Big League

Keith Herrell is a veteran Ohio journalist and was on the staff of the Cincinnati Post when it closed for good in 2007.

The Tennesseean file photo c. late 1950s, via Wikipedia – public domain

Steve: What was the first baseball game you went to, and what do you remember about it? Also, what was the first election you voted in? How do you think both institutions have changed since?

Keith: The first ballgame I attended was a Nashville Vols game at Sulphur Dell ballpark in 1960, back when the Vols were in the Class AA Southern Association. They were a farm team of the Cincinnati Reds and had several players who made it to the majors, including pitcher Jim Maloney and catcher John Edwards, and third baseman Cliff Cook.

I remember Cook and Maloney were called up to the majors in midseason and I was heartbroken. But the most memorable thing about going to a Vols game was the ballpark itself – Sulphur Dell was below street level and had an embankment all around the outfield. Most notably, it was 262 feet to the right field fence!

(Sulphur Dell was demolished in 1969 and the former site is currently home to the Milwaukee Brewers’ Triple-A team the Nashville Sounds).

The first big league game I attended was the Pittsburgh Pirates against the “post-expansion”  Washington Senators in an exhibition at Washington’s Griffith Stadium, in 1961. World Series hero Bill Mazeroski hit a double for the Pirates. That and my mother and big sister accidentally ordering beers is all I remember!

The first election I voted in was 1972. I was 21, still in Tennessee, and it was the first election I was eligible to vote in. Voting at 18 (26th amendment) had been ratified the year before. It was George McGovern vs. Richard Nixon for president, and I said multiple times I would be proud to tell my grandchildren I voted for McGovern. Fifty years later, I have grandchildren aged 6 and 2 – maybe I’ll give them a little more time.

There was also a Senate race on the ballot – Republican Howard Baker seeking a second term vs. Democrat Ray Blanton, a West Tennessee congressman. I probably voted for Baker, who won in a landslide. He seemed like a decent guy, and Blanton didn’t have much of a resume. (As governor of Tennessee a decade later, Blanton saw his career end in scandal.) 

As for how things have changed, well, 1961 was the last year for the Southern Association, largely because of its resistance to integration. I think that answers your question pretty well as far as baseball is concerned.

In politics, the early ’70s were the time when Republicans like Baker and then Winfield Dunn began to cement their hold on statewide elections in Tennessee. Before then, the Democratic primary was “tantamount to election,” to use a well-worn description. 

Steve: How long have you lived in Cincinnati and what’s a good way to describe it to anyone who has never been there?

Keith: I’ve lived in Cincinnati since February 1983, when I left the Nashville Banner to become a copy editor at the Cincinnati Post. I’d had enough of the Banner, which had been acquired by men whose worldview I didn’t share, and I’d always thought of Cincinnati as the Big Leagues (see Vols, Nashville). Ironically, if I’d stayed in Nashville long enough I would have seen it become “Big League” on its own, with two pro sports franchises and explosive growth. Of course, I also would have seen the Banner shut down in 1998.

As for describing Cincinnati, it’s a midwestern river town with heavy German influences. Lots of similarities to St. Louis, where I spent a lot of time when my daughter and her family lived there. Great neighborhoods, parks, and recreational opportunities. Plenty of culture too – I knew I was really in the big leagues when I attended a Friday morning symphony concert shortly after moving here. 

Steve: You’ve had quite an extensive media career. Tell us a bit more about your journey, working at the Post and what you’re doing now?

Keith: I worked at three newspapers, all afternoon underdogs: the Evansville (Indiana) Press, the Nashville Banner, and the Cincinnati Post. I was lucky to start out in Evansville, as I had graduated from Vanderbilt as an English major with no job prospects. But I had worked for the campus paper, the Vanderbilt Hustler, my junior and senior years,

Evansville needed a cub sportswriter to cover horse racing, auto racing and help on everything else including Class AAA baseball, and after eight months working in warehouses, it was an easy sell. After a few years in Evansville I got a little homesick for Nashville, but I also had a crazy idea in another part of my brain that I would buy a Volkswagen camper van and spend a baseball season watching minor league teams across the United States.

I sent letters to both Nashville papers, the Banner and the Tennessean, and I heard from the Banner right away. I’m still waiting to hear from the Tennessean. Needless to say I did not spend the summer in a camper van.

After seven years in a variety of editing jobs for the Banner, I cast my eyes toward Cincinnati because I’d worked with some key people there in Evansville (both were Scripps papers). I started as a copy editor at the Post in 1983 and spent 24 years there, moving on to news editor, features editor, sports editor, and managing editor – I guess I almost batted around!

I was one of about 50 staffers who stayed until the end, December 31, 2007, the expiration date for the Joint Operating Agreement with the Cincinnati Enquirer. Many of us had worked really hard on a farewell edition, and frankly I was just glad it was all over. As production continued on the final edition, we were called one by one into a conference room, given a sheaf of paperwork to sign, then we were handed our severance checks as a string quartet played outside on the newsroom floor. It was a surreal day.

I enjoyed the freedom for a week or two, then realized that at 57 I still had work to do. Fortunately, I was hired at the University of Cincinnati as a public information officer and editor for the Academic Health Center. I retired from UC on December 23, 2015, my 65th birthday.

I’ve enjoyed every minute of retirement – I’m never bored, especially with two grandchildren who recently moved just minutes from our house. But I need a little structure to my day, and I found it through a Twitter account I founded and curate, @CincyHealthNews.

I spend about an hour every weekday morning tweeting links to articles of interest to the local medical community, with occasional commentary, plus news I manage to find on my own. I have some good sources (to the occasional displeasure of my former co-workers at UC and UC Health.) It’s similar to what I was doing at UC, but instead of that limited focus I have six local health systems to deal with, plus the freedom to say whatever I want.

I suppose there are ways to monetize it, but for now it’s strictly a hobby, which I guess puzzles some people. I’ll just keep doing it as long as I’m having fun.

Steve: It might be hard to quantify or generalise, but in your experience what happens to a city when it loses a daily paper (even if it moves online)? Has it been noticeable that the Enquirer has had the field to itself?

Keith: I think most rational people can agree that two newspapers are better than one. I used to say, “The more voices the merrier,” and then Twitter came along. Now I’m not so sure!

But seriously, it’s been sad to see the Enquirer’s contraction. It seems like It’s either a home run or a single with them. Of course, criticizing the Enquirer is tricky. They can always say, “Let me put this Pulitzer down and respond to that.” But the complacency is certainly palpable. Things are even worse in Northern Kentucky, with Newport, Covington and other municipalities just across the river from Cincinnati.

With the closing of the Post, Northern Kentucky essentially went from one newspaper to zero. The Kentucky Post covered everything in its circulation area and was a huge booster of the region, and whoever was the editor was a key player in civic affairs. Now there are websites that aim to cover Northern Kentucky, such as Link NKY and the NKYTribune, but it’s just not the same.

As for Cincinnati itself, we had a managing editor at the Post who said, “We set the agenda in this town” and while there may have been a little bit of bluster in that, it was largely true. It just seemed like we put a higher priority on enterprise projects. One in particular I remember was known as the “Friends of Joe” scandal – the county auditor at the time gave certain people lowered appraisals, with the notation “FOJ” for “Friends of Joe.” He was convicted and fined in 1990.

Steve: How do you think a paper closing affects scrutiny of local institutions – school boards etc – and what are the consequences for that? Can other forms of media – TV, radio or online – really pick up the slack?

Keith: Unfortunately, plenty of local institutions fall between the “single or home run” analogy I used. And it’s not just on the news side. For years, the Enquirer had a dedicated classical music writer on staff. Now, performances by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra typically go unreviewed by the Enquirer. (They are often reviewed in the Cincinnati Business Courier by a former Enquirer critic, with “support” from non-profit institutions).

It’s the same with sports: with the staff drastically reduced from the glory days, only the Reds and Bengals are basically guaranteed to have road games personally covered. You mentioned school boards; they get covered if there’s some kind of hot button issue going on, but day to day stuff – key hirings, construction projects etc – often goes uncovered.

Other forms of media do attempt to pick up the slack, with mixed results. One of the TV stations operated like a newspaper for a while, complete with subscription model, but the subscription plan was dropped and serious journalism has mostly given way to “You won’t believe” headlines, weather, and the horse being rescued from the ditch. 

Steve: How politically engaged would you say Cincinnati is, both at a city level and as part of the bigger Ohio picture? Has that changed in the time you’ve lived here?

Keith: Off the top of my head, I would say Cincinnati is no more or less engaged than a typical city of its size. The suburban counties have become more of a factor in the local political scene during my time here, particularly with the traditionally 1st and 2nd congressional districts expanding outward from Hamilton County. That expansion has been accompanied by some egregious gerrymandering. I live on what all would agree is the east side of the county, but my congressman is a guy who’s been known for years as “longtime west side congressman Steve Chabot.” 

Steve: How do you see the race for Rob Portman’s senate seat playing out? Particularly now that the former President has thrown his weight behind J.D. Vance?

Keith: I’ll go out on a limb and say a Republican will win it, unless Sherrod Brown can clone himself and enter the race – and even then he’d face a stiff task. The primaries are May 3, and we have been bombarded with “I’m the Trumpiest” ads from the Republicans. It looks like Trump’s endorsement has helped J.D. Vance, so that’s likely where we’re headed. Will be very interesting to watch, though. After the primaries, the suspense is over as a Republican will win the seat. 

Steve: So almost the way you described that it was for the Democrats in Tennessee in the ’60s…

Keith: An interesting sidebar regarding Portman: When he first got into politics as an anointed congressman, I heard that Cincinnati’s business elite had a master plan for him to ultimately win the presidency. That seemed totally feasible at the time – a moderate Republican from Ohio: what could go wrong? Except moderate Republicans subsequently turned out to be an endangered species.

Steve: What do you think are the most pressing political issues facing the city and the region? And how confident are you that they won’t get swamped by political partisanship between now and 2024? As a country do you think we’re just at a point now where we’ll have to navigate around the sort of polarization we’ve seen in the past few years?

Keith: With no Metro government like Nashville or Indianapolis, co-operation among the various municipalities, counties, townships et al. is always an issue. Just as one example, no one can agree on how to fix up or replace the former Riverfront Coliseum (I don’t know what they’re calling it this week). Then there’s the “functionally obsolete” Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River, a double-deck thrill ride for I-75/71 motorists. I could go on and on with examples.

The new Cincinnati mayor, Aftab Pureval, says he’s also prioritizing economic growth and affordable housing, and I wish him good luck. I’m never real confident in solutions where politics is involved. As for the hyper-partisanship, I think we’ll just have to live with it for the foreseeable future.

Steve: Finally, back to baseball… there’s a lot of frustration among Reds fans at the moment over how the franchise is being run. That happens at some point with pretty much every MLB team, but do you think it’s more pronounced in a city with the kind of “ownership” of baseball’s origin story and a history of such great – if not recent – success?

And what does a successful ball club mean for the city in terms of civic pride?

Keith: I’m not even sure the average fan is aware of the origin story – they just think Cincinnati is special, mainly because of the Opening Day parade plus (almost) always opening at home. (And as an aside, St. Louis seems like a better baseball town than Cincinnati.)

What they are aware of is “Big Red Machine,” but sheesh that was almost half a century ago. And Pete Rose’s hijinks since becoming the “Hit King” haven’t helped. The bottom-line key to support, as always, is success on the field. Mike Brown was fond of saying fans would come back to the Bengals when they started winning again, and he was right. Now the Reds are saying the same thing. I wish there was some way to guarantee overall competitiveness, reasonable player movement and appropriate salaries, but I’m not sure that can be done.

Sorry to end on a pessimistic note!


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