Established in 1869, the Cincinnati Reds have one of the richest histories in all of sports. Fittingly, the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, located at Great American Ballpark, is the largest team-specific Hall of Fame in baseball. David took a walk through the museum with its executive director, Rick Walls, and its manager of visitor services, Chris Eckes, talking Reds history.
David Laurila: Let’s start with a little background on the Hall.
Rick Walls: The Reds Hall of Fame was established in 1958, with five players inducted in the inaugural class. Until the Hall itself was built, and opened in 2004, plaques were hung at Crosley Field and later stored at Riverfront Stadium, being brought out for public display on special occasions. With the induction of four new Hall of Famers coming in 2007 we’ll have 75 players, managers and front office executives enshrined. The criterion for induction, for players, is that you had to have played at least three years with the Reds and be retired from baseball for three years. We have a veteran’s ballot for players who retired before 1985, and we have a fans’ ballot for players who retired after 1985.
DL: Wayne Granger is an example of a player who is in the Reds Hall of Fame but is hardly a household name outside of Cincinnati. Why is he enshrined?
Chris Eckes: A lot of that goes back to the voting history and what the competition was on the ballots. Similar to Cooperstown, windows sometimes open up in years when there aren’t candidates who are seen to be 100 percent first-ballot-caliber guys. That’s how some perhaps lesser-light players get in, and with a team Hall of Fame you’re also dealing with a pool of players that is much smaller. I believe that at the time Granger was inducted he was still the holder of the team’s single-season saves record, and that was when the saves statistic was really becoming ascendant, in the early ’80s. Now we maybe have a better perspective of the significance of a saves record than voters did at that time, but I think his induction was definitely a product of what he achieved here coupled with when he was ballot eligible and what else was going on in baseball at the time. But, generally we don’t get too many questions about who is in. It’s more about who isn’t.
RW: Pete Rose is not in the Reds Hall of Fame, even though we’re standing here looking at an exhibit of him right now. Since he’s been on the ineligible list for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, he’s also ineligible here. We follow the same guidelines.
DL: Besides Rose, who else fits into the “Why isn’t he in?” category?
CE: Along with Pete, we get a lot of questions about a catcher for the Reds in the 1950s named Ed Bailey. For some of the real baseball geeks, so to speak, we get questions on some of the 19th century guys, and early 20th century guys, and why they aren’t here. That’s one of the things we’ve been trying to address here at the Hall.
DL: Going beyond the numbers he put up, how important is the relationship a player may have had with the city and its fans?
CE: I think the team’s tie to the fans is tremendously important. One of the original tag-lines of this building was to be a palace for the fans, which is playing off the old “palace of the fans” moniker that was a fixture with our old ballpark. We want the fans to feel that this is their Hall of Fame just like they feel the Reds are their team. That’s why it was very important for us, when the museum opened up, to reinstitute the fan vote. We wanted to give them a direct say in who’s in the Hall of Fame–with checks and balances in place that really preserve the integrity of the process.
DL: Is there anything you’d like to add to that, Rick?
RW: The Baseball Writers Association is still involved in the voting process, particularly with players who retired before 1985. When you think about it, when you start electing players in 1958 you have a lot of catching up to do for many years. There are all of these eligible candidates going back into the 19th century and you have to look at all of them at the same time. So for years it was catch-up, and now we’re electing candidates every two years. But it is a fan vote, because we do want this to be for the fans, as Chris said. What a Hall of Famer is really is in the eye of the beholder. Stats can’t tell you everything. What is a Hall of Famer? It could be his off-the-field involvement with the community as much as it is how many hits or home runs he had. That could weigh into it, and I think that at any level, when writers, or whoever, vote for Hall of Famers you’re going to get that.
CE: Kind of echoing that point, there’s an impact when you’re limiting the scope to players associated with a single team. If you opened up a Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame today, I guarantee you that Pete Reiser would probably be in on the first ballot. Now Pete Reiser never sniffed Cooperstown, but those who saw Reiser insisted that he was one of the best players they ever saw. He left an indelible impact on Brooklyn Dodgers fans, although if you look at his career numbers, while he had some good seasons you certainly wouldn’t stack him up with the best of the best in baseball history. So I think that’s another aspect–who impacted you, as a Reds fan growing up? Maybe the sum total of their career isn’t Hall of Fame caliber as it’s usually defined, but there can be a lot of intangible elements that make someone a Hall of Famer in your eyes. And the baseball writers vet the fan ballot; they actually put it together. That’s one of the checks-and-balances screening processes that we go through so that it’s not just an open-ended process where the fans are given a list of 50 guys where they can pick whomever they want.
RW: And a beautiful part of it is that it creates discussion and an interest in baseball, especially Cincinnati Reds baseball. It gets people thinking about the past and its important impact on the community and even across the country. Reds baseball is a team of firsts–a city of firsts–and even at the National Baseball Hall of Fame what’s interesting is that it’s an ongoing discussion. There is no Hall of Fame that has a perfect election process, so there’s always going to be debate about who should, and should not, be in the Hall of Fame.
DL: Many people feel that Barry Larkin should be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame once he becomes eligible.
CE: He was the overwhelming selection by our fans this year to be in our Hall of Fame. Personally, I feel he should also be in Cooperstown. Sometimes it can be hard to get over the hometown bias, but if Larkin’s numbers are looked at relative to shortstops throughout baseball history his case is extremely strong. It only weakens when you start comparing his numbers to those of the post-Ripken shortstops, when the Jeters and Rodriguezes and Tejadas came up and started doing things offensively that players at his position had never done before. Of course, maybe now we’re seeing that that’s a product of the times more than anything else. And Davey Concepcion–he was the elite shortstop in the National League, if not all of baseball, during the decade of the 1970s. Maybe the best way to compare these guys is to their peers, so I think Davey has a very strong case as well.
DL: Some people feel that Tony Perez was not a worthy selection for enshrinement in Cooperstown. What are your thoughts on that?
CE: You won’t get any agreement on that here. Everyone points to the trade of Tony after the ’76 season as the reason that the Big Red Machine did not repeat. If you ask the players themselves–and we’ve talked to them a lot–they will generally agree with that. If you just look at the raw numbers, it appears that Perez and Dan Driessen were a wash, that they produced pretty much the same numbers, and you can also blame the collapse of the Reds’ pitching in ’77, but the guys who were there day in and day out said Tony’s presence in the clubhouse was sorely missed. They feel that his presence had a significant impact on their ability to play. So Tony, in the pantheon of most popular players in Reds’ history, he’s certainly up there.
DL: Why is Pete Rose an icon in Cincinnati?
RW: Pete Rose is a hometown guy, and he played with an energy and fervor that just resonated with the fans. They got excited to watch him, and he kind of changed what baseball meant to people. He was the underdog in many ways, kind of an overachiever. He was very successful in what he did and broke a lot of records. I know that when I was growing up, everyone wanted to play like him. And when you look back, he was kind of a smaller guy, a normal guy out there playing baseball and trying to do the best he could, firing up all the guys around him. He loved to win and he loved to play, and I think that’s why fans around here like him. The Pete exhibit is something we’ve promoted heavily this past year, and there’s a lot of Pete throughout the museum. He certainly made an indelible mark on Reds baseball.
DL: Would you like to add anything to that, Chris?
CE: Just that Pete appeals to a working-class mentality, which is very common in Cincinnati. It’s the whole idea that he wasn’t blessed with a lot of natural gifts so he worked really hard, all the time, to become as good as he was. People here really gravitate to that.
DL: Next to Rose, who are the most popular players, and the most popular destination points, for visitors to the Hall?
RW: The Big Red Machine era is big here. Joe Nuxhall, especially with him passing recently–a lot of people have come in to see his exploits, not only as a player but also as a broadcaster, in our broadcasting exhibit area. There’s also the 1990 team, with guys like Jose Rijo, Tom Browning, and Eric Davis who are all in, and Barry Larkin who will be in next year. But when I come in, I always think of the Big Red Machine. What they were was a winning machine, and that resonates for a lot of people.
CE: I think it’s very much a generational thing. Rick grew up with the Big Red Machine, but for me, my team is the 1990 team. Fans of my generation tend to gravitate toward, “What do you have on Chris Sabo?” or “What do you have on the 1990 Reds?” Others you go back further. For instance, Ted Kluszewski is still an iconic figure in this town. You get a lot of people coming in to look for Klu stuff.
DL: Can either of you talk a little about Kluszewski and what he means to Reds fans?
CE: The glory days of baseball are often cited as being the 1950s, and while a lot of things are glossed over when that general statement is made, the 1956 Reds are still a team that captures the imagination. They tied the team home run mark that season–which of course has since been broken several times over–but it was just the way they played and their association with the glorious decade of the ’50s. It was a more innocent time, and it took place in what was a very accessible ballpark in Crosley Field. So there were a lot of reasons that team made an impact on fans of that generation, and Klu was the symbol of that team. The ’56 season was not his best, ironically enough, but he was such a powerful figure visually that I think even younger fans, if you say “Ted Kluszewski” or show a picture of Kluszewski, or just a guy with his shirt cut off, they know who it is. And, of course, there’s his connection to the Big Red Machine. Being their hitting coach didn’t hurt at all, nor did the fact that he died a sudden and premature death. All of those factors play into the fact that his number is retired here and his popularity is still so strong.
DL: What other players on the 1956 team draw a lot of interest?
CE: Another guy on that team we get a lot of questions about is Wally Post. People come in to ask what we have on him, and when we first opened we didn’t have anything. But his family came in and worked with us, and they were very kind. They loaned us a wonderful uniform from his 1956 season along with his league championship ring and a World Series bat from 1961 as well.
DL: Can either of you address Joe Nuxhall’s legacy?
CE: It’s almost hard to summarize. For all of us who grew up in Cincinnati–and a lot of Cincinnatians, especially west-side Cincinnatians, tend to grow up and stay in pretty much the same place. And we all grew up with Joe. It’s still hard to imagine that spring training is going to roll around and he’s not going to be there. Joe is easily the most popular figure in the history of this organization, in my opinion. He transcended generations. If you ever listened to the Reds on the radio, from the late 60s to the present day, you more than likely heard Joe call a game. What he meant to the community, from how accessible he was, and it’s been said, many times, better than this, but nobody can find anybody who can say a bad thing about the guy. To be on this earth for 79 years and not have any negative comments about you emerge at any point of your life, that’s a testament to the kind of person he was. We’re very hopeful that the Frick Award goes his way this year, because he’s very deserving of that honor.
DL: Can you touch on his playing career?
CE: He is one of the top left-handers in Reds history, but what a lot of people don’t remember is that he was basically booed out of Cincinnati. He requested a trade, and the Reds were happy to comply with his request. The one full season he spent away from the Cincinnati organization, from the time he signed with the club in 1944, was the year the team won the pennant, in 1961. So the one year he could have experienced post-season play with the Reds as a player, he missed out on. But he came back in 1962 and became a very effective pitcher again, both starting and relieving. He was very competitive and not afraid to dust guys back. That competitive fire is a little hard for many of us to appreciate, because he was always happy-go-lucky Joe, but if you talk to guys who played with him he wasn’t someone you wanted to cross on the baseball field.
DL: Is his big league debut at the age of 15 celebrated here at the Reds Hall of Fame?
CE: It hasn’t been celebrated, per se, but it is acknowledged in a couple of places in the building. In 2004 there was an on-field commemoration on the anniversary of it, but we haven’t made a huge deal of it here at the Hall of Fame.
RW: Joe’s microphone was retired this past summer, so he’s been honored a lot. We’re also planning to open up a Joe Nuxhall exhibit in 2008. The exact location and scope haven’t been determined yet, but it’s pretty easy to imagine what it’s going to look like and what the fan reaction will be.
CE: There’s a statue of him at Crosley Terrace, and he’s one of four guys who were selected by the fans to represent the Crosley era. Klu was one, along with Frank Robinson, Ernie Lombardi, and Joe. Over on the east side of the ballpark, there’s the big “rounding third and heading for home” light that runs outside along the third base side. It’s lit up at night all the time. Of course, that was Joe’s famous sign-off line.
DL: Is Cesar Geronimo in the Reds Hall of Fame?
RW: He’s actually going in this coming summer. He was just elected and was here for the official announcement in early December. Talk about a class act. When Davey Concepcion’s number was retired this past summer, pretty much the whole Big Red Machine was here, although Cesar wasn’t because he lives in the Dominican Republic. He did make it for the announcement and for Redsfest, and he’ll be coming back in July for his induction ceremony. He was the last of the team’s position players to get recognized, but if you talk to anybody on the team he was the best defensive center fielder around. If you ask George Foster, he’ll tell you that he wouldn’t have been nearly as good in left without The Chief in center. Up the middle, with Morgan, Concepcion, Bench, and The Chief, they were one of the best in history defensively.
DL: Sean Casey‘s uniform is displayed here. Can one of you talk a little about his impact on the team and its fans?
CE: Sean Casey was the second “Mayor of Riverfront.” That name was attached to him; Tony Perez had it first, but Casey also came to be referred to as “The Mayor.” He was an extremely popular player. He was fun to watch play because it was obvious how much fun he was having. He was also deeply involved in charitable work in the area, and didn’t seem to really know how to say no to any request, be it an autographed picture or an appearance. So it hurt to see him go. Maybe from a cold baseball standpoint you can see the reason for it, but losing a player of his character is never easy for any team.
DL: Who are the most popular players on the current team?
RW: I’d say that Brandon Phillips, by far, is the most popular. Aaron Harang is also very popular, as he’s involved with the Reds Community Fund. You see both of those guys out a lot, and always smiling. Bronson Arroyo is another one who does a lot in the community.
CE: Ken Griffey, Jr. is still popular. You don’t want to be at the concession stand when he’s up at the plate, because you never know what you might miss. He still has one of the prettiest swings in baseball. And Adam Dunn; he has a lot of supporters as well. So does Ryan Freel, even though he missed the bulk of last year with injuries. With him it sort of ties back to Pete Rose, where people look at Freel and associate that all-out style with Pete. Back when Tracy Jones first came up here, he was hugely popular because he played like Pete. And Chris Sabo, he played like Pete. When guys play with that style, they’re going to be pretty popular in Cincinnati.
DL: How would you gauge the overall popularity of baseball in Cincinnati today?
RW: I’ll tell you what, it’s very popular. Right now, with the changes that have been made, there’s a lot of optimism for the team next year. There’s a new manager, a new closer, the recent trade that sent Josh Hamilton to the Rangers for a couple of pitchers. There’s a new air of optimism in Cincinnati, not to mention all of the traditions and great history, especially around opening day. Here, you can have a bad season, but the next year there’s always the feeling that you can turn it around and have a shot to get to the playoffs and the World Series. That’s what you want everywhere, and that’s what is really good about the fans in this area. And even if you have a losing season, here at the Reds Hall of Fame the beautiful thing is that you can come in and win every day. You can go back and relive some of the great moments of Reds history over and over again, and there are many.
DL: We’re walking through an exhibit on the 1919 team right now.
CE: This exhibit has been up since May 2006, and we’ve actually had to remove a number of pieces and give them back to lenders. We’re slowly transitioning from this exhibit and will be replacing it by opening day. But what we’ve doing is trying to tell a little of their story because it often gets lost in discussions about the Black Sox and what they allegedly did to throw the Series. On paper, the 1919 Reds were every bit as good, if not better, than the White Sox. The White Sox got a lot of credit for superiority because they had won in 1917 and the American League had been dominating the World Series and making the National League seem lesser. But again, position by position, statistically, the Reds matched up very well with the White Sox, and their pitching staff was much deeper, especially when Red Faber got hurt going into the Series. Almost to a man, without doubt, the Reds believed they would have won that World Series regardless of what the White Sox did or didn’t do. And they held those beliefs their whole lives.
DL: Following 1919, what was the next Reds team to win a World Series?
CE: The first unquestioned world championship for the Reds was 1940. That team was led by a lot of our initial Hall of Fame class, including the “Jungle Cat” Infield of Frank McCormick, Lonny Frey, Billy Myers, and Billy Werber. Ernie Lombardi was probably the biggest position player star on the team. Ival Goodman was an all-star outfielder. But the big two that really led the team to victory were Paul Derringer and Bucky Walters. They headed up the starting rotation and both had phenomenal seasons.
DL: We’ve just walked up to a group of eight life-size statues. What is “The Great Eight?”
RW: Simply put, it’s the greatest team ever to play baseball. These bronze statues are the starting line-up, save for a pitcher, that played for the 1975 and 1976 Reds. We’re in the Great Teams room right now, and a lot people have a real reaction when they walk in. They’ve been walking through the Hall of Fame and building toward a crescendo to where all of the plaques are hung, and now they’re in kind of a historical timeline of the great teams in Reds history. I think it goes without saying that it’s been a great history.