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RIGHT THERE IN HIS OWN BACKYARD
Roy Bongartz
September 20, 1976
A real-estate agent and ham salesman named Larry Luebbers, who once quit the seminary so he could listen to Reds games, went to old Crosley Field looking for souvenirs and wound up with most of the park
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September 20, 1976

Right There In His Own Backyard

A real-estate agent and ham salesman named Larry Luebbers, who once quit the seminary so he could listen to Reds games, went to old Crosley Field looking for souvenirs and wound up with most of the park

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Meanwhile, the mortgage holders on Luebbers' 206 acres of rolling farmland—he leases the rest of it for grazing and tobacco growing—were dubious about the value of a baseball field on their property. That is, until Luebbers was able to pay them off. Now he stands proudly at the entrance gate of the park, leaning against a post and taking in his masterpiece with serene pleasure. "You know, I wonder how it would be, selling this house and land with a major league baseball field on it," he says. "If I ever wanted to sell, well, maybe some people wouldn't appreciate having Crosley Field. Old people, maybe."

One of Luebbers' cronies, Boone County Judge Bruce Ferguson, comes up to watch the kids practice sliding into third along a very muddy base path, and he needles his friend gently. "It looks pretty good, Larry, but I think you really ought to fix it up more. You ought to touch up those billboards and I think you should have got the original grass from Cincinnati," Ferguson says. It turns out that Luebbers, who is entirely unperturbed by what anybody in Union may think of his project, has already arranged with Sweetie Meyer, a sign painter who hangs out in the Bull Pen, a tavern across the highway from the farmhouse, to work on the signs. By a coincidence, which seems typical of the scene here, Meyers painted the original advertisements some years ago at Crosley Field. And the Bull Pen was owned partly by the late Jim McGlothlin, who started the last game for the Reds at Crosley.

McGlothlin, who lived a couple of miles down the road from the new field, said in an interview before his death last year that the players were mostly interested in their new stadium back in 1970 and didn't much care that they were losing Crosley Field. "The stands were all greasy and dirty and the fences were too short," he said. Of his friend Luebbers' obsession, he said, "The kids seem to like it O.K." By and large the people of Union have taken the advent of Crosley Field in their midst very calmly. When they drive along the highway they scarcely look up at the billboards and the bleachers outlined against the hilltop behind Luebbers' house. The bartender at the Bull Pen says, "I guess there's some that thinks he's crazy, but he don't care. Some guys collect old cars. Larry collects old ball fields."

Still, the last game at Crosley Field on June 24, 1970 did evoke some emotion from the fans as the Reds beat the San Francisco Giants 5-4 with back-to-back home runs by Bench and Lee May in the eighth inning. "So it ended to the cheers of 28,027 wonderful people who came out to give old Crosley Field a final goodby," wrote Bob Hertzel in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Wayne Granger, who relieved McGlothlin that day, says, "I got back to the clubhouse and looked for the champagne. I felt just like we had won the World Series." William R. Powers, a ball boy for 37 seasons, told Tommy West of the Enquirer, "What do you expect? It's like losing an old friend." An Associated Press photographer figured out that he had seen 2,200 Reds games since he started taking pictures at Crosley in 1938, and before the game Si Burick, the sports editor of the Dayton Daily News, pronounced a public epitaph for the field: "Rest in peace."

After the Reds won, West wrote, "The fans were screaming, and somewhere a lot of old baseball greats who once played on this field must have been smiling." Home plate was then presented to the mayor; the bases went to lucky fans whose ticket numbers had been drawn. One newspaper story reported that "Mary Jane Gill, 12, Dover, Ky., said that she doesn't know what she will do with second base." At 10:56 p.m. a band played Auld Lang Syne. The fans were all standing, many weeping, among them Hugh Hanley, 98, who had been rooting for the Reds in various stadiums at the same location since 1897. Former Reds General Manager Warren Giles cried before the game and again after the game. "I'm not ashamed," he said.

A boy from Dayton scooped up some dirt in a paper cup, but there were no signs of vandalism as the crowd departed. A newspaper story described what happened then: "The big lights went off. A few remained on, but the people had gone. All but one. One man sat alone in the shadows. He had a half smile on his face, and he kept looking all around, up and down. He said he was Frank O'Toole, of Western Hills. He was the last man left when they turned off the lights at Crosley Field."

In the taverns of Cincinnati that night the beer flowed in rivers, and there was talk of the early days of the Reds and of the Red Stockings before them. They were the world's first professional baseball team; in their first season, 1869, they played 69 games and won them all. It took nine balls for a walk in those days, and the batter had two chances on a called third strike. The Reds had an even earlier predecessor in the Cincinnati Baseball Club, a group of amateurs, mostly young lawyers, who played their games early in the morning before work. Their teams were called the Morning Glories and the Wide Awakes.

Memories of the old days were reported in the weeks that followed. Edd Roush, who played on the Reds between 1917 and 1927, recalled, "I remember the dead ball. The umpires used to have only about half a dozen baseballs for the game, and we'd use only one, maybe two balls a game. You never did see a white baseball in those days. All the infielders used to chew tobacco, and by the time the ball was thrown around the infield, it was covered with tobacco juice. Everyone used to spit on it."

Crosley was quickly forgotten when 51,786-seat Riverfront Stadium opened the following week. Two years later—after Luebbers had got most of what he could carry away—the wrecker's ball finally struck the concrete and steel of the old park. The iron ball was painted white with black stitching as a sort of salute to Giles, again on hand but smiling this time, and to the present Reds manager, Sparky Anderson, who had come out to pay their last respects. Since then, the Reds and their fans have pretty well ignored Luebbers' rebirth of Crosley over in Kentucky. It is true that George Scherger, the Reds' third-base coach, has been living at the Luebbers', but he stays there mainly to fish for bass and bluegills in a pond on Luebbers' property.

When Luebbers heard that Reds President Robert Howsam wanted some old Crosley seats for his home, he had eight of them scraped, scrubbed and repainted and sent them to Howsam as a present. But the gift was very belatedly acknowledged. So Luebbers has been left just about alone to enjoy his field and its history—the pennants won there in 1919, 1939, 1940 and 1961; the 1937 flood during which Pitchers Lee Grissom and Gene Schott rowed a boat over the center-field wall; the first major league night game in 1935, when Franklin D. Roosevelt switched on the stadium lights from the White House; the Siebler Suit sign (HIT THIS AND WIN A SIEBLER SUIT) that cost Siebler 104 suits over the years; and a total of 4,542 regular-season National League games.

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