The onset of professionalism was no small step for baseball: players received a small but growing degree of financial stability, and fans were treated to an ever higher standard of play. The cradle for this groundbreaking practice was Cincinnati, where the first openly professional baseball team was founded. The current Reds franchise dates back to 1881, but its ancestry begins four years after the Civil War.
The Cincinnati Red Stockings became baseball's first professional team in 1869. They began with a 45-9 thumping of a team called the Great Western of Cincinnati, then proceeded to win nearly every one of its more than 70 games against overmatched amateur teams in the Midwest. They finally lost a game in 1870, when the Brooklyn Atlantics bested them 8-7 in extra innings.
It was a 19th century no-brainer the Red Stockings would be a charter member of the National League in 1876. However, Cincinnati's start in the League was rocky to say the least. The Red Stockings didn't fare as well as their 1869 predecessors, finishing 9-54. After four seasons Cincinnati was kicked out of the National League for playing games on Sunday and for selling beer during games. Both were National League no-no's at the time.
In 1881, the Reds were re-initiated with an exhibition series in St. Louis. This new franchise, which still exists today, became a charter member of the American Association the following year. The AA, nicknamed “The Beer and Whiskey League” for its liberal approach to ballpark libations, was reviled by the more puritanical National League owners from the start. As the only AA charter member pre-existing the young league, the Reds became the oldest baseball club – and possibly the oldest currently-existing professional sports club – to actively accommodate the blue-collar tendencies regarding spectator sport. Cincinnati finally accepted reinstatement to the National League in 1890, with their Sunday baseball and beer sales intact. The only thing to change was their name, from Red Stockings to Reds.
While with the American Association, the Red Stockings opened League Park in 1884. The Cincinnati team would play at this same location for the next 86 years. League Park had a tragic beginning, as part of its grandstand collapsed during its first-ever opening day, killing one and injuring many. A fire devastated the park and a new stadium was built, opening in 1902. Christened the Palace of the Fans, it suffered its own devastating fire in 1911, which led to the construction of a park originally known as Redland Field. It opened in 1912 and was renamed Crosley Field after team owner Powell Crosley in 1934. The Reds played there until moving to Riverfront Stadium (a.k.a. Cinergy Field) in 1970.
For the 30 years following their readmission to the National League, the Reds fared poorly, never finishing higher than third. Then came the 1919 pennant winners led by Hall of Famer Edd Roush, a .321 hitter that year and probably Cincinnati's best player up to that time. They had a 20 game winner (Slim Sallee) and two 19 game winners (Hod Eller and Dutch Ruether) on the pitching staff.
The baseball world was shocked when the Reds upset the heavily favored White Sox in the World Series, but that shock turned to horror for some, dismay for others when it was revealed the White Sox (or Black Sox) lost the Series on purpose. Players on the 1919 Reds always professed a frustration that the scandal prevented them from getting their due as World Champions.
The Reds would not be heard from again until they built a quality pitching staff in the 1930s. Paul Derringer, Bucky Walters and Johnny Vander Meer (of back-to-back no-hitter fame in 1938) teamed with catching great Ernie Lombardi to win pennants in 1939-40, and the latter World Series against Detroit. Walters won 49 games and Derringer 45 in those two seasons.
During the next two decades the only interest the Reds created was their politically-tinged decision to change names from the Reds to Redlegs to avoid association with Communists. However, players, sportswriters and fans continued to refer to the team as the Reds, and the Redlegs moniker fell by the wayside.
The Reds climbed the National League pinnacle again in 1961, led by the bats of Frank Robinson (37 home runs and 124 RBI’s) and Vada Pinson (208 hits and a .343 average), although they were beaten by the Yankee juggernaut in the World Series.
Two years later the first cog in the Big Red Machine joined the team when a hardnosed, crew-cut infielder named Pete Rose was called up from the minors. A decade later, he would be the leadoff batter and igniter for one of the National League's most dominant dynasties.
Managed by Sparky Anderson, the Reds of the 1970s were a virtual Hall of Fame gallery with Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez. This team won back-to-back world championships (1975-76), four pennants and six division titles. Four Reds won Most Valuable Player awards. The highlight of their domination was in 1976, when the Reds led the National League in all 12 major offensive categories.
Rose's departure for Philadelphia as a free agent after 1978 signaled the end of the Big Red Machine, although the team won the 1979 division title (but lost the National League Championship Series to Pittsburgh). Rose returned as player-manager in 1984 and closed out his career with a record 4,256 hits. However, he was later banned for life from the game for betting on baseball.
Lou Piniella then guided the Reds to a pennant in 1990 behind the bats of Eric Davis, Chris Sabo, Paul O'Neill and Barry Larkin, and a shutdown bullpen featuring Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers. They capped the season with a four game sweep of Oakland in the World Series.
The Reds have mostly floundered since 1990, although they finished first in the strike shortened 1994 season, won the Central Division title in ’95 and missed the 1999 postseason by one game. One highlight for the franchise was the opening of another of baseball's retro parks, The Great American Ballpark in 2003.
The club won the Central Division crown in 2010 before being eliminated in the first round. However, regardless of when the Reds add to their five world championships, nine pennants and 10 division titles, they will always have a strong franchise lineage. One that traces back to the dawn of the professional game and their role as keeper of the historic flame they lit by birthing the Red Stockings in 1869.