With the return of baseball this week, it’s a good time to revisit the thrilling sports pages of yesteryear. Those of us with long memories mostly remember the sports section as a ponderous tome planted in the middle of a Sunday newspaper hefty enough to constitute its own paper drive. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, that wasn’t far off.
The June 19, 1955 Sunday Enquirer sports section occupied eight broadsheet pages packed with photos, features, columns, and cartoons. Half of the front page was devoted to golf, with a Redlegs victory over Pittsburgh taking a back seat. Tennis champ Tony Trabert was featured prominently in a cartoon that took up almost a third of the page. Throughout the remaining seven pages, The Enquirer covered college football, horse racing, women’s tennis, motorcycle racing, boxing in several weight classes, minor league baseball scores, softball, wrestling (Bobo Brazil!), auto racing, college track and field, collegiate crew rowing, high school football, knothole and amateur baseball, and a column devoted to hunting and fishing.
That assemblage represents a long journey from the first mentions of sports in Cincinnati newspapers during the 1850s. In fact, I can quote here the entirety of sports coverage in The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune for July 22, 1858:
“Base Ball. – We are pleased to see that this old National game is about being introduced in this locality. A club has been formed and the first trial of skill will take place to-morrow upon East Walnut Hills. Several of the members have belonged to crack Eastern Clubs.”
It took some time before the concept of “sports pages” or a “sports section” caught on with Cincinnati newspapers. Among other considerations, the English language had to evolve, shedding some of the unsavory connotations of the word “sport.” Consult the 1860, 1870, or 1880 census, for example, and you will find men and women whose occupation is listed as “sport.” Men so designated were professional gamblers; women “sports” were prostitutes.
Early sports pages reflect this definition. Cincinnati papers featured almost exclusively three sports—horse racing, boxing, and baseball—all activities with a heavy betting component. Everyone bet on baseball back then, but the so-called “sports pages” were so dominated by horse racing they might have been called the racing news pages sprinkled with other miscellaneous content.
The Enquirer, for example, splashed racing news over two thirds of page 9 on September 15, 1911, squeezing coverage of yacht racing, baseball, bowling, and chess (!) into the bottom two inches of that page. A note directs readers to “Additional Sports on Pages 2 and 4,” where more horse racing items appeared.
Newspapers didn’t refer to their own sports pages or sports section until around 1920, but they crammed a lot of coverage into two or three pages. Not only did each and every major league game get at least a paragraph or two, but so did all the amateur leagues in town. The May 5, 1947 Cincinnati Times-Star dutifully recorded Groesbeck’s 9-6 victory over Fort Mitchell and Wiedemann’s 8-0 trouncing of Forney Tailors.
Headlines ran to multiple decks, and the reader could absorb every essential detail even before diving into the story itself. Here is The Commercial Tribune headline, and only the headline, from a June 15, 1930 report on the Boston Braves shutting out the hapless Reds:
“Redlegs Helpless Before Seibold’s Change of Pace and Braves Win 2-0, Idiotic Base Running Nips Threat in Ninth, Squeeze Play and Double Steal Account for Boston’s Runs – Benton Hurls Seven Frames for Howleys in Creditable Fashion.”
Perhaps the best product of sports page evolution was the development of the sports cartoon. Every big city newspaper had a sports cartoonist on staff to record the highlights of the latest game, and Cincinnati’s inkers were among the elite.
My personal favorite is Claude Shafer, who dreamed up a delightfully pessimistic grouch named Old Man Grump for The Cincinnati Post. Lackluster play by the Reds gave Grump something to complain about, and he liked nothing better than to grumble about something, whether it was his long-suffering wife or his bad luck at the track or the neighborhood children. Old Man Grump was a blacksmith and dispensed such wisdom as he possessed while gesticulating with his hammer over his anvil. His tirades often devolved into tantrums but, like all good Cincinnati fans, he kept coming back for more. The national Sporting Life magazine declared Shafer “the best baseball cartoonist in the country.”
Another giant in the field was Harold E. Russell, who inked daily sports highlights for The Enquirer over a 52-year career that ended only with his death in 1966. Along the way, he’s credited with inventing mustachioed Mister Red and the Cincinnati Royals logo. He also created a miniature alter ego named Danny Dumm, who provided commentary on Russell’s cartoons for decades. So prevalent was he in the cartoons that readers thought the paper’s cartoonist was really named Danny Dumm.
Cincinnati sports pages even have a direct line to the legendary Walt Kelly, creator of the renowned “Pogo” comic strip. Kelly contributed a new look to Willie Redleg, the club’s cartoon manifestation, for a 24-page special insert on April 9, 1962 heralding opening day for the 1961 National League champs. That’s 24 pages of Reds coverage in addition to that day’s standard three-page Monday sports section devoted to golf, bowling, horse racing, swimming, auto racing, fishing, boxing, soccer, and even a dog show.
They don’t write ’em like they used to, do they?