A Baseball Holiday

“It’s a holiday – a baseball holiday. Ain’t no other place in America got that.”

– Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson, the Reds manager from 1970-78, on Cincinnati’s annual celebration of the return of baseball.

Cincinnati celebrated the return of baseball with the 97th Findlay Market Opening Day Parade Monday before the Reds beat the Philadelphia Phillies 6-2 to open the season.

Neil Luken of Luken’s Poultry and Seafood, has been the chairman of the event for 15 years and has been involved as an organizer for 30 years. The parade has grown from a simple event to draw attention to the Over-the-Rhine market into a showcase for Greater Cincinnati. Findlay Market merchants organize the parade and in return, bask in the publicity that the event generates.

Jeff Gibbs, the fifth-generation owner of J.E. Cheese, has attended, participated in or chaired more than 50 parades. Gibbs was the chairman for 15 years and is now co-chairman. He never went to school on Opening Day. The cheese shop has been family owned since the 1920s and Gibbs’ grandfather and father would enlist him to help on parade day.

“The parade is part of my DNA,” Gibbs says. “It means a lot to me, my family and the Findlay Market. Cincinnati’s little national holiday. Other cities have tried, New Orleans has Mardi Gras, Louisville has their (Kentucky) Derby and there is the Rose Bowl parade, but only Cincinnati has a 97-year history of an Opening Day parade. There will be lots of kids off from school and men in suits downtown not working.”

The parade dates to the 1870s and evolved to become a hallmark of the community. Gibbs tells a story of 1985’s unique parade where there was no ball game after a players’ strike threatened the start of the season. The contract was settled on the Friday before Monday’s scheduled opener, but spring training was extended. After serious deliberation and with everything in place, it was decided to go forward with the parade. The parade earned national attention on all major networks and a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal.

The parade also provides a big boost for Findlay Market businesses. Although the market is opened year round, traffic does drop off during winter. The parade kick starts the summer season and resets Findlay Market in people’s minds as a vibrant, exciting place.

Kevin Luken is a self-described Findlay Market Opening Day Parade junkie and a parade co-chair. He has been involved in coordinating the parade activities for years. He describes the work that is necessary to produce one of the signature events in the Midwest. Preparation begins with a review of the parade shortly after it is over and ideas are developed for improvements and adjustments. Serious planning begins after the first of the year. Goals are set, entries are confirmed and communications kick into high gear. A 14-foot height restriction on floats was instituted this year to avoid the new overhead streetcar wiring. More than 175 entries, monitored by 50 marshals, represent every facet of Greater Cincinnati: marching bands, floats, equestrian units and vehicles.

There are hundreds of people involved in the planning and production of this event that is unique to Cincinnati, the home of the first professional baseball team. But it is the enthusiasm of the community that makes the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade an undeclared holiday throughout the Tri-State.