but I can sure do something about it in baseball.” Later that same year, the Cleveland Indians signed Larry Doby, the first African American player in the American League. In 1974, the Indians again broke new ground by hiring Frank Robinson, the first African American manager in the major leagues.

Thank you to Stephanie Michaels, Research and Catalog Services Librarian at theState Library of Ohio, for this week’s post!

You can learn more about Reds history at Cincinnati Reds before 1950 at the Ohio History Center on August 3rd, and about other sports and baseball firsts through the exhibit Ohio–Champion of Sports!

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