For an eight-year period before, during, and after World War II, Bucky Walters was the premier pitcher in the National League and one of the best in the major leagues. Over the years from 1939 to 1946, Walters led the majors in wins (141), innings pitched (2,030), complete games (178), support-neutral wins (146), and, among those with 1,000 or more innings pitched, in ERA. In addition, he led National League pitchers in starts and fewest hits allowed per 9 innings (7.96) and ranked second in the league in baserunners allowed per 9 innings (11.06), shutouts (28), and winning percentage (.610) and fourth in strikeouts. Over that period he also earned more Bill James’ “Win Shares”–a measure of a player’s contribution to his team’s victories–than any other pitcher.
These rankings were not due primarily to the lowered level of wartime competition. Walters’ best years came before the war. In 1939, he won 27 and lost 11, leading the majors in wins, innings pitched, complete games, and ERA (2.29); led the National League in opponents’ batting average (.220) and tied for the lead in strikeouts (137). Having led the Cincinnati Reds to the pennant along with pitching mate Paul Derringer (25-7), Walters was voted the Most Valuable Player in the National League, receiving three-quarters of the first-place votes and the STATS, Inc. retrospective Cy Young award. He also batted .325 in 120 at-bats. A panel of distinguished sports writers voted him the major league “All Around Player” of the year, ahead of AL MVP Joe DiMaggio. At the end of that year, he earned his highest salary — $22,000.
In the following year, 1940, Walters again led the majors in ERA (2.48) and the National League in Wins (22), innings pitched, complete games, and opponents’ batting average (again .220), and played a key role in leading the Reds to their first World Series victory since 1919, four games to three over the Detroit Tigers. He pitched two complete-game wins in the Series, yielding three runs on three hits in Game Two and shutting out the Tigers on five hits in the sixth game when the Reds were down three games to two. He also homered and drove in two runs in that elimination-game win. Again he later received the STATS retrospective Cy Young designation and more MVP votes than any other NL pitcher.
In 1941, the last prewar year, Walters slipped to 19-15, still tied for third in the NL in wins and shutouts, third in strikeouts, and fifth in ERA. The Reds fell to third place. For the third year in a row, he led the league in complete games and innings pitched and was one of the four starting pitchers chosen for the STATS retrospective All-Star team. Over the three-year period, Walters had the best ERA (2.53) and the most complete games in the majors, led the NL in wins, support-neutral wins, winning percentage, starts, and innings pitched, and ranked second in strikeouts. He received more MVP votes than any other player–not merely pitcher–in the NL in those three seasons. Only Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller in the American League received more. In four World Series appearances, he went 2-2, with a 2.79 ERA and a .202 opponents’ batting average.
Walters was not only the top NL pitcher of his era, he was one of the best hitting, fielding, and base-running pitchers as well. Among NL pitchers with 600 or more plate appearances between 1939 and 1946, Walters ranked first in batting average, hits, doubles, total bases, slugging average, runs scored, runs batted in, and runs created. He ranked second in stolen bases and, late in his career, on April 20, 1946, stole home in a 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. During the same period, he topped major-league pitchers in assists and double plays, and, among those who pitched in 200 games or more, ranked eighth in fielding average and second in range factor. On September 4, 1940, he made an unassisted double play. In 1944, he handled 70 chances without an error, a fielding average of 1.000. STATS, Inc. later chose him as the pitcher on its All Decade Gold Glove Team for the 1930s.
William Henry Walters Jr. was born in the Mount Airy section of Germantown in Philadelphia on April 19, 1909, the oldest of seven children of Mildred and William Henry Walters. Ancestors of the Walter family–the name was changed to “Walters” later– had come to the Philadelphia area soon after William Penn founded the Pennsylvania colony. William Henry Walters Sr., also nicknamed Bucky, worked for the Bell Telephone Company and played for the company baseball team. William Henry Jr. was the team mascot and started swinging a bat at the age of 6. One brother, Jack, played in the Cincinnati organization and got as far as Tulsa in the Texas League before being drafted during the Korean War. After his return, he made it as far as Syracuse in the AAA International League.
Bucky left Germantown High School in his sophomore year to become an electrician. One day, after he had played a game of sandlot ball, “a fellow [scout Roy Ellum, according to one account, Howard Lohr, according to another] who had a contact with a club in Montgomery, Alabama, saw me playing shortstop, and after the game he asked me if I’d like to play pro ball. I guess he heard the quickest ‘Yes sir’ anybody ever heard.” He had only enough money for a one-way ticket to Montgomery. His grandmother “dug up $10 from somewhere” to buy the first suitcase he’d ever owned. As it turned out, he did not get an offer from Montgomery, but was sent along to High Point (North Carolina) in the Piedmont League, where he began his baseball career in 1929 as a pitcher and infielder. He was more successful as a batter (hitting .300) than as a pitcher (5-6 with a 5.29 ERA).
In 1930, Walters played in the infield for three teams in three leagues: Providence in the Eastern League, Portland in the New England League, and, when that league folded, Williamsport in the New York-Pennsylvania League. He stayed with Williamsport for most of the following year, batting .326 and leading all third basemen in putouts, assists, and errors. This brought promotions to Nashville in the Southern League and acquisition by the Boston Braves. Walters made his major-league debut with the Braves on September 18, 1931, hitting .211 in 9 games. He spent most of 1932 at Montreal, leading International League third basemen with a .961 fielding average, and was called up to the Braves again, but hit only .187 in 22 games. As a result, he was sold to the San Francisco Missions. Walters hit .376 in 91 games with the Missions in 1933 and made only 8 errors at third base. He was purchased by the other Boston team, the Red Sox, finishing the season and starting 1934 with them. Walters broke his thumb that season, did not hit well and was sold to the Philadelphia Phillies. With his new team, he hit .260 in 83 games and pitched in two, giving up one run in seven innings.
A number of players had suggested to Walters that he should try pitching, “But,” he told Donald Honig, “I’d tell them that wasn’t for me. I liked to play every day.” During spring training in 1935, Walters had to battle for the third-base position with Johnny Vergez, a new acquisition. After Walters had a bad game, manager Jimmy Wilson and coaches Hans Lobert and Dick Spalding pushed him to try pitching, predicting a great future for him on the mound. Walters reluctantly agreed. He began mostly with a sinking fastball and later learned a curve and what is now known as a slider. He won 9 and lost 9 that year with a 4.11 ERA, pitching home games in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball history, the Baker Bowl. He also played three games as an infielder and five as an outfielder.
In 1936, with a Phillies team that lost 100 games, Walters led the league in losses (21) and tied for the lead in shutouts (4). By conventional measures, his record of 11 wins, 21 losses, and a 4.29 ERA is not very impressive, but when baseball-reference.com adjusts these figures for park and league scoring context, they convert to 18-13, 3.43. (The Baker Bowl had a Park Index of 128, meaning 28 percent more runs were scored there than in the average major-league park that year.) Walters’ comment was, “Visiting pitchers used to get sore arms the minute the train pulled into Philly, and all the crippled hitters got better and ran over each other to get into the lineup… I tell people that was one of my best years…” The validity of this statement is suggested by the fact that Walters was chosen for the NL All Star team in the middle of the following year, when his ERA was higher.
The Phillies were so cash-starved that they were forced to sell players to avoid bankruptcy. So on June 13, 1938, they traded Walters to the Cincinnati Reds for pitcher Al Hollingsworth, catcher Spud Davis, and $55,000. Initially, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis refused to approve the deal, but he relented when the Reds added Davis to the package. Instead of being thrilled to move from a doormat team to a contender, Walters “actually… didn’t want to go. I’d have rather stayed in the East, with my family.”
Walters arrived at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field between Johnny Vander Meer‘s unprecedented consecutive no-hit games. During the second of these, when Vander Meer was wild, Walters was sent to the bullpen to warm up–only to be booed by Dodger fans hoping to see a second no-hitter. (They did.) From 4 wins, 8 losses, and a 5.23 ERA with the Phils, Walters immediately went to 11-6 with a 3.69 ERA with the Reds, a reflection of the difference between the parks and the batting and fielding support provided by the two teams. The following year, the Phils traded another fine pitcher, Claude Passeau the same age as Walters, to the Cubs. Passeau, who had won two and lost four with a 4.22 ERA for the Phils, won 13 and lost 9 for the Cubs with a 3.05 ERA and became a 20-game winner the following year.
The prime of Walters’ career, described above, followed. Amid the joys and honors of these years, Walters was involved in a tragedy as well. During the Reds’ pennant drive, on August 1, 1940, Walters lost a 4-1 ninth-inning lead to the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. Catcher Willard Hershberger, subbing for the injured Ernie Lombardi, blamed himself for calling the wrong pitches and letting the team down–though the team was leading the league by ten games and he was hitting .309. The team traveled to Boston the next day, and that night Hershberger slit his throat and died. Walters’ grandson notes that this event “had an impact on my grandfather that was never discussed–but recognized as ‘to the core’ deep.”
Walters was 31 when World War II began. Though classified 1-A by his draft board, he was not called to military service. His performance fell off somewhat during the war years of 1942 and 1943. He won 15 games each year despite injuring his leg during spring training in 1943 and dealing with a troubled appendix. After an appendectomy, he returned in 1944 and enjoyed another golden year reminiscent of his prewar years. He led the league in wins with 23, losing only 8 and trailing teammate Ed Heusser for the ERA lead by two hundreths of a run. (Heusser pitched 93 fewer innings and won 13 while losing 11.) In addition, he batted .280, fielded 1.000, was the starting pitcher in the All-Star game (a 7-1 NL win), and was chosen as the STATS retrospective Cy Young award winner for the third time as well as one of the four NL starters on their retrospective All-Star team. On May 14, in the first game of a doubleheader in Boston, he pitched a perfect game through 7 2/3 innings, until Connie Ryan singled, finishing with a one-hit shutout victory.
During the following winter, Walters traveled to the front lines in Europe on a USO trip with Mel Ott, Frankie Frisch, and Dutch Leonard to raise troop morale, and was almost caught in the Battle of the Bulge.
On July 31, 1945, Walters hurt his arm while beating the Cardinals, 2-0, in St. Louis and pitched in only two more games that season. His days as a dominant pitcher were over. He won only 10 games in 1945 and 10 in the postwar season of 1946, though still with low ERAs (2.68–fourth best in the NL–and 2.56). In 1947 his ERA soared to 5.75 and he won 8 and lost 8. On July 10, 1947, when umpires failed to show up for a game between the Reds and the Braves, Walters was chosen to umpire. Though he pitched in seven games in 1948 and one in 1950 (July 23 with the Braves), trying to pick up his 199th and 200th wins, he was unable to add to his total of 198. Fittingly, his last win came on Bucky Walters Night at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, on September 9, 1947. He responded with a 2-0, four-hit shutout of the Braves before 24,351 fans.
As a player, Walters was listed as 6 feet 1 or 6 feet ½-inch tall and weighing 180 to 185 pounds, with hazel eyes and brown hair, and of Scottish-Irish-Dutch ancestry. He threw and batted right-handed. After wearing an assortment of numbers in the 1930s, he wore uniform number 31 with the Reds in 1939 and kept it for the rest of his years as a player. Neyer and James report that he relied most on a sinker–which they rate as the sixth best of all time–the pitch later known as the slider, taught to him by Chief Bender in 1935, a fastball, a curve, and occasionally a knuckleball.
Walters finished his career with 198 wins, 160 losses, and 4 saves. He pitched 3,104 innings in 428 games, with 242 complete games, 1107 strikeouts, 42 shutouts, a 3.30 ERA, and five All-Star selections. His career batting average was .243 in 1,966 at bats. Over the 15-year span from 1935 through 1949, he won more games, threw more complete games and shutouts and earned more “Win Shares” than any other pitcher in the major leagues. In addition, he had the best ERA of any National League pitcher who threw 2,000 innings or more. In four World Series games, Walters won 2 (in 1940) and lost 2 (in 1939) with an ERA of 2.79 and an opponents on-base percentage of .252. He was selected to six All-Star teams and pitched 9 innings in five games, with an ERA of 2.00. He played for Philadelphia in the first major-league night baseball game ever, on May 24, 1935, against Cincinnati, and for the Reds in the first ballgame ever televised, on August 26, 1939, against Brooklyn. At one time or another in his professional career, he played every position but catcher and served as manager, coach, scout, and umpire.
But Walters’ career in baseball was not over. On August 6, 1948, with the Reds in seventh place, he was tapped to replace Johnny Neun as manager. The Reds’ performance did not improve. They finished seventh both that year and in 1949 with Walters as manager, and he was replaced by Luke Sewell. They finished sixth the next two years under Sewell and did not reach .500 until 1956.
Though offered a job in the Reds organization, Walters took up an offer from the Braves, for whom he was the pitching coach from 1950 to 1955, with an interruption. In 1952, after Braves manager Tommy Holmes was fired, Charlie Grimm, manager of the Braves’ Milwaukee Brewers farm team, was called up to manage the Braves. On June 6, Walters took over at Milwaukee, becoming the last manager of the minor league Brewers. He led the team to the American Association title, then returned to his coaching duties in 1953. The Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1954.
After Walters had left to be the New York Giants pitching coach (1956-57), the Braves won the NL pennant in 1957 and the World Series in 1958, with the help of pitchers he had coached, including Series hero Lew Burdette, Bob Buhl, and Joey Jay. Among the other pitchers he was credited with helping to develop were Ewell Blackwell in Cincinnati and Johnny Antonelli, who later starred with the Giants. In 1958-59, Walters was a supervisor for the Phillies’ farm system, evaluating young pitchers and position players on all their east coast farm teams.
After 1960, Walters returned to the Philadelphia area, working in sales and public relations for the Ferco Machine Screw Company. He said that if he had known how much fun business was, he’d have gotten into it earlier. He also took up golf and was champion at a nearby club. (An all-around athlete, he had played basketball until 1933 with the Elks and Moose of the Eastern League, which eventually evolved into the NBA.) In 1977 he lost a leg (above the knee) due to arteriosclerosis. He never fully recovered, suffered kidney failure as his father had and was on dialysis for many years. He died on April 20, 1991–one day after his 82nd birthday–in Abington, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb.
In addition to his achievements on the diamond, Walters was an exemplary person. He was strongly attached to his home and family, regretting his trade to the Reds because it took him away from Philadelphia and returning there when his career ended. He married Jane Carolyn Yoast, daughter of a fireman, on December 21, 1931. They had been introduced by Bucky’s sister, Margaret–the two women were co-workers at the phone company. Bucky and Jane had three children: Bill (William Henry III, born March 17, 1937); Carolyn Jane (December 31, 1940); and Bobby (Robert John, July 29, 1945). Bill Walters notes that “Bucky was a wonderful father… We always traveled for the whole season with him.” Bill had the chance to be a batboy when Bucky managed the Brewers in 1952. In 1947, the Cincinnati Junior Chamber of Commerce voted Bucky the team’s outstanding father.
Walters’ teammates valued him both as a performer and as a person. Bill Werber, his teammate with the Boston Red Sox in 1933 and with the Reds from 1939 to 1941, has written: “Big, important games never fazed him, and he seemed to get better as the game went on. We could count on him. He had a good fastball, a decent curve and a sinker that bore in on right-handed batters. As a former infielder, he could field his position as well as anyone in the game. Best of all, he had good control and an excellent knowledge of the batters’ weaknesses… Bucky was a quiet fellow, not given to much conversation, but he was a fierce competitor.”
Werber added that it was “a shame” that Walters was not in the Hall of Fame. Tommy Lasorda, who pitched in the NL while Walters was a coach with the Braves, called him “a great player, a great pitcher, and certainly deserving of being inducted into the Hall of Fame.” Hugh Mulcahy, a teammate with the Phillies, remembered him as “all CLASS with capital letters.” Rob Neyer and Bill James call him “… a good man, no ego, good work habits and a terrific athlete.” Neyer lists him as the best Reds pitcher–and best fielding Reds pitcher–ever.
Hank Sauer told writer Danny Perry: “When I came up to the Reds in 1941 he [Walters] was the only player who treated me like one of the guys. No one else even talked to me. Bucky even bought me dinner. So I remembered that.” Frankie Baumholtz said, “When he was just a pitcher, Bucky had been the person who did the most for me. When my wife’s father had died and she had been hospitalized with a serious illness, Bucky befriended me and made sure that I was never alone and that my spirits were up.” But he added: “Then he became the manager and turned into a Mr. Hyde… A perfect gentleman and [hell of a] ballplayer, but you don’t change just because you changed jobs.” (Baumholtz was upset because he was pulled from the lineup and traded to the Cubs.)
Warren Giles, president of the Reds, wrote him on Bucky Walters Night: “As great as your record is, and as outstanding your accomplishments, they reveal only part of the ‘Bucky’ Walters I know. Your contributions to the success of the Reds, the prestige of the National League and the integrity of professional baseball cannot be accurately or adequately revealed in a printed record. Your loyalty, your courage, your unselfish interest in the team as a whole, and genuine desire for the success of your teammates have combined to make you an inspiration of all.” Walters was an early players’ representative with the Reds, and one season both he and Paul Derringer held out for higher salaries. Later, as a Reds’ representative, Walters testified to Congress on the need to establish a pension fund for ballplayers’ — the first to be set up in any major professional sport.
Bucky Walters was chosen in 1958 as one of the five inaugural class members of the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame. He was elected to the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1971 and the Ohio Baseball Hall of Fame in 1978. From 1950 through 1970, he drew some support in the Baseball Writers Association of America elections for entry into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but never came close to receiving enough votes to gain admission. Along the way, he outpolled more than two dozen players later selected for the Hall, including half a dozen pitchers. Later Hall of Famers he outpolled four or more times included Bobby Doerr (9 times), Arky Vaughan (8), Bob Lemon (6), Billy Herman (5), and Earl Averill, George Kell and teammate Ernie Lombardi (4). Many of the sportswriters who participated in these elections had seen all of these players in action.
Noted baseball sabermetricians have devised a number of measures to assess players’ careers and worthiness for admission to the Hall of Fame. These measures adjust for the differences in ballparks, the run-scoring context of the league and era, and some rule changes. An early classic of this genre was John Thorn and Pete Palmer’s The Hidden Game of Baseball, published in 1984 and 1985. This book described an Overall Player Win measure, a “statement of the number of wins a player or pitcher accounted for beyond what the average player might have contributed in his place…” They applied this measure to more than 1,200 players with substantial careers… Because there were 140 Hall of Famers in 1983– 97 position players and 43 pitchers– they selected a “Hall of Fame” roster with equal numbers, based on their Overall Player Win statistic. Walters was included in this “Hall of Fame,” ranking 23rd of the 43. Fifteen pitchers then in the actual Hall were omitted. Incidentally, Thorn and Palmer ranked Walters’ 1939 season as the fifth best for a pitcher in the 20th century.
Similarly, Bill James has devised a statistic he calls Win Shares to measure the contribution of players to their teams’ victories. Like Overall Player Wins, this measure includes batting and fielding contributions as well as pitching. Walters earned more career Win Shares than many Hall of Famers, including contemporaries like George Kell, Chuck Klein, Tony Lazzeri, Ernie Lombardi, Phil Rizzuto (who missed three years during World War II), and Lloyd Waner, and pitchers Dizzy Dean and Lefty Gomez. In fact, Walters earned more Win Shares than any other pitcher during the 15 years from 1935 to 1949. (The only pitcher who would likely have earned more during that period had he not gone into military service was Bob Feller.)
Other statistics used by James for evaluating pitchers are Wins Above Team, based on the percentage of wins the pitcher achieved beyond the percentage won by the team’s other pitchers, and shares of votes for the Most Valuable Player Award. Walters ranks above many Hall of Fame pitchers on each of these measures.
On James’ Black Ink Test, designed to measure the number of times a player led his league in important statistics, Walters scores 48, the 26th highest. The average–not the minimum–for a Hall of Fame player is 40. Walters’ score is the highest for any eligible player not in the Hall. He scores 86th highest on James’ Hall of Fame Monitor, above the score (100) for a “likely Hall of Famer.” In addition, Walters is the only eligible pitcher to receive three or more actual or retrospective Cy Young Awards who has not been enshrined in the Hall. After a twelve-year historical study of major league pitchers, James and Rob Neyer concluded in The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: “Lon Warneke and Bucky Walters and Billy Pierce were every bit as good and every bit as interesting as Dazzy Vance and Rube Waddell and Don Drysdale, they just didn’t happen to make the Hall of Fame cut, and so less attention is paid to them.” (Interestingly, none of the five pitchers they mention here earned more Win Shares than Walters–Drysdale has the same number, and Drysdale and Walters were the only two of these six selected for the Thorn-Palmer “Hall of Fame.”)
Given these statistics, the opinions of those who saw him play, his character, love for the game (“I wanted to play every day”), and participation in a number of historic baseball events, why is Walters still outside the Hall? Waite Hoyt, a Hall of Fame pitcher with the New York Yankees, and a longtime announcer, once said, “The secret of success as a pitcher is getting a job with the Yankees.” We can speculate that among the reasons Walters has not been admitted are that, unlike some of the comparable or lesser players inducted: (1) Walters never played or managed in a major media market; (2) he played before the age of national television and actual Cy Young awards; (3) he was not a broadcaster; (4) he played for several years in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in history; (5) he got a late start as a pitcher; (6) he is thought of as a wartime pitcher–though his best years came before the war; and (7) he failed to record 200 wins. (Baseball-Reference.com’s “neutralized” statistics, however, which take account of park effects and run scoring contexts, credit him with 213 “wins” and 140 “losses” compared with the actual 198 and 160.)
Unless the Veterans Committee acts to admit him in the future, perhaps the best epitaph for Walters’ career would be the statement attributed to the Roman Senator Cato the Elder: “After I’m dead, I’d rather people ask why I have no monument than why I have one.”
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