August 7, 1923: Reds pitcher, Dolf Luque, having one of the best seasons of any player in major league history, charges the New York Giants bench in the eighth inning of a Reds 6-2 loss.
The Reds entered the five-game series in second place, three games behind the league-leading Giants, before proceeding to lose five consecutive games at home to the eventual National League champions, dropping the Reds to third, eight games behind. Rumors were soon swirling about the Reds’ performance.
The August 7th game was the fourth of the five-game series and Luque’s second start in the series. Luque, who finished the year 27-8 with a 1.93 ERA, had one of his worst games of the year on August 4th against the Giants. He allowed 10 hits and seven runs in 4 1/3 innings in a Reds 14-4 loss, seeing his ERA rise from 1.67 to 1.94. He came back on two days rest and had another one of his worst games of the season, giving up 10 hits and six runs, his ERA rising to 2.12. The 6-2 loss dropped his record to 17-5.
Luque’s frustration erupted in the eighth inning. According to “Redleg Journal”
“Luque left the mound towards the Giants dugout in response to heckling and threw a punch at Casey Stengel. Luque was led away by teammates to the Cincinnati dugout, but grabbed a bat, and took off after Stengel once again. The Reds pitcher was disarmed before he could do any damage.”
Stengel is a Hall of Famer for his managerial career (3766-1905, seven World Series titles), but he also was a very good 14-year major league outfielder (career .284, .766 OPS, 119 OPS+). Platoon baseball was at its height during the 1920’s, and Stengel played almost exclusively against right handed pitchers at the end of his career. He batted .339 in 1923 with the Giants after hitting .368 in 1922 in the same role under Giants Hall of Fame manager John McGraw (career 4769-2763, three World Series titles).
Meanwhile, Luque was having one of the most outstanding seasons of any major league pitcher ever. His 27-8 season came following a hard luck 13-23 campaign (3.31 ERA, 120 ERA+). During the 1923 season, Luque completed 28 games, led the majors with six shutouts, and only allowed two home runs all year in 322 innings pitched. His 10.1 WAR (wins above replacement) was nearly 25% higher than second place Frankie Frisch (7.8 WAR). His 9.9 WAR as a pitcher is the 10th highest in modern National League history (since 1901). He also led the major leagues in 1925 with a 2.63 ERA (16-18 record with a 156 ERA+). Luque played 20 seasons in the majors, going 194-179, with a 3.24 ERA. With the Reds, he was 154-152 with a 3.09 ERA.
He played two seasons in the Negro leagues, but was light-skinned enough to play in the major leagues according to baseball-reference.com. He’s the oldest pitcher ever to have a post-season win, having won a World Series game at age 43 with the Giants. Dennis Eckersley, 42, and Kenny Rogers, 41, also have post season wins. A fierce competitor, Luque stood only 5-7 on the mound, weighing 160 pounds and was known as “The Pride of Havana” having been born, died, and buried in Cuba. Luque also played and managed 22 seasons in Cuba, winning 100 games as a pitcher. Tommy Lasorda played for Luque in Cuba and once related this Luque story:
“Lasorda said that Luque pulled out a gun in response to one of the pitchers who was begging off pitching due to a sore arm. The pitcher changed his mind: “All you gotta do is give me the ball,” he said then, and went out to pitch a two-hitter.”
The five game losing streak didn’t end the season for the Reds, but it drop them eight games off the pace. They lost two of three at home to the lowly Boston Braves, who finished the season 54-100, falling 8 1/2 games behind, before traveling to New York and taking four of five games from the Giants. The Reds narrowed the gap to 3 1/2 games on September 4th following a nine-game winning streak, but that was as close as they could get for the remainder of the year. A series of injuries finished off the Reds. Hall of Fame outfielder Edd Roush broke a rib and missed a month; steady star first baseman Jake Daubert was hit by a pitch and missed the rest of the season; his replacement, Lew Fonseca, was lost for the season after a homeplate collision; and shortstop Ike Caveney broke a rib on pitched ball to end his season.
Meanwhile, rumors began to fly about the Reds’ home performance against the Giants. The Reds had won the tainted 1919 World Series, and the Reds had previously employed some players who had been tied to similar gambling circles. A sports publication later alleged that two of the Reds every day position players had been approached to throw the games. From “Redleg Journal:”
“The Reds went into the series in second place and trailing the Giants by only three games, but lost five in a row to McGraw’s New Yorkers. The series had repercussions later when a sporting sheet called Collliers Eye alleged that Pat Duncan and Sammy Bohne had been approached by gamblers who offered them $15,000 each to lose the games. Duncan and Bohne were called to the office of National League President John Heydler for an investigation, and both players pleaded innocence. The two Reds sued the publication for defamation of character, and agreed to an undisclosed amount in an out-of-court settlement.”
Duncan was one of the Reds offensive forces from the outfield. In 1923, Duncan batted .327 with an .801 OPS and he scored 92 runs. He had been a Reds starter since 1920 and he ended his career with a .307 batting average. Second baseman Bohne batted .252 in 139 games for the Reds in 1923. He played six of his seven major league seasons for the Reds and was the fulltime starter at second base in both 1921 and 1923. His lifetime batting average was .261. Duncan and Bohne have not been suspected of wrongdoing in the years since the accusation.
The manager of the Reds was Pat Moran, one of the most underrated managers in Reds history. In five seasons with the Reds, he went 425-329, winning a World Championship, finishing second twice and third twice. He also managed four seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, winning a National League pennant and finishing second twice. Moran died of Bright’s disease during the 1924 Reds spring training season.