150 years ago, 12 men in Cincinnati took a chance on baseball and changed the world

They weren't even called baseball players. The first professional baseball team was made up of something else, actually. 

Something called ballists. 

The term is defined as something more than nine players who hit and threw a ball around for points. That distinction is just as important today as it was more than a century ago. 

The suffix "ist" refers to a follower of a practice or system or philosophy or movement. And in 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings were, in fact, devotees to an idea. 

For 57 games in one glorious season, those 12 men were disciples of a new discipline, one that would reconstruct a regional pastime into a legitimate profession. That innovative effort, from all those years ago, is still in the foundation of what is now a $10 billion industry.

Created by designer Tom Tsuchiya, seen here touching up a clay bust of George Wright, Wednesday, April 24, 2019, the 1869 Pavilion will be dedicated on May 4, the 150th anniversary of the 1869 Red Stockings' first game. It features the original 1869 Red Stockings players and will be the primary memorial to the original team. (Photo: Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer)

Even though, after just one year, so many of them lost faith. But, it turned out, it would only take one year to build something that was new, something strong enough to grow on its own.

But like that term "ballist," these men's names have been widely forgotten. Their faces are not recognized. 

After 150 years, that is about to change. 

This time, the Cincinnati Reds have built something for them, something they hope will ensure that not only what they did, but who they were, will be remembered.

And they are doing it with something that is appropriately classic. Old-fashioned, even.

The 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings are getting a monument. 

Finding home

Starting Saturday, a new space will open behind the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, right next to where the Reds still play at Great American Ball Park. The monument stands near where Pete Rose's hit-king-making ball landed – number 4,192 – 116 years after the Red Stockings' groundbreaking season. 

The tribute of bronze and stone stands in a purposeful place that represents the Reds' past, present and future, says Rick Walls, executive director of the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum. And this space, once private and behind a fence, is now open to the public. It is, essentially, a new park.

It will be unveiled on the anniversary of the team's first-ever game, played at 3:45 p.m. May 4 in Cincinnati against another, well, Cincinnati club. The Red Stockings triumphed that day, 45 to 9, over the Great Westerns.

As Walls sees it, the new space is not just in honor of that game or the Red Stockings themselves – it celebrates the inspiration required to begin anything brand new, on the field and off.

A rendering of the 1869 pavilion. The new public space will be dedicated on May 4, the 150th anniversary of the 1869 Red Stockings' first game. (Photo: Provided)

Technically, they are calling this space the 1869 Red Stockings Pavilion. The structure itself looks a lot like a gazebo, a roofed structure with views, a concept that's been traced back to ancient Egyptian, Chinese and Persian gardens.

The overall appearance is supposed to reference classical construction, but with a twist, said designer and Cincinnati sculptor Tom Tsuchiya. Look closely at the columns: They look like the rounded Doric order from ancient Greece and Rome, but they are actually in the shape of 19th-century baseball bats. 

This is a design departure for Tsuchiya. Just look at his statues on the other side of the Reds Hall of Fame. He produced the larger-than-life Pete Rose statue sliding head-first into a base. Johnny Bench throwing out a runner. Tony Perez smashing a two-run homer.

But grand, ancient architecture like this gazebo evokes powerful emotions, Tsuchiya said. A sense of history and place and significance. There are facts and figures and quotes about the Red Stockings inside the dome, but to read it, we have to stand inside a striking structure.

And that is his main goal: Tsuchiya wants for Cincinnatians to not just know who these men were but to feel a true connection to them.

Harry was so right

Tsuchiya didn't have to look far for his idea.

At the end of their undefeated season, Harry Wright wrote a Latin phrase on one of the final pages of the team's scorebook, one attributed to a letter from Julius Caesar after a quick victory. 

"Veni, vidi, vici." Or, "I came. I saw. I conquered."

For Tsuchiya, Wright was the Caesar of this squad. As team captain, he ran it like the other players were a part of the Roman legion, Tsuchiya said.

31. Harry Wright, OF-P: Wright was the brains behind the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball's first professional team. He assembled and managed the team while playing center field. He was inducted into the Baseball HOF in 1952. (Photo: File photo)

British-born, Wright came to Cincinnati from New York to work for the Union Cricket Club. Cricket, by the way, was the sport then. Cricket players were even paid, which was unusual. And the professionalism of these leagues reflected that. 

So when the Cincinnati Base Ball Club recruited Wright to play and lead the team, he brought that rigor and regimen with him. Oh, and those knickers and tall socks that were part of the cricket uniform came too.

Tsuchiya's portrayal of the team on top of the gazebo reflects that serious spirit, he said. 

Not even the star player George Wright – and Harry's brother – is smiling in his 4-foot-tall bronze depiction, and his toothy grin was a common sight, Tsuchiya said.  

Every man is depicted as stoic, unflappable. Nearly expressionless men on the front lines.

But that was the point. They were assembled exclusively for this purpose: To not just win, but to dominate. To beat the best clubs around the country. To return home as conquering heroes. 

The country's first sports superstars

Harry Wright and Cincinnati Base Ball Club president Aaron Champion (yes, that's his name) recruited the players, plus a substitute, from around the country. Only one, Charlie Gould, was from here. 

They were each going to be paid around $1,000, almost twice the average wage at the time, according to the book, "Baseball Revolutionaries." They had to be the best of the best. And they all had to commit to getting better.

Wright ran strict daily practices, created intense throwing drills and devised a sophisticated system of signals for the games. (All stuff that is commonplace now, but groundbreaking 150 years ago.) 

Being great at throwing, catching and hitting a ball the size of a lemon might have been the only thing they had in common.

The Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 weren't the first baseball team, but their players were the first to be openly paid. Local businessmen bankrolled the club and top players made more than $1,000. (Photo: Provided by the Cincinnati Museum Center)

There was Cal McVey, the most versatile player on the roster. Born on an Iowa farm, he went to North Western Christian University before working with his father in their piano shop.

He was joined by Andy Leonard, the speedy left fielder who fled the Irish potato famine. And Charlie Gould, the Cincinnati boy who worked for his father's riverfront egg and butter shop. He grabbed Wright's attention after he won a local contest with a 302-foot throw.

There was Doug Allison, the catcher. He was working in a brickyard and playing on an amateur team in Philadelphia when the Cincinnati club discovered him. Just four years before, Allison enlisted in the Union Army and served in an artillery battery during the Civil War.  

Tsuchiya captured a bit of that personality and quirk in the portraits. One example? Allison also wore his cap a bit to the side.

22. George Wright, SS: He's the chap who put Cincinnati baseball on the map in 1869, when Harry Wright, the team's center fielder and captain (manager), brought his younger brother (and best player in baseball) to town to play the sport's most critical position. The younger Wright lived up to those confidences, leading the Red Stockings to an undefeated season in their fledgling year, and making the pro game explode. (Photo: File photo)

Tsuchiya also ensured the players faced symbolic directions.

Take George Wright, widely considered the best ballist of his day. He is in the most prominent position, in the center of the pavilion, facing out toward the streets and the public. 

His brother, Harry, is on the direct opposite side. He's facing the ballpark as if he is still coaching and commanding the team. 

Or Gould, the Cincinnati native. He gazes toward the nearby Christian Moerlein, a brewery that was just 16-years-old during that 1869 season. 

All and all, these 12 figures make a circle atop the gazebo. But Tsuchiya doesn't call it that. 

He calls it the crown.

Created by designer Tom Tsuchiya, seen here touching up a clay bust of George Wright, Wednesday, April 24, 2019, the 1869 Pavilion will be dedicated on May 4, the 150th anniversary of the 1869 Red Stockings' first game. It features the original 1869 Red Stockings players and will be the primary memorial to the original team. (Photo: Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer)

But why here? Why then?

The formation makes a tiara, in honor of Cincinnati's Queen City moniker, Tsuchiya said.

Rick Walls says you can't really separate the story of baseball and the story of Cincinnati.

Before 1869, baseball was mostly a regional sport, most popular in New York and the Northeast, all areas largely spared from Civil War conflict. Remember that America at that moment was still healing and reeling from the war that ended just five years earlier. 

The war, though, played a remarkable role in the advancement of baseball. Turns out, Union soldiers introduced the sports to thousands of Southern and Western troops. 

One of the earliest images of the sport, an 1862 lithograph, shows Union prisoners playing baseball at the Salisbury Confederate Prison in North Carolina. The camp housed 10,000 men during the war years. Diaries indicate baseball was played there daily – as long as the weather was good.  

So, back in 1869, more people than ever knew about baseball. There were more amateur clubs than ever playing the sport around the country. There were, in fact, more people than ever that might buy a ticket to watch professionals play.

This was a tipping point for baseball. And Cincinnati was well-positioned to catch it.

The Red Stockings played during the peak Queen City era, when Cincinnati was a booming river town and one of the fastest growing cities in all of America. 

Red Stockings creators, the Cincinnati Base Ball Club, were probably the most prestigious of all the Queen City clubs at the time. It was made up of mostly wealthy, ambitious, powerful lawyers. They would play at dawn, before heading to work at the city's majors firms. 

They were also leaders and power brokers and kingmakers. They had the will and the drive and the money to spend on players and fund a coast-to-coast game tour. 

And their wild idea to found an all-professional team worked. For a little bit. For 57 games and six months.

The Red Stockings played for thousands of new fans, from San Francisco to New York. Along the way, they met with the president. They appeared on the prototype for the modern-day baseball card. When they returned from beating the best teams in the East, a crowd of 4,000 waited for them at the depot. 

An illustration of the presentation of the championship bat to the Cincinnati Red Stockings when they returned from a victorious five-week road trip in 1869. Such items can be found at RetroCincinnati.com. Provided/Cincinnati Museum Center
emailed handout photo for LOCAL_OUR HISTOR – SAVED OCTOBER 6, 2010: PHOTO CREDIT: PROVIDED PHOTO/CINCINNATI MUSEUM CENTER
an illustration of the presentation of the championship bat to the Cincinnati Red Stockings when they returned from a victorious five-week road trip in 1869. (Provided by the Cincinnati Museum Center.) (Photo: Provided by the Cincinnati Museum Center)

But by the next season, the crowds dwindled, here and everywhere else. Even when tickets were being sold, the club barely scraped together enough cash to support the team's payroll and travel. They had to borrow from club members, hundreds of dollars at a time. 

And that highly disciplined team was, well, getting less disciplined. And the once-adoring press noticed the drinking problems off the field and the laziness on it.

That didn't help sales. 

Loyalties frayed, on the field and in the clubhouse and in the stands in that 1870 season. At the end, the club lost six games, and the city lost its team. The Cincinnati Base Ball Club announced it would not renew its players' contracts. 

The players moved on to other teams. Charles Gould, George Wright and Cal McVey all followed Harry Wright to the Boston Red Stockings. Some had sterling careers, others only played for one or two more years. They became a police officer, pool hall owner, bartender, post office clerk. Some died rich. Some died penniless. 

But in Tsuchiya's design, they are forever young and vital. They are still on top of the world. They are still together. 

They stand tall, at about 20 feet high. Just tall enough for us to see their eyes from the stadium grounds. 

Information came from interviews with Rick Walls, Tom Tsuchiya, the Enquirer archives, as well as the book "Baseball Revolutionaries" by Greg Rhodes, John Erardi and Greg Gajus.

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