The last few days of May have marked the anniversaries of three major Cincinnati Reds trades: the acquisition of Hall of Famer Jake Beckley, and two players that were major contributors to two Cincinnati Reds World Series titles, Heinie Groh and George Foster.
Most of you know of George Foster, the only Major Leaguer to hit more than 50 home runs in a season during the decade of the 1970’s. Foster was acquired from the San Francisco Giants on May 29, 1971 for shortstop Frank Duffy and pitcher Vern Geishert. Foster was caught behind a logjam of outfielders with the Giants. The Giants outfield included Hall of Famer Willie Mays, Bobby Bonds, and Ken Henderson, with more prospects on the way in Garry Maddox, Gary Matthews, Bernie Williams, and Dave Kingman. The Giants had a young rookie shortstop in Chris Speier, who wasn’t hitting and the Reds were committed to a young Dave Concepcion, making Frank Duffy available.
The Reds’ star centerfielder of 1970, Bobby Tolan, had torn his Achilles heel in an off-season basketball game, and the Reds needed a centerfielder. It was a deal made out of need for both teams, but it really paid off for the Reds. Foster was made the Reds’ starting centerfielder and batted .234 with with 10 homers for the Reds in 1971.
It took a few years, but Foster found his groove, and earned a permanent starting spot for the Reds in 1975 when Pete Rose moved to 3b to give Foster a chance to play regularly in the outfield. Foster responded by batting .300 with 23 homers. He followed that season with a .306/29/121 season in 1976 before exploding in 1977 by batting .320 with 52 homers and 149 rbi in what some consider to be the greatest Red offensive season of all time. Foster was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player for 1977.
(Side note: As for Foster’s homers; 1977 was a year when Rawlings was thought to have imported inferior baseballs from Haiti. There was a 32 percent jump in National League homers from 1976 to 1977).
Heinie Groh was equally important to the 1919 Cincinnati Red World Series championship team. Groh (given name was Henry Knight Groh), was acquired from the New York Giants on May 22, 1913, along with outfielder Josh Devore and starting pitcher Red Ames for starting pitcher Art Fromme. The Reds were in the midst having losing records in 10 of 11 seasons from 1906-16. Groh was a part-time second baseman with the Giants, Devore was a very good outfielder, and Ames was a star pitcher on his downward career slide (he went 15-23 for the 1914 Reds). Fromme had gone 16-18 for the 1912 Reds.
Groh used a “bottle bat”, a bat with a very large bat barrel used for slap hitting during the dead ball era. Groh stood only 5-8 and weighed 158 pounds, and in his first major league at bat as a pinch hitter for the New York Giants, the homeplate umpire thought that Giants manager John McGraw had sent a bat boy to pinch hit in the game. Groh singled anyway. Groh would whittle down the bat handle so that his hands would fit around the bat. He’s quoted as saying “I always choked up and chopped at the ball.”
Chopping worked for Groh. At a time when third base was a defensive position due to all the bunting and small ball being played, Groh became an offensive force for the Reds. He finished first in the National League in OBP in both 1917 and 1918, leading the NL in OPS in 1919, and finished in the top five in almost all offensive categories except for home runs from 1917-19. He led the league in fielding percentage five times and double plays four times.
Jake Beckley may be unfamiliar to most Reds fans, but he was a Hall of Fame first baseman from the turn of the 20th Century. I’m not certain how Beckley arrived in Cincinnati, but he, too, arrived from the Giant organization, this time on May 27, 1897 (sources vary on traded, acquired, and signed after release). Beckley batted over .300 six out of seven seasons with the Reds (he hit .294 one year) and is fourth all-time on the National League triples list with 243 during a time of very few home runs. He regularly finished in the top ten in all major offensive categories. On September 26, 1897, he hit three home runs in a single game for the Reds. He still holds the Major League record for most games played and putouts at first base.
Beckley was adept at using the hidden ball trick. He would hide the ball under a corner of the first base bag and tag the runner when the runner took a lead off first base. However, he had an extremely inaccurate arm. One story tells of during his time with the Cardinals, that Pirate Tommy Leach laid down a bunt which Beckley charged, fielded, and promptly threw the ball over the pitcher’s head covering first base. To redeem himself, the swift Beckley chased the ball down in foul territory in time to see Leach rounding third and heading for home. Instead of throwing the ball home, Beckley raced Leach to the plate as the crowd cheered. Beckley dove at Leach as Leach slid home feet first. Leach was called out and suffered two broken ribs.
Beckley’s time with the Reds wasn’t a championship one. Like another Hall of Famer Ernie Banks (and Adam Dunn) he never played on a team finishing first. Of his seven Reds’ teams, five did finish with winning records, winning as many as 92 games in 1898. His “most similar” player is another former Red Hall of Famer, Sam Crawford, who was also adept at hitting triples, and nine of his ten most similar players are Hall of Famers, though none are “truly similar” by definition.
A trend of recent years is for contending teams to make their pennant race deals earlier in the year rather than waiting to near the trade deadline when the price is higher. It will be interesting to see how the Reds evaluate our 2009 team.
Sources include “Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia” from the editors of Total Baseball, “The Cincinnati Reds” by Daniel Honig, and “Day by Day in Cincinnati Reds History” by Floyd Conner and John Snyder.