After being the National League doormat for several seasons, the 1938 Reds gave notice to the National League that a new contender was in town. A great example was May 17, 1938, when the Reds pounded out 22 hits in a 13-1 route of the Philadelphia Phillies.
New Reds first baseman Frank McCormick led the hit parade with four hits, including two doubles and two singles, while driving in four runs. Outfielders Dusty Cooke and Ival Goodman contributed three hits as did catcher Ernie Lombardi. Even pitcher Paul Derringer collected three hits, raising his batting average to .348 while limiting the Phillies to only four hits himself. The Reds connected for seven doubles, one triple, and one home run. The Reds were in fourth place, seven games out of first at this time, a huge improvement over the previous several seasons. The Reds finished the season in fourth, 11 games behind the Chicago Cubs, but the blueprint for success had been completed.
The 1934 team was the worst team in Cincinnati Reds history, going back to 1882. Posting a 52-99 record, their won-loss percentage was .344 and they finished 42 games behind the first place St. Louis Cardinals. The 1937 Reds were the second worst team in franchise history, finishing 56-98 for a .364 mark and 40 games behind the first place New York Giants. The team was built on speed and aging veterans, seemingly an oxymoron, but which corresponded to the style favored by manager Chuck Dressen. Dressen had taken over the team late in 1934 overseeing two of the worst seasons in Reds history. (As an odd side note….Dressen was manager of the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers, the best Dodger team of the modern era. That Dodger team finished 105-49 with a .682 won-loss percentage.)
Things changed with the hiring of 16-year veteran manager Bill McKechnie. McKechnie stressed pitching and defense and the dividends were almost instantaneous.
One of McKechnie’s first moves was to “free” first baseman Frank “Buck” McCormick from the Reds’ minor leagues. McCormick previously had two cups of coffee for the Reds, first in 1934 (.313 in 16 plate appearances) and again in 1937 (.325 in 87 plate appearances), but McKechnie handed him the starting first base job in 1938 at age 27. McCormick responded by hitting .327 with 209 hits, 40 doubles, 106 rbi, and a 5th place finish in MVP balloting. He wasn’t the prototypical slugging first baseman, hitting only 5 home runs, but he was a terrific fielder, an RBI machine, and a great leader. McCormick became a nine-time all-star and won the league MVP in 1940.
The other changes to the Reds every day lineup were to replace aging future Hall of Famer Chick Hafey in the outfield with a younger, quicker Harry Craft. Later in the year, slugging second baseman Alex Kampouris was traded to the Giants for an even more powerful slugger in outfielder Wally Berger. Berger took Cooke’s spot in the lineup, who had replaced another aging Hall of Famer from the 1937 outfield, Kiki Cuyler. Replacing Kampouris at second base was future all-star Lonny Frey, purchased from the Chicago Cubs.
The other major acquisition was to steal converted third baseman-now starting pitcher Bucky Walters from the Philadelphia Phillies for lefty starting pitcher Al Hollingsworth and aging catcher Spud Davis. Walters became the best pitcher in the National League over the next several seasons, winning the pitcher’s Triple Crown in 1939 with a 27-11 record, a 2.29 ERA and a league leading 137 strikeouts. He was the league’s MVP in 1939 (there was no Cy Young Award). For his career Walters finished in the top three in MVP balloting three different times.
The youth movement prevailed. The Reds won the National League pennant in 1939 with a 97-57 record before losing to the New York Yankees in the World Series. McKechnie’s Reds won it all in 1940, completing the season with a 100-53 record and defeating the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.