Riverfront Stadium Remembered

March 29, 2018

Riverfront Stadium via Wiki Commons

The idea of a stadium on the riverfront in Cincinnati dates back to at least 1939, though oddly it was a football-only venue city planners had in mind. Even stranger, Cincinnati’s last pro football team, at that time, last played in 1934, the old Cincinnati Reds, who didn’t even finish the season.

1939 proposal for Cincinnati's riverfront.

Meanwhile, the baseball Reds had a fine home in the West End at Crosley Field, with lights having been added in 1935. Perhaps city planners foresaw the growth of professional football. In any case, the rendering below from 1939 shows a football stadium to the west of the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, where parts of Smale Park and the Paul Brown Stadium parking lot are today.

A more comprehensive city plan drawn up in 1948 (below), shows what is clearly a baseball-only stadium in the same spot, right next door to a massive heliport. That’s right. After the Second World War, people were mad for helicopters and the 1948 plan reflects this. Where Great American Ballpark is today, city planners envisioned a convention center and amphitheater.

The 1948 Cincinnati Master Plan with riverfront rendering.

By 1960, several cities were considering the idea of a multi-purpose stadium. Most of these cities had professional baseball and football like St. Louis, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, and Pittsburgh. In most of these cities, the baseball and football teams played in separate stadiums, many of which were built in the early part of the 20th century.

Atlanta had neither baseball or football but was hoping to lure one or both through expansion or by wooing an existing team (they wound up doing both, getting the expansion NFL Falcons while luring MLB's Braves south from Milwaukee). Cincinnati, of course, had the Reds and hadn’t had a pro football team since 1941 and the Cincinnati Bengals of the third American Football League.

By the end of the 1950s, Crosley Field was still suitable for baseball, but not pro football, which was increasing in popularity as two pro leagues fought for fans’ attention. The major problem for Crosley Field lay outside the ballpark. The rise in popularity of the automobile following World War II meant a need for more parking spaces which the crowded West End could not support.

A 1961 proposal (below) shows a multi-purpose stadium, much like the ones planned in other cities, again just to the west of the bridge. Little movement was made on the idea, though, as lists of possible expansion cities for the National Football League (NFL) and the new American Football League (AFL) rarely listed Cincinnati as a possible option. But a man in Cleveland changed that, and his name was Art Modell.

Proposed multi-purpose stadium on the riverfront, 1961

Modell, a New York businessman, had purchased the Cleveland Browns in 1961. The new owner clashed often with the team’s legendary coach Paul Brown and ultimately dismissed him in 1963. A few years later, Brown expressed interest in owning his own franchise and quickly gained the support of then Ohio governor James Rhodes. The two agreed Cincinnati should have a pro team, giving Ohio two, and the wheels were set in motion.

The NFL had added several teams in the 1960s including franchises in Dallas, Minnesota, Atlanta, and New Orleans. Brown tried to get an NFL franchise but was turned away by the league due to the lack of a suitable stadium in the Queen City. In 1965, the AFL awarded its first expansion team to Miami, giving that circuit nine teams. To balance things out, of course, they needed a tenth.

At first, the AFL had designs on existing NFL markets like Philadelphia and Chicago but later decided to concentrate on cities without a team. New Orleans and Atlanta, long desired by the AFL, had gone with the older league, and Kansas City had become the home of the former Dallas Texans in 1963.

Brown and his group, seeing an opening, bolted through like a star running back, and with some help from the governor, a deal was put together to finally put a multi-purpose stadium on Cincinnati’s riverfront. One proposal was for a domed stadium much like the Astrodome in Houston which had just opened, but that plan did not go through.

Domed stadium proposal, 1966.

Brown's group was approved in the fall of 1967 and ground was broken on the site of the new stadium on February 1, 1968, with completion scheduled for the spring of 1970. Delays pushed that back a few months, but on June 30, 1970, the Reds hosted the Atlanta Braves for the first game at brand new Riverfront Stadium and not a moment too soon.

The Reds were to host the 1970 All-Star Game, but the game was almost moved to Atlanta when it looked like Riverfront wouldn’t be ready in time. It was though, with just a few weeks to spare, and on July 14, 1970, the nation got its first glimpse of the Reds stunning new ballpark. It was big, shiny, and new, and the fans loved it--- for a while.

Riverfront Stadium saw the greatest share of Cincinnati’s most important sports moments, starting with that All-Star Game in which hometown hero Pete Rose bulldozed Indians catcher Ray Fosse at home plate to score the winning run. The Reds went to the postseason that year and again in  '72, '73, '75, '76 and '79, capturing World Series titles in 1975 and '76 with the teams known as The Big Red Machine. They returned to the World Series in 1990, in wire to wire fashion, sweeping the heavily favored Oakland A’s and appeared in the League Championship Series in 1995, where they lost to the Braves. There was also Pete Rose collecting hit number 4,192, to break Ty Cobb’s Record and Tom Browning’s perfect game in 1988.

The Bengals won to American Football Conference Championships there, including the infamous Freezer Bowl against the San Diego Chargers, the coldest game in NFL history by wind factor. Indeed, the Bengals were 5-1 in playoff games at Riverfront.

While the fans continued to love their Reds and Bengals, they grew weary of the stadium the teams played in, a trend seen in other cities with similar facilities. Baseball fans in particular derided Riverfront and its cookie-cutter sibling stadiums like Three Rivers in Pittsburgh, Veteran Stadium in Philadelphia, and Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

In 1992, the opening of Oriole Park at Camden yards initiated a wave of new, baseball-only parks, with a retro feel, which coincided with the trend of NFL teams seeking separate facilities in each market for its teams. Cincinnati was no exception as the city and county helped bankroll Paul Brown Stadium (PBS) in 2000 and Great American Ballpark (GABP) in 2003, and quite possibly a third venue coming up for what will hopefully be our top-tier pro level soccer team.

While lovely, neither stadium has held much in the way of lasting memories. The Reds are 0-6 in the postseason at GABP, while the Bengals are 0-4 at PBS. Still, each new season brings hope that this will be the year that another World Series or Super Bowl appearance is at hand. Or maybe even both.

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