Paul Derringer had struggled before. Two years after a brilliant rookie campaign in 1931, in which Derringer went 18-8 for St. Louis, he was traded to the Reds and promptly finished the season with 27 losses. One year later, at the age of 27, Derringer lost 21 games for a 1934 Reds club that lost 99 games.
The struggles he experienced in 1940 were different, though. By that time, Derringer had established himself as one of the best “money” pitchers in the game, a three-time All-Star who had won 20-plus games in three different seasons.1 The previous season, Derringer was 25-7 with a 2.93 ERA, a season in which he walked only 35 batters in 301 innings – and, incredibly, 24 of those walks were intentional.2 He seemed to be on top of his game.
By late May of 1940, however, Derringer’s critics began “whisper(ing) that the big fellow had lost his grip and was beginning to slip.”3 In the four starts preceding his outing against the Cardinals on May 26, Derringer was 1-3 with a 7.33 ERA and had “been hit freely in both.”4 Around Cincinnati, the pitcher was called overweight, and was accused of being a “Night Club Romeo” as an explanation for his struggles.5
More than Derringer’s reputation was on the line as St. Louis invaded the Queen City on May 26. The Reds, defending champions of the National League, entered the day in a virtual tie with Brooklyn for first place in the NL, though the Dodgers led Cincinnati by mere percentage points. The Reds would also be facing the Cardinals on that day; St. Louis was considered by most observers to be the odds-on favorites to capture the NL pennant in 1940.6
Nearly 20,000 spectators,7 including politicians of all stripes,8 came out to Crosley Field on that bright afternoon, but the game wasn’t necessarily the main event. The Reds had planned a pregame extravaganza to honor the 1939 club and raise the city’s first National League pennant in two decades. A number of guests of honor were present.
The ceremony began with the introduction of 21 elderly fans, guests of Reds general manager Warren Giles, who were described as “the only known survivors in this vicinity of those who saw the undefeated Red Stockings of 1869 in action.”9 A lighthearted moment occurred as the old-timers – each wearing a small pennant reading “I saw the Reds of 1869” – walked onto the Crosley Field turf.10 Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis – at the tender age of 74 himself – received an ovation for leaping athletically over the railing behind first base so that he could make his way across the field to shake the hands of the guests from 1869.11
The Reds players who remained from the 1939 club, along with manager Bill McKechnie and his coaches, then carried an enormous pennant reading “National League Champions 1939” to the flagpole in center field. Legendary groundskeeper Matty Schwab raised the flag as a band played “The Seven Hills of Cincinnati.”12 As the players made their way back to the dugout to begin the game, the band performed a boisterous rendition of “Happy Days Are Here Again.”13
Very quickly, the happy days were lost in the glory of the current version of the Reds, who – behind the blazing fastball of Derringer – showed Reds fans that they should be considered contenders for a second consecutive pennant.14
With one away in the top of the first, Cardinals third baseman Stu Martin connected for a seeing-eye single up the middle, just past the reach of Reds second sacker Lonnie Frey.15 The next hitter, Enos Slaughter, connected on a short fly to left field; Cincinnati’s Johnny Rizzo dove for the ball, but it popped out of his glove. Rizzo injured his shoulder – he would be forced to leave the game – but he recovered in time to force Martin at second.16 It was a hint of things to come, as no Cardinal was able to reach second base all day.
Meanwhile, the Reds dented the plate early against Cardinals starter Mort Cooper. Nearly a decade later, Cooper’s brother Walker would set a Reds record with 10 RBIs in a game,17 but on this day, big brother Mort was almost a footnote to an outstanding performance by the Redlegs. Billy Werber, third baseman and the leader of Cincinnati’s “Jungle Cat” infield, lifted a pop fly behind second base. St. Louis’s rookie second baseman Eddie Lake slipped as he went back, and the ball landed safely for a single.18
Frey then ripped a single to right field, advancing Werber to third.19 He scored one batter later on a fielder’s choice, then Frey scored on a single to left field. At the end of one inning, the Reds had grabbed a 2-0 lead.
After that lone single in the first, Derringer settled in. He walked one batter in the second inning, but then proceeded to retire 20 of the next 21 Cardinals hitters, the only exception being Johnny Mize, the league’s reigning home-run and batting-average king, who reached on an error by Frey in the fourth inning.20
Derringer was famous for his high leg-kick and his fastball – not to mention an occasional knuckleball21 — but he mixed in a changeup along with a number of fabulous curves on the corners of the plate.22 He struck out seven hitters, and observers noted that the Cardinals made decent contact with only four pitches all day long.23
In the fourth inning, Derringer helped his own cause by singling in Harry Craft, who had reached on an infield single. Legendary catcher Ernie Lombardi drove in the game’s final run one inning later, with a single to left field.
Though this was just the 30th game played by the Reds this early in the season, Reds fans were engaged in that traditional baseball activity: scoreboard-watching. Late in the game, a score was posted on the scoreboard that showed the Dodgers – who maintained that slim margin over the Reds in the NL standings – losing 3-1 to the Phillies after eight innings. Moments later, the crowd issued a collective groan when the score was changed to reflect the fact that Brooklyn was actually leading 2-1 in extra innings. To the dismay of the Cincinnati partisans, there had been an error in the initial telegraph report.24
Meanwhile, Derringer walked the first hitter of the ninth – only the fourth baserunner he had permitted all day – but made quick work of Martin, Slaughter, and Joe Medwick (the latter two future Hall of Famers) to preserve a 4-0 victory and permit the Reds to keep pace with Brooklyn.
Derringer was exuberant after the game. “Never felt better and never had more stuff on the ball,” he told Cincinnati Enquirer sportswriter Lou Smith after the game.25 The win launched Derringer back into his customary environs at the top of the National League pitching heap; he won each of his next five starts, posting an ERA of 0.83 over that span. By the end of season Derringer had again won 20 games and was named to his fourth All-Star team.26 That’s how you answer your critics.
Perhaps more importantly, the win was the sixth in seven games against the preseason favorite Cardinals. The Reds went on to win nine of their next 11 games to take control of the NL pennant race. When the dust settled on the season, Cincinnati had captured its second consecutive league championship by a full 12 games over the Dodgers. St. Louis finished a distant third.
Cincinnati would go on to win the 1940 World Series against the Detroit Tigers, the club’s first Series championship since 1919. In Game Seven, the Reds squeaked by with a 2-1 victory. Paul Derringer got the win in that contest, pitching a complete game without surrendering a single earned run.
This article was published in “Cincinnati’s Crosley Field: A Gem in the Queen City” (SABR, 2018), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To read more articles from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
In addition to the sources listed in the notes, the author consulted:
1 Bob Hertzel, Cincinnati Reds Scrapbook (Jordon & Co., 1982), 92.
3 Tom Swope, “Hopes of Reds Go Up Along With ’39 Flag,” The Sporting News, May 30, 1940: 2.
5 Lou Smith, “Derringer Hurls One-Hitter as Redlegs Shut Out Cards,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 27, 1940: 1.
6 Lou Smith, “Reds to Play Two at Buc Park Today,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 27, 1940: 10.
7 The actual attendance was 19,490.
8 “Hopes of Reds.”
11 “Reds to Play Two at Buc Park Today.”
12 Smittie’s Band had the honors. Ibid.
13 “Hopes of Reds.”
15 “Derringer Hurls One-Hitter.”
16 “Reds to Play Two at Buc Park Today.”
17 July 6, 1949.
18 “Derringer Hurls One-Hitter.”
20 Mize was unable to collect a single hit in the entire series, dropping his batting average a full 25 points. “Reds to Play Two at Buc Park Today.”
21 Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: The Free Press, 2001), 864.
22 “Derringer Hurls One-Hitter.”
24 “Reds to Play Two at Buc Park Today.”
26 Derringer would make six National League All-Star rosters in his 10-year Cincinnati career.