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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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"This is a discriminating town," says Willis Gradison, a former mayor who is now the East Side's Congressman. "What is important to these people they take seriously. Let me tell you about the great sausage controversy. After the stadium opened, there was a huge outcry about the quality of the hot dogs. Understand, I don't mean something frivolous, a couple of nuts. People were taking one bite and throwing the rest away. There was really tremendous waste. It was important to them. This is a sausage-oriented town. So I actually felt it my responsibility to form a sausage committee. I'm serious. And sure enough, we discovered they were using a different brand than what had been used at Crosley Field and that the cooking was being done on a flat griddle instead of a roller type. We put some pressure on and had these matters corrected, and people went back to eating hot dogs."

And, just like their sausages, the Reds are served up exactly as it is perceived that their constituency wants them. Never forget that this is the town where it was felt prudent to change the name to Redlegs in the 1950s lest anyone imagine that Ted Kluszewski might be affiliated with the Communist conspiracy. The Big Red Machine is doubly well named: not just signifying power but the assembly line as well.

The players' hair must be just so (and none on the face), their uniforms—of classic bridal white, a smidgen of red-trim—worn properly, exactly the right length, the prescribed amount of stocking showing. Dick Wagner, the team's administrative vice-president, believes that the Reds spend more money on uniforms than any team in sports; the stars are issued nine apiece so that never will a Red go out on the field with so much as ring around the collar. Bob Howsam, the team's president, from Denver by way of the St. Louis Cardinals, says he considers the field a "stage" and the uniforms "costumes." He has been known to phone the dugout to tell a player to sit up straight. It is darkly hinted in the Queen City that players who bridle at such imperatives ( Ross Grimsley?) are traded to more vulgar locales.

The truly fascinating thing is not just that the Reds, most of them, supinely endure these dictates at a time when athletes seek carte blanche, but that the Cincinnati fans are tremendously proud of the me-too appearance of their team. The case is not at all analagous to that of the A's, where the mustaches were a PR gimmick, an arbitrary attention-getter. The Reds look the way they do because they represent Cincinnati, and Howsam calculates that Cincinnati would like the Reds just so. "If I was running an art gallery in some Western city instead of a baseball team in Cincinnati, I'm sure I would do it differently," he says. The Reds' management receives letters from people thanking them for their team's clean-cut appearance. They say the team is setting a real good example for the young people. Wagner says, "I think that in this country now people basically want some discipline."

Wagner admits to drawing freely from his stint as an Ice Capades executive, and not only in stamping out a chorus-line effect. He calls the stadium "a house," and seats are "inventory." And while most other franchises depend upon updated Veeckian promotions, the Reds have taken a different tack. "Promotion is the most overrated word in baseball," Wagner says. The Reds eschew special events—bat days, ball days—that would discount the house inventory. Instead, the Reds have sold a mood, an attitude; they have sold an ice show with a score.

Obviously the ultimate attractions of the Reds are the juggernaut lineup and the stadium, but it cannot be overlooked that the most successful franchise of the '70s has tied itself to the values of smoother times and gentler places. Howsam is a soft-spoken man who speaks country—words like the-ay-ter, umberella, redio—and he feels, really believes, deeply about baseball. "To me," he says, "baseball has been a safety valve. It's a fast pace today, a tense world, and baseball gives us a place to relax. So I believe we owe certain things to the sport. It has provided a tremendous service to the people of this country, and I don't want to see it destroyed—or misused," he adds after a moment; a curious word.

And so, while the Reds do not really belong to the city in a way its citizens like to believe they do, the Reds represent Cincinnati in a way that other teams (in any sport) do not. The people who come to see them are endorsing much more than just a baseball team—a city, a way of life, a dream. And even those who don't see the games pay the Reds a certain homage. Baseball is not misused in Cincinnati.

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