Opening day engenders the same intense, passionate interest and rich sentimentality in Cincinnati as the Kentucky Derby does in Louisville. Admittedly, certain out-of-town cynics, who follow the National League pennant race with overly dispassionate eyes, have referred to Cincinnati's annual renascence of hope as a form of self-hypnosis, similar to that practiced by Indian fire walkers. This viewpoint, however, could only be held by someone with the soul of a statistician and is, therefore, unworthy of consideration.
To be in Cincinnati in the weeks just before the first baseball game of the season is to regain belief in the resiliency of man. This is the time of reborn faith, when all previous disappointments and frustrations are forgotten and confidence in the future gleams with pristine beauty. For Cincinnatians, Opening Day is the unfailingly effective spring tonic for the weary spirit.
As the great day approaches, bits of gossip from the Reds' training camp are gathered, repeated and magnified with childlike faith in the improbable. The rookie outfielder is reported to hit like Williams, run like Cobb and field like Mays. The pitcher Cincinnati received on waivers from St. Louis is said to have completely regained the form which made him famous a decade ago and to be currently baffling the finest batters in the Grapefruit League. Last year two Cincinnati sluggers who were supposed to break the hearts of the seven competing teams had some difficulty maintaining .250 averages, but now, rumor has it, they've corrected the minor flaws in stance and swing, and balls are sailing over fences with awe-inspiring regularity.
Even the most knowing fans—and Cincinnati has a larger percentage of true baseball aficionados than any other city in the country—are caught up in the wave of optimism. Only someone with the sadistic impulses of a Caligula would point out that the same kinds of folk tales were being told the previous year and that, if history serves as a guide, the rookie outfielder will be back in the Pacific Coast League by June, the retread pitcher will, on the average, take his shower in the fourth inning of every game he starts and the two sluggers will again cause a minimum of insomnia among managers of opposing clubs.
The baseball fever mounts and stories become more and more glowing as the Reds start their trek northward. Meanwhile, at the club's offices in the Union Central Building in Cincinnati, a frantic but happy scene is being played. A politician pleads that hara-kiri is the only alternative course for him if he fails to provide two extra tickets for a big campaign contributor. A fan who has not missed an Opening Day in 30 years explains that he was desperately ill when tickets first went on sale and implores the box office not to besmirch his record of attendance. A businessman claims that only a pair of grandstand seats will save the account which is life or death for his firm.
Although all the reserved-seat sections could easily be sold out a year in advance—an enormous number of boxes are held on a year-after-year basis by various companies and by families who pass the privilege down from father to son—the management tries to maintain the good will of the fans by using a quota system to keep tickets out of the hands of scalpers. A sellout for the game is as automatic as for the first night of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, even if the team finished at the bottom of the league in the previous season.
This curious, but highly profitable, devotion of the fans to the annual debut of the team has given Cincinnati a unique privilege in the National League. The Reds are the only team in the circuit that always plays its first game at home. The fiscal reason for granting this prerogative is obvious. Although Cincinnati is the second-smallest city in the nation with a major league franchise and Crosley Field is the smallest ball park in the National League, the crowds drawn by the Reds on Opening Days are always among the largest in the country.
Two days before the opening game last year I stopped in to see Gabe Paul, general manager of the Reds, to find if the annual pattern was being repeated. It obviously was. In the outer office two overwrought young women were courageously attempting to cope with a switchboard which was lit up like a jukebox. Clerks scurried from office to office at a pace somewhere between a trot and a canter. One man opened the door of his office, took one look at the host of waiting visitors, muttered "Oh" in a stricken voice and rebarricaded himself in his lair.
When I finally was ushered into Gabe Paul's office, he was talking to someone on the telephone. He waved me to a chair as he continued to explain with the soothing tact of a career diplomat why the urgent request for a box just above the Reds' dugout could not possibly be honored. When the conversation ended, I offered my sympathy on the ordeal he was undergoing.
"You don't offer condolences to a prospector who's working his tail off shoveling gold into a wheelbarrow," he said with a benign smile. "This problem I'd like to have for every game of the season."