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Retro Columns

Posted on: 04-02-2017

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>>caption:  FRANK BANCROFT,

    Tiger Opening Day in Detroit
is an unofficial Michigan holiday.

    Opening Day heralds the real
beginning of spring.  

    Tiger fans hope for the elusive
World Series Championship that
was last experienced in 1984.

    It doesn't matter that the pitching
in Florida's Grapefruit League was
erratic or if the hitting isn't hefty
enough or if some key Tiger player
(like J.D. Martinez) comes north injured.

    Opening Day is a celebration of all things possible.

    Schools allow students to skip-out if they have tickets, businesses
experience an epidemic of sick days by employees who are going to
the game and the tailgate parties in Downtown Detroit and at Eastern
Market have the grilles fired up before dawn.

    There is no better Opening Day experience than the one in the
Motor City.

    It wasn't always that way.  

    There were plenty of empty seats during hard economic times and
lean Tiger seasons at Navin Field/Briggs Stadium/Tiger Stadium at
"The Corner" of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues.

    However, since the move to Comerica Park in 2000 the O-Day crowds
have needed to be shoehorned into the stadium.

    Opening Day is "our" holiday.

    It wasn't always that way.

    Before cable TV specials that started the season on "Sunday Night Baseball"
or during ill-advised March openers in foreign countries or with four games
televised by ESPN/ESPN2 on both of back-to-back Opening Days in 2017,
baseball's first professional team was given the honor of the first game each
big league season.

    Playing their first schedule in 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings were
charter members of the National League from 1876--80 when the franchise
was expelled for the sins of selling beer at the ballpark and playing home
games on Sundays.  The team was replaced by the American Association
(then a major league) Cincinnati Kelly's Killers of player-manager King Kelly
in 1881.  The Red Stockings reorganized and replaced Kelly's team in the
American Association in 1882.  The team name was shortened to Reds in
1890 when the club moved back to the National League.  Cincinnati has
remained part of the senior circuit ever since and the Reds name stayed
the same excepting from 1954--59 when Cincy's team was called the Redlegs
to avoid any communist connotation.          

    When most major league baseball seasons opened on a Tuesday, the Reds
were allowed to start at home first on a Monday, opening on the road just
once in 1888.  When times changed and there were multiple games on Opening
Day, the Reds began at home an hour or 30 minutes before the other contests
so Cincinnati could keep the tradition of being first.

    Cincinnati being the first team is not the only reason the city was annually
given the nod as first to host Opening Day.  With the exceptions of St. Louis
and Washington DC, Cincinnati was the southern most big league city until 1958.  
Therefore, it was likely to have the mildest O-Day weather.

    The other reason Cincinnati was first to start an MLB season was the pomp
and pageantry which had accompanied Reds season openers since the 1890s.

    DID YOU KNOW that Detroit's first major league manager was responsible
for creating the Opening Day holiday tradition in Cincinnati?

    One week shy of his 35th birthday, Frank Bancroft became skipper of
the new Detroits (sometimes called Wolverines) franchise that began an
eight year membership in the National League in 1881.  Arrangements to
purchase the banned Cincinnati franchise (minus the players) were
negotiated by Detroit Mayor William Thompson.

    Boss of the NL's Worcester Ruby Legs in 1880, Bancroft brought some
of his Rubys with him to to Detroit.  Bancroft and the Detroits had mild
success during the team's first two seasons, going 41-43 and 42-41-3 for
fourth and sixth place finishes in the eight team National League.  
(Worcester finished last in both 1881 & '82 and became defunct after
Bancroft had guided the first year Ruby Legs to a fifth place finish in 1880.)

    Even though the won-lost record was slightly better, the Detroits
position in the standings was two spots worse in 1882 and Bancroft was

    Bancroft managed the NL Cleveland Blues to a fourth place finish in
1883 and then moved on to the Providence Grays for two years.            

    Bancroft's 1884 Grays were amazing in capturing the National League
pennant with a record of 84-28-2 for a .750 winning percentage, then
sweeping the American Association champ New York Metropolitans 3-0
in the annual "World Series" exhibition challenge.  The Grays were
anchored by rubber-armed pitcher Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn, who
won the NL's pitching Triple Crown with a 1.38 earned run average, 441
strikeouts and an MLB record 59 victories.  (Some sources credit Radbourn
with 60 wins instead of 59 plus a save while his tombstone claims 62 wins.)

    The 1885 Grays slumped to fourth place and then ceased to exist.

    Bancroft was fired in mid-season as manager of both the AA Philadelphia
Athletics in 1887 and NL Indianapolis Hoosiers in 1889.

    In 1890 Bancroft moved into the front office as business manager of the
renamed Cincinnati Reds when the team rejoined the National League and
"Banny" actively developed the club's Opening Day tradition.

    The first Opening Day "parade" was held by Bancroft in his first Cincy
season, a modest affair where three streetcars carried the Reds players,
the visiting Chicago club and a marching band.  Other teams soon copied
the practice of parading both fully dressed teams (there were no clubhouses
in those days) down city streets to promote ticket sales.

    At Bancroft's urging Cincinnati Mayor John Caldwell became the first
prominent politician to take part in Opening Day festivities.  In 1895 Caldwell
handed the baseball to the home plate umpire so the season could officially
start.  In 1896 Caldwell decided to toss the ball from his box behind home
plate and it sailed over the ump's head, so the first ceremonial Opening Day
pitch was a wild pitch.  

    By 1900 Reds Opening Days were almost always sold out, so the official
parade practice ceased.  Fans who had followed the parades to the ballpark
continued the tradition on their own, moving as a group from local businesses
and social clubs through the downtown area in decorated horse drawn wagons
known as tallyhos.  These "Rooters Group" excursions later featured rented
streetcars and early era automobiles.

    Bancroft returned to the dugout for 16 games during the 1902 Reds
season as interim manager between the tenures of Bid McPhee and Joe
Kelley, posting a 9-7 record.  His squad included future Detroit Tiger
HoFamer Sam Crawford.

    For Bancroft's last Opening Day with the Reds in 1920, the Findlay Market
rooters group joined the festivities to help celebrate the (now tainted) 1919
Reds World Series Championship.  Over time the group brought in the "official"
American flag to fly over the ballpark and, after looping around the field
before taking their seats, presented the Reds manager with a large bouquet of
flowers at home plate.

    When the Reds moved from Crosley Field to Riverfront Stadium in 1970,
the simple march down Findlay Street to the west end ballpark became a
parade through the heart of downtown Cincinnati, televised locally.  It had
grown to include high school bands and some floats.

    The annual Findlay Market Association parade continued when the Reds
moved into the new Great American Ballpark in 2003, but has recently lost
some luster because the Reds have fared so poorly on the field and because
Cincinnati is no longer "first."

    A tireless promoter of the game of baseball, Bancroft elevated
his Worcester Hop Bitters team into the National League after taking
the club to Cuba in December, 1879 to win a pair of Havana exhibitions
against the top players on the island.  He repeated the goodwill tour
in 1908 by taking the Cincinnati Reds to Cuba, the same winter Ty Cobb
joined a Detroit Tigers squad for exhibitions there.        

    Bancroft passed away in Cincinnati on March 30, 1921 at age 74, two
weeks before Opening Day.

    Maybe Detroit's annual Opening Day holiday could be even better by
adding a parade, the invention of Detroit's first big league manager
Frank C. Bancroft.




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