Greg Rhodes is the official team historian of the Cincinnati Reds. Formerly the executive director of the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, Rhodes is the co-author of six books on the Reds and a two-time winner of The Sporting News-SABR Baseball Research Award. David talked to Rhodes about some of the key figures, and events, in Reds history.
David Laurila: The Cincinnati baseball club is known as the Reds. What is the history of the team’s name?
Greg Rhodes: While teams today have a very well known and branded name, that hasn’t always been the case. If you go back to the early years of baseball, team names were informal and typically given by sportswriters or even the fans. In the 1870s and 1880s, newspapers generally referred to the team by the city they played in, in our case “The Cincinnatis” although the team’s long red stockings quickly became the basis for the two names–Red Stockings and Reds–that were most commonly used. In the late 1890s and into the early 20th century we were also sometimes called the “Rhinelanders,” because of Cincinnati’s German heritage, or the “Porkapolitans,” because of the pork industry. But from about 1880, the main nickname has been “Reds.” In the early 1950s, with the cold war at its peak, people starting jumping on that name because they felt it had negative connotations because of communism. For that reason it was changed to “Redlegs,” which was the first time the team had ever officially announced, “This is our name.” Redlegs never really caught on with the fans though, and in 1958 we became the Reds again. There’s kind of a funny story that goes with that, too. In 1961, when we played the Yankees in the World Series, the team received a letter from a judge in Pennsylvania who wrote that he hoped the name Redlegs would be reconsidered, as he dreaded seeing a headline of “Reds defeat Yanks.” The team’s response was along the lines of, “We’ve been the Reds longer than the communists have been in power, so we’re keeping the name.”
DL: During the Big Red Machine era, the team was known for its clean-cut image, and to a large extent that image remains to this day. What is the story behind that?
GR: That was definitely a result of [general manager] Bob Howsam, who took over in 1967. Bob felt that in Cincinnati, with its Midwest conservative heritage, long hair or facial hair wouldn’t fly. Bob was conservative himself, and considered them to be symbols of the counterculture that the fans wouldn’t be responsive to. There’s actually a fabulous photo of Pete Rose from the early 70s, where he’s wearing a goatee in the off-season, but during the season it would have been taboo as “no facial hair” had become the official club policy. That remained in place until the late 90s when [owner] Marge Schott finally dropped it. Interestingly enough, in the 1950s the Reds had adopted the logo with the handlebar mustache, which harkened back to the original Red Stockings. When Howsam arrived, he decided that if the team was going to be clean shaven, the mascot–the logo–had to be clean shaven too, so they took the mustache off of Mr. Red. Bob Castellini, the current owner, finally brought it back. He wanted to bring back the old tradition.
DL: Who do consider the greatest player in Reds history?
GR: For peak performance, I’d probably have to put Frank Robinson on the top of my list. If you hit 30 home runs, drive in 100 runs, score 100 runs, hit .300, and have an OPS of over 900, you’ve had a very good season. Frank did that here for 10 straight years, at least if you average out his seasons. To this day, Frank Robinson is the club’s all-time leader in OPS. He was both a phenomenal and a consistent offensive player. Not only that, he set a tone in the clubhouse with his toughness. Now, there are a handful of players I’d put right behind him, including Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Edd Roush, and Barry Larkin. Pete Rose obviously belongs on the list as well, although Pete’s excellence is due more to the longevity factor than peak performance.
DL: When people debate the greatest players in Reds history, the names that come up are position players. Who were the best pitchers in team history?
GR: In the long history of the franchise, Eppa Rixey is the only pitcher to have been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and I’m quite sure that we’re the only team from the original 16 that has only one. But we’ve had some good ones. Jim Maloney was one of the premier power pitchers in the 1960s. He threw two no-hitters and almost had a third before giving up a home run in the 11th inning of a game. He was a 20-game winner twice and led the league in strikeouts, but never won a game after the age of 30 because of an arm injury. That was a recurring theme with a number of Reds pitchers–they seemed to be on a Hall of Fame path and then injuries derailed their careers. Don Gullett had a .686 winning percentage, which would put him among the all-time leaders except he fell just short of the innings needed to qualify. Like Jim Maloney, he didn’t win a game after the age of thirty, nor did Gary Nolan who was one of the top pitchers on the Big Red Machine. Noodles Hahn, who pitched at the turn of the century, is another one. He was on a Hall of Fame pace until the age of 28 when he got hurt. On the flip-side there was Bucky Walters, who won the Triple Crown of pitching in 1939 and was a Greg Maddux-type for five or six years. He was dominant in his time but doesn’t have milestone numbers because he started out as a third baseman and didn’t become a pitcher until his late 20s. One other I should mention is Tony Mullane. He was a handsome, dashing guy who pitched in the 19th century and has been touted at times by the veterans’ committee for Cooperstown induction. He’s an interesting guy in Reds history in that he’s actually not in our own Hall of Fame, despite being 2nd in career wins in Reds history. We need to find a way to get him on our ballot, because he’s somehow fallen through the cracks.
DL: The Reds have retired eight numbers. What is the criterion used in that process?
GR: Interesting that you bring this up. The Reds just recently asked the Reds Hall of Fame Board of Directors to develop formal guidelines. The number one criterion is that if you go into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a Red you’ll have your number retired. But if you are not elected to Cooperstown, you can also be considered if you have remained a viable candidate on the Cooperstown ballot for many years, and if you played for the Reds for many years. Dave Concepcion just had his number retired in part because he met these criteria. We also consider contributions off the field as well. Now we have some exceptions to these guidelines since the Reds have been retiring numbers since 1965, before any specific guidelines were in place. Fred Hutchinson and Ted Kluszewski are not in Cooperstown, but they had such emotional impact here that retiring their numbers was not controversial in any way. And the new guidelines mean in the future we will be honoring Ernie Lombardi, Eppa Rixey, Edd Roush and Bid McPhee, who are all in Cooperstown as Reds, but have not yet had their numbers (or uniform) retired. The retired numbers were worn by Frank Robinson, Fred Hutchinson, Ted Kluszewski, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Sparky Anderson and Dave Concepcion.
DL: The least known name on that list is Hutchinson, who managed the Reds from 1959-1964. Can you say a little about him?
GR: My favorite line about him is, “Fred Hutchinson doesn’t throw furniture; he throws rooms.” Fred had a temper and a reputation of being no-nonsense, but his players loved him. Just as importantly, he was a part of a significant turnaround in Reds history. When he took over as manager he helped to revive the team’s fortunes after years of mediocrity. I suspect many fans would not realize that in the 40-year period from 1961 to 2000, the Reds had the best winning percentage in the National League. They had just nine losing seasons in 40 years, so the changes that Hutchinson and owner and GM Bill DeWitt began in the early 1960s completely reversed the fortunes of the Reds.
DL: To most baseball fans, the 1964 season is known for the Phillies‘ late-season collapse. Many aren’t aware that the Reds were right in the middle of that pennant race.
GR: The Reds moved into first place on September 27 that year, with five games to play, but couldn’t hold on. We went into the final day of the season tied with the Cardinals for first place, with the Phillies one game back, but we lost to the Phillies 10-0. Had the Cardinals also lost it would have resulted in a three-way tie, but they won and captured the pennant.
DL: Hutchinson passed away shortly after the season ended. Was he still at the helm?
GR: Dick Sisler had taken over the team midway through the season. Hutch would come back occasionally, but he was pretty sick. His last public appearance was on August 12, and he was so gaunt from his cancer that people were shocked at how frail he looked. But as bad as it was, Hutch was Hutch right to the end. After the last game, someone said in the clubhouse that it was too bad they hadn’t won it for him. Hutch growled back, “They should have won it for themselves.” A few weeks later he was gone.
DL: The team almost moved out of Cincinnati around that time. What is the story behind that?
GR: There had been rumors, from the late ’50s into the ’60s, about the team relocating. Crosley Field had a small seating capacity of just over 30,000 and it was in a rundown area of town with terrible access by car. The streetcar was dying out, being replaced by the automobile, and I-75 hadn’t been built yet. For those reasons, Powel Crosley, who owned the Reds until 1961, and then Bill DeWitt, who took over from Crosley, had been making inquiries about moving the team. The city had already been discussing building a new ballpark on the riverfront, but DeWitt had problems with that idea because the riverfront area was pretty dilapidated at the time and filled with abandoned warehouses. And because the interstate grid hadn’t been built yet, access there wasn’t great either. He also didn’t like the idea of playing in a multi-purpose stadium, which is what was being discussed to make room for the new Bengals NFL franchise. It was around ’65 and ’66 that the stadium plans got serious, and when a group of local investors stepped up and announced they would commit to putting the Reds in the new Riverfront Stadium, DeWitt decided to sell the team instead of looking out of town.
DL: The Reds infamously traded Frank Robinson after the 1965 season.
GR: To this day, Bill DeWitt’s legacy is having traded Frank Robinson. But as bad of a deal as that was, many people forget that he helped to turn the team around; he built the platform that Bob Howsam built upon. Johnny Bench, Pete Rose and Tony Perez were all DeWitt guys–players that developed under him. So were Gary Nolan, Lee May, Tommy Helms, among others. Bill DeWitt made a lot of significant contributions to the franchise.
DL: What does Bob Howsam mean to Cincinnati Reds baseball?
GR: If someone were to market WWBD bracelets–What Would Bob Do?–they would be a popular item in Cincinnati. The Golden Era of Reds history–the Big Red Machine of the 1970s–happened under Bob. He’s widely perceived and appreciated for all of the good decisions he made, the Tony Perez trade notwithstanding. Other teams used to look at how he ran the show here in Cincinnati, because he did everything right, from the farm clubs on up. And the farm system was very important to him. Back when the first OPEC oil crisis happened, some teams started giving their scouts smaller cars as a cost-cutting measure. Bob didn’t go for that. He wanted his scouts driving bigger cars, which he saw as an example of the Reds being a first-class operation. He also felt that scouts were the lifeblood of the organization. When Marge Schott took over and blew up the scouting he had in place, it really hurt him.
DL: Howsam actually had two tenures as Reds GM.
GR: He did. He retired in 1978 and was replaced by Dick Wagner, his protégé. To this day, Wagner is still despised by Reds fans. He wouldn’t re-sign Pete Rose, the most popular player in Reds history, and he fired Sparky, the most popular manager in Reds history, and the team had two 100-loss seasons under him. He was terrible at PR, and he was fired in 1983. Ownership brought Howsam back on an interim basis, and he stayed for two years. The big deal he made was bringing Pete back as player-manager in 1984. I don’t think Bob would have stayed much longer, but when Marge Schott bought the club in the winter of 1984, it definitely hastened his decision. He and Marge didn’t see eye to eye on how to run a major league team.
DL: Two-word question: Marge Schott?
GR: I don’t know how to give a two-word answer! On the field, her teams had a lot of success. A World Series title, a division winner, and we probably would have had another winner in 1994 if not for the strike. Her overall won-lost record as an owner is one of the best in Reds history. She kept ticket prices low and she was a great fan…she loved being at the ballpark and watching the games, and she would sign autographs all day long, especially for kids. But Marge was kind of like your eccentric old aunt who wound up owning a MLB team. A lot of it she just didn’t get. She brought a small-business mentality to a big, fast-moving, complex corporate enterprise. The MLB and the Cincinnati establishment couldn’t figure out how to work with her. And her public behavior was inexcusable. As a steward of a community treasure, which is the way most Reds fans think of their team, I think she failed. She didn’t bring respect to the enterprise, she didn’t grace it. She soiled it.
DL: What were the best trades in Reds history, and along with dealing away Tony Perez and Frank Robinson, what were the worst?
GR: No question that Bob Howsam engineered two of the best. One was the 1971 Houston deal that brought Morgan, Geronimo and Billingham to Cincinnati. The other was acquiring a young George Foster early in 1971 for a back-up shortstop. When you get a future NL MVP for Frank Duffy, that is a good deal. In 1916, the Reds traded for Edd Roush and Christy Mathewson, who was acquired to be the manager. That wound up leading to the 1919 World Series win, tainted as it is. Worst deal was failing to sign Babe Ruth in 1914 off a minor league roster. I doubt the club would have kept him very long-even then they probably couldn’t have afforded him once he became “the Babe.” But wouldn’t that have been fun, having Ruth in a Reds uniform for a few years?
DL: What is Ken Griffey Jr.‘s place in Reds history?
GR: Junior will go down as one of the premier power hitters in Reds history, despite all the lost time to injuries, and the “what might have been?” questions that are out there. For me, I have these memories of certain players at certain positions: Buddy Bell the smoothest infielder I ever saw, Eric Davis the best at running the bases, Pete in that batting crouch, and so on. And the best left-handed swing goes to Junior in my mind. It is so pretty to watch. I am glad I had a chance to see him play.
DL: What is Ken Griffey Sr.‘s place in Reds history?
GR: Ken Griffey Sr. was a great testament to Bob Howsam and his scouting department. He was taken somewhere around the 30th round, because he was very raw, but Bob was a Branch Rickey guy. He liked speed, speed, speed, and Griffey was the fastest guy they clocked the year they drafted him. He ended being a great table-setter at the top of the line-up for the Big Red Machine. One of my favorite statistics is that the first three hitters in the Reds line-up in 1976, Griffey, Morgan and Rose, all had an OBP of over .400. The Reds led the majors in runs scored that year, Joe Morgan and George Foster drove in a lot of runs, and that was a big reason why they did. Dave Concepcion likes to say that he didn’t have many runs batted in because someone had always cleared the bases before he got to the plate. The only way he could get an RBI was by hitting a home run.
DL: One of the team’s best players during the decade of the 1960s was Vada Pinson. How do you view his career?
GR: Vada was an outstanding all-around player, an excellent defensive outfielder. He never got serious consideration from the Hall of Fame, but he had over 2700 hits and along with Frank Robinson formed the one-two punch of the team in the 1960s. Of course, he played in the shadow of Robby. In many ways Robby made him a better player, because he was the one carrying the offensive load, but Vada probably made Robby better too, particularly in the outfield. I look at Vada Pinson as a borderline Hall of Famer.
DL: There are a number of Cincinnati Reds in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Of those who have not been inducted, who do you feel is most deserving?
GR: I can make a strong case for Dave Concepcion. It didn’t surprise me that he wasn’t a first-ballot selection, but I’ve been shocked at how low his vote totals have been. He was the premier shortstop in the National League for years and was a key member on one of the greatest teams ever. He also won five Gold Gloves. One thing that probably comes into play is that he was overshadowed by more prominent teammates like Bench, Morgan and Perez, but he played 19 years at shortstop, which is remarkable. It’s also tough for middle infielders who came along before the current era to be recognized, because their numbers get compared to guys like Alex Rodriguez, and A-Rod is the Honus Wagner of this century. If you look at the history of shortstops before 1980, Concepcion is right up there with any of them.
DL: Do you feel Dave Parker is worthy of induction?
GR: I think Parker is a Hall of Famer. I would absolutely vote for him. Parker was such a dominant player for a few years. Offense. Defense. He wouldn’t go in as a Red, no doubt as a Pirate, but he had four very good seasons here, and is from Cincinnati. Still can’t figure out how he slipped through the Howsam scouting net.
DL: How do you feel the Mitchell Report will impact the Hall of Fame?
GR: I think that ultimately the verdict on those steroid-tainted players will be determined by the baseball writers and the veterans’ committee. I don’t see baseball punishing many players, or making changes to the statistical record, as that wouldn’t be feasible. So I think history’s verdict will be rendered by the outcome of their Hall of Fame election.
DL: If you had a ballot, who would vote for this year?
GR: We’ve already mentioned a couple: Concepcion and Parker. I would also vote for Bert Blyleven, Goose Gossage, Alan Trammell, and Jim Rice. McGwire is of course the big question mark. I think ultimately, these steroid-tainted players will get in, at least most of them. But it won’t happen soon.