A Scoreboard of Yore, Mourned

There are some similarities between Reds’ stadiums past — Crosley Field — and present — Great American Ballpark. The scoreboard here is the old Gruen version. (via Robert Lambert)

Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati is a key stop in the grand tour of major league baseball parks. Opened for business in 2003, it offers all the modern amenities that characterize a 21st century ballpark. Prime among them is the main scoreboard atop the left field stands, 217 feet long and fulfilling all the rising requirements for such structures.

Adjacent to the ballpark, the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum chronicles the days when fans’ expectations were more modest. But there is more when it comes to less is more.

No baseball pilgrimage to the Cincinnati area is complete without a field trip to the suburb of Blue Ash, Ohio. No major (or minor) league games were ever played there but it deserves a place on the seamhead bucket list. Blue Ash is the poor man’s time machine: it hosts a reasonable facsimile of Crosley Field (i.e., the field itself, not the structure), which was the home of the Cincinnati Reds from 1912 to 1970 and demolished two years later.

The recreation of the original dimensions is noteworthy in itself, but the centerpiece (actually left-centerpiece) of the field is the scoreboard. If you want to know how times have changed in the last half-century or so, careful scrutiny of an old scoreboard can be highly informative.

The city of Blue Ash could have erected a big plywood barrier with the same dimensions as the original scoreboard. Instead, the project recreated the scoreboard in detail, freezing in time the details of the original as it was at the close of business on Wednesday, June 24, 1970, when the Reds played their last game at Crosley Field. (The final game was supposed to be the last home game of the 1969 season but construction delays on Riverfront Stadium delayed the opening till June 30, 1970.)

This meticulous recreation surely added to the project’s budget, but I think it was money well spent. The scoreboard is like a time capsule that somehow eluded burial. It not only tells you the results of the game played at Crosley but also the out-of-town scores, final or otherwise, at the exact moment the game ended.

More importantly, it gives contemporary visitors a pretty good idea of what big league scoreboards were like in the waning days of the classic ballpark, before modern electronics and present-day tastes somewhat regrettably produced the massive flashing boards that today dominate our attention in major league parks.

Blue Ash represents not the second but the third incarnation of Crosley Field. It was probably inspired by a 1974 recreation of Crosley created by a Kentucky farmer named Larry Luebbers, who salvaged some of the field’s debris and built a replica on his acreage. (If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because his son, Larry Luebbers Jr. played briefly for the Reds and Cardinals.)

Whatever the inspiration, Marvin Thompson, city manager of Blue Ash, wanted to upgrade the town’s sports complex, so he assigned Mark Rohr, a city employee, with the task of recreating Crosley as the focal point of the development.

So let it be written, so let it be done … within reason and hopefully within budget. To that end, Crosley Field’s original seating capacity of 30,000 (give or take) when the park closed in 1970 was not reproduced, though a few hundred seats from Crosley were installed at Blue Ash when it opened in 1988.

Now you might have visited a youth sports complex where the Little League fields are named after renowned major league parks. One field may have its own version of Fenway Park’s Green Monster, another may evoke Wrigley Field with some ivy on the outfield wall or add a faux façade reminiscent of Yankee Stadium. All well and good, but ultimately these are like miniature golf course versions of Pebble Beach. Blue Ash is much more than that.

The Blue Ash field was sculpted to recreate exactly the dimensions of Crosley Field – even the 15-degree slope of the left field terrace (the original was no mere quirk but was necessitated by an underground stream).

The heights of the fence, from foul pole to foul pole, are a match for the Crosley Field fences. An amateur player who hits one out here can justifiably say that it would have been out of old Crosley. It’s a bit like one of those pioneer villages with rebuilt dogtrot cabins, barns, stables and outhouses; it’s not the original settlement, but it gives you some idea of what life was like in days of old.

Technologically speaking, the Crosley Field scoreboard was a long way from its contemporaries, but it was also a long way from the various scoreboards that accompanied the field when it opened in 1912 (nine days before Fenway, if you’re wondering). By the time the last game was played, the scoreboard was no longer a marvel, and given the pending opening of a new stadium, expensive upgrades would have been a poor investment, though some work had to be done in 1969 to accommodate the increased number of out-of-town scores due to expansion.

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Even though it was on its deathbed, Crosley Field was a pretty happy place in 1970. The Reds were going great guns, and more often than not, the final totals on the scoreboard reflected the dominance of the home team.

In his first year at the controls, Sparky Anderson had the Big Red Machine hitting on all cylinders (49 wins, 21 losses). The final Crosley game was a 5-4 victory over the Giants and featured two solo home runs in the bottom of the eighth inning.  Johnny Bench led off the inning with the game-tying homer and Lee May followed with the go-ahead clout. Both were off Juan Marichal, who was having a bit of an off year.

The home run by Bench was his 25th (he would go on to lead the league with 45 on his way to an MVP season). Even more memorable, he hit it over the center field side of the scoreboard. Of the 28,027 in attendance, surely few had ever seen that before, and no one would ever see it again. “Kiss it goodbye” could have applied to the Bench home run, the scoreboard, or the ballpark.

As power alleys go, the scoreboard was not far away (marked at 370 feet at the left field side of the scoreboard), but it was 58 feet high and 65 feet wide. It challenged, albeit mutely, right-handed sluggers to clear it (in addition to Bench, the Reds had Wally Post, Gus Bell, Frank Robinson and Tony Perez, among others). It also challenged outfielders who had to play balls that caromed off it while simultaneously negotiating the terrace.

In retrospect, the Crosley Field scoreboard is a classic, but I doubt that anyone appreciated it during the 13½ seasons it was in use. When the team moved to symmetrical Riverfront Stadium, long drives to left field became more predictable. As big as the Crosley Field scoreboard looked in its heyday, it was downright puny compared to its counterpart at Great American Ballpark. And it was not without flaws.

Less than two months into the scoreboard’s initial season (1957), one serious shortcoming was exposed. The scoreboard totals could not go above 19. Consequently, when the Reds accumulated 22 hits on the way to a 22-2 thrashing of the Cubs on June 1, 1957, the scoreboard fell down on the job, registering just two hits and two runs for the home team.

In addition to the line score, balls, strikes and outs, the scoreboard gave you the line-ups (numbers and positions only, no names) for the two teams, and the out-of-town scores. Today one might be puzzled by the heading “1st” that appeared at the right end of the line score. That was for the final score of the first game of a double-header. Yes, Virginia, there was a time when you could see two games for the price of one!

Notably, the $65,000 electronic colossus included room for the batter’s average. Today that’s taken for granted, but at the time it was something new under the sun (at least during day games).

Centered above the top of the scoreboard was a Longines clock, much like a head atop a stocky body. It’s interesting to note that the previous hand-operated scoreboard had featured a clock manufactured by the Gruen Watch Company, a local enterprise that dated back to the 19th century but ended its presence in the Buckeye State in 1958. At the other side of the state, Municipal Stadium in Cleveland also had a Gruen clock on its scoreboard.

The Longines clock was not a digital readout but a “real” clock with a face> numbered from one to 12. The scoreboard “shoulders” were advertisements (on closing day, they were for Webber’s Sausage and Mountain Dew). On the left side of the base of the scoreboard was an ad for PNC Bank. Conspicuous by its absence was the Hudepohl Beer ad, a long-time occupant of the right side of the base.

If you saw the scoreboards at Ebbetts Field, Griffith Stadium, County Stadium and Comiskey Park, you would notice a family resemblance. The similarities were particularly notable at Connie Mack Stadium, where the right-center field scoreboard was almost a mirror image of the Crosley Field scoreboard in left-center.

At classic ballparks, one important feature of note was whether the scoreboard was in play. The scoreboard at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis was at the top of the left field bleachers and hence out of play; the same was true of the center field scoreboards at Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field.

If the scoreboard was in play, then it was a matter of whether the scoreboard was merely embedded in the fence (as at Fenway Park) or protruded above the fence, hence knocking down potential home runs. This was the case not just with Crosley Field but with Connie Mack Stadium and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh (though a temporary fence was erected in front of the scoreboard to help Hank Greenberg and Ralph Kiner).

Of course, there were always customized features on the old scoreboards. The date of the next game and the opponent might be displayed. Umpires might be identified by number, but you would have to buy a scorecard to discover who was who. Typically, for fans who didn’t have a good view of the motherboard, a couple of twin, identical auxiliary scoreboards were installed on the facades of the first and third base grandstands.

When the Crosley Field scoreboard debuted, electronic scoreboards were in the process of replacing hand-operated models. A decade later they were still considered new-fangled in some quarters. For example, “The Beat Goes On,” a 1967 Sonny and Cher song about how times change and how they don’t, includes the line “Electrically we keep the baseball score” as an example of technological progress – though not in left field at Fenway Park or center field at Wrigley Field.

In fact, at the time the song came out, modern electronics had already enabled the Astrodome scoreboard to display animated cartoons. This feature became standard in subsequent stadiums. Unquestionably, scoreboards were becoming more sophisticated but perhaps something was lost along the way.

For one thing, at the multi-purpose stadium, the scoreboard was always outside the field of play. This was not to say they were totally devoid of interest. An unusual design was the scoreboard at District of Columbia Stadium (then known as RFK Stadium) in 1962. Instead of the usual rectangular shape, it was rounded, occupying roughly one third the area of a circle.

Another game-changer of sorts was Shea Stadium. When it opened in 1964, the scoreboard dwarfed all those that had come before. It was 86 feet high, 175 feet long and weighed more than 60 tons. In 1966 when Anaheim Stadium opened, the scoreboard attracted attention because of its height (230 feet) and its iconic A-frame capped off with a halo.

Distinctive as all these scoreboards were, the one feature they had in common was their location beyond the outfield fences. The in-play scoreboard was being phased out. And so it continued all the way through the subsequent multi-purpose stadiums. Outfield fences were generally the same height from foul pole to foul pole. Symmetry was all the rage until Camden Yards opened in 1992.

As new parks have opened in the past quarter-century, the information age has proceeded apace, and modern fans, whether at the ballpark or in their living rooms, have a lot more information. Any number of statistics that in the past would have been considered esoteric, if they were considered at all, are now on display regularly at the ballpark and on telecasts. These are welcome additions, but…

Unfortunately, while modern electric engineering has made the information age possible, it has also given birth to short-attention-span electronic pyrotechnics. Contemporary scoreboards offer far more information than their ancestors, but they can’t leave well enough alone.

The beauty of the old-fashioned scoreboard was that statistics were static. Once you knew where the information was located on the scoreboard, you knew where to look for it forever more. Today it’s not that simple.

Has this happened to you? You settle into a ballpark and you familiarize yourself with the scoreboards. You know where to look for the pitch count and the ball/strike breakdown, the batting averages versus righties or lefties, or the slash line, or whatever. But just when your curiosity is piqued and you want to check a certain stat, and you look to the appropriate location – oops! The scoreboard has switched to a commercial or a promotion for Star Wars Night or an animated exhortation for fans to “Make Noise” or “Get Loud.” And God help you if someone on the home team hits a home run. The scoreboard stats will be obliterated by an orgy of ecstatic graphics.

So one waits patiently for the cartoons to die down so the scoreboard can return to normal. Sometimes one waits … and waits … and waits. That stodgy old scoreboard at Crosley Field didn’t give you as much information, but it didn’t frustrate you either. The contemporary scoreboard can’t make up its mind whether it wants to channel MLB Network or the Cartoon Network.

I don’t mind switching channels if I’m holding the remote but when I’m at the mercy of someone sitting at a console in a booth behind home plate, I find it intolerable. I know what bells and whistles sound like. I’ve heard them many times. I don’t need to hear them any more.

The hyperactive scoreboards of today are a fact of life. Supposedly, contemporary fans expect whiz-bang electronics. Still, I wonder are they coming because of the animated scoreboards or in spite of them?

Typical of its generation, the Crosley Field scoreboard was restrained and dignified, if perhaps a bit stodgy. It was massive and impassive, something of an old fogey compared to the kinetic Looney Tunes scoreboard of today, but a reassuring presence nonetheless.

As in days of old at Crosley Field, the Blue Ash scoreboard replica literally stands tall, almost godlike, above the puny humans who cavort beneath it. Think of the scoreboard as Zeus and the left-field terrace as Mount Olympus. (Okay, that may be a bit hyperbolic.)

Sadly, this type of dignified structure is hard to find in contemporary parks. Clearly, resistance is futile when it comes to the coordination of animation from the main scoreboard to the video board to the auxiliary scoreboards to the ribbon boards – even at minor league parks. The roller coaster ride ain’t over till it’s over, no matter how badly you want to get off.

Imagine how young baseball fans, weaned on video games and CGI-saturated movies, would react to a retro scoreboard a la Crosley Field at their local major league park. An amateur field in Blue Ash is one thing, but a big league ballpark is something else.

Then, imagine a group of archaeologists of the future uncovering the Crosley Field replica scoreboard during a dig at the site formerly known as Blue Ash. What was this big, blocky structure for? What did all those symbols pertain to? How to decipher them? Did it have some sort of religious significance?

Remember the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Would the archaeologists who discover the scoreboard respond with the same wonder the scientists feel when they encounter a black monolith on the moon? Or like the proto-homininds who respond with hooting and hollering when they find an identical monolith on earth?

The Arthur C. Clarke story that inspired the film was originally called “The Sentinel.” Keeping that in mind, perhaps we could characterize the old Crosley Field scoreboard as a sentinel. What, then, is it guarding? Think of the Queens’ Guard at Buckingham Palace. Their presence is not so much tactical or practical but symbolic. The same goes for the Crosley Field scoreboard. The replica at Blue Ash connects the past with the present, and with pro ball started in Cincinnati more than a century before Crosley Field closed. What better place to post a sentinel?

In a sense it’s guarding the national pastime. We shall not see its like in any current or future major league parks, but the folks in Blue Ash know the score.

References and Resources


Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Dennis Bedard
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There will come a day thousands of years from now when historians try to resolve the conundrum: “when did Western Civilization start to go to hell?” After they “dust off” trillions upon trillions of mega data they will discover this article, and the answer, buried deep in the bowels of sports esoteria: the time when the lords of baseball (or the “Realm” if you prefer something borrowed from recent literary coinage) decided to replace something as simple as a scoreboard with architectural decadence, a/k/a the electronic scoreboard. It was all downhill from there. As an aside, you gotta love the… Read more »
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