Picking at the Bones – The Memorial Day Blues for the Reds

The Reds ended their home stand and exited Memorial Day with a .365 winning percentage. As they head to Houston and then on to Colorado this will only be the 15th time in the last 100 years that on Memorial Day (or as I dated it 5-28 for continuity) the Reds have had a sub .400 winning percentage. 15% of the time they were about to enter June and the final 4 months of the season with a slim chance already chopped up even smaller by a losing record, only once in those times did the Reds end up with a winning percentage of at least .490.

Results such as the aforementioned cause people (in this case “fans”) to exercise their voices, in the case of the 2007 Reds many are calling for the head of the architects of the team, that being Wayne Krivsky (GM for 213 games and one off season) and Jerry Narron, the stoic manager who stands at the helm of the club as the poundings take place nightly, he too arrived a short while ago (2005) and was recently awarded a contract extension.

So here we sit, adrift under 20 wins and with the worst record in the National League, the only team beneath .400 in the winning percentage column. Thank gawd for the Rangers and Devil Rays, without them the Reds would be the Browns, the Senators, the Bee’s, something that well ain’t what most bargained for when the season began.

When looking back at the prior times that this franchise was in the same boat we’d find a major hunk of the incidents prior to the expansion era (13 of the 15 to be exact)there are two sets of date ranges that encompass the only two eras that the Reds stunk worse then they have in the recent years of their existence. Between 1927 and 1931 only the 1928 team didn’t sink below a .400 winning percentage once the calendar turned to the June portion. This run added to the three prior times that the Reds had achieved the dubious feat during the Garry Herrmann era, (1907, 1913, 1921)

The game has evolved, all these eras have reasons why certain franchises floundered while others surged, instead of exploring this sort of aspect I’m finding that what interests me the most is the last seven times that the Reds have entered June with a sub .400 winning percentage. Gazing hard at the seasons we’ll see that each has a unique story attached to that particular campaign, and it’s these rich little moments that most often get washed away in the history of the franchise, a little digging around helps find patterns and threads of yesterday and today, looking at these incidents we can see that some threads from the past look familiar and similar to the current teams plight.

We have already mentioned the 1931 team and the ones prior to their disappointing season, instead we are going to look at the last seven times the Reds left the Memorial Day weekend below .400 in winning percentage.

1934

On May 28th 1934 the Reds had a winning percentage of .250, they were also a team in major transition. They had a new GM (Larry MacPhail) a new owner (Powell Crosley) and a new manager, Bob O’Farrell. The Reds in this era were the pits, simple and short they were a team that was on the outs, even with the locals and talk around town was that they had explored leaving the area prior to the Powell Crosley emergence (as did the Cardinals in that era) O’Farrell and the Reds could get no traction, by mid summer the team was 30-60 and the manager was being excused of wanting to spend more time on the links then in the clubhouse fixing his team. Therefore the choice was made for him by MacPhail that he should devote more time to his golf game, and then Larry hired to replace him former Reds third sacker Charlie Dressen, a well known “scrappy” player who some would say, “played the game the right way” and lived and breathed it as well, my bet is he didn’t play golf. The Reds finished the season with a 52-99 record and a .344 winning percentage. O’Farrell who had managed one season prior to the Reds hiring (1927 Cardinals) never managed in the big leagues again. The next year the team upped their winning percentage to .444, 100 points.

1937

New Reds GM Warren Giles was in his second year and encumbered with prior GM MacPhail’s pick for manager the aforementioned Charlie Dressen. One odd thing about Dressen was that Charlie had certain ideas about baseball that involved more pugilism then most (he also was a former QB in the early NFL and had a “football” mentality in baseball) Dressen applied the way he thought to his teams makeup and this by 1937 this was an even larger issue with the Cincinnati press, who termed the team the “Roughhouse Reds”. Included in this squad was a 27 year old lifer from the minors who was a backup catcher, Gus Brittain was his name and he was not a major league player by any stretch, it seems that he was more on the team to “protect” then to play. Gus unfortunately was an unlikable pug and ended up getting in a fight with Paul Derringer who was more needed then Gus, thus Gus was cut from the team after 6 MLB ab’s, the only ones he’d ever have. By June the Reds were losing a fast clip and had a winning percentage of only .323. The “Roughhouse Reds “ were derided for their ineffectiveness and the name was used in a derisive manner, this coupled with an old outfield of Hafey and Cuyler that couldn’t regain past glory, left the team in a tailspin that lasted all season. The Great flood that year eclipses the Reds as a story, Dressen was fired in late September and the Reds sadly ended the season with 14 straight losses. Bill McKechnie took over the team in the off season, in two years the 56-98 record was almost forgotten. Dressen didn’t find another job as a manger until he was hired in Brooklyn 14 seasons later.

1948

Poorly funded the Reds of the war years didn’t invest many dollars into their future. By the end of the war they realized their mistake, by June of 1948 they were a team light on stars, depth, and teachers.

Reds second year manager Johnny Neun had previously managed in the Yankee system and for the Yankees for a brief period in 1946, he was handed the keys to his first NL club, one that was expected to stink due to lack of talent, by June 1st they were sitting at the bottom end of the standings with a .382 winning percentage. Neun, who was more well known in the baseball world for being a first basemen who turned an unassisted triple play (5-31-1927)then a Manager was also was the soccer editor of the Baltimore Evening Sun, he was hired to instill the Yankee approach to offense on the Cincinnati boys, however Neun was never given a real chance, the Yankee way often was that way because of the Yankee players who were often the best in the game. The Reds ended up the season last in runs scored and ERA, they finished 64-89 at the season end and they fired Neun in August. He never managed in the big leagues again.

1950

The 1950 Reds entered June with a .273 winning percentage, in the midst of a string of losing seasons (this would be the 6th straight sub .500 season) the Reds were an anchor of stink in the game during this era, one that the Reds current regime remembers well. They and the Pirates were a lot (like they are today when you think about it) and the manager that season was former catcher Luke Sewell, the only man to win an AL Title in St. Louis (1944) Luke was also saddled with the troubles that Neun had, and that was thin talent and depth. Despite the poor start Luke was able to survive this season ended up with a .431 winning percentage. He made it through 1951 and in 1952 he finally resigned, exiting with some choice words for his critics and the fans of the Reds.

1953

Replacing Luke Sewell in 1952 was Rogers Hornsby who was suppose to instill discipline and teach the Reds to hit. Rogers was a timebomb who had about burnt every bridge he ever crossed in the game, his approach turned out poorly for the Reds and the goals of hitting and playing better never occured, what instead occurred was an outbreak of anger that was centered on the personality of the abrasive Hornsby.

In short his players were ready to kill him and in June his team had .290 winning percentage and this coupled with Rogers indifference and his tendency to participate in finger pointing was increasing. Oddly enough this season also was the year the Reds changed their name to Redlegs and by the end of the year that in itself was the best story of the long campaign, unless of course we consider Ted Kluszewski. The Reds finally canned Hornsby on 9-28-1953, leaving with money due to him by both the Reds he never managed in the major leagues again. Despite the poor start (9-22) the Reds finished at .442 with a 68-86 record, going 59-64 since May 28th.

1997

In 1995 Ray Knight was hand picked by Reds owner Marge Schott, she liked his wife (golfer Nancy Lopez) this of course was all done prior to her letting go Davey Johnson. Knight had no previous managing experience, this and his well known ego as a coach made the whole deal somewhat volatile from the start. After the Reds success in 1995 Knight was apt to take much of the credit for this success, this rubbed folks the wrong way and strangely enough after a rocky 1996 season Knight was taking less credit for the teams performance. As the skipper of the Reds Knight entered the 1997 and proceeded to create an atmosphere that was tough to deal with from the get go, I’m talking about a swath that cur from the from fan base all the way through the clubhouse and on to the top of the organizations ladder. The teams 7-18 start in April was very similar to this seasons May run of futility, however the unpredictable Knight added a laundry list of events that changed the teams view of him (as well as mine) throughout the season among them were:

· He suffered a concussion in April while skiing during an off-day while the Reds were in Colorado to play the Rockies. He missed one game,

· He was suspended for three games for a run-in with umpire Jerry Layne (he threw 3rd base in a fit of anger (like many want Narron to do)) After that Knight left the team and returned home to Georgia, even though suspended managers are permitted to remain with their clubs until just before a game.

· The departure came with the blessing of Bowden, who said, ”I just thought it would do him some good to go home, just to get away for a couple of days.” Before the series he missed the players held a closed-door meeting at the Astrodome and a handful acknowledged that a ”Win one for Denis Menke” tone developed, hoping that three wins for the Menke would show management that the team would be better off without Ray.

· Also in May, Knight twice juggled his coaching staff – including one move that had him taking over third-base coaching duties, exiling Youngblood to the dugout. His third-base coaching stint lasted about two weeks.

· Also Knight and veteran pitcher Mike Morgan exchanged words in Houston July 4 after Knight sent Gullett to talk with Morgan while Morgan had a 1-2 count on Astros’ outfielder Derek Bell and was trying to preserve a 3-2 Reds lead in the fifth inning. When Morgan reached the dugout, he exchanged angry remarks with Knight, who sent Scott Sullivan out to pitch the sixth. Knight later left the bench to confront Morgan. In the aftermath, Morgan said Knight had lost the respect of most of the Reds players. The two eventually patched up their differences and Morgan remained with the team.

· Knight was greeted with ridicule when he announced a six-man pitching rotation after Schourek came off the disabled list. That didn’t last.

Knight was let go on July 25th in an unexpected move, the next week saw the Reds trade John Smiley for Danny Graves (and others) Knight never managed again, and currently works for MASN in their studio. The 1997 Reds flourished beneath Jack McKeon ending the season with a.469 winning percentage.

2005

You know his story, long time organization soldier gets job and fails horribly. Less Moss? Vern Rapp? Don Hefner” Larry Sheppard? Terry Bevington?

No, in this case the corpse is still fresh, of course we speak of Dave Miley, a man who in my opinion was the least prepared manager in reds history, not ready for the dugout or the clubhouse, whether he was confiscating chairs or wavering on yanking a pitcher he gave most Reds fans the least amount of confidence they have ever had in a field leader. Miley found his team on the 28th of may sitting a mere 12 points below the .400 mark in the winning column, this hadn’t improved by the third week of June and like O’Farrell Miley had lost the respect of the clubhouse and his GM fell in behind this. Miley was relieved of his duties and ended up managing in the minors again, where as a teacher he excelled before. The 2005 team was taken over by current Reds manager Jerry Narron and ended the season at .457.

Of the above seven incidents note that all except Sewell were fired during the season and all except Dressen never managed in Major League Baseball again. All the men were also relatively new to the job of managing except for Hornsby and Sewell also several (1934, 1997, 2005) were in transitional years that saw either a team sale or in the case of 1997 money and suspension woes for Marge. The patterns show that stability or the lack of stability can cause problems like poor starts, whether the team was effected by crummy planning during the war or bad trades and fiscal indifference by the owner (Post war Crosley, 2005 Lindner)it doesn’t matter sometimes it all falls apart, even if the intentions are good (as we see with the current Reds squad) One pattern I see however is there is no recovery form a sub .400 winning percentage the first 2 months of the season, and in most cases there’s no saving your job from it either.

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