- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, the Cincinnati Reds briefly changed their traditional nickname and logo to Redlegs, presumably assuring that no politically challenged individuals would confuse a baseball team from Middle America with the Communist menace from Moscow.

It’s highly ironic, therefore, that those Redlegs were at least temporary beneficiaries of a ballot-packing scheme that would have done credit to the seamiest of governments abroad.

During the 1956 and 1957 seasons, the Cincinnati Enquirer did its darndest to make sure baseball’s All-Star voting went the way it wanted - meaning with as many Cincy players as possible in the National League’s starting lineup.

The plan worked nicely in 1956, when five of the NL’s eight position starters were from Cincinnati for the All-Star Game at the District’s Griffith Stadium, won by the so-called Senior Circuit 7-3.

The following season, for the 24th Midsummer Classic at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, matters were even wackier.

In the weeks leading up to the game, the Enquirer printed pre-marked ballots with the names of all regular Redlegs listed as starters. All fans had to do was rip these from the newspaper and turn or mail them in - as often as they cared.

The result was predictable. When the ballots were counted, seven of the eight nonpitching positions were inhabited by Redlegs: catcher Ed Bailey, second baseman Johnny Temple, shortstop Roy McMillan, third baseman Don Hoak and outfielders Frank Robinson, Gus Bell and Wally Post.

The only Redlegs starter snubbed was first baseman George Crowe, who batted .271 that year with 31 homers and 92 RBI. Talk about feeling left out.

Crowe lost out, quite logically, to perennial All-Star Stan Musial of the Cardinals, who hit .351 to collect his seventh NL batting title. But theoretically relegated to the bench were such other megastars as Willie Mays of the New York Giants, Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs and Henry Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves.

The Redlegs, who had emerged as a surprise contender in 1956, were regarded as a hard-hitting, attractive team, but hardly an imposing one. They finished 1957 with a so-what 80-74 record good only for fourth place, 15 games behind the pennant-winning Braves. In fact, Cincinnati didn’t grace a World Series from 1940 to 1961.

Often labeled indecisive during his 14 years as baseball commissioner, Ford Frick reacted this time with the speed of a Walter Johnson fastball. On June 28, 11 days before the game, he banished Post entirely, parked Bell on the pines and anointed Mays and Aaron as starters.

“I can take it if we lose,” said Frick, a former National League president, “but I strongly object to our league making a burlesque out of the All-Star Game.”

Unfortunately for the recently dominant National League, the Americans won 6-5 for just their second victory in eight years. Nonetheless, the reprieved Mays and Aaron had three hits between them, with Willie also contributing a triple and driving in a run.

Frick wasn’t through either. He also took voting rights away from the fans, turning them over to managers and players from 1958 through 1970.

There’s no way such a scenario could unfold today. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine a single newspaper and its readers wielding that kind of power in this diverse multimedia age. For another, nobody would care.

A half-century and more ago, the All-Star Game was a big deal. Fans still argued mightily about which league was stronger. So did the players, as witnessed by the sight of a youthful Ted Williams clapping his hands in glee as he rounded the bases after his walk-off home run won the 1941 game for the Americans at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium.

In that distant era of restricted telecasts, fans in one-team major league markets, like Washington-Baltimore, got to see stars from the other league only at All-Star time and possibly in the World Series. In the nation’s capital, therefore, players like Mays, Aaron and Musial were mostly a rumor.

So the All-Star Game was a midsummer dream, if not always a classic. More people paid attention than now, when a gimmick like home-field advantage in the World Series is needed to generate even mild interest.

And in the late 1950s in Cincinnati, folks certainly cared - for better or for worse.

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