The Reds, baseball’s attendance problem, and Cincinnati’s status as a “baseball town”

[Cincinnati Magazine]

In the July issue of Cincinnati Magazine, I’ve got a long story on the Reds and their fans. It could have been much, much longer, as my (very gracious) editor can attest. Still, I managed to put a lot of that ancillary stuff on this blog. I’ll link to those posts below — and if any Reds fans want to share their stories or some feedback, feel free to email or leave a comment.

I started with a post outlining my personal history with the team; from there, I wrote an analysis of the Reds’ place in pop culturea description of the Reds’ 1950s business operationa sketch of Cincinnati’s TV scene, circa 1972; and a link to the local sports radio segment I did (and that crops up in my story).

Clearly, this turned out to be a pretty complex and multifaceted story. My main takeaway, though, was that the Reds know they need to attract more fans and are working incredibly hard to do so. And not just working hard, but working in a highly specialized and professionalized manner. In the story, I note how much corporate speak flies around the team’s offices. So let’s give the last word to that tradition — here, the concept of “strategic buckets,” a concept which the Reds’ management is quite fond of, and a concept which I had to look up:

Cincinnati TV, circa 1972

I’m way behind on posting extra Reds material, mostly because I’m struggling with a revision to the Reds story itself.  But I wanted to throw up a link [warning: huge .pdf] to this wonderfully weird essay from 1972. It’s by Robert L. Steiner, then a professor at UC, and is titled “Visions of Cablevision: The Prospects for Cable Television in the Greater Cincinnati Area.”

This is a fun read (or at least a fun skim) for several reasons. First, it reminds you of the time when cable TV was still new and, for network TV, still scary. (In fact, a lot of the essay’s rhetoric can map on to current debates about cable TV vs. the Internet. ) Second, it reminds you of how much Cincinnati’s entertainment options have changed. At this point, the very first Mayor Luken was assembling a “Task Force on Urban Cable Communications” — and only a handful of Reds games were cropping up on TV, and then only on WLWT (still the local NBC affiliate). Third, it’s just an bizarrely written document that moves from technical diagrams of coaxial cable to discussions of old FCC rulings to TV viewing habits in Akron, Ohio.

Steiner does all this in a folksy style, as well. I’ll include a bit from one section on the rights to sports and movies — what Steiner calls “the steak and fried chicken of the television menu. Remove them from the menu, and you may as well close up the restaurant.” Again, it’s weird, but for the right reader in the right mood, it’s a lot of fun.

I survived sports talk radio

Yesterday, after the Pirates finished off the Reds, I left Great American Ball Park for the last time and headed to the Clear Channel radio studios. Despite I-71’s best efforts to stop me, I made it in time to talk to Mo Egger of ESPN 1530 AM from 5 to 6. Thanks to him and his callers for giving me some more perspectives for my story on the Reds and their fans. I thought it turned out pretty well, other than some microphone hijinks at the beginning. You can listen to it here.

The more things change . . .

Everything people worry about in baseball today is right here in this short, unbylined item from December of 1951. You’ve got your revenue sharing (i.e., road attendance); your anxieties about new media and new distractions (television); your sales and marketing (the studying of television); your highly selective self-presentation (in reality, the biggest problem was the Reds’ home attendance, which, at 588,688, ranked next to last in the league); your whining about short-term losses while staying quiet about capitalization (within ten years, Bill DeWitt, Sr., would pay $4.6 million for the Reds); and your fetishizing of player development. In fact, the only surprise is that teams actually used to disclose such things.

Cincinnati Reds Lost $42,355 Last Season

Cincinnati, Dec. 18 (AP) — The Cincinnati Reds lost $42,355.62 last season, stockholders were told last night at their annual meeting.

Failure to draw on the road was the big factor, since the club increased its home attendance 49,474 over the 1950 season. It played to only 655,588 fans on the road — 146,585 less than the year before.

In making his report, Powel Crosley, Jr., president, said it was difficult to determine the effect televising of games has on attendance.

Cincinnati televised only weekday afternoon games last season, and it indicated the club would continue the policy in 1952.

Crosley, who was re-elected president at today’s meeting, said he was hopeful of more fruitful returns from the club’s farm system and working agreements with minor league teams.

“The standings of the clubs on our farm organization last year was pretty low and I think they can be improved,” he told the meeting. “It is also quite possible that more promising young ball players will be brought into the organization. This is a very important matter.”

Gabe Paul was re-elected vice president and general manager; Lewis Crosely, vice president; and T. M. Conroy, secretary and treasurer.

The Cincinnati Reds in pop culture [UPDATED]

Heck of a game last night. It was such a good game, in fact, that after Joey Votto laced the winning hit into right field, I did a fist pump. Now, that’s a ridiculous gesture when I’m watching the game at home and alone. But it’s a leperous gesture when I’m watching it in a press box, where nobody cheers and Votto’s hit was greeted with a collective tapping of the backspace button, as the reporters, true professionals all, began rewriting their ledes.

Let’s change the subject. One thing I’ve been asking fans is whether or not they think Cincinnati is a “baseball town.” That’s a cherished idea around here. But it’s also a difficult one to test, outside of attendance figures. One of my friends made a really smart suggestion: do baseball and Cincinnati get paired up in pop culture? Think about the TV shows and movies set in Boston or Chicago. You’ll invariably get two cop partners, one a Cubs fan, the other a White Sox, or marriage proposal that occurs at Fenway. (Is that how that Jimmy Fallon / Red Sox movie ended? You couldn’t pay me enough money to watch it, but the trailer suggests something along those lines.)

Anyway, the point is Boston and Chicago are “baseball towns.” Not only do their teams attract consistent crowds and dominate the local conversation, they also cause writers and directors to invoke those teams when they want to represent the Real Civic Character. Is the same thing true of Cincinnati? It’s got a much smaller pop cultural canon, but the answer seems to be no. I didn’t see anyone wearing a Reds hat in Traffic. The kids of Glee never road-trip it to a Reds game. When The Brady Bunch came to Cincinnati, they stuck to Kings Island.

I can think of only two positive examples. The first is Rain Man, where Dustin Hoffman sleeps in a Reds shirt, keeps a picture of Crosley Field on his wall, and can recite the career statistics of Ted Kluszewski. Those details suggest someone living in Cincinnati might follow the Reds, but I don’t think they suggest that this is a “baseball town.” The other example comes from WKRP in Cincinnati. In an episode in the second season, the titular station hires Sparky Anderson to host a show. (You can watch the episode here.) Anderson acts remarkably well — his best line: after his show flops, he deadpans that “every time I come to this town, I get fired” — but this episode was the only time the show really delved into baseball. The message, again, seems to be that Cincinnati has a baseball team — but not that Cincinnati is a baseball town.

If anyone knows of other Reds mentions on TV or film, please drop me an email or leave a comment. Now, I’m going to go interview some fans.

[UPDATE, 5/20/2011:] I got some great responses on the Reds in pop culture thanks to a link from Red Leg Nation. Here’s a synthesis of the comments from that site and this blog. Thanks, guys!

  • A lot of people noted Reds asides in various movies. In Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams talks about the 1975 World Series, though that seems like more of a Red Sox allusion than a Reds one. Similarly, the Reds crop up in Field of Dreams, but I’m scoring that movie for the White Sox. In Angels in the Outfield, the Angels’ owner tells his new manager, a Reds import, that “they expect you to win in Cincinnati. It’s different here.” In Blues Brothers, someone wears a Reds hat during the Bob’s Country Bunker scene. In Airborne, which is set in Cincinnati, a rollerblade race ends at Cinergy Field. In High Anxiety, Mel Brooks learns a lounge patron hails from Cincinnati and says, “Love that Big Red Machine.”
  • The Big Red Machine also provided the best examples of Reds players doing celebrity endorsements and commercials. Pete Rose did Gillette and Aqua Velva; Johnny Bench did Krylon (“No runs, no drips, no errors”). More recently, Ken Griffey Jr. did plenty of national ad campaigns. Aroldis Chapman did a Pepto Bismol commercial that can only be described as Lynchian. (Watch it here.)
  • The Reds boast a few celebrity fans, most notably George Clooney and Charlie Sheen. You also see a number of rappers wearing Reds hats, though this stems less from fandom than from the Bloods borrowing the team’s iconography.
  • My favorite example of the Reds in pop culture came from a commenter named Dale. “I have an 8 year old daughter who loves American Girl dolls,” Dale wrote. “There is one doll in the lineup that is based in the 1930s. Her name is Kit Kittredge and she is a huge Reds fan. Her favorite player is Enie Lombardi. This is all documented in the book Kit’s Home Run. I remember there being a Reds outfit for sale in the catalog as well as a game giveaway of an outfit at GABP a few years back.”

I’d say the Kit Kittredge example comes closest to disproving my thesis — that people outside of Cincinnati don’t really link the city to its team (or think of the city because of its team) in any unique or lasting way. But the other examples all support it. They also suggest that things may have been different during the Big Red Machine. It wouldn’t be the first time that brief and glorious era has distorted our perception of the Reds’ relationship to their city and their fans. But that’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, here’s one more example of the Reds in pop culture from the 1970s. In his book The Machine, Joe Posnanski says the Reds became so popular that Arthur Jones, who had just invented something called a Nautilus, decided to donate one of his first working models to the team’s clubhouse. Jones hoped this would popularize his device. The only problem was that, in those days, baseball players looked down on weightlifting. In fact, Tony Perez used the Nautilus to torment the team’s younger players, telling them that they were on Sparky Anderson’s “list” for Nautilus duty.

Broadcasting live from Great American Ball Park

I’ve been a Cincinnati Reds fan for as long as I’ve been a sentient being. I remember getting my adjustable foam hat signed by Marge Schott — or, technically, signed by “Schottzie II.” I remember struggling to understand the Houston Astros’ accent colors, their bright orange stripes set off by the brighter green Astroturf at Riverfront Stadium. I remember watching Barry Larkin hit the home run that gave him a 30-30 season.

What I don’t remember, though, are the good times. That’s because there haven’t been many for Reds fans my age (26). The closest I can come is 1999, when I sat next to my dad in what was now Cinergy Field, in right field, in the red seats, in the stadium’s next to the last row, and watched Al Leiter and the Mets two-hit the home team to win a one-game wild-card playoff.

So, yeah, not a lot of good times from the late 1990s and the 2000s. That’s why I’m so excited for tonight, when the Reds kick off a seven-game home stand against the St. Louis Cardinals — a home stand that actually means something, since the Reds won their division last year and have a chance to do so again, and a home stand I’ll be attending in full while I work on a story on the Reds and their fans. In fact, I’m writing this from the Great American Ball Park press box. On my walk over, I saw Joey Votto pulling into the stadium’s parking garage in his jet black Lamborghini. When I made it to the press box, Hal McCoy introduced himself, then, very graciously, pointed out that I was sitting in the scouts’ section. By the time I got resituated, it had started raining — it hit the river first, roiling the water, then the field (they barely got the tarp on, had to weight it down with golf carts), and now it’s beating against the press box’s glass windows and, from the sound of it, leaking through the ceiling.

*  *  *

Who cares about the weather, though, so long as it lets up by 7:10? On this blog, I plan to post a few random thoughts and extra scenes throughout the week. For now, and for some perspective, I’ll resurrect a particularly painful memory. It comes from a couple months after that one-game playoff, when the Reds, fresh off their 96-win season, traded for Ken Griffey, Jr. The team gave Griffey a $112.5 million contract — almost twice what Carl Lindner had paid for his controlling share of the team the year before — and prepared for a dynasty. You think I’m exaggerating? Check out the first few paragraphs from Tim Sullivan’s Cincinnati Enquirer column, something he wrote right at the honeymoon’s start.

Ken Griffey Jr. changes everything. He makes the beer colder. He makes the girls prettier. He makes the Cincinnati Reds synonymous with style and grace.

He makes baseball bigger. He makes Cincinnati matter. Eighteen years to the day after Dick Wagner finished dismantling the Big Red Machine — trading George Foster to the New York Mets because no ballplayer was worth $2 million a year — Junior Griffey came home Thursday night and ended Cincinnati’s small-market era.

From here on out, the home team operates on a higher plane — culturally, financially and orbitally. Griffey’s supersonic swing — the most lethal uppercut since Rock ’em-Sock ’em Robots — gives the Reds their strongest power source since Foster left town in 1982. His command of center field conjures the best days of Eric Davis, without all the injuries.

“You look at Junior,” Reds first baseman Sean Casey said Thursday, “and you’re kind of in awe.”

No player since Willie Mays has blended baseball’s basic skills in a more breathtaking package than Ken Griffey Jr. No player since Pete Rose has tugged so tenaciously at Cincinnati’s heartstrings. Not since Babe Ruth left Boston for New York 80 years ago has a baseball transaction carried such obvious clout.

“Feb. 10, 2000,” Reds General Manager Jim Bowden said. “That date will go down in Reds history.”

For media overkill, shameless grandstanding and claustrophobia, Thursday’s trade announcement may be unsurpassed in the annals of horsehide. Politicians lined up for the photo opportunity as if Carl Lindner were dispensing campaign contributions instead of baseball cards of himself.

Such is the star power of Ken Griffey Jr. At 30 years old, he is at the peak of his form, and on a pace to make mockery of the home run records. And he’s all ours through 2008. Pinch yourself if you please.