Forgotten Champs: No Player, Only Pilot of 1939-40 Reds in Shrine

This article was written by Doug Simpson

This article was published in the 1984 Baseball Research Journal


Fans of baseball history are well aware that it was the Cincinnati Reds who defeated the scandal-ridden Chicago White Sox in the 1919 World Series. More recent fans acclaim the greatness of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine of the 1970s. However, few remember Cincinnati’s other outstanding team, the back-to-back pennant winners of 1939- 1940.

The anonymity of this team is exemplified by the fact that not one player from the club is in the Hall of Fame. It is the only team with two successive league championships not so honored, excluding such recent teams as Oakland (1972-1974), whose players are not yet eligible for enshrinement. Modern fans might be hard put to name a single player from the 1939-40 Reds.

Ironically, the manager of those teams, Bill “Deacon” McKechnie, is in the Hall of Fame, but he probably wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for those two pennants. He won only two others in 25 years of managing.

The 1939-40 Reds had no real weakness. They had outstanding pitching, excellent fielding and solid, consistent hitting. “We felt if we got a run ahead we could win the game,” Lonny Frey, the second baseman, recalled recently. “McKechnie’s strategy was always to play for one run.”

In one-run games, of course, pitching is critical. The Cincinnati staff featured two righthanders having their peak years, Bucky Walters and Paul Derringer. Walters, acquired in a 1938 trade from Philadelphia, relied on a sinking fastball. He went 27-11 in 1939, earning the league’s Most Valuable Player award, and 22-10 in 1940.

“If he got by the first couple innings and got in a groove, he was awfully tough to hit,” Frey remembered.

Good as Walters was, Frey says if he had to pick one pitcher to win a big game it would have been Derringer. A control pitcher with a good fastball and curve, Derringer was 25-7 in `39 and 20-12 in `40. In a key game with St. Louis in 1939 Derringer struck out Pepper Martin, Joe Medwick and Johnny Mize in succession on nine pitches.

Gene “Junior” Thompson and Whitey Moore were the other primary starters. Thompson won 13 and 16 in his first two seasons before arm trouble shortened his career, and Moore added 13 and eight wins, respectively, those two years. The staff was stronger in 1940 with the addition of Jim Turner (14-7) and ace reliever Joe Beggs (12-3). Frey says the Reds could not have won the pennant in `40 without Beggs, an off-speed, sinkerball pitcher. “We won over 40 games by one run,” Frey pointed out. “We needed him.”

“We had pretty good hitting, plenty of speed and a great defense,” said Walters about his supporting cast. Citing the infield of Frank McCormick at first, Frey at second, Billy Myers at short and Bill Werber at third, Walters called them “all good, fast, smart ballplayers.” Eddie Joost was the utilityman.

Frey mentioned that he, Myers and Werber called themselves “The Jungle Club.” “We were loose and quick on the balls of our feet like cats,” he said. Frey was the leopard, Myers the jaguar and Werber the tiger. McCormick, at 6-4 and 205 pounds, didn’t fit the mold, but wanted to belong. Told by the trio that he would be accepted if he hustled for one month, the first sacker pressed them for the verdict one day in Boston. After teasingly dubbing him “Hippopotamus,” the besieged cats accepted him as “Wildcat.” Werber felt this infield unity was a big factor in the team’s strength.

McCormick may not have been a gazelle, but he could hit and field. In 1939 he led the league in hits (209) and runs batted in (128) while batting .332, second in the league. McCormick continued his assault on National League pitching in 1940, leading the league in at-bats (618), hits (191) and doubles (44) while socking 19 home runs, driving in 127 runs and batting .309. He was named Most Valuable Player in 1940. “Wildcat” paced the league’s first basemen in fielding both years.

Frey, who batted second, liked to work for walks and punch the ball to all fields. In 1939 he scored 95 runs and batted .291 with 47 extra-base hits. Though his average fell to .266 in 1940, he scored 102 runs and led the league with 22 stolen bases and afield paced all second baseman in putouts, assists and double plays.

Myers, according to Frey, was underrated and seldom made a bad play afield. In 1939 Myers enjoyed his best year at the plate, hitting .281. However, he slumped to .202 in 1940 and shared playing time with Joost.

Werber led off for McKechnie’ s one-run wonders and topped the league with 115 runs in `39, adding another 105 the next season. “He hit the ball where it was pitched and lined a lot of balls through the box,” Frey said. Werber had 35 doubles each season and was among the league leaders in stolen bases both years. He averaged about 300 assists the two seasons.

“In the outfield,” Walters recalled, “we had Wally Berger, Harry Craft – what a center fielder he was – and a good all-around ballplayer in right, Ival Goodman.” The aging Berger, though, was gone in 1940, replaced by rookie Mike McCormick. Jimmy Ripple was acquired from the Dodger system early in the `40 season and hit .307 in reserve. “He was an inspiring guy,” Frey recalled. “He gave us that little extra spark.”

On paper the flychasers were hardly inspiring. Goodman, who hit third, did have 37 doubles, 16 triples and 84 RBIs with a .323 average in 1939. “Goodie was a low-ball line-drive hitter,” said Frey, “and he had a great arm.” Other than Ripple, Mike McCormick was the only outfielder to have a good season in `40, hitting .300 as a rookie.

Cincinnati had great catching. The inimitable Ernie Lombardi hit .287 with 20 homers and 85 RBIs in 1939 while reserve Willard Hershberger hit .345. Though he batted .317 with 74 ribbies in 1940, Lombardi was slowed by injuries. Tragedy struck the club on August 2 in a Boston hotel when Hershberger, hitting .307, slit his throat in his room.

“Willard was a nice, easygoing fellow, but he could be moody,” Frank McCormick said later. “The night before he killed, himself, Willard obviously was in some emotional distress.

His eyes were all welled up with tears.” The team, Werber recalled, had just lost four or five close games, and Hershberger put the blame on himself. Werber spent a great deal of time with him in the last hours, trying to convince him that the losses were not his fault. “What did happen might have been anticipated,” Werber said, referring to previous suicides of Hershberger’ s father and uncle. “Hershie was simply an over-conscientious, sick kid, mentally and physically.”

Lombardi sprained an ankle in mid-September, leaving only green rookie Bill Baker available. To fill the gap the Reds activated 40-year-old coach Jimmie Wilson, who had caught just two games since 1937. Wilson backstopped 16 games down the stretch, hitting .243. More importantly, he played himself into shape for the World Series, in which he played a hero’s role.

In 1939 Cincinnati won the National League pennant with a 97-57 record, 4½ games better than St. Louis. The Cardinals’ offensive machine led by Mize, Medwick and Enos Slaughter hit .294 for the season to Cincy’s .278. However, Walters and company posted a 3.27 earned-run average, far better than St. Louis’ 3.59.

The World Series was another story. Joe McCarthy’s New York Yankees swept the Reds in four games to capture their fourth straight world championship. The Bronx Bombers hit seven home runs in the Series, but their pitching was also exceptional. After Red Ruffing out dueled Deninger in the opener, 3-1, on a four-hitter, Monte Pearson hurled a two-hit, 4-0 shutout, owning a no-hitter for seven and two-thirds innings. Long balls by Charlie Keller, Bill Dickey and Joe DiMaggio powered the Yanks to 7-3 and 7-4 victories in the final two games. The Reds were homerless for the Series.

Bob Considine, writing for International News Service, described the power differential: “The Reds made ten hits, but they were like light jabs on the face of a brooding fighter who is waiting only for a chance to score a knockout.”

Although blitzed by the New Yorkers, the National League champions had little trouble defending their title in 1940. They won 100 games and finished 12 games ahead of runner-up Brooklyn. The Reds batted a so-so .266, but the team ERA of 3.05 was light years ahead of the next best staff, that of the Dodgers, which posted a 3.50 mark.

At World Series time, McKechnie’s one-run wonders found themselves up against another American League powerhouse, the Detroit Tigers. The Bengals were led by Hank Greenberg (.340, 41 HR, 150 RBI), Rudy York

(.316, 33 BR, 134 RBI), Charlie Gehringer (.3 13) and Barney McCoskey (.340). Buck Newsom (21-5) and Schoolboy Rowe (16-3) led the pitchers. The Reds had not only Lombardi out of action, but reliable Frey, with a broken toe, as well.

However, Cincinnati refused to be steamrollered this time. The Deacon’s disciples came back again and again to win in seven games.

After Newsom beat Derringer, 7-2, in the opener, Walters evened things with a three-hit, 5-3 victory over Rowe. Ripple’s two-run homer in the third inning was the key blow. Del Baker’s

Tigers then regained the advantage with a 7-4 win. Pinky Higgins and York homered and drove in five runs between them.

Baker, writing a column on the Series for INS, predicted that his club would take the next two games in Briggs Stadium and avoid having to return to Cincinnati for games six and seven. “There isn’t much of that Cincinnati pitching staff that we haven’t walloped,” he wrote, “and we’re certainly not afraid to test the rest.”

Nonetheless, matching the performance of Walters in game two, Derringer stifled Detroit’s hitters in game four for a five-hit, 5-2 triumph. Goodman had two hits and two runs batted in to pace the Red attack.

The next day Cincinnati was caught in an emotional buzzsaw. Newsom, whose father had died after the Series opener, vowed to win for his dad and hurled a magnificent three-hit shutout for an 8-0 victory. Greenberg stroked two singles and an upper-deck shot to left, driving in four Bengal runs.

“Buck scraped the ceiling of baseball today,” Considine reported. “His fastball was virtually hurling down the third base line at those apprehensive Reds and pounding into Billy Sullivan’s catcher’s mitt with the boom of a bass drum.”

Returning to Crosley Field with their backs to the wall again, McKechnie’s players refused to quit. Walters pitched and batted the Reds to a 4-0 victory to even the series for the third time. Besides pitching a five-hitter, the former third baseman clouted a homer and drove in two runs.

Game seven was a classic matchup of great righthanders – Derringer and Newsom, the latter with only two days of rest. McKechnie was the master of one-run games, and his battlers came from behind one more time, scoring twice in the seventh inning on doubles by Frank McCormick and Ripple and a sacrifice fly by Myers for a 2-1 victory. It was the National League’s first Series win since 1934.

It was a splendid Series. As Associated Press reporter Judson Bailey wrote: “In retrospect the Series was so full of drama, joy and pathos that it might well have been a piece of fiction. It was a victory for the time-tested standards of baseball – that pitching is 70 percent of the game and that smartness is as good as strength.”

Heroes? For the losers, Newsom pitched three complete games in a week for a combined 1.38 earned-run average. For the winners, Werber hit .370 and provided field leadership. Ripple batted .333 and drove in six runs. Walters and Derringer won two games each.

Foremost was Wilson, who caught six games, hit .353 and contributed two singles and a key sacrifice in the finale. At age 40 he stole a base in his final game as a player. “Jimmie Wilson,”

Considine wrote, “the archaic catcher whose legs have taken a terrible pounding in this series, finished Monday’s game with a veritable stable of charley horses. His legs looked like gunnysacks of squash.” According to Werber, “It was an unusual exhibition of guts. He caught the final game or two with a charley horse in back of each leg, and each leg shaved and encased in tape. In addition, his catching hand was swollen, sore and enlarged.”

It had been a gutsy performance by the Reds, but the man behind it all was the Deacon, 54-year-old William Boyd McKechnie. McKechnie steered the course of the Reds from 1938 through 1946, the last nine years of a 25-year managing career.

As early as 1915 he had been player-manager for Newark of the Federal League. The former third baseman managed the Pirates from 1922-1926, taking the pennant in 1925. For two years, 1928-1929, he was the St. Louis Cardinal skipper, winning a championship in 1928. The Deacon managed the Boston Braves from 1930-1937, finishing no higher than fourth. McKechnie’s 25 years produced 1,898 victories in 3,650 games, a .524 percentage. Of his four pennant winners, the 1925 and 1940 teams won the World Series. He was admitted to the Hall of Fame in 1962, three years before he died.

His players at Cincinnati were almost universal in his praise. “We liked to play for him,” Frank McCormick said. “He was very understanding and sympathetic.”

“He has to go down in history as one of the great managers,” Thompson said. “He could get more out of a player than any manager I ever knew. He was like a father to all of us.”

Werber remembered him as an excellent manager, citing McKechnie’s intelligence, patience and knowledge of baseball and his personnel. Craft, a long-time manager himself, described the Deacon as a man with strong convictions. “He was straight from the shoulder and you always knew where you stood with him,” Craft said. “He was an excellent handler of men and a good percentage manager.”

Frey agreed that McKechnie was a good technical manager who got along well with his players. However, Frey was personally frustrated by his manager’s insistence that he become a pull hitter. Joost, too, was frustrated — by his lack of playing time.

McKechnie is the only member of the 1939-1940 Reds who has found a place in baseball’s pantheon of greats. They were a dominant team, the National League’s best between the Giants of 1936-1937 and the Cardinals of the mid-1940s.

Why are none of the players enshrined in Cooperstown? McCormick’s back problems prevented him from producing the sustained excellence required to make the Hall of Fame. Derringer, despite some great years, lacked the consistent stats, although he won 223 games over a 15-year career, with four 20-.win seasons. Walters wasn’t a full-time starter until he was 27 years old. He finished with 198 career victories.

That leaves Lombardi, whose teammates strongly support his bid for Hall of Fame recognition. Joost, Werber, Craft and Frey all feel he belongs in Cooperstown. Werber claims he measures up well with the Hall of Fame catchers and is “way ahead of most.” Craft says it’s a travesty that “The Schnozz” hasn’t been inducted.

Lombardi was a good handler of pitchers, and he had an outstanding arm. He was a line-drive hitter with power who drove the ball to all fields.

He seldom struck out. Although notoriously slow afoot, he won two batting championships, hitting .342 for the Reds in 1938 and .330 for the Braves in 1942. For his career he had a lifetime average of .306.

McKechnie is gone. McCormick is gone. Lombardi is gone. And so, too, are several of the others. But to knowledgeable fans the 1939-1940 Reds rank along with the best in baseball annals.

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