Some time ago, we named the top ten catchers in Reds history. It’s time now for the second installment in our “Top Ten” series. Today, we’re going to look at the ten greatest first baseman in the long and illustrious history of the Cincinnati Reds.
1. Joey Votto. 2007-present. This is going to be the most controversial selection on this list (as least insofar as anything in our little corner of the digital world can be controversial). But not only do I believe that Joey Votto is the best first baseman in the history of the Reds, there’s a very good argument to be made that Votto is the best overall hitter we’ve ever seen in Cincinnati.
Despite the fact that Votto is only 33, he’s now been a Red for a full decade. During the 2016 season, Votto moved into the #1 spot among Reds first basemen in bWAR (47.3). He’s at or near the top of nearly every statistical category in franchise history (for 1Bs):
–.425 on-base percentage (ranks #1; only Reds 1B with an OBP over .400)
–.536 slugging percentage (#1)
–157 OPS+ (#1)
–157 wRC+ (#1)
–.410 wOBA (#1)
–.313 batting average (#2)
–1268 games (#4)
–310 doubles (#2)
–221 home runs (#3)
–730 RBI (#4)
–862 walks (#1, by nearly 200 more than the second-best total)
–112 intentional walks (#1).
Votto also has five of the top ten individual seasons (by bWAR) of any first-sacker in club history, and he won the 2010 National League Most Valuable Player award. And the best part: he’s still playing, and playing well. If we assume a normal aging curve, it’s not difficult to imagine Votto leading every single one of those categories above by the time he retires.
Unfortunately, despite this incredible production, Votto remains underrated in some quarters:
I do believe that what Votto has been able to accomplish at the plate over the last two seasons has been criminally underappreciated, especially by Reds fans. And that’s a shame, because Votto has been on a roll unlike almost anything this city has ever seen.
Let me be as clear as I possibly can: you need to pay attention to Votto every single day and cherish the things he’s accomplishing as a hitter. Because there’s a very good chance that you’ll never again—for the rest of your life—see another Reds hitter do the things that Votto has been doing over the last couple years.
Enjoy him while he’s here, Reds fans. Because Votto is the best first baseman in Reds history, and we get to watch him every single day.
2. Tony Perez. 1964-1986. When I began this project, I kinda assumed that Perez would be atop the list. Coming in at number two is not intended as a slight. I’m a big fan of Tony Perez. He’s a Hall of Famer, the key cog in the Big Red Machine. A ten-time All-Star, Perez played 1948 games as a Red, more than any first baseman in club history. He also has a higher fWAR (49.5) than any Reds first baseman.
Perez emerged onto the big league scene in 1964 as a skinny first baseman out of Cuba. The Reds had originally signed Perez, who had played with the International League’s Havana Sugar Kings as a teenager, “for the price of a plane ticket and a $2.50 exit visa.” After a couple of full seasons in the league, Perez moved across the diamond to third base to make room for Lee May, who appears on this list below. That season, at age 25, he earned his first All-Star selection while hitting .290/.328/.490 with 26 home runs and 102 RBI (the first of seven 100+ RBI seasons in his career).
In 1972, Perez transitioned back to first base full-time, and proceeded to serve as the anchor of the best teams in Reds history. From 1967 to 1976, Perez hit .286/.350/.488, a 133 OPS+, played in four World Series, and finished in the top ten of MVP voting four times. After the championship season of 1976, the Reds traded Perez (with Wil McEnaney) to the Expos in exchange for pitchers Woodie Fryman and Dale Murray. Though the club remained competitive for the next five seasons, the reign of the Big Red Machine ended with the departure of Perez.
Perez returned to Cincinnati in 1982, at age 42, and he finished out his big league career with three somewhat effective seasons as a part-time player.
Perez sits atop many of the 1B statistical categories: hits (1934), home runs (287), doubles (339). He’s third in walks (671) and wRC+ (127), fourth in slugging percentage (.474), fifth in triples (56) and wOBA (.364), and sixth in OPS+ (127).
Tony Perez is one of the greatest players in Reds history. I have him ranked as the second-best first baseman we’ve ever seen in Cincinnati, but if you want to place him in the top spot, I’m not going to argue with you.
3. Ted Kluszewski. 1947-1957. I love the story of how the Reds found Ted Kluszewski:
If not for World War II, Kluszewski most likely would have embarked on a professional football career. During that time the Reds held spring training at the Indiana campus in Bloomington because major-league teams were forbidden to train in the South. One day they invited the kid to take some hacks at batting practice. As legend has it, “Big Klu” promptly launched a few rockets over an embankment nearly 400 feet away. After they picked up their jaws off the ground, team officials offered him a $15,000 contract, which he accepted.
In researching our forthcoming book about Reds history, my co-author Chris Garber discovered that credit for Kluszewski’s discovery might rightfully go to legendary groundskeeper Matty Schwab. Klu was a two-sport star at Indiana University. After the Reds conducted their workouts, the Hoosiers baseball team would practice. Schwab and his grounds crew were forced to wait until the college boys were finished before they could begin to prepare the field for the following day’s training camp session.
Kluszewski made his major league debut in 1947, at the tender age of 22. For the next decade, he was a mainstay of the Cincinnati lineup, earning four All-Star nods and cracking 251 home runs, still good for fifth on the franchise’s all-time list. He also created an enduring fashion legacy, cutting off the sleeves of his jersey to display his hulking biceps.
1954 was Klu’s finest season. He very nearly won the triple crown, leading the league in home runs (49) and RBI (141), while finishing fifth in batting average (.326). Kluszewski finished second in MVP balloting to San Francisco’s Willie Mays. Measuring by bWAR, Klu’s 1954 was the greatest single season for a first baseman in Reds history (7.9 WAR, just edging out Votto’s 7.6 in 2015).
Over ten years with the Reds, Kluszewski played in 1339 games (3rd all-time among Reds first basemen), drove in 886 runs (2nd), and ranks in the top five for walks, slugging percentage, wRC+, wOBA, and OPS+. After his playing days, Kluszewski continued to impact the Reds as hitting coach for the Big Red Machine.
One of the great personalities in Reds history, and one of the top three first basemen, as well.
4. Frank McCormick. 1934-1945. I really went back and forth on this one, flip-flopping McCormick and Big Klu in the 3-4 spots several times as I tried to decide on a final top ten. Even now, I’m not sure I made the right call, but both were outstanding.
The modern day fan might remember Kluszewski, but McCormick is less well known. And that’s a shame. During his eight full seasons with the Reds (he played in parts of two other seasons), McCormick made the NL All-Star team every single year that an All-Star Game was held (the 1945 Midsummer Classic was canceled). McCormick played on two World Series teams with the Reds, and won the NL MVP in Cincinnati’s championship season of 1940.
He could have won the MVP in 1939, the year that Cincinnati shocked the league by reaching the World Series. McCormick led the league in hits and RBI, hitting .332/.374/.495 with 18 home runs. (He finished fourth in MVP voting; teammates Bucky Walters and Paul Derringer — both pitchers — finished first and third in the balloting.)
The Reds were swept by the Yankees in the ’39 Series, but McCormick led them to the promised land one year later with an even better season at the plate. The big guy hit .309/.367/.482 with 19 home runs and 127 RBI, leading the league in hits (191) and doubles (44). He won the MVP, and the season ranks as one of the 10-best individual performances by a first baseman in Reds history by bWAR (5.7).
Four years later, he topped himself, with a 6.1 bWAR season. In 1944, McCormick hit .305/.371/.482. Though he was certainly an outstanding hitter, much of McCormick’s value came with his glove. In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James noted that McCormick was “one of the best defensive first basemen ever to play the game.” In fact, he’s one of only two players on this list who rated out as above-average defensively, according to the metrics.
In three different seasons — 1939, 1941, and 1944 — Frank McCormick hit home runs more often than he struck out. In his entire 13-year career, encompassing 5,723 at-bats and more than 6,200 plate appearances, the slugging first baseman had just 189 strikeouts — 10 fewer whiffs than Ryan Howard achieved in only 529 at-bats during 2007 alone. Only nine players in 20th century major-league history struck out at a lower rate, but McCormick did far more than just make contact. He was also a .299 lifetime hitter, a terrific fielder, and a nine-time All-Star who played on three National League championship teams.
McCormick was a great, great player as a Cincinnati Red. Perhaps I should have moved him up on this list?
5. John Reilly. 1883-1891. This guy was born in Cincinnati in 1858. That was a long time ago.
He’s third among all Reds first baseman in career fWAR (31.0) and fifth in bWAR (24.4). Reilly had almost twice as many triples (135) as any Reds 1B ever, and his 245 career stolen bases are far ahead of any other Reds first-sacker. Reilly’s career 132 OPS+ ranks behind only Joey Votto among Reds 1Bs who played at least 400 games with the team.
Reilly twice led the league in home runs, total bases, SLG, and OPS, and led in triples once. He was also the only Reds first baseman on this list other than McCormick to be an above-average defender, according to FanGraphs.
He played a long time ago, and was an interesting character who was difficult to summarize in a quick entry here. I’d encourage you to read his SABR bio:
A free-swinging hitter who rarely walked and had difficulty adjusting his big swing to the bunting and place hitting that came into fashion during the late 1880’s, Reilly nevertheless recorded consistently high batting averages. He had a strong throwing arm and, while a man of his size would hardly be a speed demon, with his long legs he covered ground rapidly enough and appeared repeatedly on contemporary lists of the Reds’ most effective base runners. In a day when most home runs were hit inside the park, his high totals for homers as well as triples testify to his speed as well as his power. He maintained the superior defensive skills that had kept him in the major leagues before his hitting had matured. In later years he would claim to have originated the practice of first basemen playing away from the bag, a distinction that was more frequently attributed to his contemporary, Charlie Comiskey of the St. Louis Browns. In fact, though, this practice had been followed sporadically for many years before Comiskey’s and Reilly’s time.
Reilly was also inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 2012. His page at the Reds HOF site is worth a read as well. Now…on to the next old guy on the list!
6. Jake Beckley. 1897-1903. Dude’s a Hall of Famer. Should he be higher on this list?
I don’t think so, but Beckley had an outstanding career. He began his career with Pittsburgh, and was one of the best first basemen in the National League for much of his eight-year tenure with the club. But at age 28, Beckley had begun to decline noticeably, and Pittsburgh traded him away to the Giants. He didn’t fare much better with New York, and was eventually released.
It appeared that his career might be over. But Beckley eventually latched on with the Reds, and the rest is history. He spent the next seven seasons with Cincinnati, hitting .325/.375/.443, with 77 triples, a 129 OPS+, 123 wRC+, and a .387 wOBA.
When he retired, Beckley was the all-time MLB leader in triples (with 244); he’s currently fourth on that list. Among Reds first basemen, he ranks first in batting average (.325), third in triples and on-base percentage, and fourth in career OPS+. Like many players from the era, Beckley was also a bit of a character:
Beckley was a handsome man, though one of his eyes was slightly crossed, and kept his impressive mustache long after all but a handful of players had relinquished theirs; at the time of his retirement he was one of only three men in the majors who still sported facial hair. He also displayed several other idiosyncrasies. Beckley yelled “Chickazoola!” to rattle opposing pitchers when he was on a batting tear, and he perfected the unusual (and now-illegal) practice of bunting with the handle of his bat. As the pitch approached the plate, Jake flipped the bat around in his hands and tapped the ball with the handle. Casey Stengel was a teenager when he saw the maneuver performed. “I showed our players,” said Stengel 50 years later, when he was managing the Yankees, “and they say it’s the silliest thing they ever saw, which it probably is but [Beckley] done it.”
Beckley was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971 (by the Veteran’s Committee) and the Reds Hall of Fame in 2014. Today, he completes the trifecta: Redleg Nation has named Beckley one of the ten best first basemen in franchise history.
7. Lee May. 1965-1971. “The Big Bopper” debuted with the Reds in 1965, and he was the powerful first baseman of the early Big Red Machine until he was dealt away — before the 1972 season — in one of the more celebrated deals in Reds history.
Over four seasons from 1968-1971, May averaged 33 home runs and 96 RBI for the Reds. He also hit the last home run at Crosley Field in 1970. His final season in Cincinnati, 1971, was May’s greatest performance as a big league hitter. Anchoring the lineup of the defending National League Champions, May hit .278/.332/.532 with 39 home runs, 98 RBI, and 5.4 wins above replacement.
Over a 7-year career in Cincinnati, May hit 147 home runs (4th among all 1Bs) while hitting .274/.321/.490. His 125 wRC+ is also fourth-best in Reds history for 1B.
May had plenty more home runs in that bat, but he was traded, along with Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart to the Astros in exchange for Joe Morgan, Jack Billingham, Ed Armbrister, Denis Menke, and César Gerónimo. Fans were unhappy to lose May’s bat in the lineup, but the deal certainly worked out for the Reds.
8. Sean Casey. 1998-2005. “The Mayor” was one of the most popular players in Cincinnati during his eight years in the Queen City, and he remains an enduring personality in this town. He was more than just a smile and a friendly face, however; Casey could play.
Traded to the Reds just before Opening Day in 1998 — in exchange for Cincinnati’s scheduled Opening Day starter, Dave Burba — Casey was a big-time prospect thrown into the middle of the lineup for a team with high hopes. Unfortunately, two days later, it appeared that his career might be over thanks to a freak injury during batting practice:
[H]e wasn’t looking when teammate Damian Jackson threw a ball to him during drills. He needed 20 stitches to close gashes around the eye, suffered a broken bone below the eye that required a plate and five screws to stabilize and initially feared he might never see out of the eye again.
“When I opened my eye, I couldn’t see anything,” he said. “I was like, `Gosh, am I blind?’ That was the scariest thing. It makes you forget about baseball and everything; you hope you live a normal life.”
Casey returned to play 96 games that year, and proceeded to break out as a legitimate star the following season, at the age of 24. He hit .332/.399/.539 with 25 home runs and 99 RBI, and claimed the first of three career All-Star nods. He was also one of the energetic leaders of the surprising 1999 Reds, who very nearly qualified for the postseason.
Over his Reds career, Casey hit .305/.371/.463 with a 114 OPS+, .361 wOBA, and 113 wRC+. He’s among the Reds all-time 1B leaders in average (4th), OBP (4th), SLG (7th), doubles (256, 4th), walks (387, 5th), and home runs (118, 6th). During his time in Cincinnati, no Reds player ranked ahead of Casey when it came to the adoration of the fans.
I’m still waiting for him to actually run for Mayor of Cincinnati. He’ll win in a landslide.
9. Hal Morris. 1990-2000. I was a little surprised that Morris looked so good in retrospect. We all remember Morris hitting .340/.381/.498 as a rookie for the 1990 World Series champion Reds, but he went on to a steady career in the Queen City that measures up favorably to other first baseman in club history.
Morris played ten years for the Reds, over two stretches (split up by one season — 1998 — in Kansas City), and hit .305/.362/.444 during that span. That batting average is tied with Casey for fourth-best among Reds first basemen, and the OBP ranks fifth. Morris is eighth in games played, seventh in doubles, seventh in walks.
Just a steady, if unspectacular career.
10. Dan Driessen. 1973-1984. In some ways, Driessen is a bit of a forgotten Red. He was a contributing member of the Big Red Machine, but he took over for Tony Perez after the popular Reds first baseman was traded away in the wake of the club’s second consecutive World Series championship in 1976.
Driessen was a solid Red over the course of 12 seasons, hitting .271/.361/.416 and posting 20.4 fWAR. But he was never Perez, and the Reds didn’t win any more championships. In 1984, Driessen was traded to the Expos. That began a chain of events that eventually led to the memorable return of Pete Rose to the Queen City. In retrospect, Driessen almost looks like a placeholder at first base between Perez and Rose, but he was an excellent player in his own right.
Driessen played 1480 games for the Reds, second only to Perez among 1Bs. His walks (678) and stolen base (152) totals are also second-best. Driessen also ranks among the very best Reds in home runs (133), doubles (240), and on-base percentage. Underappreciated, sure, but Dan Driessen a worthy name to finish off this list.
–Hal Chase (1916-1918). A short Reds career, but his first season with the club was worth 4.2 WAR, as he hit .339/.363/.459 and led the league in hits at age 33. 133 OPS+ is second best in club 1B history.
–Jake Daubert (1919-1924). His 78 triples rank second in Reds history. Compiled 11.6 bWAR.
–Dick Hoblitzell (1908-1914). .283/.339/.388, 11.3 WAR, 65 triples for dead ball-era Reds. Later elected Sheriff of Parkersburg, WVa.
–Gordy Coleman (1960-1967). Popular first baseman for some good Reds teams. Compiled 7.3 WAR, hitting .271/.322/.447 over 8 years before making way for Lee May.
–Frank Robinson. Robinson will appear on a later list in this series, but in 1959 and 1960, he played mostly first base for the Reds. Those two seasons rank among the ten-best single seasons ever posted by a Reds 1B, according to bWAR. (5.8 WAR in 1959, 6.2 WAR in 1962)