THIS IS THE FOURTH CHAPTER OF MY NEW BOOK, THE CINCINNATI REDS: PART II (1948–201X). THE PREVIOUS CHAPTERS AND AN INTRODUCTION ARE INCLUDED IN THE CATEGORY “FROM GREG RHODES’S NEW BOOK” ON THE LINK TO THE RIGHT. THERE IS A PREVIEW POST DESCRIBING THE PROJECT.
The seasons of the late 1940s and early 1950s flow together with a numbing similarity, and dear reader, if you are tired of following anemic teams that always seem to wind up in sixth or seventh place, win about 65 games, finish 25 games out of first, with a front office that seems incapable of doing anything productive, then please feel free to skip ahead a few seasons. Nineteen fifty-six might be a good year to bookmark. On the other hand, if you can hang in there for a few more years, you will follow the return of Joe Nuxhall to the Big Leagues, the rise of Ted Kluszewski as baseball’s “Hercules”, the somewhat bumpy road the Reds travel to integrating their lineup, how the club survived one of the worst managers in baseball history, and how the Reds became the Redlegs.
In movie lingo, this constitutes the trailer for the next few seasons, but for now, we must turn our attention to the main attraction of this chapter, the 1951 campaign.
In baseball history, 1951 comes down to the final at-bat of the regular season, in the third and deciding playoff game between the Dodgers and the Giants, the legendary “shot heard ’round the world,” Bobby Thompson’s heart-stopping home run at the Polo Grounds in the bottom of the ninth inning. “The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant,” screamed Giant’s announcer Russ Hodges, and the Reds players, like most other fans, heard about it at home.
The Reds had been officially eliminated from the pennant race for nearly a month, during a disastrous 19-game road trip in late August and early September that saw them lose to every team. Every team. They visited all the NL cities, from St Louis to New York, suffered losing streaks of five and six games, and lost 15 times.
The road trip was a snapshot of the second half of the season. The Reds did not play well after the All-Star break. Luke Sewell’s boys were a surprising .500 club as late as July 20th, in fourth place, 11 games out of first. Realistically, no one expected the Reds to challenge for the pennant at that point, but a first-division finish and a .500 season would have been enough reason to break out the champagne. The Reds had not had a winning season since 1944, and the experts picked them for another sixth or seventh place finish. But they were 18 under .500 in the second half of the season, fell from fourth to sixth place, from 10 1/2 games behind to 28 out.
The Reds maintained respectability for so long due mainly to solid pitching. Unlike previous seasons, there were no big disappointments among the moundsmen. There was no dominant performer, either, but the staff ERA of 3.70 was second in the league. Raffensberger and Blackwell tied for the club lead in wins with 16, and they tied for the club lead in ERA at 3.44. Howie Fox finally had a winning season, at 11-8, and Herm Wehmeier’s ERA of 3.70 was the best of his career. Knuckle-baller Willie Ramsdell, spot starter Harry Perkowski, and rookie reliever Frank Smith also threw well.
It was the lack of offense that doomed the Reds. They were shutout 16 times. They scored three or fewer runs in 73 games. They finished dead last in the league in runs scored, last, in fact, in every major offensive category.
The shortcomings in the offense shouldn’t have come as a big surprise as the Reds’ brass planned for the 1951 campaign. There was reasonable hope that their two promising young sluggers, Kluszewski and Adcock, would continue to improve, but the other regulars hardly rated any enthusiasm based on past performance. Infielders Virgil Stallcup and Bobby Adams, outfielders Lloyd Merriman and Bob Usher, and the catching troika of Bob Scheffing, Dixie Howell and Johnny Pramesa had never shown any offensive talents beyond what you could expect of bench players. Connie Ryan at second, Grady Hatton at third and outfielder Johnny Wroystek were all capable of putting up numbers typical of a average position player, but other than Kluszewski, there was little “pop” in the Reds lineup.
General manager Warren Giles again made no significant moves to bolster the offense and that included any forays into the Negro Leagues. The Reds, proud pioneers in the recruitment of Latin players, professional baseball and night baseball, were laggards on integration. It had been four years since Jackie Robinson debuted, but the Reds, like the majority of clubs, had yet to integrate their roster. Heading into the 1951 season, only the Cleveland Indians, the St. Louis Browns, the New York Giants and the Boston Braves had joined Brooklyn in integrating their lineups.
As for the Reds offense in 1951, its promise was thus left to the fortunes of Klu and Adcock, and both were disappointments. After his breakout 1950 season, Klu took a step backwards. His average fell 50 points to .259 and his OPS+ fell from 124 to 83. And all this just as Colliers, a popular weekly magazine, ran a feature story on Big Klu in June christening him, “Baseball’s Hercules.”
Adcock started strong, and with Klu struggling, Sewell moved him into the cleanup slot in mid-May. But Joe suffered a sprained knee sliding into second base on June 5th, and missed the next three weeks. He faded over the last half of the season; in the last two months, he was a woeful 14 for 121, and he ended the season with an OPS+ of 77.
By season’s end, the only suspense for Reds fans was the future of Warren Giles, and it wasn’t because owner Powel Crosley had lost confidence in Giles. Despite the string of losing seasons, Crosley had complete faith in his man to run his club; he had elevated Warren to club president in 1946. But Giles had his sights on a new job opening: Commissioner of Baseball. The current occupant of the post, former Kentucky governor and senator, Happy Chandler, had resigned in the middle of the season after his bosses, the 16 major league club owners, refused to extend his contract for a second seven-year term. A screening committee began searching through some 400 names, and finally narrowed the field to five: Giles, National League president Ford Frick, Dr. Milton Eisenhower, president of Penn State (and brother of the future president), General Douglas MacArthur, and Ohio governor Frank Lausche. But despite the impressive pedigrees and credentials of the non-baseball men, Giles and Frick were the front runners, and the owners convened in Chicago at the end of September to choose the new commissioner.
Election required “yes” votes from 12 of the 16 owners, and with Giles and Frick each having a strong core of support, neither could muster enough backing. After nine hours of discussion, and 14 deadlocked ballots, Giles finally ended the impasse by withdrawing from the race, clearing the way for Frick’s election. Giles agreed to take Frick’s post as National League president. The transition from club executive to league executive was a smooth one for Giles, but for one issue. Giles was well-known for criticizing what he saw as poor umpiring. As the new head of the NL, he now directed the men in blue. He finessed that: “It’s a funny thing about umpires—a week ago I didn’t think we had a good one in the league—now they’re all great!”
Frick soon moved the Commissioner’s office to New York from Cincinnati, where Chandler had located it so he could be close to his Kentucky home. In fact, Happy was known to escort guests to his office windows, on the 26th floor of the Carew Tower, which overlooked the Ohio River, point south and note with Bluegrass pride, “Friends, look yonder. There, across the beautiful Ohio, lies the Promised Land.”
Giles, 55 and a widower, was raising a teen-age son when he became NL president, and did not want to move to New York. “I have my family, my property and most of my friends here, and…have found it is a swell town in which to live.” Giles might have also mentioned his grill. Warren’s cookouts at his Mount Lookout home were well regarded. He moved into the old commissioner’s suite, and for the next 18 years, ran the affairs of the league from the Queen City.
While Giles remained a Cincinnatian, his 15-year association with the Reds came to an end. Crosley had hired him as general manager after the 1936 season to succeed Larry MacPhail. Building on MacPhails’ foundation, Giles added several key players to the roster of the Reds in the late 1930s, including Bucky Walters, Bill Werber, Wally Berger, Jimmy Ripple and Joe Beggs, and a new manager, Bill McKechnie. His 1939 and 1940 Reds were the greatest team in club history until the era of the Big Red Machine.
Giles success in molding the Reds into World Champions earned him great respect throughout baseball, for winning in Cincinnati with its small ballpark, thin crowds and low payroll was thought by most to be impossible. By the late 1940s, Giles had become one of the most influential executives in baseball. His club no longer was championship caliber, and his most recent efforts to improve it had become almost counter-productive, but none of that tainted his reputation as an honest, loyal, and smart colleague. He may have lost his keen eye in judging talent, but he was still sought out as a thoughtful and perceptive baseball man. And, he looked the part, a portly, polished patrician. “Well-tailored, well-barbered and well-fed” wrote one scribe. “The silver-thatched punjab,” wrote another. He could work a room and host an event in the grand tradition of another Reds executive, Garry Herrmann.
His final salute to Reds fans came in advertisements he placed in the three Cincinnati dailies. “To all of you good fans in this vicinity, I want to express a sincere, “THANK YOU.” Many of you I know personally…there are however, many others—faithful grandstand and bleacher patrons—whom I can reach only in this manner. It is to you especially I say, “THANKS.” To this day, Giles is the longest-tenured GM in Reds history.
His departure might have created a serious void in the Reds front office, but Crosley immediately turned to Giles’ long-time assistant, Gabe Paul. Paul had come to the Reds with Giles in 1936, when Paul was just 24. Like his boss, Paul was widely admired throughout the league. One Chicago writer, admitted that Giles and Paul were the two most-liked executives. “Every baseball writer in America is secretly pulling for the Reds to win the National League pennant,” he said. “In our hearts, we have grown to respect Warren Giles and Gabe Paul, and to like them best of all. We hope they win.”
Crosley invited Paul to lunch a few days after Giles accepted his new job, and offered the GM post to Paul. Paul became Vice-President and General Manager, while Crosley stepped back into the role of club president.
At 41, Paul was one of the younger general managers in the game, and Giles, for one, thought that was what the Reds needed. “He will bring a more youthful enthusiasm to the job than I have had in recent years,” said Giles. Paul was eager to move. “We will trade anybody if we have a chance to get a player who will help us. When we open the 1952 season, perhaps you won’t recognize the club.” One thing wouldn’t change: Paul’s first decision was to re-sign Luke Sewell to a third year as Reds manager.
Old-Timers vs. the All-Time Reds
The National League celebrated its 75th season in 1951, and the Reds saluted the anniversary with an old-timers game on June 19. The last reunion game of any significance in Cincinnati had been 20 years earlier, and the 1951 affair drew considerable interest and a good crowd of 26,618. The three-inning exhibition, prior to a Reds-Dodgers night game at Crosley, featured twenty ex-Reds, divided into the “Old-Timers” and the “All-Time Reds,” managed by Bill McKechnie and Charlie Dressen.
The highlight was a home run over the left-field wall by Bucky Walters, perhaps taking out some of his frustration for his dismissal as Reds manager at the end of the 1949 season. Paul Derringer managed to plunk his former teammate Ival Goodman, to the amusement of both Derringer and Goodman and the big crowd.
The players had not forgotten their locker room ribbing skills. Hughie Critz took a look at the rotund Bubbles Hargrave and said, “The face is familiar, but I can’t say the same for the shape.” And Edd Roush could still run em down, delighting the crowd with an over the shoulder catch on a long fly ball. Heinie Groh showed up with his old war club, his famous bottle bat, the same one he had used in the 1922 World Series.
The tone for the evening was set when the first hitter, Bill Werber, hit a routine foul fly that Hargrave misplayed. PA announcer Dave Grote quickly noted, “The official scorer rules no error on the play.”
The rosters included four Cooperstown Hall of Famers: Roush, Chick Hafey, Eppa Rixey and manager McKechnie. There were thirteen future Reds Hall of Famers: Roush, Rixey, McKechnie, Derringer, Walters, Werber, Hargrave, Groh, Critz, Frank McCormick, Ival Goodman, and Rube Bressler. In addition, Noodles Hahn was on hand, but did not play, and Billy Myers and Ernie Lombardi were invited but could not attend.
The oldest participant was Dick “Doc” Hoblitzell, the Reds first baseman from 1908 to 1914. Doc, who had the unusual distinction of starting a dentistry practice during his years with the Reds, was 62.
Prior to the game, the players and Reds officials dedicated a 75th anniversary plaque at the Spring Grove cemetery gravesite of Charlie Gould, the manager of the Reds in the first National League season, and a member of the legendary 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings.
That was what one visitor to Tampa dubbed the Reds spring training site in 1951. Manager Luke Sewell employed a new pitching machine, and two inventions of his own, “Sewell’s Sweat Box,” and a wooden target for pitchers. The Reds had used a pitching machine in previous camps, but the “Overhand Joe” machine was a newer model, that the Dodgers had debuted a couple of years earlier. It was durable and simple to operate, and became the first pitching machine to be used at carnivals and other public venues. (Link here to Life Magazine story of Overhand Joe.)
The sweat box was designed to help pitchers break a sweat fast and stay warm. It sat over two mounds, and faced south, where the prevailing breezes were typically mild. Sheets of plastic enclosed the other three sides of the frame and kept out cooler winds that usually blew in from the north.
Finally, Sewell devised a low-strike target for his pitching staff. Sewell took a large board, covered it with heavy padding, and cut an opening 12 inches high by 20 inches wide where the bottom of the strike zone would be for a six-foot tall batter.
And to make sure his players had ample time to use the new gadgets, Luke banned golf from spring training.
Two New Additions to the Lineup
Powel Crosley added a couple of new names to the lineup late in the season, but these were athletes of the four-legged variety. Crosley’s good friend and horse breeder Dr. Eslie Asbury sold the Reds owner two brood mares, who produced a couple of foals, which Crosley named Lady Pace and Damocles. They began racing as two-year olds in the fall of 1951, and that raised the attention of new commissioner Ford Frick. Outgoing commissioner Happy Chandler said he would have likely taken action against Crosley, but Frick and new National League president Warren Giles, Crosley’s former employee, worked quietly behind the scenes. There was no rule about an baseball owner racing horses, just a long-time understanding that baseball and gambling would not mix.
Crosley had no more luck with his horses than with his Reds of the early 1950s. Neither won a race.
Before free agency and the rise in salaries, players often supplemented their incomes playing exhibition games, especially after the season in fall barnstorming tours. One player would organize a tour, invite several others to join him in what was always billed as an “All-Star” squad. The barnstormers would play for a couple of weeks in small and mid-size cities, often in the south, where the weather was warmer, and many fans had never seen major leaguers in action. Local semi-pro or amateur teams provided the competition.
In October of 1951, Ted Kluszewski and Howie Fox played with Harry Walker’s team, while Danny Litwiler organized a crew that included Ken Raffensberger and Frank Smith. Joining Walker’s tour was Cardinal’s broadcaster Harry Caray, who handled the public address chores, and as one account noted, “entertains the crowds with his accounts.” One can imagine.
In a game in Wiles-Barre, Pennsylvania, All-American Girls League pitcher Jean Marlowe pitched one inning against Litwhiler’s team and gave up two runs to the major leaguers.
Meanwhile at home in Cincinnati, on October 14, Herm Wehmeier played with a group of his high school and American Legion teammates, and struck out 17 members of a Cheviot, Ohio semi-pro team.