Red Munson

This article was written by Chris Rainey

Cincinnati was a veritable catcher factory in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Beginning with Buck Ewing, the region churned out long-time performers like Farmer Vaughn, Kid Baldwin, Mike Kahoe, Admiral Schlei, and Red Dooin, plus an equal number of short-term major leaguers. The surge peaked when the 1906 Philadelphia Phillies took three catchers from the Cincinnati area to spring training.

Catcher Red Dooin joined the Phillies in 1902. On his recommendation, Red Munson, who, like Ewing, hailed from the city’s east side, was given a late-season tryout in 1905. The Phils liked his potential and invited to him to camp in 1906. Ches Crist was also invited to camp on Dooin’s word. A fourth candidate was Jerry Donovan from Pennsylvania. The front office planned to take three of the four men north from the Savannah, Georgia training camp. At first it appeared whoever was least injured might make that trip, as both Dooin and Donovan suffered split fingers, Crist had a bum leg, and Munson lost some time after taking an errant throw to the face.

Munson had ample opportunity to show his stuff what with the other injuries. One reporter noted, “There is no question about Munson making it, so excellent is the work he is doing.”1 Munson made the choice simple for manager Hugh Duffy by coming down with a case of rheumatism. Unable to lift his right arm above his head, the Phillies optioned him to the Class A Eastern League Jersey City Skeeters. He was never able to take the field before the Skeeters gave up and sent him home. And with that, Munson’s major-league career ended after just nine games.

Clarence Hanford Munson was the second of four children born to George and Clara Margaret (Mathews) Munson. He joined the family on July 31, 1883, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father was a grain merchant and provided a good life for young Clarence and his three sisters. George Munson was appointed as Chief Grain Inspector for the city of Cincinnati while “Red” was playing minor league ball.

Munson married Edith Blair Means on June 16, 1908. The couple would live in and around Cincinnati their entire marriage. Around 1920 they purchased a home in Silverton, northeast of downtown, and lived there until Edith’s death in 1952. A son, George, was born in 1910 in Bellevue, Kentucky (across the Ohio River from Cincinnati). He grew up to be an all-around athlete at Withrow High School and attended Ohio Wesleyan University, where he played football and baseball. He had a brief stint with the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization in the 1930s as a catcher.

The city of Cincinnati was a hotbed for baseball and Munson was swept up by the game. He learned on the schoolyards and the sandlots. Before he was 20, he was playing with the best semipro teams the area had to offer. Munson grew to be 5-foot-11, while finding a weight on Munson has proven elusive. Pictures show him as a lean fellow, one paper said he was small2, but no other adjectives are ever used to give a sense of his physique.

His wavy hair was described as a carrot-top or auburn, which led to the nickname of “Red.” In his early years of semipro ball, he played in the Saturday League with the College Hill team as a catcher and first baseman. His reputation there led to stints with various traveling teams, including the Norwoods.

In 1904, Munson was invited to the St. Louis Browns’ spring camp in Corsicana, Texas. It was good experience for an aspiring player because he found out quickly what it took to be a big leaguer. He was a “willing worker and ambitious,” but did not have nearly enough experience.3 The Browns used him in intra-squad games at both catcher and first base, releasing him before the team left on their exhibition tour.

After his time with the Browns, he returned to the Cincinnati semipro scene. In late August, the Akron Tip-Tops in the independent Ohio-Pennsylvania League needed help behind the plate because of an injury to Paddy Livingston. Managers from opposing teams that had seen Munson in action recommended him to Akron.4 The team sent him transportation money and Munson made his debut on August 31 in a 7-3 win for the Tip-Tops.

The regular season extended into October and was followed by a few exhibition games. Munson played mostly catcher, but did play at first base when Livingston was able to catch again. He played 41 league games and batted .248 (38-for-153). He made enough of an impression that fans voted him to the league all-star team.5 When the team disbanded, Munson returned to Cincinnati and worked as a steam engineer on a river boat.

Since the Ohio-Pennsylvania League was still independent, other teams sought Munson’s services. He opted to sign with the Charleston Sea Gulls of the Class C South Atlantic League in late November. With the Gulls, Munson split catching duties with Syd Smith. He frequently played outfield when Smith was behind the plate. In 90 games Munson posted a .224 average while Smith led the team at .265. The Gulls went through three managers on their way to a fifth-place finish.

The Phillies acquired Munson and he made his big-league debut on August 28, 1905, against the Pirates. Pittsburgh’s Fred Clarke and Honus Wagner each had two steals, as “Munson was visibly nervous and allowed the visitors to run the bases almost as they pleased.”6 Munson also allowed two runs with his miscues.7At bat he went 1-for-4 in the 4-2 loss. He played the second game of a doubleheader the next day and gave up three stolen bases, but added three assists in the 6-5 loss.

Munson saw action in some exhibition games in addition to regular season. On September 24, he poked three hits against Zanesville, but the Phillies lost 10-4. From there, the team traveled to Cincinnati, where Munson appeared before the hometown crowd on September 29. The Redlegs triumphed, 7-2, while Munson threw out Miller Huggins on a steal attempt and got his second major-league hit.8 He closed out the season batting .115 (3-for-26).

Munson had shown enough to be retained for 1906, but, as with all rookies, areas needed to improve. He was an accurate thrower on steals, but his release time was slow. As a hitter he did not swing so much as punch at the ball.9 This helped him make contact, but he would never develop any power that way. One critic suggested “he had a lovely voice for coaching.”10

Munson’s voice was one of the attributes that made him a fan favorite. He was very talkative behind the plate, both to the batter and with the umpire. At times he would even chatter with the fans, but never in an argumentative or disrespectful manner.

In August 1906 after his arm responded to treatment, he signed on with the Augusta Tourists in the Southern Atlantic League. On August 10, he drove in the winning run against the Sea Gulls and took good-natured ribbing from the crowd. Veteran Tom Carson did most of the catching, while Munson played in right field and batted leadoff most of his appearances.

The season concluded with the team staging a field day complete with potato sack races, skills exhibitions, and an intra-squad game under electric lights. “Runs were made in plenty because it was hard to see the ball and fielders were kept busy.”11The final score was 18-16. A collection from the fans netted $22.50 for each player as a “mark of esteem” for their efforts.12

Back in Cincinnati he was contacted by Akron again. He joined them in mid-September and played nine games—four at catcher and five at first base. He hit a miserable .154 (4-for-26).13 Munson returned to Cincinnati and continued to strengthen his arm and weigh his options for the following year. In late February, he agreed to terms with the Dayton Veterans in the Class B Central League.

Under the guidance of manager Ed McKean, the Vets trained in Dayton. They hosted the Boston Beaneaters for a pair of exhibitions and then Nap Lajoie and the Blue Jays. Munson won the starting catching job, with first baseman Bill Richardson available for backup duties. In late May, arm trouble sent Munson to the bench for a week.

McKean was let go in midseason and Richardson took over. The Vets had run their record to 28-23 about a week before McKean’s ouster. The season started to turn sour when Bob Bescher was lost with a broken leg. The Vets finished in the second division and closed out the season with Malachi Kittridge as manager. Munson’s 271 at-bats ranked fifth on the team, an indication of the roster fluctuations because of injuries and talent.

In the offseason, Dayton swapped Munson and outfielder Bill Bailey to the Canton Watchmakers of the Ohio-Pennsylvania League for their player/manager Bade Myers. Munson returned his contract unsigned when Canton offered him $25 a month less than he earned in 1907. His fellow catcher Bill Rariden also was a holdout. Both men eventually capitulated and took less than they wanted.

Canton was managed by first baseman Ed Murphy who had spent time in the National League. The roster also featured 21-year-old Bill McKechnie. The Watchmakers finished third, but were 17 games off the pace. Munson struggled at the plate for most of the year, except on May 25, when he smacked four hits in a 14-inning loss to Youngstown. His finest play was made in June when he left the team to marry Edith Means. Shortstop Scott Walker from the Dayton team served as best man.

Murphy was fired in mid-August and Munson took over at first until his season was ended by a twisted ankle. He was allowed to leave the team and go home early. In the fall, Munson filed a complaint against the Canton management over the lower salary. The Commission sided with Munson and ordered Canton to pay him an additional $125 and relinquish any claims, making Munson a free agent.

Newspapers were full of speculation on Munson’s future. It was reported that he might go to training camp with the Reds. He was also mentioned as being at the top of Portsmouth, Ohio, manager Billy Doyle’s shopping list. In the end he signed with the Norfolk Tars in the Class C Virginia League. He slammed 12 doubles to place third on the team, but his .216 average was twelfth on the squad. He also had one of the lower fielding percentages in the league. Nevertheless, the Tars kept him for the following season.

Did Munson alter his batting style in 1910? After a career batting eighth in most lineups and showing no power, he was suddenly driving the ball. He even knocked a few over the heads of outfielders. Tars’ manager Win Clark moved him up to sixth in the lineup. He hit 11 doubles, fifth on the team, and six triples for third on the squad. Most impressively, he hammered three home runs to lead the team and tie with two Roanoke players for the league title. On August 10 he was pressed into service as umpire for a game with Roanoke.14 Soon after he moved up to fifth in the lineup. He finished the season batting .260.

Manager Bill Schwartz of the Nashville Volunteers signed Munson in February. Schwartz had praise for many of his new recruits, but for Munson he simply said, “he is all right.”15 Munson quickly endeared himself to his teammates with his hustle and constant chatter that kept them on their toes.16In April he took a break from training and accompanied the Vanderbilt University team to Birmingham, Alabama. He “made a big hit with the college boys” who appreciated his knowledge and approach.17

James Seabaugh claimed the number one spot behind the plate for Nashville, and Peter Erloff was carried as the third catcher. Munson was strong defensively, but by the end of May, his batting average was a mere .153. The Volunteers had sunk into the second division, but their bats came alive. Munson was hitting .214 by mid-July. He tailed off to .207 by season’s end as Nashville finished in fourth place.

In February, Nashville sold his contract to the Bristol franchise in the Class D Appalachian League. On March 8, it was announced that he would be player/manager of the Boosters. The team had finished last in 1911 but retained two local college favorites in pitcher Nick Cullop and outfielder Tod Sloan. Munson added 19-year-old Roy Walker, who would win 17 and toss 240 innings with a 0.875 WHIP. They also added Bruno Betzel, a 17-year-old from Ohio. He only hit .185, but led the team in games and home runs.

Under Munson’s guidance the team took the pennant in a close race with Knoxville. His approach was very simple. “The game was to be played scientifically and with vim.”18 Munson was always very positive. “He has never been heard to “rag” a man. He gets everything out of the team a man has to give him.”19 His family spent the summer with him in Nashville, and his son became a fixture at games, quickly earning the nickname “Lil Red.”

When the season ended, Bristol took on Roanoke, champions from the Class C Virginia League in a six-game series. The Boosters took the first game, 11-2, and never looked back. Their only loss in the six games was the one Munson guided from the bench, not from behind the plate.

Cullop was sold late in the season. Sloan and Walker went during the winter. The Bristol directors wrangled amongst themselves about the $1,500 salary Munson had in 1912. Could they afford to bring him back? As the season approached a more pressing issue arose. Munson refused to sign for 1913 because he had not been totally compensated for 1912. He had a clause in his contract calling for a 20 percent commission on sales of players. He contended that he was owed money for the sale of Cullop and Sloan. Walker was a Nashville option and that money did not go to Bristol.20

The contract issues were resolved and Munson went into the season with a whole new pitching staff and only two returning fielders. It was a difficult season. In June, he and five players were fined for a run-in with the umpires. Soon after the Bristol franchise was transferred to league control by the board of directors. The Boosters finished 19 games out of first.

When the 1914 season started, Munson was back on the field as catcher for the Portsmouth, Ohio, Cobblers in the Class D Ohio State League. Surrounded by youngsters like Sad Sam Jones and Pickles Dillhoefer, he batted .260 in 50 games, splitting time at catcher and first base. On June 18, he was released by the team to become manager at Paris, Kentucky. The Paris franchise played its first game on June 20 after joining the league when Newport, Kentucky, dropped out.21 The team broke up in early July.

Munson gave up professional baseball after that. The family lived in Hamilton, Ohio, for a few years before moving to Silverton. Munson took jobs as a salesman; his last being with the Silverton Supply Company. He also turned his attention to officiating and became a well-respected umpire and football official. He no doubt imparted his knowledge of baseball to his son, who blossomed into quite an athlete.

Edith passed away in 1952. Red was suffering from heart disease and moved to New Orleans where his son was the field director for the Red Cross. Munson was visiting his sister in Mishawaka, Indiana, when he was felled by a heart attack.22 He died in the hospital on February 19, 1957. He left behind his son, three sisters, and three grandchildren. His body was returned to Silverton, and he was buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Joel Barnhart and fact-checked by Warren Corbett.

 

Notes

1 “Moren Working with Phils,” Atlanta Constitution, March 11, 1906: 3.

2 “Red Munson Has Signed with Dayton,” Akron Beacon-Journal, March 14, 1907: 5.HOF Questionnaires are frequently used as the source on height and weight, but Munson does not have one on file.

3 “Browns Practice Trip Nears the End,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 20, 1904: 41.

4 “Akron Gets a New Catcher,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 30, 1904: 8.

5 “Star Team is Picked by Fans,” Akron Beacon-Journal, October 12, 1904: 5.

6 Sporting Life, September 9, 1905: 4

7 Game stories mention two errors, the box score in Sporting News shows 1.

8 “Cincinnati Beats Phillies, Score 7-2,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 30, 1905: 10.

9 “Akron Batters Take a Slump,” Akron Beacon-Journal, September 3, 1904: 5.

10 “Local Jottings,” Sporting Life, October 14, 1905: 5.

11 Augusta Chronicle, September 5, 1906: 14.

12 Ibid.

13 Akron Beacon-Journal, December 29, 1906: 4.

14 “Ex-Big Leaguers on the Firing Lines,” Richmond Times Dispatch, August 11, 1910: 6.

15 “Bill Schwartz Pays 30-Minute Visit to Nashville,” The Tennessean (Nashville), February 26, 1911: 30.

16 Spick Hall, “Sports a la Carte,” The Tennessean, March 18, 1911: 8.

17 Spick Hall, “Sports a la Carte,” The Tennessean, April 3, 1911: 7.

18 “Winners of Pennant in the Appalachian League,” Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia,) September 16, 1912: 6.

19 “With the Players,” Asheville Gazette-News, July 22, 1912: 7.

20 “Red Munson Regular Holdout this Year,” The Tennessean, April 8, 1913: 11.

21 “Opening Game of League Season in this City,” The Bourbon News (Paris, Kentucky), June 23, 1914: 1.

22 “Clarence H. Munson,” South Bend Tribune, February 20, 1957