Ron Cartee, who operates the two Arby’s Restaurants in Ashland, stopped by my office to show me a 52-year-old book that immediately stirred some of the fondest memories I have of my childhood.
It was the 1961 yearbook of the Cincinnati Reds, and that was the year I went from being a casual Reds fan to being a fanatic, someone who breathes, eats and feasts on the exploits of the Cincinnati Reds the way a lot of University of Kentucky fans do on the fortunes — and sometimes misfortunes — of their beloved Wildcats in basketball.
If you were like me and grew up in central Ohio as a Reds fan during the 1950s and early 1960s, then that 1961 season was probably the highlight of your entire childhood. That was the year the Reds surprised everyone by winning the National League pennant and, for me personally, it could not have come at a better time. I turned 13 that summer and developed a serious case of baseball fever from which I still have not fully recovered.
I had been a casual baseball fan before that year and I had attended my first Reds game in 1956. Catcher Ed Bailey hit a home run during that game, and it went farther than I thought anyone could hit a baseball. I immediately concluded Ed Bailey was the greatest baseball player in the universe and cut out a color picture of him from Sport Magazine and taped it to my bedroom wall. Still, I was only 8 years old that year and I had yet to discover the joys of listening to Waite Hoyt on the radio.
By 1961, I was old enough to have a much better understanding of the game, and I began to fall asleep each night listening to the Reds. I not only learned about the Reds, but I also learned about the other National League teams, and I could discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each team with not just my friends at school, but with adults. I learned how to compute earned run averages and batting averages that year and even had a vague idea of how to compute slugging percentages.
I am convinced that that knowledge raised my grades in math by at least a letter.
There are a number of things about that 1961 Reds yearbook that would immediately tell even the most casual observer how much the game has changed in the last half century. One is the price for the yearbook: 50 cents. I am not sure what the current Reds yearbook costs, but I can guarantee that it is at least 8 time or 10 times more than a half dollar.
Also missing from the 1961 yearbook are color photographs. And many of the players are pictured with their entire families. I showed the photograph of Gus Bell and family to Mark Maynard and said, “I’m not sure which one, but one of those boys is Buddy Bell.” Buddy, of course, followed in the footsteps of his father by becoming a superb major league player.
Red pitcher Jim Brosnan is not even photographed in his Reds’ uniform. Instead, he is wearing street clothes. Fans of that era will remember that Brosnan gained fame by penning “The Long Season,” a personal diary of the 1959 season during which Brosnan was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. Brosnan would later write “Pennant Race” about the Reds’ 1961 season. They were both good books, but not nearly as good as Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” 10 years later. Still Brosnan’s success paved the way for Bouton.
Brosnan also was a better- than-average pitcher. In the days before baseball teams had a designated “closer” in the bullpen, the right-handed Brosnan teamed with southpaw Bill Henry to get the last out for many Reds’ victories.
Frank Robinson was the National League MVP in 1961, and Vada Pinson was the star in centerfield. Gene Freese was the Reds’ third baseman. When David Freese, the current third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, came up to the majors I thought David surely must be a close relative to Gene Freese, perhaps even a grandson. But not so. The only thing Gene and David Freese have in common is the same last name and the same position on the baseball field.
When Ron first came in with the 1961 yearbook, his intention was to loan it to me, but after watching me drool while thumbing through its pages for a few minutes, he said I could just have the book. For that I thank him.
I am sure thay most readers would probably find such an old yearbook just about worthless, but for an old man like me, it talks about the best season of my childhood. I will always cherish it. Even though the 1961 Reds had an ugly collision with the powerful 1961 New York Yankees featuring the M&M Boys — Roger Maris with 61 homers and Mickey Mantle with 54 home runs — in a World Series that lasted only five games, this is still the team and the year that made me fall in love with the Reds. In that way, that makes the 1961 Reds hold a even dearer place in my heart than the much, much better Big Red Machine teams of 1975 and 1976.
If you ever feel like talking about the 1961 Reds, just give me a call. I promise to bore you.
JOHN CANNON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2649.