Cincinnati is well known for being the birthplace of fully open professional baseball with the formation of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings team. That team folded soon after and the actual oldest team still in operation is now known as the Atlanta Braves. However, the current incarnation of the Reds is still one of the most historically significant franchises in baseball and can boast its share of important firsts as well.
The Reds’ first season as we know them now was in 1882. They competed in the American Association, which was itself having its first season that same year. The Reds, known as the Red Stockings at the time, won the first ever American Association pennant with a 55-25 record, good for 11.5 games over second place Philadelphia. The American Association was in direct competition with the more established National League, but at the conclusion of the season, the American Association Cincinnati team faced off against the National League champion Chicago White Stockings (who would change their name several times, finally settling on the Cubs in 1903) in the first ever meeting between the champions of two leagues at the conclusion of a baseball season. They played two games, each team winning one. This series cannot legitimately be called a World Series, since neither team took the games particularly seriously and appear to have viewed them as exhibition games, not to mention the fact that the series ended in a tie. The Red Stockings won the first game, on October 6, 1882, 4-0, and the White Stockings evened the series the next day, winning 2-0. The Red Stockings then dropped out of the series due to threats from American Association leadership of expulsion from the league for daring to participate in exhibition games with representatives of the rival National League.
Just a few years later the Reds achieved another baseball first when they participated in the first ever player trade between two teams. On November 12, 1886, the Reds received outfielder Hugh Nicol from the St. Louis Browns in exchange for catcher “Honest” Jack Boyle and $400. At the time, and for a long time after, it was common practice for teams to buy players from other teams, but this was the first transaction that included players going both ways in the deal. Since at the time of the trade, Boyle had appeared in a grand total of one game in his major league career, it’s entirely possible that the St. Louis club was more interested in the $400 and Boyle was a throw-in. Boyle, however, went on to a fairly long career playing for several teams and spending time as an umpire. Nicol, of course, is known for being credited with a record 138 stolen bases in 1887. However, at the time, baserunners taking an extra base on a teammate's hit (i.e., going first to third on a single) counted as a stolen base, so that is not considered a legitimate record anymore.
Skipping ahead a few decades, the Reds would reestablish themselves as an innovative team with the hiring of Larry McPhail as general manager in 1933. McPhail had previously worked for the minor league Columbus Red Birds and quickly developed a reputation as someone who would do anything to sell tickets. His first innovation, though, had more to do with saving time then making money. On June 8, 1934, the Reds became the first team to travel by airplane instead of train when they flew from Cincinnati to Chicago for a three game set against the Cubs. McPhail felt that the time saved would allow the players to rest and therefore give them an advantage in the games. Nineteen Reds players made the trip. Six refused and took the train. I looked and looked and was unable to find the identity of those six. I would have thought that would be knowable information but I can’t find it. If anyone knows, please share, because not knowing is kind of killing me. Anyway, the Reds did win that game by the score of 4 - 3, and they won the series two games to one, but still finished in last place on the season.
Less than a year later, on May 24, 1935, McPhail introduced another innovation to the major leagues: night baseball. Baseball had been played under the lights in the minor leagues and Negro leagues for some years, but purists believed that major league baseball should remain a daytime activity. McPhail knew that night games would be easier for fans to attend, and as soon as other team owners saw the increase in Reds attendance, most followed suit. On the night of the first game, President Franklin D. Roosevelt symbolically threw a switch in Washington, D.C. to turn the lights on at Crosley Field. The switch probably did nothing but signal someone in Cincinnati to throw the actual switch to turn the actual lights on. The Reds won, 2-1. There were no errors in the game, despite many predictions that the artificial light would make it difficult for fielders to see the ball. Some pointed to the low hit total in the game as evidence that night baseball wouldn't work, but the players insisted that they had no trouble seeing the ball while batting.
As a side note, in 1938, McPhail became the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and brought night baseball with him. The Dodgers’ first night game at Ebbets Field took place on June 15, 1938. As fate would have it, the Dodgers were facing the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds’ starting pitcher that night was Johnny Vander Meer, who was fresh off throwing a no-hitter against the Boston Braves in his previous start. He would repeat that accomplishment that night under the lights at Ebbets Field, spoiling the Dodgers’ first night game and becoming the first and only pitcher to throw consecutive no hitters.
The following season, the Reds would again participate in a historic baseball first at Ebbets Field when, on August 26, 1939, they faced the Dodgers in the first televised baseball games. The two teams played a double header and both games were televised. Television was still very new and was being featured at the World’s Fair, which was being held nearby. It’s estimated that there were only around 400 televisions in New York City at the time, and there’s no way to know how many tuned in to the games. There were two cameras to catch the action – one behind the plate for a wide view of the field, and one on the third base line to show plays at first base. The Reds won the first game 5-2, while the Dodgers won the second game 6-1.