The Reds' Curse
I’ve always loved opening day for the pageantry and optimism around the league. For decades, the very first game of Opening Day was given to the oldest team in the majors, the Cincinnati Reds. ESPN started opening seasons with a Sunday Night game or teams would travel to Japan just before the rest of the league started up, to make sure they had adequate jet lag before the season grind would begin and it just wasn’t marketable for a noontime game in Cincinnati to take the billing of being first. This didn’t take away the celebration from the Reds, they still game a home game for Opening Day every year and Cincinnati still holds the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade. This year was the 100th parade, going back to either just before or just after the Reds won the World Series in 1919 against the Chicago Black Sox.
I had heard about this parade for years and when I lived in Pittsburgh for just under a year in 2010, I took a road trip to Cincinnati and experienced the parade and Opening Day for the very first time that I had ever been to any team’s opener. I recall listening to the audio book Assassination Vacation on the drive up about three 19th century presidents that died in office from assassination: Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. It happened that Garfield and McKinley were both from not too far from Cincinnati, as well as William Henry Harrison who was also mentioned for dying in office after failing to wear a coat during his inauguration. I was staying at the Garfield Suites that happened to not only be walking distance from the park and parade, but also a large statue of Harrison on horseback.
It was a little drizzly the morning of the parade in 2010, but the skies cleared by gametime. I bought a reds hat and a Joey Votto tee shirt just before the game so that I could fit in. Votto went on to win the NL MVP award that year. Votto and Scott Rolen hit home runs in the game, although the Reds lost in a slugfest to the Cardinals behind two homers from Albert Pujols and a grand slam from Yadier Molina. The Reds lost the game but claimed the central division by the end of the season.
When it comes to cursed franchises in baseball, there’s the Curse of the Bambino and the Billy Goat Curse, the Curse of the Black Sox and even the Curse of the Colonel for the Red Sox, Cubs, White Sox and Hanshin Tigers, but it might be the Reds History that was the most cursed. The oldest professional team in professional baseball, the Reds were even cursed in victory.
The 1919 World Series is known as the series thrown by the Chicago Black Sox resulting in the life-time and after death bans of eight Chicago players from baseball. It was in all the papers. And a few movies, too. The Cincinnati Reds were the forgotten champions that year for their first trophy in franchise history. It is, however, pretty hard to hang your hat on a championship singularly known for the losers intentionally losing, but nearly failing to do so as one of the co-conspirators set a World Series record for batting average.
It was another twenty years before Cincinatti was in the World Series. One year prior to that World Series run, Johnny Vander Meer had a sudden two game epiphany of control to become the only player ever to pitch back to back no-hitters in 1938. He had a decent season that year, but for the two World Series seasons of ‘39 and ‘40, he was fairly mediocre, winning a total of eight games in those seasons. The three years before his military service in ‘44 and ‘45 were his finest years, winning 16, 18, and 15 games with ERAs of 2.82, 2.43, and 2.87. He never regained his All-Star status after the war and ended his career losing more games than he won.
Vander Meer was probably the most well known name of the ‘39 season for those two games the year before, but it was RHP Bucky Walters who won the pitching Triple Crown that year leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA (27. 137, and 2.29). Walters was a guy who could do it all, he was STATS, Inc.’s retrospective pick for Gold Glove pitcher for the decade of the 30’s, he was the best hitting pitcher of his time with a higher AVG, more hits, doubles, total bases, runs and RBI than any pitcher of his time, and he even managed to steal home TWICE in his career. As solid pitcher who had two ERA crowns, a six-time All-Star, 3.30 ERA and a 53.4 WAR. Oh yeah, he was a two-way player for the first six seasons of his career, pitching and playing third base, logging as many as 415 plate appearances in a single season.
These Reds were a bit of a two-headed monster when it came to pitching and the other head was a bit of a read monster. RHP Paul Derringer was an absolute hothead, but somehow he still had respect of his GM Larry MacPhail. The pitcher and his GM once got into an argument in MacPhail’s office in 1933 and Derringer picked up an inkwell, hurling toward his boss, narrowly missing his head. The GM yelled, “you might have killed me!” and Derringer responded, “that’s what I was meaning to do!” MacPhail reached into his his desk and wrote Derringer a $750 bonus check as a reward for missing him, setting a terrible precedent. That breaking of the ice seemed to smooth things over between the two of them because just two years later Derringer was named to start the very first night game in sports history in 1935.
Derringer had one of the stranger careers, winning 18 games in his rookie year, then losing TWENTY-SEVEN games two years later. This low point didn’t seem to hurt his career, the Reds actually gave him a raise after the season. He didn’t exactly reward them right away, he lost TWENTY-ONE games the next season. He bounced back to win 22 and be an All-Star the following year. Even though he had three seasons with 19 or more losses, he also had four seasons with 20 or more wins, and each of those were years with 20 or more complete games and tallied 223 wins for his career. He was a six-time All-Star, although he nearly didn’t get to go to all of those. The year that the game was in New York City also happened to be a year that the State of New York had a warrant out for his arrest for drunkenly attacking a man whom he thought was not letting him into a party. That party was not a party but a meeting for a group with mayor La Guardia (of the airport La Guardias) in a hotel room where they were trying to secure a major convention.
When the World Series was over, Detroit came away with the trophy and ace of the staff Bucky Walters was the loser of two games. The Reds came back the next year determined to break through to win an undisputed championship. Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi was coming off the two best years of his career including a batting title and MVP award in ‘38 and a career high 20 dingers in ‘39. First baseman Frank McCormick had led the league in hits in ‘38 and ‘39 and did it again in ‘40 (209, 209 and 191, on his way to 1711 career hits over 13 years). His 1939 season might have been his most impressive of his career, leading the league in RBI with 128, career highs for AVG (.332) and OBP (.374) and his second of eight trips to the All-Star game. It was 1940 that McCormick broke through for his own MVP trophy, the third Red in as many years, leading the league in hits and doubles (44), and nearly matching his RBI total of the year before (127 to 128 in ‘39).
Of all the stars on the 1940 Reds roster, it was the back of catcher, Willard Hershberger, who brought a pall over the season. His whole life was under a dark cloud. When he was a kid his family fell deep into debt, his father was endlessly worried about finances and his job prospects, barely ever sleeping. Willard went for a hunting trip as an eighteen year old and after he got back home he left his shotgun in the hallway, intending to clean it in the morning. His father found the gun in the middle of the night and used it to take his own life, leaving his body for Willard to discover in the bathroom. The future major league catcher could never forgive himself for leaving the gun in the hallway.
Willard made the Reds in 1938 as a backup for the Hall of Famer Lombardi and was a fairly decent hitter, .316 AVG over 402 career at bats, but he was also an insomniac, a hypochondriac and a chainsmoker. He was well-liked by his teammates although he never participated in social activities of the rest of the team. He was considered to be good enough to start for almost any other MLB team at the time. The Reds took hold of first place of the National League standings on July 7th of 1940 and only grew their lead for the rest of the season. Lombardi got injured and Hershberger started the bulk of the next eleven games at catcher. The Reds lost five of those games and Hershberger blamed himself although the team didn’t lose any ground in the standings.
July 31, 1940, the Reds lost an extra inning game against the Giants on a walk off hit. Hershberger called the fastball that was socked. He sulked on the train after the game, saying that if Lombardi were in the game, they would not have lost. The next game that he caught, the second game of a doubleheader, he didn’t bother to even track down a passed ball. The next day the Reds had another doubleheader. Hershberger didn’t show up to the games and the manager held a meeting between games with the other players about the need to support him in a time when he was going through some mental health hardship. Hershberger was found while game two of the doubleheader was in progress in the bathroom of his hotel room having slit his own throat, bled out in the bathtub. He was first MLB player to commit suicide mid-season.
The team was hit especially hard by the passing of their teammate. His death wasn’t the result of performance on the field, it was the result of crippling depression that could have stemmed from the trauma of witnessing his father’s death, or the shared genetics that caused his father’s depression, or a combination of the two.
The Reds won the National League by twelve games then beat the Tigers in the World Series in seven games. They would have so many problems filling their roster in the following years due to World War II that they even sent out a fifteen year old Joe Nuxhall out for less than an inning to get rocked for five runs. Cost cutting had the Reds move their spring training during the War to local facilities at Indiana University. The local groundskeeper needed help getting the field ready and enlisted the help of one of the college football players. As the Reds came into town they saw this muscular young man working on the field. One day, the football player took batting practice on the field while the Reds were still around to witness the bombs that he was sending over an embankment the professional players were unable to reach with their own swings. He was a kid who probably wasn’t going to get a chance at a professional baseball career, but Ted Kluszewski ended up being one of the best hitters of the National League in the 1950’s.
The outfielder Klu had four straight forty home run seasons, including 1954 where he led the league in homers (49) and RBI (141). That year he finished second in MVP voting behind Willie Mays. and received MVP votes in six out of seven seasons from 1950-56. He was considered to be one of the most underappreciated players of the post-war era of baseball, and was considered the equal of Hall of Famers Eddie Matthews and Duke Snider in the National League. He was known for his bulging arms bursting from his sleeveless jersey, but he was not a mindless slugger. He could hit for average (.298 AVG) and also get on base (.353 OBP). Injuries cut his career short and kept his totals of 1766 hits and 279 homers. Although he played over fifteen years, he only played seven or eight full seasons he is still a great player who is not forgotten by Cincinnati fans. He was traded away without ever playing in World Series with the Reds.
Big Klu would never play in the World Series with the Reds and it would be 35 years between Championships. The Reds did win three Pennants before they won another trophy. Kluszewski’s longtime teammate, Ed Bailey, another in a long line of great Cincinnati catchers, was a six-time All-Star who was traded away before the next World Series appearance in 1961. Outfielder Vada Pinson played with Bailey and Frank Robinson in the late ‘50’s and was one of the few connective pieces from the 1961 World Series team and the early hints at the big Red Machine in 1968, playing with Rose, Perez and Bench. Over 17 full seasons he amassed 2757 hits, 256 homers, 305 steals, a .286 AVG, four All-Star appearances, five seasons with MVP votes, a Gold Glove and a 54.3 WAR.
1970 was the start of reign of the Big Red Machine, a Cincy lineup made up of the “Great Eight” lineup of Rose (All-Time hits leader), Bench, Perez and Morgan (all three Hall of Famers), Concepcion, Griffey, Foster and Geronimo. From 1970 to 1976 these Reds won two World Series, four Pennants, and went to one more NLCS. However, even as they were winning, these Reds had the taint of the lifetime ban of Pete Rose for betting on baseball. Three of the five Reds World Series championships starred players that were banned for life from baseball.
Nevertheless, the players on the big Red Machine that were not the Hall of Famers, and were not Pete Rose, made the team as fearsome as it was. Pete Rose was one of the most exciting and prolific players of his time. Joe Morgan, despite his announcing weariness for sabremetrics, was one of the best players in history when measured by advanced statistics. Johnny Bench is far and away considered to have been the best catcher in MLB history. Outfielder George Foster was the slugger in the middle of the lineup knocking in all of the great players around him that were clogging up the basepaths. Foster was a five-time All-Star, an MVP of the mid-summer classic in ‘76, the MVP of the 1977 season, the first of two consecutive years leading the league in homers (52 and 40), the owner of 1925 hits, 348 homers, a .278 AVG and a 44.2 WAR. When he was traded to the Mets in 1982, Foster was briefly the richest man in baseball.
Ken Griffey, Sr. broke into the majors with a fast start with a late season stint in 1973, but a slow start as both an offensive and defensive liablity of the ‘74 season sent him back to the minors. On the farm team, he benefited from Ted Kluszewski who was then a coach specializing in hitting in the Reds Organization. Something Klu taught to Griffey seemed to click because he went on to hit over .300 six of the next nine seasons including OBPs over .360 in six of the next seven years. He just missed the batting title on the last day of 1976, trailing Bill Madlock. Griffey became a regular in the Cincy outfield when he was back up in the majors after Rose moved to man third base and Griffey’s mixture of speed and average made him a three-time All-Star, taking home the All-Star MVP award in 1980. A well rounded player, Griffey totaled 2143 hits, 152 homers, 200 steals, and a .296 AVG to go with his .359. A two-time World Series Champion, Griffey says that his favorite baseball memories were playing with is Hall of Fame son. The two hold the record as the only father-son tandem to homer in the same game, doing so in back-to-back fashion.
Dave Concepcion was the defensive anchor of the Big Red Machine, winning five Gold Gloves in the six years from ‘74 to ‘79, a streak that might have gone longer if it hadn’t been for Ozzie Smith’s emergence. While the nine-time All-Star (1982 All-Star Game MVP) mostly manned the shortstop position, he played a considerable amount of time at second and third and even logged games in the outfield. Although his career .267 AVG and .322 OBP wouldn’t show it, Concepcion wasn’t all glove, he took home Silver Slugger awards in ‘81 and ‘81, years that he hit .301 and .281, respectively, to be the best hitting shortstop in the NL. He wasn’t the greatest fielder in any one aspect, Mark Belanger was smoother, Larry Bowa was quicker, Bill Russell had a more accurate arm, but no one else could put it all together better than Concepcion. His tenure as the Reds shortstop wound down in 1987 even though he was hitting .319 with a .377 OBP over 104 games as the career of Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin was taking off. Over 19 years Concepcion logged 2326 hits and stole 321 bags.
The 1990 World Series Reds are the least controversial team of Championship teams in their history. The Nasty Boys’ unhittable bullpen of closer Randy Myers (2.08 ERA, 31 saves, 1.12 WHIP) Norm Charlton (2.74 ERA, 12 wins) and Rob Dibble (1.74 ERA, 11 saves, 0.98 WHIP and 12.5 K’s per 9 innings) are a bit of a prototype for the super bullpens in recent years of the MLB. Randy Myers had the best career of the Nasty Boys, a four-time All-Star, 1990 NLCS MVP, two-time Rolaids reliever of the year, and led the league in saves three times on the way to a career total of 347. Ken Griffey was back with the Reds as a 40 year old, Hall of Famer Barry Larkin was fairly early in his career, and Paul O’Neill was just a few years away from reinvigorating his career with the Yankees for a career as a five-time World Series Champ. It was outfielder Eric Davis, however, that was the brightest star of the 1990 team.
Davis was a stolen base machine, stealing 80 bags in 1986 and 50 the following year and 349 for his career. He wasn’t just a speedster, those same years he hit 27 and 37 homers for a career log of 282 dingers. Although his career average was just .269, his onbase percentage of .359 was just below the mark of .360 that could be expected of a .300 AVG hitter. It was injuries that kept him from being in the conversation with the best athletes in baseball history. Davis retired in 1994, but came back in 1996. In 1997 he was diagnosed with colon cancer, but the next year he was back after fighting through chemotherapy, to hit 28 homers and hit a career best .327 AVG. Over his career, Eric the Red was a three-time Gold Glover, took home two Silver Sluggers, and is considered one of the greatest could-have-been players in the history of the game.
The 1990 World Series is the latest Championship team before I became aware of baseball the following season. It has been 29 years since they have even been to a World Series, eight years longer than their previous drought after World War II. They have had some stars of some acclaim in the last few decades, Reggie Sanders spent the first half (‘91 to ‘98) of his 300/300 homers and steals career in Cincinnati. Adam Dunn, whose star faded after turning 31 and failing to hit over .220 for the last four years of his career, started his career with the Reds (‘01 to ‘08) and for a time established himself as a freakishly consistent hitter, logging home run totals of 46, 40, 40, 40, 40 (yup, 40 dingers on the dot over four straight years), 38, 38, 11 and 41 from 2004-12. Even though he had a career .237 AVG, he was constant at getting onbase at a .364 rate to go with his 462 homers. I will never forget the time that I was watching Dunn in batting practice for the Nationals at Chase Field in Phoenix, I was looking at my phone while standing next to a marker that read 440' and one of Dunn's bombs missed hitting me on the fly by four or five feet. I didn't even walk away with that ball, but I did get another of his. The guy put on a BP show and made sure everyone took home a souvenier.
This season, the Reds made a few moves in the off season to make their team a little more interesting. They traded for Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig, and acquisitions of pitching depth with Tanner Roark and Sonny Gray while some of their former prospects are finally making their way to contribute. Anchored by one of the best hitters in baseball, Joey Votto, the Reds are better than the very worst teams in the league, but are hardly considered contenders, but Opening day is still an occasion for celebration and hope for the upcoming season as it is every year.
Hall of Good Enough
Ken Griffey, Sr