John Shearer: Traveling To Cincinnati To See The Braves, And Finding Where 1928 Photo Was Taken Nearby
When we lived in Knoxville, I as an Atlanta Braves fan had always thought of traveling to Cincinnati to see the Braves play the Reds in a game, and then maybe explore the city a little.
It is only a little over four hours from Knoxville, just an hour or so farther than from Knoxville to Atlanta when Turner Field by downtown was being used, and that travel idea had been in my mind for several years.
Unfortunately, the Braves these days play at Cincinnati only one series a year often during the early months of the season, so it had been sometimes hard to make the timing work.
After we moved to Chattanooga in 2017, I continued to think about going to Cincinnati, even though it would be a longer drive, and this year went ahead and bought a ticket and secured a hotel room in downtown Cincinnati only about a half mile from the stadium.
And while I was up there, besides exploring the city a little, I also decided to head up to Miami University in Oxford about 45 minutes away to tour the campus and find the location where a fascinating old photo I have was taken at what was formerly an old women’s college.
My wife, Laura, does not share my love of sports road trips, visiting college campuses and even whirlwind jaunts as strongly as I do, so I did it all by myself within a roughly 36-hour window.
I left Chattanooga before 7:30 a.m.
last Thursday, June 24, and was easily into the heart of Kentucky by lunchtime. I stopped on the outskirts of Lexington off I-75 at a Panera for lunch. Unfortunately, a clearing small wreck and some heavy traffic on the exit ramp slowed me down, but I was able to enjoy my usual soup and salad and chocolate chip cookie at the Panera and was soon on my way.
Once I began approaching Cincinnati, also on I-75, anticipation and a little anxiousness began overtaking me. A big city always makes me a little nervous, and I knew I was needing to find the parking garage of the hotel to avoid having to pay a more expensive valet fee.
I envisioned having to do all that with horns honking and people yelling at me to quit poking on the road.
What anxiousness I had as I approached the Queen City, however, was tempered by the lovely scenes of a historic old church or two and other interesting buildings of old. I love historic architecture, and quickly felt a kinship with this city in that regard.
In fact, I remember driving through the city for the first time as a teenager in the 1970s and was almost haunted by all the old buildings I saw, a few of which have probably been torn down since then.
After sitting in some construction traffic crossing the bridge over the Ohio River, which turned out to be a “covered” bridge because some painting or other work was being done and it had big tarps over it, I finally exited into downtown Cincinnati. I slowly made my way to the Renaissance Cincinnati Downtown Hotel by being old school and following directions I had written down off the computer before I left. No GPS navigation was needed for me!
I found the hotel, circled around it and saw the valet stop that was full of cars parked curbside, and kept circling around the block looking for the parking garage. I did that again, and again. Like any good male, I did not bother to ask directions.
Finally, after wondering if I was going to circle until I ran out of gas, I went into the garage connected to another hotel, and that turned out to be what I was looking for.
Needless to say, I felt a sigh of relief as I found a place to park and began walking cheap style with my bag to the hotel. I am definitely a self-service guy if I can save some money.
I went up to my room on the 10th floor, dropped off my belongings and after a short rest began walking around downtown. Seeing a parked bus and some other Braves fans around the hotel seeming to look for someone important, I began to wonder if that was also Atlanta’s team hotel. I never saw the Braves, though, except during the game, but I would wager that they were staying there.
One place I wanted to see in downtown Cincinnati was the famous fountain, and it turned out it is now located in a plaza just across Fifth Street from the block my hotel was on. Featuring water flowing out of several bronze figures, it is certainly pretty.
It was given by a successful Cincinnati hardware store magnate named Henry Probasco in memory of his deceased brother-in-law, Tyler Davidson. I am not sure if he was related to the Probascos who started American National Bank in Chattanooga, but he might have been because original Chattanooga settler Harry Scott Probasco came from a small town on the Ohio River.
Years ago I wrote a story about the Fireman’s Fountain in Chattanooga being dedicated in 1888, and it seemed like I came across some connection with the Cincinnati fountain. I went back to see my story and even checked at the library here before going on my trip, but I could not find anything. It might have simply been that Chattanooga saw how popular and how much of an asset the Cincinnati fountain was to that city, so that inspired the one here in honor of two Chattanooga firemen killed battling an 1887 blaze.
Chattanooga and Cincinnati do have some other connections besides being close in any alphabetical listing of cities. For starters, they are both in Hamilton County. Hamilton County, Ohio, was established in 1790, so it beat Chattanooga to the naming in honor of the former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.
The towns also have strong historical connections to the railroad, and in fact a big banquet was held by officials of the two cities about 1880 after a railroad line was completed linking them. The move had apparently been initiated by Cincinnati to keep the area around the Ohio River as a strong shipping hub. The original Cincinnati station at the time I think was located a little east of my hotel and the ballpark, but it has apparently been torn down.
Another big connection between the cities is that for a good portion of the last 30-plus years, including now, the Chattanooga Lookouts have been the Class AA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. And the Reds, of course, were the main reason for my visit.
Cincinnati was the closest Major League Baseball town to Chattanooga until the Braves came in the 1960s, so probably a few people in the Scenic City during the old days rooted for the Reds among other teams.
I was surprised that the Reds gave out a “Reds Country” trophy to a high school baseball team at the game, and one of the states they consider Reds country is Tennessee. Of, course that is all marketing!
Before I went to the game, I continued walking around downtown Cincinnati partially like a tourist, but also like an urban planner, as has become my hobby in recent years. After witnessing the vibrancy of downtown Chattanooga, and Knoxville around its Market Square, I realized that the plaza where the Cincinnati fountain was needed a few more restaurants in the lower floors of the buildings surrounding it.
One good place it did have was a Graeter’s ice cream shop and breakfast bakery. I stopped there later after walking around downtown and enjoyed a banana and chocolate chip ice cream cone. The experience was fun and enjoyable at this store that has evidently been a Cincinnati tradition since the 1800s.
If downtown Cincinnati has a really popular gathering place, it might be by the river, which I did not visit other than to go to the baseball game.
The main downtown area was not overly full of people on this Thursday afternoon. Of course, there were the usual ones asking you for money, as can be found in Chattanooga and other cities. Homelessness or poverty is a complicated issue and one for which I try to have sympathy, if not a dime after realizing they can be better helped by city social and charitable services.
It is interesting how in cities like Cincinnati, successful Americans sit in nice offices just a few feet above the people who find themselves on the lower financial end either due to bad luck or mental health or substance abuse issues.
As far as architecture, the older buildings caught my eye, whether it was the one or two churches I passed or older commercial buildings. One interesting one was a building that looked like it might have been a department or dime store and had that post World War II architecture with brick curving around the building like the old downtown Chattanooga Sears, although the Cincinnati one featured yellow brick.
The fountain towered as much as any of the taller buildings, however, at least proverbially in terms of its eye-catching features.
I also liked a series of grassy and well-landscaped park squares just a couple of blocks from my hotel in front of perhaps some government buildings.
After going back in my hotel and resting, I went to the game at Great American Ballpark, named after the Great American insurance company. Getting to the stadium required basically only walking two blocks in one direction, and then turning and walking another couple of blocks.
After years of frantically trying to get into or find my pre-purchased parking lot or garage at the last two Atlanta stadiums, this was quite nice. It is located roughly where the old Riverfront Stadium was and sits near the Ohio River.
Many of the baseball parks built in recent years have a similar look with open entrance areas, asymmetrical configurations, etc. They might have all tried to follow the popular Camden Yards in Baltimore.
Great American had its own twist, like a deck above the outfield shaped like an old Ohio River passenger steamship, complete with freestanding boat smokestacks that lit up when the Reds made a good play. An old-fashioned-style large clock was also above the scoreboard, and I did hear maybe a little more organ music than typically, and not just the loud piped-in modern music played over loudspeakers in stadiums everywhere now.
The public address announcer also had an old-style voice and sounded a little like the old radio announcer Paul Harvey of “rest of the story” fame.
One vibe I quickly felt that maybe I don’t get in Atlanta is that Cincinnati is a very old baseball town. They have been playing baseball here since 1869, and I could see a number of reminders of the sporadic moments of greatness from the past. Giant replicas of old newspaper front pages hang along the concession corridors, and there still seems to be reminders of the successful Big Red Machine days of the 1970s.
I also liked the Reds mascot: a cartoonish face with an 1890s handlebar mustache.
I sat about 20 rows up from the Braves dugout by third base, and I was surprised a number of Braves fans were there, probably out-of-town travelers like me.
The Braves unfortunately lost that night, 5-3, although they did rally late and made it interesting until the end. After I left town, they did come back and win two out of the last three in the series to get a split.
Despite the loss, I still had fun. I was amazed how many foul balls came not too far away from me, and a glove-wearing young man two or three seats over caught a ball one of the Braves players threw over the net as he ran off the field at the end of an inning. He quickly handed it to a teenage girl in front of me.
I also enjoyed the food, including a regular hot dog and then another smaller dog topped with famous Cincinnati Skyline chili and other toppings.
Even with the loss, I was still brimming with happiness — and of course was full of food — as I exited the stadium and looked at the pretty full Strawberry moon above the Ohio River.
The next morning after only about six hours of sleep, I got up and took a jog on those grassy park squares – with no security guard thankfully arresting me for violating some kind of ordinance against jogging on the well-manicured downtown spaces. I then showered and got ready to leave.
As I walked around the block toward the garage pulling my suitcase I stopped at – yes – Graeter’s – to try some of their breakfast pastries. A very nice worker there recommended a couple of items, so I purchased them with some milk to go.
I am not sure if it was because of my accent or my bag, but she asked me where I was from. I reverted to what I used to say when I was young – not just Chattanooga, but Chattanooga, Tennessee!
She smiled and told me to have a nice flight home. And that led me to ask myself why I was driving!
I then found my car, was able to navigate one of those anxiety-causing self-service parking pay machines to get the gate to lift, and then drove toward the interstate. I began eating my tasty pastries and drinking my milk.
I soon exited the interstate where I saw the sign north for Highway 27 to Oxford, where Miami University I was going to visit is located. I wondered if I was getting off at the right place but began driving north along a beautiful road with neat older homes and a simply gorgeous preserved wooded area on the left. I also saw a very interesting-looking utility type building that looked nothing like any building in Chattanooga.
I was glad I had gone this way to get a glimpse of the Cincinnati that a local person experiences, but I began to wonder if I was on the wrong road. Yes, for the record, I do not know how to work my GPS navigation system in my four-year-old car.
I was beginning to panic and wonder if I was going in the wrong direction, but then after about three miles of not seeing anything, I finally saw a sign with the Highway 27 marker on it. I breathed a big sigh of relief and realized that might have been the prettiest sight I saw that morning, despite the other interesting places.
I eventually drove past the large city dump on a hill on the right, and Highway 27 became one way each way as it left the suburbia of Cincinnati.
Unfortunately, about two or three miles south of Oxford, I got stopped in traffic because two pickup trucks had collided with each other, and the fire trucks were blocking the road to allow for the ambulances and later wreckers.
I did not know where to backtrack, or, of course, how to use my navigation system, so I sat there for more than 30 minutes letting my blood pressure rise thinking I might be there for half a day and miss my appointment with the Miami University archivist roughly two hours from then. The ambulances had left as I arrived, so I was not sure of the victims’ conditions.
Finally, the accident cleared and I and a few dozen others who waited it out went on. I was surprised to find out that the accident was only a mile or two south of the Miami University campus.
Coming into the campus, I sensed a nice small-town feel with pretty buildings and plenty of surrounding grass and landscaping.
My decision to come here was due to a giant photograph I found in an antique store in Northeast Alabama last summer of the entire student body and staff of Western College for Women in 1928. For some reason, the photograph caught my eye due to how clear the expressions were on their faces, much more than many old photographs I have seen.
And thinking that was taken shortly before the Great Depression likely upended many of their lives, it intrigued me even more. I did not buy the photo in the antique store, but Miami library archivist Jacky Johnson later got me a copy of that photo and I had an enlarged print made.
I figured it might be neat to see the grounds of the old women’s college next to Miami University, with which it merged in the 1970s, so I made plans to visit and meet Ms. Johnson during my quick stop. Primarily, I wanted to see if the campus looked like I imagined it did simply from the picture. Needless to say, it did not.
I actually drove through the old women’s college part first and found where I was supposed to meet Ms. Johnson in about 90 minutes, so I went back over to the main part of campus and found a parking place I had inexpensively pre-purchased online as a visitor a few days before.
Needless to say, my main focus at this point was to find a restroom. I quickly did in one of the larger buildings.
As I walked back to my car, I began to wonder why I had decided to go nearly another hour in the opposite direction.
However, college campuses seem to have a soothing feeling on me and the anxiousness to head back home quickly left me. I was eventually able to find where the football stadium was. It looked about the size of Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, and it had a big sign and some statues pointing out that Miami was the “cradle of coaches” and was the alma mater of such legends as Red Blaik of Army, Ara Parseghian of Notre Dame and Bo Schembechler of Michigan.
I remember Miami of Ohio primarily because they beat my beloved Georgia Bulldogs in the 1974 Tangerine Bowl when I was in junior high.
I drove back through downtown and parked my car and walked through an older part of the handsome Miami University campus and was feeling totally soothed by now, and any anxiety I had experienced wondering what I was doing there had long since left.
I then went back over to the large Peabody Hall on the old women’s college campus to meet Ms. Johnson for a quick tour. I was wondering which automobile might be hers, and then I saw someone riding up on a bicycle. Yes, that was Ms. Johnson!
She kindly gave me a tour of the eight or 10 buildings that were part of the female college that probably reluctantly – at least for the alumnae and students – became part of Miami University in the 1970s. Besides the giant Peabody Hall, there was also an interesting old gymnasium that reminded me of the old Baylor School gym when I was a student, an amphitheater and a post-World War II science building with a greenhouse. I even saw a couple of plaques highlighting the college’s courageous work in helping push for civil rights for black Americans in the 1960s.
This was all interesting, but I was also curious to find out where the 1928 picture had been taken, so I showed her a photo I took of part of it that faintly showed a building in the background. She quickly figured out it was Kumler Chapel, which had been patterned after a Normandy church.
So I took a few photos toward the still-standing and pretty chapel, as if I was that skilled wide-angle photographer of years ago taking a photo of those energetic young college women and their instructors and administrators.
After the brief tour, I thanked Ms. Johnson, ate a quick bowl of Skyline chili and its almost cinnamon flavor in the handsome and small downtown Oxford, and then headed south, not arriving in Chattanooga until 8 p.m.
That was partly because I got stuck in interstate construction traffic by downtown Cincinnati approaching the Ohio River bridge for more than an hour.
However, I was able to glance more carefully in a slow-moving car at all the handsome historic architecture around downtown, even if some of the buildings were not in great shape.
But in contrast to the traffic jam on the small highway that morning, I remained in emotionally great shape myself and enjoyed the old city, just as I had enjoyed a classic baseball game and an old college campus.
It was all enough to make me feel renewed and refreshed!
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