Since it’s the off-season and we can’t spend every day writing about why Raisel Iglesias needs to be a starter next season, I thought it would be an appropriate time to embark upon a project that I’ve been wanting to explore for years. That is, I thought it would be fun to look at the top ten players in Reds history, at each position on the field. Then we’ll finish up the off-season by counting down the Top Fifty players who ever played for the Cincinnati Reds.
You may know that the Cincinnati Reds have been a professional baseball franchise for many, many years. Since 1881, in fact. That’s a long time ago. Bud Selig hadn’t even been born yet in 1881! Can you believe it?
The point is that the Reds have a long and storied history. Hundreds and hundreds of players have pulled on the uniform, and some of those players were actually good at baseball. Let’s celebrate the very best of those players, shall we? We will begin with catchers, and then go around the diamond to all the other positions in order, finishing up with the pitchers. You may be surprised to see who I rate as the best catcher in Reds history!
No. You will not be surprised at all. I don’t know why I said that.
1. Johnny Bench. 1967-1983. Raise your hand if you didn’t see this coming. Millions of words have been written about Bench — how many times has he been called the greatest catcher in the history of baseball? — but there are always reasons to write a few more.
In a career spent entirely with Cincinnati, Bench accumulated 75.0 Wins Above Replacement. Not only is that (unsurprisingly) the highest total in Reds history, it’s tops all-time in MLB (ahead of Gary Carter’s 69.9). If you look at the top ten single seasons by a catcher in Reds history (by bWAR), you’ll see that Bench had eight of those seasons. (Ernie Lombardi and Devin Mesoraco have the other two.)
Bench hit .267/.342/.476, and he leads Reds catchers in career totals in nearly every counting stat: 389 HR, 1376 RBI, 381 doubles, 2048 hits, 1091 runs, 891 BB, 68 SB. He won Rookie of the Year in 1968, earned two MVP awards (1970, 1972), was selected to 14 National League All-Star teams, and won ten Gold Gloves in a row (from 1968 to 1977). So yeah, he was good.
I only have one criticism of Bench, and it’s one that I’ve discussed here at RN before. (If you’ve heard it before, just skim ahead.) As a child, I was excited to attend my first MLB game all the way back in 1983. That, of course, was Bench’s final season and he was my favorite player, though I really only knew him from The Baseball Bunch and from the dreamy descriptions that the adult baseball fans in my life had given to the Big Red Machine’s catcher. (Later, in Little League, I played catcher and wore #5.)
By the time his final season had rolled around, Bench was playing mostly third base. When I walked into old Riverfront Stadium for the first time, I was spellbound. The late May sky was overcast, but it was perfect to me. Even the astroturf was beautiful. Then I looked up at the scoreboard, and saw that Wayne Krenchicki was playing 3B and hitting seventh. I was heartbroken. Bench never got off the, ummm, bench. I don’t care that Krenchicki went 2-3 with a double and an RBI, he remains History’s Greatest Villain* to me.
*This is possibly a slight exaggeration.
On the bright side, I did get to see a nutty display of baserunning by Gary Redus in my first Reds game. Redus stole two bases and was caught stealing twice. More significantly, however, he stole home in the bottom of the eighth, breaking a tie and giving the Reds a 4-3 margin that would end up being the final score.
Sorry about that. I got distracted. No more Krenchicki or Redus. Johnny Bench was a great catcher. We’ll likely never see another like him in a Cincinnati uniform.
2. Ernie Lombardi. 1932-1941. Another easy choice. Ernesto Natali Lombardi was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1986, one of two Reds catchers in the Hall of Fame. A seven-time All-Star (five with Cincinnati), he won the National League MVP award in 1938 after leading the league with a .342 batting average (.342/.391/.524) with 19 HR 95 RBI, and a 152 OPS+. Over the next two seasons, Lombardi led the Redlegs to the World Series, winning the title in 1940.
During ten seasons in Cincinnati, Lombardi compiled 31.3 WAR, second-best for a Reds catcher. (His career total of 45.9 WAR is tied with Thurman Munson for 13th-best of all time; Lombardi also spent time with the Dodgers, Braves, and Giants.) As a Red, Lombardi hit .311/.359/.469 with 1238 hits, 120 HR, 682 RBI, 220 doubles. All those counting stats are second only to Bench in Reds history.
The numbers don’t tell the whole story, however, about a guy who was so popular that the Reds’ team MVP award was named after him. Besides his baseball skill, Lombardi was well-known for the size of his nose (his nickname was “Schnozz”) and his almost-complete lack of foot speed. In fact, Bill James called Lombardi “the slowest man to ever play Major League Baseball well.”
A contemporary Major Leaguer, Billy Herman, commented, “He was so slow afoot that all the infielders would play him so deep he didn’t have any place to hit the ball on the ground. He had to hit against the fence.” Lombardi once confessed, “Pee Wee Reese was in the league three years before I realized he wasn’t an outfielder.”
You may also have heard about the time Lombardi caught back to back no-hitters.
It was a dazzling career, but the baseball writers failed to elect Lombardi to the Hall of Fame. In fact, Lombardi died without ever receiving that particular honor:
By the time his fate was turned over to the Veterans Committee, Lombardi was 60 years old, destitute, and bitter. A 1974 article by Wells Twombly described him working at a gas station, “the large, elderly man who runs errands and chases parts for the mechanics.” He told Oakland columnist Ed Leavitt, “If they voted me into the Hall of Fame, I wouldn’t accept. Not now. They’ve waited too long and they’ve ignored me too long. . . . If they elected me, I wouldn’t show up for the ceremony. That sounds terrible. But every year I see my chances getting smaller and smaller. Sure, who wouldn’t be bitter? All anybody wants to remember about me was that I couldn’t run. They still make jokes.”
According to Rosenthal, Lombardi was the victim of petty hostility on the part of Warren Giles, who was the president/general manager of the Reds from 1937 to 1951 before serving as the National League president until his retirement in 1969. More importantly, he was a member of the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee for a quarter-century, from 1953 until 1978. As such, he determined the fate of many candidates, but could not be elected while on the committee. He died in 1979 and was elected soon after. Lombardi was already gone by then.
Rosenthal wrote that Giles was still angry decades later at what happened after Lombardi won the MVP Award in 1938 and wasn’t offered a raise. “Ernie got into the wine at some dinner in Cincinnati and called Giles ‘cheap.’ He also added that word most of us use when a cab driver cuts us off on a dry day or splashes us on a wet one. Nothing big, really.
“Giles never forgot and never denied that he was the obstacle in the way blocking Ernie’s election. If you’re a member of the panel you usually don’t cross a fellow-member especially if you think you’ll need help pushing someone else somewhere up the road.”
Nine years after his death, Lombardi was finally elected by the Veteran’s Committee. But his greatest honor comes today, thirty years later. Redleg Nation has officially named Ernie Lombardi the second-greatest catcher in Cincinnati Reds history.
3. Bubbles Hargrave. 1921-1928. Eugene Franklin Hargrave was born in New Haven, Indiana, and made his big league debut with the Cubs at age 20 in 1913. Nicknamed “Bubbles” — “from his stammer and particular trouble with the “B” sounds” — he played 41 games over three seasons, then disappeared into the minors until re-emerging with Cincinnati in 1921. That began an excellent eight-season run for the Reds in which Hargrave hit .314/.377/.461, compiling 18.5 wins above replacement. In his career, Hargrave collected 744 hits (5th all-time among Reds catchers), 146 doubles (3rd), 57 triples (2nd), and 359 RBI (3rd). His .377 on-base percentage is the best of any Reds catcher in history.
In 1923, Hargrave had his best season, a 4.7-bWAR campaign that saw the catcher hit .333/.419/.521 with 23 doubles, 10 HR, and 78 RBI (career-highs in 2B, HR, RBI). Remarkably, he also threw out 90 runners attempting to steal.
Three years later, Hargrave posted another banner campaign. But it started out with lots of pain:
Hargrave followed his first year with six straight years hitting at a .300 average or better. His best season was 1926 when his .353 average won him the National League batting championship, the first catcher ever to win that title. He had to beat Rogers Hornsby who had won the title the previous six years.
Ironically, Hargrave had an attack of appendicitis during the 1926 Spring Training. He refused to have his appendix removed, and instead went on a strict diet and lost 14 pounds, which he credited for his great season.
Hargrave was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 1962.
4. Ed Bailey. 1953-1961. Not this Ed Bailey.
Bailey made three All-Star teams in a nine-year Reds career which saw him hit .261/.359/.437. He could certainly hit; his 94 homers is third among all Reds catchers, and his 336 walks is second-best. (Bailey’s .359 OBP is tied with Lombardi for second all-time in franchise history.)
But Bailey also had an outstanding defensive reputation, with the numbers placing him behind only Bench. He’s second among Reds catchers with 7.1 defensive WAR and 76.2 defensive runs above average. He also had a strong arm, as evidenced by his league-leading 46.2% caught stealing percentage.
He was traded to San Francisco for second baseman Don Blasingame in early 1961, as GM Bill DeWitt was trying to get younger (it worked; the “Ragamuffin Reds” surprised everyone by winning the 1961 National League pennant). Bailey made the All-Star Game that season, and made a fifth appearance in the Midsummer Classic two years later.
Really, it’s kinda absurd that Bailey isn’t in the Reds Hall of Fame.
5. Ivey Wingo. 1915-1929. You know, if this were a list of the top ten names in Reds history, Ivey Wingo might be even higher than fifth. Among catchers, #5 seems about right for the guy who played in more games (1010) and collected more hits (796) than any backstop in franchise history other than Bench or Lombardi.
Wingo was traded to Cincinnati (from St. Louis) after the
20141914 season. By the following year, he was so popular in the Queen City that fans circulated a petition requesting that Wingo not be traded away in a rumored deal. He wasn’t traded, and Wingo went on to finish his career in a Reds uniform. In 1919, Wingo was one of the key players in Cincinnati’s run to a completely above-board, not-at-all-suspicious World Series championship, hitting .571 in the Series against the Extremely White (In Every Way) Sox.
Over 13 years with the Reds, Wingo hit .257/.305/.350. His 60 career triples are the most-ever for a Reds catcher; Wingo’s 347 RBI rank fourth (behind Bench, Lombardi, and Bailey).
Wingo spent a little time as a Reds coach, and also managed in the minors. In one memorable game during his managerial career, Wingo was actually ejected twice from the same game. After being tossed out for arguing, Wingo was later ejected again when the umpire found him hiding out in the bullpen. Shades of Bobby Valentine.
Wingo passed away in 1941 at the age of 50. He’s another good candidate for the Reds Hall of Fame who has never received much support.
6. Smoky Burgess. 1955-1958. Forrest Harrill Burgess is one of four catchers in the Reds Hall of Fame (Bench, Lombardi, Hargrave are the others). He made six All-Star teams in an 18-year big league career, but none of those came in a Cincinnati uniform. Joe Garagiola once said: “You could wake (Burgess) up at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning, with two inches of snow on the ground, throw him a curveball, and he’d hit a line drive.”
The Reds actually traded for Burgess in October 1951, but they traded him to the Phillies just two months later. Realizing their mistake, the Reds re-acquired Burgess in 1955, in a trade involving Jim Greengrass and Andy Seminick (Seminick had actually come to the Reds in the previous trade involving Burgess). Over four seasons with the Reds, Burgess hit .290/.357/.486 while sharing time with Ed Bailey.
While with Cincinnati, Burgess had a couple of memorable moments. In July of ‘55 against the Pirates, Smoky had the game of his life, going 4-for-6 with three home runs and nine RBIs in the Redlegs’ 16-5 win. He was behind the plate against the Braves on May 26, 1956 when three Reds pitchers combined to hold the Braves hitless for 9+ innings before the Braves won the game in the 11th inning. Burgess’ last big moment with the Redlegs came on the next-to-last day of the 1956 season. Visiting the Cubs, Cincinnati was one home run shy of the new single-season major-league record for home runs by one team. Sent up to pinch hit in the eighth inning, Smoky was told by manager Birdie Tebbetts, “Home run or nothing.” Burgess dutifully complied, hitting Sam Jones’ first pitch out to tie the record.
After yet another trade, Burgess went on to enjoy several outstanding campaigns with the Pirates before finishing his career with the White Sox. He passed away in 1991.
7. Jason LaRue. 1999-2006. I was a little surprised that I ended up ranking LaRue this highly. LaRue was drafted by the Reds in 1995 and made his debut with the club four years later. He was with the Reds for eight solid seasons, though these were mostly dark days for the franchise.
Over that time, LaRue hit .239/.325/.415 with 127 doubles and 84 homers (fourth all-time in both categories). He became a bit of a novelty for his ability to get hit by pitches. LaRue was plunked 93 times during his Cincinnati career, far and away tops among Reds catchers (Lombardi is second with just 33).
Where LaRue really stands out in club history is his defense. His career caught-stealing percentage was just under 40%, and he led the big leagues in 2001 by gunning down 61% of attempted stealers. His 6.7 defensive WAR and 61.1 defensive runs above average place him third, behind only Johnny Bench and Ed Bailey.
While playing for the Cardinals, LaRue was injured in that unfortunate 2010 fight and was ultimately forced to retire. Over the long term, it would be unfortunate if that incident causes anyone to forget just how good LaRue was in a Cincinnati uniform. In fact, he was probably better than you remember.
8. Tommy Clarke. 1909-1917. I don’t know much about Clarke, except that he played in the dead ball era, compiled 13 WAR — sixth among Reds catchers all-time — and he had a sweet, sweet middle name: Aloysius.
Over a nine-year Reds career, Aloysius Clarke hit .265/.351/.358; his 37 career triples ranks fifth among all Reds catchers. Near the end of his career, he was involved in something of a controversy:
Clarke was suspended late in the 1915 season for violating a clause in his contract which prohibited him from drinking. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Clarke said he’d get manager Buck Herzog. The Enquirer reported that Herzog “said he’d meet him Sunday night after the last game at any time, any place and any circumstance and battle it out.”
As impressive as anything he accomplished on the baseball field, Clarke managed the 1920 Petersburg Goobers to a third-place finish in the Virginia League. He was a regular Sparky Anderson.
9. Johnny Edwards. 1961-1967. A graduate of the Ohio State University, Edwards played for some fun Reds teams in the 1960s, including the 1961 National League champs. Over that span, he hit .246/.314/.370 and made three All-Star teams. He was also renowned as the top defensive catcher in the NL at that time, winning back to back Gold Gloves in 1963 and 1964.
After the 1967 season, Edwards was traded away, as the Reds had handed the catching duties over to a strapping young Oklahoman named Bench.
10. Joe Oliver. 1989-1997. Okay, this one is kind of a sentimental choice. Oliver was never much of a hitter, but he’s one of the five-best defensive catchers in Reds history according to the metrics. He gets credit for durability (fourth-most games played, sixth-most plate appearances), piling up counting stats (120 doubles and 72 homers (both sixth in history), and 342 RBI (5th))…
—Heinie Peitz. 1896-1904. Probably should have been in the top ten, but never played more than 112 games and played a bunch of other positions. On the other hand, he had a great name and he did have 15.3 bWAR while hitting .279/.346/.364.
—Ray Mueller. 1943-1949. .266/.334/.384 (10.1 bWAR). Played all 155 games in his All-Star 1944 season; 233 consecutive games overall.
—Larry McLean. 1906-1912. 10.1 WAR. .266/.307/.330. Middle name was Bannerman.
—Ryan Hanigan. 2007-2013. .262/.359/.343. 50.6 Def (4th). 6.9 bWAR. I really wanted to put Hanigan in the top ten, but couldn’t pull the trigger. Still love that guy.
—Eddie Taubensee. 1994-2000. .286/.343/.460. 121 doubles (5th), 77 HR (5th), 330 RBI (6th), 5.0 WAR. One of the best hitting catchers I’ve ever seen in a Reds uniform.
—Bo Diaz. 1985-1989. 5 dWAR (6th), 46.3 Def (6th). Made an All-Star team for the Reds. Died tragically at age 37.
—Devin Mesoraco. 2011-present. Mesoraco’s All-Star 2014 was one of the greatest seasons a Reds catcher has ever enjoyed. Two years ago, I thought he’d be a shoo-in for this list someday. Then the injuries happened. He’s only 28, so my fingers are crossed. Already 9th on the Reds home run list for catchers.
Blame Chad for creating this mess.
Chad launched Redleg Nation in February 2005, and has been writing about the Reds ever since. His first book, “The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds” is now available in bookstores and online, at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. You can also find Chad’s musings about the Cincinnati Reds in the pages of Cincinnati Magazine.