Reds became 1940 World Series champs — the hard way


It is a wonder Oct. 8 is not a permanently acknowledged major holiday in Cincinnati, a no-school day.

As much as the city loves baseball and its own status in the game’s history, the celebration of the 1940 World Series championship probably deserves an annual parade.

It was the first Reds World Series crown since 1919 when they were the beneficiaries of the Black Sox Scandal, the nefarious Chicago White Sox players putting the fix in, and it was the last for 35 years, a series captured by the Big Red Machine.

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In 1940, the boisterous partying in the streets outside Crosley Field was said to be as massive and energetic as anything seen in Cincinnati since the end of World War I. One contemporary article read, “It looked like Lindbergh, just in from Paris, was coming up Walnut Street had run into Admiral Byrd coming over Fourth Street.”

In the age of exploration, it was hard to be a bigger deal than pilot Charles Lindbergh, the first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, or polar explorer Richard Byrd.

At that moment, though, Ernie Lombardi, Frank McCormick, Bucky Walters, Paul Derringer and Bill McKechnie were the most beloved sons of the city, the sluggers, the pitchers and the manager.

These Reds had overcome a multiyear rap as losers to build something special, overcame mid-season tragedy, mid-Series drama, to emerge triumphant, beating the Detroit Tigers of Hank Greenberg, four games to three to become world champions.

After a 100-53 regular season secured the National League pennant, McKechnie said this Reds team was the best club he had managed. Then, McKechnie, who became the first manager to lead two different franchises to world championships after doing it with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1925, raved about the caliber of the series itself.

“The best I ever saw in all my experience in baseball,” McKechnie said.

The background

After not recording a winning season between 1929 and 1937, the Reds finished 82-68 and gained stupendous attention in a unique way in ‘38, McKechnie’s first season in Cincinnati.

After a cameo in 1937, Johnny Vander Meer essentially was a newcomer, too. In June, Vander Meer became the only pitcher in Major League history to throw consecutive no-hitters, the second one against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the first big league night game.

No one has matched that feat, and no one will break it by hurling three straight no-hitters. Time has only extended the special nature of the accomplishment, but it was also an instant sensation.

Tossing a no-hitter is a major achievement for any major leaguer, and pitching two is an even bigger rarity since there have been only 303 in 143 baseball seasons.

Hundreds of residents from his hometown of Midland, New Jersey, were in Brooklyn to honor Vander Meer with gifts for his first no-hitter. What a grand prize he gave them back with a second.

“I was trying for it all the way,” Vander Meer said. “From the first batter on, I bore down. I tried to whip that ball past every one of ‘em. No flies, no grounders. I wanted strikeouts.”

There was already a party atmosphere underway at Ebbets Field being the debut game under the lights. Jesse Owens, three years removed from winning four Olympic gold medals, and Babe Ruth, four years into retirement, were guests.

One news account referred to Brooklyn supporters turning to Vander Meer’s side as “hysterical psychopaths.” Vander Meer was a national celebrity by the time he woke up the next morning. As reporters besieged his family home, he slipped away to go fishing.

Vander Meer’s eruption into celebrityhood and the Reds’ winning record prodded the local fans to giddiness.

In 1939, McKechnie led Cincinnati to its first pennant in 20 years. Though the Reds were swept in the World Series 4-0 by the New York Yankees, the team savored the experience.

Vander Meer ran into arm problems, but the brilliance of Walters and Derringer carried the team to the flag. Walters, a converted third baseman, was 30 and was not on the radar screen of stars when the season started. Derringer went 25-7.

By the end of the Reds’ 97-victory year, Walters was the National League’s biggest winner with 27 Ws, a 2.29 earned run average, 31 complete games and was chosen NL Most Valuable Player.

Walters was revered as a teammate and by management.

“Your contributions to the success of the Reds, the prestige of the National League and the integrity of professional baseball cannot be accurately or adequately revealed in a printed record,” said Reds Vice President Warren Giles. “Your loyalty, your courage, your unselfish interest in the team as a whole and genuine desire for the success of your teammates have combined to make you an inspiration of all.”

The 1940 season

Losing the World Series left the Reds hungry.

Officials spent money and swapped players to increase the team’s potency. By then, Cincinnati was the preseason favorite, and that was even with Vander Meer a temporary afterthought in the rotation.

Walters won 22 games and Derringer 20 this time around. Newcomer Gene Thompson was the flavor of the season with a 16-9 mark, scavenged pickup Jim Turner was 14-7 at 36 and reliever Joe Beggs 12-3. Vander Meer, shunted aside, went just 3-1.

Turner was a late bloomer, winning 20 games as a 33-year-old rookie for the Boston Braves a few years earlier, while leading the NL in earned run average. After growing up on a dairy farm, Turner acquired the baseball nickname of “The Milkman” because he always delivered.

“It may be that life begins at 40, but I’m sure that a pitcher’s life doesn’t end at 30,” Turner said.

The big gun at the plate was Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi. Some say he was the slowest runner in baseball history, and indeed, he stole just eight bases in a 17-year career. But Lombardi compensated with fielding talent and line-drive hitting. A rare two-time batting champion as a catcher, Lombardi hit .319 in 1940.

Another big-bat wielder was first baseman Frank McCormick, who that summer hit .309 with 19 homers and 127 runs batted in. Newcomer Mike McCormick, not related to Frank, batted .300. They were the only three regulars who hit at least .300.

Willard Hershberger, Lombardi’s backup catcher, was a key substitute when the strong man’s knees needed rest.

Californian Hershberger turned 30 in May and was batting .309 in 133 plate appearances, but with zero homers. Hershberger could be moody and on July 31 became depressed because he thought he cost the team a loss in the ninth inning. Hershberger held this against himself more than the other Reds did.

The play haunted him, and McKechnie noticed he was acting strangely. The manager asked Hershberger to join him in his hotel room to talk over his woes. Hershberger told McKechnie his father committed suicide and he was contemplating the same.

“He cried like a kid,” McKechnie said.

The men spoke for two hours. Hershberger said he was feeling better, and McKechnie took him for a roast beef dinner.

It came out later that on Aug. 2, Hershberger visited a drug store and bought a bottle of iodine intending to poison himself. The next day, Aug. 3, the Reds hung around the hotel lobby waiting to leave for a doubleheader against Boston. One by one, players jumped into taxi cabs to the ballpark, several inviting Hershberger to join them. To each, he said, he was waiting for a friend and would be along soon.

He was lying. When the team collected in the clubhouse, McKechnie asked other players where Hershberger was. They said they had last seen him in the Copley Plaza lobby. Now alarmed, McKechnie asked team executive Gabe Paul to telephone Hershberger in his room. It was 1:10 p.m.

Hershberger said he was sick, and Paul said to come to the park in street clothes anyway. Instead, Hershberger shaved with his electric razor, pulled out the bathroom towels and spread them on the floor, then used his roommate’s sharp-bladed razor to cut his own throat.

At the park, McKechnie asked a friend of Hershberger’s who was traveling with the team to check out the missing player. The man knocked on the hotel room door. No answer. He talked a maid into letting him look in the room, where everything appeared fine. Then he peeked into the bathroom.

McKechnie was informed, left the team in coach Hank Gowdy’s hands with orders not to say anything until after the second game, and returned to the hotel. The shocked team later gathered in McKechnie’s room.

“Hershberger was a highly intelligent, extremely high-strung boy,” McKechnie said. “I wish I knew yesterday what I know now, that he has always been subject to spells of extreme melancholia.”

Coincidentally, the Reds had three days off from the schedule to help recover. They needed the break.

“We were shocked and saddened and terribly depressed,” said third baseman Bill Werber, who was one of Hershberger’s best friends on the team.

The Reds were thrown out of rhythm, but they had a cushion and won the pennant by 12 games. By World Series time, their minds were right again.

The World Series

This was long before Major League Baseball added layers of playoffs. There was a pennant winner in each league, and the winners went head to head.

The Reds’ primary goal was to get back to the World Series and win it. This version of the Reds felt more mature and experienced than the 1939 group. The 1940 team itched to make up for the four-game sweep of the year before.

For a change, the American League representative was not the Yankees. The Reds would have liked a second crack at New York. Instead, Cincinnati drew the Detroit Tigers. Detroit had been in two World Series in the 1930s.

Detroit won 90 games, 10 fewer than the Reds. The Tigers had the best attendance in the American League at 1.1 million. Offensively, they were spearheaded by outfielder Hank Greenberg, who clubbed 41 home runs with 150 runs batted in and a .340 batting average, and second baseman Charlie Gehringer, who hit .313. Both ended up in the Hall of Fame.

The Tigers also featured first baseman Rudy York at his peak with 33 homers, 133 RBI and a .316 average and outfielder Barney McCloskey, having a career season with a .340 batting average.

Detroit lacked pitching depth but had a formidable 1-2 at the top of the rotation in Bobo Newsom, 21-5, and Schoolboy Rowe, 16-3.

Several Tiger players had strong national identification. Greenberg was the most prominent Jewish athlete in the country and battled antisemitism. While making an appearance on a radio show, Rowe blurted out a private message to his wife, “How’m I doing, Edna?” He was forever ridiculed for that outburst.

Newsom, whose given name was Louis, could not remember others’ names, so he called everyone Bobo. Then it was turned around and applied to him. Newsom had a career of extremes. He won 211 games but lost 222, yet he was selected for three All-Star teams while playing for nine clubs.

He nearly ruined the Reds’ dreams in 1940. The Tigers won the opener 7-2 behind Newsom. Cincinnati, with Bucky Walters throwing, evened the series. Detroit won the third game and then Derringer evened it again for the Reds.

Game 5 mixed tragedy, emotion and remarkable achievement under pressure. Newsom pitched an 8-0 shutout the day after his father passed away in a hotel during a family party celebrating his son. Newsom held himself in check until he met reporters postgame and then cried.

“I pitched this game for my dad,” Newsom said. “I hope he knows what I accomplished. I know in my heart he wanted me to win. This was the one I wanted to win most.”

Trailing 3-2 in games, Reds relied on Walters, and he retaliated with a five-hit shutout to force a Game 7. On one day’s rest, Newsom was slated for the Tigers. The Reds came back with Derringer.

The finale lasted just 1 hour, 47 minutes, Newsom nursing a 1-0 lead from the third inning to the bottom of the seventh when the Reds rallied on two doubles, a bunt and a sacrifice fly.

Lombardi had a sprained ankle, so coach Jimmie Wilson was activated, started six of the games at catcher, batted .353, and defying his own muscle cramps, limped home with the winning run.

“Boy, am I a helluva base runner,” Wilson joked.

The team voted Hershberger’s mother a full winner’s World Series share.

Fans turned downtown into bedlam with one newspaper saying it was like “New Year’s Eve, election night and Halloween all rolled into one.”

The Reds did not win another pennant until 1961, and they did not win another World Series until 1975. Cincinnati was overdue for another baseball party.

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