In this week’s Conversations with Clayton, we chat with Tim Burke, the founder of the fantastic CincinnatiHistory.org. In a wide ranging discussion, we talk about his favorite books about Cincinnati, the Ohio presidents, and the worst seats he’s ever had at a sporting event.
Follow him on Twitter right now: @cincinnatiburke
Clayton Trutor (CT): How did you get involved with writing about Cincinnati history?
Tim Burke (TB): My fascination with Cincinnati dates back to my grandmother. She lived with my family back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s when I was growing up. She made a strong impression on me pretty early on in my life. She was born in Cincinnati in the 1890’s and had an eighth grade education, which was common at that time, but she had a complete set of Shakespeare’s works and was constantly reading. She also told me stories about Cincinnati and our family that absolutely fascinated me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t old enough to ask the right questions before she died. But she instilled in me a love for the place (Cincinnati ) which I didn’t fully realize until I started teaching in the late 1980’s. That’s when I wanted to fill in the details about Cincinnati and my family’s past. When I figured out that I was a sixth generation Cincinnatian- well I guess that’s when all the reading and researching began.
CT: Which story of yours are you the most proud of?
TB: Selecting the piece of writing I most proud of is tough! There are several I really like but I think the piece I’m most proud of is on Boss Cox, who dominated the political scene in the late 19th and early 20th century. Even though Cox is often cited as one of the most powerful bosses in the nation during the Gilded Age, there really isn’t much written about him or how the Cox machine really functioned. So, piecing together the details of who was who, and how the machine functioned into one cohesive piece was challenging and ultimately very satisfying. It’s long, but I think it does a good job of illustrating how a political machine functioned and tells a lot of good stories along the way.
CT: What are your interests related to the history of professional sports in Cincinnati?
TB: Football is easily my favorite sport BUT the Bengals are relatively “young franchise” (1968) which unfortunately doesn’t leave a lot of room to explore, though years ago Bob Trumpy, the former NFL analyst and one of the original Bengals, wrote a book about the first years of the team’s existence. It was enormously entertaining. I think the early years of expansion and Paul Brown himself, one of historic NFL innovators kind fires up my curiosity. Cincinnati however, has always been identified as a baseball town which I generally agree with it. Part of my interest in baseball withered with free agency. Until then, the Reds and every other team had an identity or personality that lived on from year to year. Money seemed to matter less and there was not as much public discussion about the business of baseball. Players stayed with teams for long periods of time and became identified with cities and it wasn’t unusual for players to make a career with a single team. I grew up during the glory years of the Big Red Machine which will always stay close to my heart but I’m also drawn to an earlier era when baseball was being established as the national past time at the turn of the century through the beginning of WWII ( 1919 Black Sox Scandal, Crosley Field, Jonny Vander Meer -back to back no hitters, Joe Nuxhall etc. come to mind). Each Spring I pick out a week to listen to the audio version of the Ken Burns History of Baseball while I work in the yard, usually the week before Opening Day, a Cincinnati holiday . Every time I listen, I learn something new. It’s a great way to learn American history- development of pop culture, labor relations, the issue of race in America, basic economics etc. (Sorry I’m rambling.).
CT: What are your favorite books about Cincinnati?
TB: My favorites books on Cincinnati in no particular order….
Lost Cincinnati —landmarks & people that have faded into obscurity by a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter
Vaz You Ever In Zinzinnati – Cincinnati as a city of neighborhoods in the post WWII era
Beyond The River -the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati and Southern Ohio
Boss Cox’s Cincinnati -by Zane Miller ( great urban history prof at UC) looking at reform in the progressive era
The Cincinnati Guide -a WPA work on the city, important historical events and people
CT: Which figures in Cincinnati’s history do you find the most fascinating?
TB: I would have to start my list of fascinating Cincinnatians with three people I’ve written about starting with Boss Cox- easily the most powerful political figure in the city’s history and its greatest white collar criminal. I also need to include Nicholas Longworth -the city’s greatest 19th century advocate but also a tough businessman who didn’t care what anyone thought of him. I also need to include Samuel Hannaford- who designed a staggering number of landmark buildings in the city but is not well known today. To that list I would add Pete Rose – arguably one of the greatest hitters of all time and an example of how to compete on the baseball field but also one the most disappointing human beings I ever placed on a pedestal. William Howard Taft a progressive who alienated his most important sponsor( Teddy Roosevelt) but went on to become an important Chief Justice.
CT: Rank the Ohio presidents.
TB: 1. McKinley ( not very charismatic/but elected twice - built an American empire/but was an imperialist)
2. Taft ( politically clumsy but actually made great strides toward progressive goals)
3. Grant ( inherited tough circumstances for which he is not always credited)
4. Hays ( one and done- ended up in the White House as a consequence of a political deal –but started civil service reform)
5. Garfield ( not much time to do anything)
6. Harrison ( a footnote to history) tie Harding (just bad- corrupt)
*Ben Harrison though born in Ohio was really an Indiana President
CT: Describe the worst seats you’ve ever had at a sporting event.
TB: The worst seating I ever had to endured was at the 2008 Orange Bowl- Cincinnati v. Virginia Tech. The seats were too high, too far from the field and surrounded by a sea of Virginia Tech fans determined to make us feel miserable. The fact the Bearcats embarrassed themselves didn’t help. It was a long, long night. A close second would be most of the UC basketball games I saw at Fifth Third Arena before the renovation last year. I always sat in the cheap seats-uncomfortably hard bench seats with no backs, that were notorious for producing sore backs (Also far too high with no restrooms anywhere close).
CT: The best places to eat in Cincinnati are __________.
TB: For a great meal in the downtown business district close to stadiums I would highly recommend Soto, modern Italian in a relaxed atmosphere. There are private tables but also narrow bar tables abutting a glass parition providing a view of the kitchen. My wife and I love to watch the chefs at work. But if it’s a quick lunch or just plain or comfort food -Skyline Chili, which is Cincinnati’s unique take on chili involving a dash of chocolate and cinnamon. Cincinnatians love the stuff, out of towners not so much. I also have a thing for tacos and there is no better place than Agave And Rye – every kind of taco you can imagine and many you couldn’t with a “Day of the Dead” vibe. For authentic Mexican you can’t go wrong with Veracruz, a small Mexican place in Price Hill- great food, never disappoints ! A block from Vera Cruz you can grab a drink or bar food at the Incline House, a nice selection of beers but a killer night view of the downtown basin and river from one of the hill tops ringing the city.
Check out CincinnatiHistory.org
Follow Tim Burke on Twitter right now: @cincinnatiburke