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Watch On the Ohio
Frank Deford
September 29, 1975
The triumphant Cincinnati Reds have lit up the sky over the American Rhineland. Now its good citizens have some grand designs upon the pennant and World Series
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September 29, 1975

Watch On The Ohio

The triumphant Cincinnati Reds have lit up the sky over the American Rhineland. Now its good citizens have some grand designs upon the pennant and World Series

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Along that thoroughfare, beer gardens piled upon burlesque houses upon saloons: "A Free Wienerwurst with Every Drink!" In a wide-open town, riverboat characters flourished: Toothpick Ben and Simon, The Hot Corn Man; Johanna McNamara, everybody's favorite tart; Phil Gross, the famous barkeep; Big Foot Wallace, who peddled nostrums to the naive; Rum Crail, who tried to steal the cornerstone from the Walnut Theatre in order to extract the $10 bill therefrom; and the ubiquitous Dr. Locate Martin, so called because for years, day in and day out, he visited all the bars of Vine Street, cadging free drinks and an occasional potato pancake as he sought to locate a nonexistent friend.

At its peak around the turn of the century Vine Street boasted 113 drinking establishments in a two-mile stretch, 23 in one block alone, an alcoholic galaxy that left even Carry Nation in proper awe. She did not wield an ax in the Queen City. "I would have dropped in exhaustion before I had gone a block," she admitted. Moreover, while reconnoitering a big sports hangout named the Atlantic Gardens she had her earrings lifted right off her lobes.

The motor car diluted Vine Street's boozy rule, and Boss Cox' organization was finally dispatched in a reform movement that lingers, like the Teutonic touches, today. Overt sin was carted across the river to Newport, Ky., where gambling and pleasures of the flesh thrived under a compliant bluegrass constabulary. The Cleveland syndicate of the Mafia came down and made Northern Kentucky (before Las Vegas) the largest gambling center in the nation. Cincinnati citizens boasted of their team, which they never went to see, and prided themselves on their pure city while they partook of all manner of monkey business just across the river. Xavier University, a proud Cincinnati Catholic bulwark, once gave a Legion of Honor award to a student who, distressingly, later became a Newport hood.

Eventually George Ratterman, the old Notre Dame quarterback, got elected sheriff over there despite being waylaid by a stripper named April Flowers, who was used to sandbag him in a pre-election setup. Ratterman, who tried to bring the leading industries in line with the law, set the clean-up process in motion, the Feds moved in and Newport is just another go-go address now. Cincinnati's own nightlife centers on Mt. Adams, a charming, restored midtown bluff that features old remnants with new money, neo-Bohemia next to Glutz Mrkt. The Benches live up there. They can practically see his home-plate office from their condominium. "It's just a big small town," Vickie Bench says. Her husband might be the most famous name in baseball, but in Cincinnati it is Rose, the hometown hero, the Ernie Banks of the '70s, who is the premier figure. On occasion Bench has been booed at Riverfront. Not Rose, not ever.

Prime to Cincinnati is the fact that it is a compound of its hills. Not only is the city cleaved by Mill Creek Valley, but the topography further splits the community into distinct and separated neighborhoods. The black areas are spread about ("partly by design," says Eugene Ruehlmann, a former mayor), and these little ethnic fiefs are still greatly influenced by the local preachers. "CORE and organizations like that have never been able to take hold here," Ruehlmann says. But then, all peoples in town identify themselves by neighborhood rather than by city. One gets the impression that, like Rose, no one from the East or the West Side ever visits the other, much less migrates, and few depart the neighborhood of their nativity. Eighty-five percent of all the graduates of Elder High, a Catholic school in the Western Hills, still live in three contiguous zip code areas.

Both sides of town run the economic gamut, or seem to. For one thing, it is an article of faith in Cincinnati that there is a legion of Procter & Gamble millionaires living all around town more or less incognito. According to this story—which is quite reminiscent of the New York belief that huge alligators inhabit the Manhattan sewers, having been brought back from Florida as babies by tourists and then flushed down toilets—untold numbers of the P&G proletariat bought a couple or three shares of the stock years ago, and subsequently have retired as invisible rajahs.

Older, more visible money finds its way home each night out Columbia Parkway, east to Indian Hills and Hyde Park. Curiously, the Republicans (under Mayor Ruehlmann), with the support of the old-family Establishment, were responsible for building the $44 million stadium. The present owners of the Reds, a group of Cincinnatians, bought the team from DeWitt to make sure it would stay in town. And yet the East Side has never had anything to do with baseball, except on Opening Day. It was saving itself for the Bengals; after a football game at Riverfront the traffic describes a completely different pattern than after a Reds game.

The hard-core sports fans are supposed to live on the West Side, and the fact that they never took to the basketball Royals is supposed to explain why the franchise finally fled town. But there were other factors as well. In the early '60s the University of Cincinnati stole a lot of thunder with its NCAA champions. The aging Cincinnati Gardens was poorly located, and it is alleged by many residents that the town's Southern heritage, with a residual antipathy to blacks, spelled the team's final doom. Probably so. Since blacks began to dominate pro basketball, virtually all franchises in border cities, like Cincinnati, or the South, have failed or flounder.

The ABA Kentucky Colonels will play a third of their games this season in the new Coliseum, which sits alongside Riverfront Stadium. The Coliseum obtained a lot of support from the city and state funds for access roads and walk-up, but unlike the stadium it is privately owned by a local consortium that also has a 40% chunk of the Colonels and all of a new WHA franchise, the Cincinnati Stingers. Brian Heekin, the young president of the Coliseum and the Stingers, says the facility has obtained low-interest financing and can make it like any regular private business. But will fans from Dayton and Ashland, Chillicothe and Huntington, support events at the Cincinnati Coliseum in the winter the way they support the Reds in the summer? Attendance at Riverfront drops off significantly as soon as the kids go back to school. "It's going to be a weekend facility," Heekin says hopefully.

The Stingers would be wise to study the shared face that both the Reds and the Bengals show to the city, for apparently it is crucial to their appeal. Certainly it is no coincidence that these two teams, in the same conservative city, are considered to possess the most conservative, even antediluvian, images in sports. The Bengals, under Paul Brown, the obstinate traditionalist, were the NFL team least receptive to the strike last summer, and today hardly a dozen Bengals even belong to the players' union. It is seriously hypothesized in town that because a couple of Bengals have been busted for drugs the citizens are most cautious in their loyalty to the franchise. The people of Cincinnati neither tender their dollars nor their affection without careful consideration. Wisely, the word "support," as in "Support the Reds," is never used by the ball club. Support, like a day's pay, is something to be earned in Cincinnati.

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