The Redlegs tied the major league record in team home runs with 221 in 1956. The Redlegs had learned to use the home run to score runs and most of their offense was built around that concept. However, their defense was atrocious, as they allowed far more runs than the league average from 1956-1960, with the exception of 1958.
The Redlegs made a good pitching deal in 1956, when they acquired Brooks Lawrence from the St. Louis Cardinals for journeyman reliever Jackie Collum. Lawrence won his first 13 decisions for the Reds in 1956 en route to a 19-10 season. He was 16-13 in 1957 then suffered two losing seasons on his way out of baseball.
The Redlegs’ pitching was faltering. Lawrence and Joe Nuxhall were in decline, the Harvey Haddix deal had not turned out as well as expected, and youngsters Jim O’Toole and Jay Hook had promise, but were not ready to deliver on it.
The Redlegs went to the trade market and came up with a prize in knuckleballing Bob Purkey. Purkey had been languishing as a reliever and part-time starter with the Pirates for four years, when the Reds acquired him for reliever Don Gross. Gross gave the Pirates about 100 innings of baseball before retiring; Purkey became an all-star pitcher for the Redlegs, going 103-76 with Cincinnati, including an outstanding 23-5 season in 1962 with a 2.81 ERA, 18 complete games, and finishing third in the Cy Young voting.
In the 1961 pennant winning season, Purkey was 16-12 and was the starting pitcher in one of the two all-star games played that year. From 1957 through 1962, Purkey posted Redleg win totals of 17, 13, 17, 16, and 23 before slumping to six wins in 1963. After one more double digit win season in 1964, Purkey was dealt to the Cardinals where he finished his career about one year later.
Soon after Bill DeWitt became General Manager of the Reds he sought more pitching help for Purkey and young lefthander Jim O’Toole. Joey Jay, the first Little Leaguer to make it the major leagues had been a “bonus baby” for the Milwaukee Braves and had been a big leaguer since age 17. After signing for a $40,000 bonus, he had to remain with the Braves for two seasons before he could to go the minors for training. Jay spent seven seasons with the Braves, earning two wins in his first four seasons with the Braves, and 22 in the next three seasons with Milwaukee.
The Braves had been World Champions in 1957, and National League champs in 1958, but fell to second in both 1959 and 1960. Milwaukee had lots of pitching, but their all-star shortstop Johnny Logan was in decline. Meanwhile, the Redlegs had hitting, had several young infielders coming up through the system (including young Leo Cardenas), and needed pitching.
The Redlegs’ Roy McMillan was an outstanding defensive shortstop, the shortstop that long time Reds pitcher and announcer Joe Nuxhall once said was the best he ever saw. McMillan became the Redlegs starting shortstop at age 21, but by 26 his range had dropped nearly 20 percent. He was still a quality shortstop and won the first Gold Gloves offered at the shortstop position, but his bat was extremely anemic (his lifetime batting average is .243). By age 30, the Reds felt it was time to move on and dealt him to the Braves for Joey Jay. McMillan played through age 36, retiring from baseball after the 1966 season.
Jay was fantastic in his first season with Cincinnati, leading the league with 21 wins and 4 shutouts. He won the Redlegs only World Series victory that season against the Yankees and followed up his 1961 season with an outstanding 1962, going 21-14 with 16 complete games.
However, Jay did not fare as well in 1963 as some rule changes apparently affected Jay’s game (Jay’s record was 7-18). With the Dodgers (especially Maury Wills and Willie Davis) pushing the speed game, Jay decided to try some tricks of his own to slow down the Dodger runners.
“Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia” says that Jay would sometimes come to a full stop at the waist; sometimes he would hurry his windup; sometimes he would not wind up at all. This sometimes worked against the Dodgers, but NL managers complained. The rules committee then mandated a complete stop at the belt. Jay suffered and saw his record fall to 7-18. He rebounded to win 11 in 1964, and won 15 more over the next two seasons. He was done at age 30.
Jay finished his career with a 99-91 record over 13 seasons with a 3.77 ERA. He also finished with 999 strikeouts. Some Jay trivia: he hit two career homers and both came in the expansion season in 1962. Jay hit the first home runs as a pitcher against each of the two expansion teams, the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45’s.
Lefthanded pitcher Juan Pizarro was included in this trade, but he was a pawn for another trade the Redlegs made that day. Pizarro was an outstanding pitching prospect himself. Pizarro had won 29 games as a part-time starter with the Braves from ages 20-23. The Redlegs dealt Pizarro and veteran starter Cal McLish to the White Sox for third baseman Gene Freese to cover the hole left there following the failed Frank Thomas acquisition. Thomas had been acquired in the deal that sent Redleg starting third baseman Don Hoak to what became the World Champion Pirates. Hoak finished second in the 1960 MVP voting while the Reds were scrambling to find someone to man the hot corner.
Pizarro pitched 18 seasons in the majors, finishing with a 131-105 record, a 3.43 ERA and 79 complete games. His two best seasons came with the White Sox in 1963 and 1964 when he went 16-8 with a 2.39ERA, and then 19-9 with a 2.56 ERA. He spent the most of the rest of his career pitching out of the bullpen.
Pizarro was flipped that same day for Freese, who immediately became the Redlegs starting third baseman. In 1961 Freese batted .277 with 26 homers and 77 rbi. It was his second career season of 20+ home runs. Freese played parts of the next five seasons before leaving baseball, never to duplicate the success of his early years. McLish won 10 games for the White Sox, who dealt him to the Phillies where he gave them two good seasons.
Acquiring Jay and Purkey allowed the Reds to match them up with lefty Jim O’Toole to give them three excellent starting pitchers. Freese’s big year gave them an extra bat to push them over the top. There was still lots of talent in the farm system which played a large part in building the Big Red Machine, but they also gave a lot of it away over the next few seasons.