On Opening Day Great American Ball Park will be packed with more than 42,000 fans to root for the Reds over the Philadelphia Phillies. But a crowd three times as large will line Race Street and Fifth Street downtown to watch the annual Findlay Market Opening Day parade.

The iconic parade, begun nearly a century ago to mark the start of the Reds’ season, has grown from a homey promotion for Ohio’s oldest continuously operated public market into an annual rite of spring, launching the biggest holiday in Cincinnati.

“Opening Day in Cincinnati is the place you want to be if you’re a baseball fan,” says Neil Luken, the Findlay Market merchant who’s chaired the parade’s volunteer organizing committee for nearly 20 years. “It’s one of those unique local holidays like Patriot’s Day in Boston.”

The hoopla around the parade has been featured on ESPN and in the Wall Street Journal among national media. And as the parade’s visibility has grown it has taken on a life of its own.

“If we walked away [from the parade] there’d be a hue and cry, but people wouldn’t let it die because it’s such an event,” says Luken.

To keep the parade at about two hours from start to finish and keep it from infringing on the first pitch at GABP, organizers the last few years have limited the number of entries to about 175. This year they received about 250 applications to march the mile and half from the market to the Taft Theater on Fifth Street.

That has forced organizers to make some tough choices.

“We don’t want to exclude anybody but we can’t accommodate everybody,” says Luken.

Limiting the length of the parade has had a side benefit of upgrading the quality of the units in the parade.

“Years ago it was a bunch of pickup trucks driving down the street and anybody with a fancy car and anybody with a sign who wanted to walk down the street,” he says.

This year there also will be around 20 marching bands. When he began as chairman, Luken says the parade was lucky to get two or three.

“We’ll never be mistaken for the Rose Parade, but now we have people building floats,” Luken says.

The organizers don’t have any strict requirements about decorations but Luken says a lot of participants are creating more elaborate floats on their own.

Creative Floats, a Canton-area firm that builds floats for parades from Chicago to New York, has been hired to supply at least eight floats for this year’s parade.

“It’s one of the biggest parades we do,” says Mark Aksterowicz, partner with Bob Starkey in Creative Floats.

“They want it bigger and bigger. I love coming down there because there’s nothing else like it.”

Creative Floats is supplying floats for Pure Romance, PNC Bank and Chick Fil-A among others.

One new entrant this year is Maker’s Mark Bourbon, which is planning a float featuring its distinctive red wax seal opening, says Debbie Gannaway, proprietor of Gramma Debbie’s Kitchen at the market.

Technology has also improved parade organization. The parade now has its own website findlaymarketparade.com for online parade applications and to provide information.

“It’s really made things easier,” says Gannaway who has a background in information technology and does a lot of parade data work.

“I put together a roughly 250-page document with a table of contents and alphabetical cross-references with each entry in their marching order in the parade with a description and background on the unit sponsoring it.”

Years ago, Luken says parade preparations would consume his time in the two months leading up to Opening Day.

“I couldn’t tell you how many envelopes I stuffed and stamps I licked,” he says back when the applications were done by hand. Now he says his role is more administrative with other merchants like Gannaway doing more of the nitty-gritty work.

But what hasn’t changed is the thrill of Opening Day, says Luken.

“When I ride in the parade with my family we have a 40-foot trailer plastered with Findlay Market signs,” he says. “I’m amazed at the crowds. I just can’t believe it.”

Before the Parade Opening Day was No Big Deal

In the beginnings of professional baseball there was no parade or any of the festivities today associated with Opening Day in Cincinnati, according to Reds historian Greg Rhodes.

“Cincinnati’s home opener, as was true with all the other clubs, drew little attention from the press and the public. There were no sellout crowds, no hoopla, no ceremonies and no parades,” he writes in a history of Opening Day on the Findlay Market Parade website.

But in the late 1880s, motivated in part by the formation of the upstart American Association, teams began competing more actively for attention and fans, he writes.

“Over time, Cincinnati became the King of Opening Day in baseball. By 1900 most of the traditions we associate with Opening Day were in place: capacity crowd at the ballpark, dignitaries and festivities, and the pre-game parade.”

The early parades were small and featured the Reds’ team and their Opening Day opponent and a marching band. The Reds discontinued their parade in 1902, Rhodes says, but neighborhood “rooter’s groups,” in decorated, horse-drawn wagons, filled the void. One of those, Doyles Rooters Group, was an early predecessor of the Findlay Market Parade, which began in 1920, and quickly became one of the best organized, emphasizing the presentation at the ballpark of the American flag to fly during the game. By the 1930s the pre-game festivities were being call the Findlay Market Parade, he says.

The Reds’ move in 1970 from Crosley Field in the West End to Riverfront Stadium downtown changed the parade dynamics, Rhodes says.

The march down Race Street and onto Fifth went through the heart of downtown Cincinnati and local television began covering the parade live. The parade, rather than the ballpark presentation, became the focal point and organizers began inviting outside groups to participate.



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