Part 1 of 4

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.

Salvador Dali

The Reds are currently in the midst of their worst run of seasons since the late 1940’s, as of late they have been wallowing in the pool of bad pitching, historically bad pitching. No team is infallible and occasionally franchises do dip their toe into the pool, some seem to even soak their feet longer than others, getting wrinkled skin in the process. In the 21st century the Reds have chosen to dive headfirst into the pool and take a nice long swim. How bad has it been? The past three seasons in Cincinnati has resulted in a team ERA above 5.00, each poor enough to rank in the top 25 of the worst ERA’s in modern National League history. That’s how bad it has been. The Reds have had as much success finding pitching as Ethan Frome had sledding.

Compounding already difficult matters is the current state of the Reds front office. At best they have been guilty of being stiff and inactive, at worst they can be accused of attacking the Reds pitching weakness like the Three Stooges attacked a plumbing job. At the close of the 2005 season Reds fans resigned that more losing was ahead, highlighted by yet another long winter of minor moves and washed-up veteran signings. With that hovering above the horizon, it looked to be a bleak winter indeed.

This all shifted in early November, when an announcement gave long suffering fans a faint glimmer of hope.

Carl Lindner agreed Wednesday to sell his controlling interest in the Cincinnati Reds to a group of area businessmen, keeping baseball’s first professional franchise in local hands. The group is headed by Robert Castellini, chairman of a Cincinnati-based Produce Company, and Tom and Joe Williams, relatives of a family that owned the team when it became the Big Red Machine in the 1970s.

Reds Press Release 11-2-05

Ownership transfer can and should be an exciting moment for teams that float aimlessly across the lunchrooms of the game. Any change is good when you spend most of your seasons enviously sneaking peaks at the popular kids table, watching them all having a good time day after day as the Reds have regularly been doing since the 70’s. Most fans forced to live with this sense of mediocrity harbor secret sugar daddy wishes from new ownership, others just want a different approach to be considered, which in the baseball world should also imply a fresh blueprint when it comes to how the team is developed, deployed and marketed, especially if your team lives in the long shadow of a dynasty like the Big Red Machine.

In a provincial town like Cincinnati change is not always warmly embraced, it’s not unusual for many of the writers to end up more focused on the local ownership angle than on the changes it might bring.

Even with a new stadium and 40-year lease, there is still more than the usual worry about where the Reds owner currently gets his mail delivered.

“In selecting the Castellini group, the commitment of Bob Castellini and Tom and Joe Williams to our community was a very important factor to all of us,”

George Strike Reds Minority Owner 11/02/2005

Over the years much handwringing has occurred in Cincinnati over the issue of local ownership. This concern is often loud and borderline xenophobic in nature. Outside interests haven’t staked ownership in the Reds since Indianapolis resident John Brush ran the team in the 1890’s. He also happened to own a piece of the Giants at the time and orchestrated the theft of Christy Matthewson, relegating the Reds to the second division for much of the early 20th century.”

Having witnessed the movement of many franchises in the 50’s and 60’s and having fought off suitors, the Cincinnatians possessed a fear of outside groups running the city’s longest held sports franchise. Of course every coin has two sides and the side effect caused by this handwringing is that the more pertinent details involved in the business of baseball, such as the state of the new owners baseball acumen, often get overlooked in the parade to congratulate the local hero for saving the ball team from some carpetbagger city.

This is best exhibited in the most recent chief executives of the Reds, one legendary for her lack of baseball knowledge (Marge Schott), and the other for his business success outside the game and subsequent failure as an owner of the local nine (Carl Lindner).
After years of egg on your face management in the Reds organization, a change was on the horizon and perhaps a glimmer of hope could be found near the end of the press release.

Two of the Williams’ descendants — Thomas and William Jr. — will be part of the new ownership group with Castellini, who would become the team’s chief operating officer. All three are part of the St. Louis Cardinals’ ownership group led by Bill DeWitt Jr. and would have to sell their interests in that club.

Reds Press Release 11-2-05

Three former Reds owner’s names mentioned, a brief flash that touches the memory of the best times in the long history of baseball in Cincinnati, great column filler for the local writers, rehashing the Crosley era and the Big Red Machine never gets old in Cincinnati.
The Williams Brothers’ father and uncle both owned a piece of the Reds in the Big Red Machine era and Bill DeWitt Jr. the current Cardinals owner is a Cincinnati resident and got his start in baseball when his father owned the Reds in the early 60’s. Since the DeWitt group purchased the Cardinals in 1996, they have had the second best winning percentage in the National League. The Reds on the other hand in that time frame ranked 11th.

The dreamers and optimists may see this as a faint glimmer of hope that the new owners might have an inkling of what they are going to do to when they are in control. There is a world of difference between the Reds and the Cardinals organizations at this point and time, is it possible that someone from the St. Louis Cardinals could help Reds fix their lingering problem?

We shouldn’t be surprised, it’s not as though it hasn’t happened numerous times before.

The Reds have a rarely mentioned family secret. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s also not the cloth from which local baseball legends are cut from. Simply put, without the St.Louis Cardinals influence, the Reds might never have gotten their act together during the Depression. They might never have rebuilt their struggling franchise, had the first night game, Won NL championships in 1939 and 1940, nor sculpt Crosley into the legendary park most remember it to have been. Without the Cardinals, the Big Red Machine doesn’t happen the way it did. Without the Cardinals the Reds could have vacated Cincinnati during the Depression.

This of course did happen. All of the above came to blossom 101 years ago when the Cincinnati Reds crossed paths with a ballplayer named Branch Rickey.

“Late that season, the Reds thought they had dug up a fine young catching prospect, a brainy youth by the name of Branch Rickey. He accompanied the team to Rushville, Indiana and performed behind the bat for them in an exhibition game. But the young Rickey refused to play on Sunday, and the Reds, not being Sabbatarians, passed him up.”

“They were to meet him frequently later.”

Lee Allen The History of the Cincinnati Reds

Allen’s passage lays the groundwork for one of the most important relationships in Cincinnati baseball history, one that has been almost as important as local ownership has been, and certainly one that has been more advantageous to the baseball side of the ledger.

From 1934 to 1978 each one of the Reds GM’s worked for or with Branch Rickey, all of them save Bob Howsam came to the Reds when Rickey was with the Cardinals. Each man brought a part of the Rickey method to Cincinnati, and the end result was the Big Red Machine Era. This connection is perhaps one of the main reasons why the Reds are still in Cincinnati and not just a memory sewed on a retro jersey at Foot Locker.

Twenty-two years after the Reds cut him, Rickey had weaved a career as college coach and American League manager. In 1914 he gained notoriety for the use of a stopwatch to time base runners speed and pitchers delivery time to the plate. After jumping to the National League in 1919, he built the Cardinals into the most efficient team of the 1920s, buying only one player for cash from 1919-1939. This was the start of an amazing twenty year run that produced a .593 winning percentage, nine National League titles and six World Series triumphs. Rickey then moved to the Dodgers where he repeated the process in Brooklyn.

No one since has had the vision of Rickey. He was an innovator, teacher, organizer, talent evaluator and dynasty builder. He changed the landscape of baseball from his emergence in 1914, blending the dieing science of inside baseball, the art of scratching for runs during the deadball era with the calculating precision of today’s Moneyball approach to valuing the marketplace. When power came into vogue he seamlessly moved that aspect of the game into his arsenal. Ever the teacher, Rickey enabled those who learned from him to take those skills and apply them to the teams they ran.

The Reds are one of the lucky recipients of that style and their 4-decade run of Rickey-trained executives is responsible for the majority of the high points in Cincinnati Reds team history.

Seven years after the Cardinals surprised the world by beating the Yankees in the 1926 World Series, the Reds were finishing up their fourth straight seasons of sub .400 baseball. The team was so bad that only 218,000 fans came out to see them play in 1933.

————————————————–

1930  7th     59   95  .383   33   
1931  8th     58   96  .377   43   
1932  8th     60   94  .390   30   
1933  8th     58   94  .382   33   

————————————————–

The Innovator

Larry MacPhail
1934-1936

W        L       PCT    
194      264     .424

Following Sidney Weil’s final gasp to hold on to the team he handed the Reds over to the The Central Trust Company, later that year the National League owners’ meeting convened, with the issue of who should run the team on its docket. Branch Rickey suggested and endorsed Larry MacPhail. Oddly enough MacPhail had entered the baseball world when he purchased the Columbus AA team from a financially strapped Reds in 1931. MacPhail immediately turned the lethargic Columbus organization around, taking the baseball industry by storm with his success, highlighted by his introduction of night baseball to the American Association. The next year he sold the club at a profit to the Cardinals and continued on as the GM, thus beginning his long time tumultuous association with Branch Rickey.

It was MacPhail’s marketing plans that enabled Columbus to outdraw many of the Major League teams in 1933, including their parent team the Cardinals, who were drawing so poorly in the their two-team city that possible moves to Montreal and Detroit were explored early in the decade. Despite the continued success of Columbus under MacPhail, the two men could not coexist and soon MacPhail found himself a former Cardinal employee. Despite their differences, Rickey knew that MacPhail had the ability to turn around the Cincinnati franchise. An endorsement from the successful Cardinals GM was enough for the Central Trust Company’s immediate needs. In December of 1933, MacPhail took the wheel of the moribund Cincinnati Reds, winners of one title in 43 years they had been in the National League. Without hesitation he began gunning the gas in an attempt to drive the buggy of a franchise out of the ditch it was stuck in.

His first order of business was finding a local owner, one with vision and preferably deep pockets. Local businessman Powell Crosley was exactly the type of owner the Reds needed to drive them into what MacPhail hoped to be profitable future. It was Crosley’s cash and willingness to spend that helped fuel the first part of the franchise’s rebirth, but it was MacPhail’s energy and sense of showmanship that redirected the franchise financially and regenerated a sense of pride about the team in the eyes of the general public.

MacPhail began by painting and cleaning up the crumbling Redland Field, and at Crosley’s insistence the team renamed the field in honor of the new patron. It was obvious that the franchise needed a fresh revenue stream to compete against the bigger cities and the other teams that had a jump on the nuances of farm systems. It was then that MacPhail decided to try bringing night baseball to the Major Leagues, changing the face of the game in a time that demanded change to survive. Despite initial dissention from both leagues owners he eventually rode the issue until he was allowed to schedule seven night games in 1935. These games averaged 18,620 paying customers, and the remaining sixty-nine day games averaged only 4,607. It was obvious that the face of the game would never look the same.

MacPhail had other tricks up his sleeve. He contracted baseball’s first team-hired announcer when he brought Red Barber to town in 1935, and he was also the first GM to utilize air travel.
In an ironic twist, the man who bought a minor league team from the Reds during the lean years is also responsible for establishing the seeds to the Reds first farm system. Locally, he can take credit for introducing the “Knot Hole Club” to the Cincinnati. This youth ticket program was first established in St. Louis, Rickey recognized that a good place to market the team was in the local schools. MacPhail applied this same theory to the Cincinnati area, changing the landscape of the Reds fan base by creating a relationship between adults and children that was bonded by baseball. This program helped foster the team’s first wave of young fans and planted the seeds of a lifelong interest in the Reds for many children, who in turned passed that interest on to their children during the Big Red Machine era. To this day organized youth baseball in the Cincinnati area is still referred to as “Knot Hole.”

All these off the field changes helped bring positive press and a semblance of success off the field to the Reds. Ever the panderer to the fans interest in the team, one of MacPhail’s office innovations involved a direct line to WLW, the 500,000-watt radio station owned by Crosley. Often if a baseball visitor came in the office, Larry would activate the feed to let the listeners in on his conversations. Imagine the amusement hearing the discussions involving Babe Herman’s performance clauses!

As with many frantic personalities MacPhail had his personal shortcomings. Being volatile was a large part of Larry’s life and work experience, a voracious drinker MacPhail was known to be a difficult character and by the end of the 1936 season, he had worn out many of his relationships in the Cincinnati area and abruptly resigned for numerous unmentioned reasons. Twenty years later it was revealed in a Sports Illustrated article that several reasons played into his departure, including his fathers illness and Powell Crosley refusing to sell him shares of the now increasingly popular team, despite a previously promised deal.

Tommorrow – Part 2 – “The Organizer(s)

Brian first met the greatest game in Detroit in 1968, that team played in a league called the “American League”…. but I digress.

Later after a family move he started a dalliance with the Cincinnati Reds, who perchance were in the midst of their greatest era. It was a romance that was greater than many could hope to be.

After barely stomaching the strike of 1981 Brian headed West but never forgot the Reds, and even despite being surrounded by Giants and A’s fans who tried to entice him with things both Green and Orange he found himself wondering what was up with Kal Daniels and was that kid from Moeller ever going to make us forget Davey.

A long time member of SABR and a baseball history junkie he currently lives in Portland and can be followed at @baseballminutia

Join the conversation! 6 Comments

  1. The Reds and the Redbirds

    The new owners set to take over the Cincinnati Reds have ties to the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Brian at Redleg Nation starts a four part series on how ties to St. Louis helped Cincinnati win in the past. Three…

  2. I can’t wait for Part II. Well done, Brian.

  3. It’s funny though, many in St. Louis feel that the current owners plan on doing nothing more but sell the team, after this past seasons extensive money grubbing (highlighted by selling urinals from the old stadium). They paid very little for the team (roughly $150 million for the team and garages, then sold the garages right away for $100 million) and while their winning percentage has been good, their number of championships is zero.

  4. Brian, you ‘da man…what a great article. I’m headed for Part II.

  5. Cards fans must be too tough to satisfy. I’d trade places in a minute.

    Plus, nobody forced people to buy used urinals. I’d file that under “giving the fans what they want” – the income couldn’t have had a significant impact on the bottom line.

  6. Outstanding work Brian, as usual.

Comments are closed.

About Brian Erts

Brian first met the greatest game in Detroit in 1968, that team played in a league called the "American League".... but I digress. Later after a family move he started a dalliance with the Cincinnati Reds, who perchance were in the midst of their greatest era. It was a romance that was greater than many could hope to be. After barely stomaching the strike of 1981 Brian headed West but never forgot the Reds, and even despite being surrounded by Giants and A's fans who tried to entice him with things both Green and Orange he found himself wondering what was up with Kal Daniels and was that kid from Moeller ever going to make us forget Davey. A long time member of SABR and a baseball history junkie he currently lives in Portland and can be followed at @baseballminutia

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Reds - General