Baseball started this week with Cincinnati’s favorite unofficial City Holiday – Opening Day. Starting with the over 150 year old tradition of the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade, the day is filled with festivities and frivolities. It’s a sign of our city’s love for the game and its heritage. The Redlegs, after all, were the first professional baseball team in the United States.
The sounds and smells of baseball bring back memories to many – hanging out with Dad or Grandpa or good friends. If the smell of roasted goober peanuts and cigar smoke remind you of baseball, then you remember one of the longest lasting and most memorable food vendors outside of the stadium – Peanut Jim Shelton.
Peanut Jim was born in 1889 in Union, South Carolina, descended from slaves who worked the land around Union for the Shelton families. Jim started vending roasted peanuts in front of the turnstiles at the entrance to Crosley Field in 1932 and continued to sell for almost fifty years. In 1970 he moved with the Reds to Riverfront stadium, but passed away in 1982, before the current Red’s stadium was built.
He operated a fruit and nut store on West Liberty Street in downtown Cincinnati’s West End, but also roasted his goober peanuts on site in his coal-fired push wagons he called “cadillacs.” One was on display at Arnold’s Bar and Grill for many years, and one is at the Red’s Museum at the ballpark.
What made Peanut Jim so memorable was his costume. He was always dressed in a top hat, tie and tails, and always sang a tune to sell his peanuts. Jim always usually had a half smoked cigar in his mouth as well, a strong smell that mixed with the smell of his roasted peanuts.
Jim Tarbell, as Grand Marshal of the Opening Day parade one year honored Peanut Jim by his signature hat, and coattails. An image of Jim Tarbell in that costume now blazons the wall of one of the buildings on Central Parkway at the entrance to the Gateway Corridor of Over-the-Rhine.
Peanut Jim was memorialized by African American photographer C. Smith behind the counter of his West Liberty Store in the 1970s. That photo was recently on display with the C. Smith photography exhibit at the Cincinnati Public Library on Vine Street.
By the time Jim passed away he was vending peanuts out of a wheel chair due to a bad hip that had been broken in an earlier mugging by teenagers in the neighborhood.
There are still peanut vendors at the Reds ballpark, but none as memorable as Peanut Jim.