Leaving a piece of me in Cincinnati

 

By John Ring

 

It isn’t often you get a personal, up-front tour of a Hall of Fame. But that’s what I was fortunate enough to receive last Friday night in Cincinnati.

When the Reds built Great American Ballpark, plans called for a separate, stand alone facility to be constructed just east of the new stadium— a Hall of Fame and Museum for the Reds.

The fact that there are so few in the major leagues is hard to believe as it is, especially when you consider the rich history of several baseball teams in our neck of the woods, such as the Cardinals, Cubs and White Sox.

“We’ve had several teams send representatives to tour our Hall of Fame,” said Museum Director Greg Rhodes. “The biggest problem they are facing is the lack of space, especially with the older baseball parks. There’s one at the new baseball park for the Texas Rangers but it’s more about baseball in general than about the Rangers.”

That isn’t a problem in Cincinnati. Baseball’s oldest franchise (1869) has a spacious, three-story Hall with interacting exhibits, videos, a gift shop and tributes to some of the great teams in their history.

If you walk up the three flights of stairs, you’ll see 4,256 baseballs stacked up— one for each of Pete Rose’s hits. There are statues of the Great Eight— the eight lineup players of the Big Red Machine, considered one of the best baseball teams of all time. There’s a replica dugout constructed with statues of Sparky Anderson leaning over the rail and Pat Moran sitting down and the organ used at Crosley, with actual taped music.

It’s a dream job for Rhodes. Last  month, he got a call from Buddy LaRosa, a Cincinnati pizza king.  “He had purchased a trunk at an auction years after Crosley Field closed,” said Rhodes about the ballpark the Reds used until 1970. “He went through it and found the pennant banner of the 1940 team. It must have been put in there by accident because we could never locate it.” That banner now hangs in the front foyer of the Hall.

Rhodes also found a lot of memorabilia before Riverfront Stadium was demolished a few years ago. Aside from a large group of stray cats that had inhabited the doomed, empty  structure, Rhodes found banners, seats from  Crosley Field and other things.

The Reds honor their own inducted Hall of Famers in a special section of the building and also have exhibits that pay tribute to Crosley Field, the first professional baseball team of 1869, the “Ragamuffin” Reds of 1961 that won the National League pennant, the World Series Champions of 1990 that had The Nasty Boys (Norm Charlton, Randy Myers and Rob Dibble) and there’s even a bat that Babe Ruth used to club his then record-setting 52nd home run during the 1921 season.

“That’s on loan,” said Rhodes. “After this, it’s going to New York City and will be auctioned off. It’ll probably be sold for around $250,000.”

A former Reds pitcher, Silas Johnson, was the last hurler to strike out Ruth during the 1935 season. The Zephyr did an article on Johnson in our April 4, 1991 issue, two years before he passed away.

“He was a hard-luck pitcher,” said Rhodes, who had talked to Johnson. “He was a hard thrower who pitched for some bad teams.”

“Send me a copy of that issue,” added Rhodes. “The most interesting thing about working with baseball history is getting things sent to you from different places in the country. I got a call from a guy in New Mexico who has some Reds memorabilia and would like to send it our way.”

“Reds players from the past come in here all the time. Lee May visits here. Tony Perez. They love the place. We want to make them feel welcome because of what they’ve done in the past for the Cincinnati Reds.”

 

So how did a piece of me get into the Reds Hall of Fame?

In June, a Cincinnati architect built a replica of Croslery Field in his basement. He was painstaking in the details he used to recreate it. It took years to do and was patterned after the last game to be played at Crosley on June 24, 1970 when the Reds defeated the Giants by a score of 5-4 on back to back home runs by Tony Perez and Lee May.

I read about it in the Cincinnati Enquirer on-line. And sitting in the very room with me was an autographed baseball by the nine Reds who were on the field that night in the 9th inning.

It was a project I undertook in the summer of 1989. Using a Baseball Address Book as a guide and knowing where those former players were led to being able to getting their signatures on the ball.

Lee May, Tommy Helms and Tony Perez were all Reds coaches then. They were easy to get. So was Johnny Bench.

Using the Address Book, I found Daryl Chaney, Jimmy Stewart and Wayne Granger.

I got Pete Rose’s autograph on the ball at a card show. The $10 fee was the largest single financial aspect of the venture. (It eventually cost a total of $26.50, counting postage and handling, the cost of the ball itself and Rose’s fee.)

When Rose autographed it, he asked what was the significance of the ball. He then asked, ‘What’s Chaney doing?” “Where’s Stewart at?”  “What about Tolan?” (My reply was, ‘I don’t know, Georgia and I was hoping you could tell me.’)

The last two signatures I got were Wayne Granger and Bobby Tolan. I had no idea where Tolan was. But Granger wrote back that Tolan was a coach in the Baltimore Oriole organization. Sure enough, he was. I wrote Tolan a letter, enclosed with an index card where he could checkoff if he would sign the ball or not. I wasn’t sending that baseball until I knew for sure.

Tolan had a distinctive signature. His ‘T’ looked like a 7. He replied that he would sign the ball and off it went.

I mailed him the ball, got it back a week later and the signature looked genuine.

I was offered $500 for the ball seven years ago by a card dealer, which means it’s probably worth three times that much to the right person. But I didn’t do this for money, which is why I donated it to the Reds Hall of Fame.

They’re going to mount the ball by a large photo of Crosley Field, taken during the 9th inning of that final game, when Granger was getting ready to pitch to Bobby Bonds. Tito Fuentes was on deck. Bonds made the final out.

Greg Rhodes and his staff were more than fair to me. My name will be on a plaque of donors to the Hall. I get some perks, like a membership, free passes, free tickets, merchandise from the Hall gift shop. I signed off on the paperwork and the ball now belongs to the Reds Hall of Fame. It will be there forever.

Some may think I’m nuts for not selling it. But it’s not about the money.

That Crosley Field ball is in a better place now. It’s where it should be. And no matter what, a little piece of me is in a baseball Hall of Fame.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

 

8/13/05