1943 – Rioting erupts between military personnel and Mexican American youth in East Los Angeles, dubbed the “Zoot Suit Riots”.
87-67, a .565 winning percentage. This Cincinnati Reds team finished in second place, which sounds good, but when you find out they were 18 games behind the first place Cardinals, it loses a little luster. The roster, again, was over the age of thirty on average. This had more to do with the war than the Reds not having young talent. Second place was the highest the Reds would finish until they won the 1961 pennant. During that span, they would go 1224-1392 and place higher than 4th a grand total of two times.
In retrospect, 1943 was an odd season. The war was in full flight and many feel it was the worst year for the Allies. The game and the fans were all affected by it. The Crosley Corporation was the largest employer in the city and their Richmond plant was making all sorts of prototype war vehicles. Many materials were hard to obtain. Rubber and tin drives were normal in neighborhoods across southwestern Ohio. The Reds, themselves, addressed the war effort. On Opening Day, they ran a Bond Drive and during the season they had a handful of late-morning start times (11:30 AM) to give early shift war workers a chance to see a game. Even then, the attendance was low as most families were unable to schedule leisure time activities—either busy supporting the war effort, in the service, or working at the local factory.
On the field, increased exhibitions were played at neighboring military camps. The Reds even squared off against the Great Lakes Naval Base team at Crosley in the late summer. All MLB teams were mandated to train close to home in the preseason and the Reds trained in Bloomington, in the Field House on the Indiana University campus. Other Midwestern teams, in both the major and minor leagues, trained in Indiana and the spring training season was unofficially called “The Limestone League”.
Who was Arriving?
In the 1933 capsule, we covered the plethora of trades that occurred between the cellar-dwelling Reds and the fat and happy St. Louis Cardinals. One of the deals brought Jim Bottomley to the team. Going the other way in that transaction was a left-handed outfielder from north of Portsmouth named Estel Crabtree, a 28-year-old who compiled over nine hundred plate appearances for the Reds the prior two seasons. Estel would appear in only 23 games for the Cardinals in 1933 and eventually be sent down to Rochester in the upper minors.
It would be eight years until he was back in the show. After a couple of seasons as a pinch hitter and spot starter, the native Ohioan was released by the Cardinals and picked up by the Reds. Since the then 39-year-old Estel swung a left-handed bat and was currently not wanted by the US for battle, he wound-up back in Cincinnati where he started. Estel is the perfect example of a minor league-lifer finding at bats during the war. His mere presence in lineups at age 39 and 40 speaks volumes about the quality of baseball being played in the early 1940’s. As a Red, he did double duty— pinch hitting and coaching. The Reds, cutting costs in the face of a wartime economy, had only three staff members on the field. Crabtree as a coach (and player), Hans Lobert (most famous for racing a horse), and manager McKechnie.
Who was Exiting?
The 1943 team had four starters who logged over 32 starts. The oldest was Ray Starr, another longtime minor league player who was initially signed by the Cardinals (are you noticing a pattern?) and joined the Cincinnati system in the 1930’s. When he lost his fastball in his mid-30’s, Starr reinvented himself with a new primary pitch (the knuckleball) and caught on with the Reds as the war was starting in 1942. Starr was plagued by a control problem during his minor league career, which was something the Reds didn’t want to test during their productive years of 1939 and 1940. But this time it was different; resources were at a low ebb and any man who could throw the ball got a chance, or in Starr’s case, another chance.
Ray Starr made the best of his opportunity in Cincinnati in 1942 and 1943, facing over 2000 batters in almost 500 innings, even making the All-Star game in 1942, but unfortunately he did not play. Starr credited his success to having the chance to pitch regularly, “If I lay off, my arm gets too much strength in it. The ball feels as light as a pea, and I can’t do nuthin’ with it. I want it to feel heavy.” Nonetheless, the path Starr set off on as a 20-year-old in 1926 was nearing an end. His 217 innings were significantly lower than the 276 he threw in 1942 and, at the age of 37, the Reds could not guarantee that he would be in their future, even with a war going on. Starr held out in the spring of 1944, demanding more work, but the Reds refused to promise anything and eventually moved him to the Pirates in May 1944. He bounced around a few years, suffering from arm issues and little work, and left the game for good at the age of 40.
Who was Having a Cup of Coffee?
Texan Lon Goldstein was tall and lanky and swung his heavy bat left-handed with some sock, something the Reds didn’t have much of. In 1943 at age 25, he was called up to the team late in the season where he had only seven plate appearances—the exact definition of a “cup of coffee”. After that season, he was in the service for the duration of the war and did return to Cincinnati for another cup of coffee (six plate appearances) in 1946, but then never played in the majors again.
Goldstein returned to Texas to play minor league ball and made a name for himself in Ft. Worth, etching out a fine minor league career. In the last 3000 PA’s Goldstein compiled in minor league ball, he hit .332/.421/.480/.901. This, and his post career life in the city, made him semi-famous. Today, a 2,000-seat baseball stadium in town has been called “Lon Goldstein Field” since it was built in 1975 and still hosts games. He had 13 MLB plate appearances and a long life in baseball—not a bad resume.
Also appearing for the briefest moment in 1943 was Jack Niemes, who was born in Cincinnati ten days after the Reds won the 1919 World Series. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati before being inked by the Reds, Jack snuck into the box scores for a grand total of three innings in 1943, after missing the whole 1942 season. He appeared in three blowout losses, each spaced out more than a month, despite sitting in the bullpen all season. His final appearance was on September 11th in an 11-1 loss to the Pirates when he replaced a young, left-handed first basemen named Lon Goldstein, who had made his MLB debut the prior inning when he singled. After 1943, Niemes would join the Navy. He would never pitch another game in professional baseball after the war.
Who was Managing?
Manning the bench was “The Deacon” Bill McKechnie, in his sixth season with the Reds. McKechnie came into the game in his early 20’s, managed a Federal League team at age 28, was a throw-in in the Mathewson/Roush deal in 1916, won a World Championship managing the Pirates in 1925, lost to the Yankees as the Cardinals manager in 1928, and managed Babe Ruth’s last game as a Boston Brave. That’s all before he came to the Reds and etched his name into their wall of history.
McKechnie was a throwback. A pitching and defense-first manager, he leaned hard on glove men and pitchers who were consistent, worked long, and didn’t make mistakes. From 1920 to 1970, only three teams had a pitcher who compiled all the saves for his team and The Deacon was the manager of two of them. He preferred older pitchers and he liked complete games. The 1940 Reds completed 91 games, 40% more than the league average. Bucky Walters started 296 games as a Red and completed 195 of them (66%). He was what McKechnie wanted on the mound. Paul Derringer and Walters started 43% of the Reds games from 1939-1942, an amazing stat at that time.
Since he was glove-first, a lot of his offenses were subpar, and lacked left-handed hitting. In the end, the game caught up with him as offense was climbing and parks were shrinking. By 1946, it was obvious that McKechnie had run into a wall in Cincinnati, as had his pitching-centric world. Due to conservative estimates on talent, lower income from Crosley’s empire, and uneasy feeling about the end of the war, the Reds slowed their scouting and attempts to sign many players during the war years. Following the end of the conflict, they had fewer prospects than teams like New York, Brooklyn and Philadelphia, who acted more aggressively during the war years.
Who was Running the Business?
In 1943, Powell Crosley owned the majority of the shares that made up the Cincinnati Baseball Club. He also ran a LOT of other businesses that were knee deep in the war effort. Since his wife passed away in 1939, Crosley turned his attention to his corporations, not the Reds. An astute businessman who knew he could not be successful without successful people around him, he gave free reign to Warren Giles to run the Cincinnati Baseball Club’s business. Giles, who (surprise!!) was once employed by the Cardinals, was well-respected throughout the game and had been with the Reds since Larry MacPhail moved on. To highlight how involved Giles was in the National League’s business, one only need to look at the issue of the quality of play in 1943.
What was the problem?
It was the ball.
It was dead.
The Baseball has several inside layers that utilize rubber. In 1943, the USA and MLB obtained their rubber from companies based in Southeast Asia, where there was a war going on. And, as they do, the war was affecting the ability to execute business deals involving resources. In search of an alternative, MLB turned to the ballmakers for a solution. After testing and pricing options, manufacturers and the league created a ball that utilized a product called “balata”, which was not as elastic as rubber even though it was also made from tropical trees. Balata was used for many manufacturing needs including gaskets and the shells of golf balls, but it was NOT a good choice for baseballs and failed miserably.
Warren Giles was a driver in fixing that.
In April of 1943, Giles was perturbed by a slew of low scoring games at the start of the Reds season. In the first seven games, the Reds scored 13 runs and their opponents, 9. Meanwhile, the Cardinals scored 14 runs and their opponents, 10. Giles could see where this was leading. In a war-depressed economy, entertainment was important and, in baseball, entertainment usually meant offense. Faulting balata for the balls’ lack of buoyancy, Giles spearheaded a drive to get the spring back in the ball before the fans fled.
As described in the press: “Up to the roof of Crosley Field went the G.M., carrying a bag with a dozen balata balls—now in use at all the ball parks—and another sack of good old 1942 Spalding’s that had remained in the Reds’ equipment room. Giles’s head groundskeeper waited on the sidewalk below. Performing a task that could never have been in any general manager’s job description, Giles started dropping baseballs off the roof. The groundskeeper carefully measured the bounces off the concrete pavement. On average, an old ball bounced 13 feet in the air. A balata ball bounced 9½ feet. Applying the findings of the great Crosley Field roof-to-sidewalk experiment, Giles judged that the balata ball was 26.9% less resilient than its predecessor.
The verdict: 26.9% less resilience.
To remedy this, Major League Baseball immediately authorized the use of balls in storage from the prior year. A controversy occurred later in the season when the Dodgers got a hold of the 1942 balls before the rest of the league, scoring 11 runs in the first contest using the balls. Throughout the year, a few games with less offense caused some finger-pointing that the balata ball was used. After a year, rubber was no longer an issue and supplies became available in South America. MLB was able to restore the practice of manufacturing rubber baseballs and all was well with the sphere—a major component of the games’ offense.
What was the Attendance?
379,122. Thirty doubleheaders were on the team’s schedule in 1943. Fewer night games, odd start times, and doubleheaders ruled the MLB schedule, all war related. Households were fragmented and often had to prioritize budgetary or war work-related issues before purchasing a ticket to the ballpark. In Cincinnati, it was particularly true, and the Reds would place seventh out of the eight franchises in packing fans into the ballpark during what many term as “The darkest year of the war”.
Any Hall of Famers?
Just the manager, Bill McKenchie.
Poorly funded, the Reds of the war years did not invest many (if any) dollars into their future. They stopped purchasing players and cut scouting. By the end of the war they realized their mistake, as the team sank to the bottom of the league standings. By June of 1948, they were a team light on stars, depth, and teachers. Other teams, like the Dodgers, Giants and Phillies, were poised for the next ten years, while the Reds again faced turmoil for their lack of innovation and cocoon of conservatism.
You can read the other 10-year time capsules here.
Super neat article. Thanks Brian!
Another well researched and interesting article from this series. I also suggest that it would come to no surprise to most that the “ways” of Cincinnati and tradition of following behind were ingrained in the culture long before Bobby C. told helm. From this and previous stories, I did not realize though that the Cardinal’s “shepherding” of Cincinnati went back another 30 years or so before the well documented 1960s era. Where would we be without them? Sometimes better for not being taken advantage of but probably most of the time worse for lack of insight and strategy.
Very interesting read. Such a rich history for both the Reds and the game itself.