Spring Training – Looking for Jewels

Spring training is a lot like life, sometimes you have an opportunity that becomes a jewel in your eyes, something that can solve all your problems and inevitably it slips from your fingers, leaving you pondering how it could have fallen to the wayside so swiftly. In baseball sometimes your team has player who is an unpolished jewel, and somehow lets him fall away before they can harvest his skills correctly. It’s painful to watch a player your team tossed aside succeed elsewhere and the Reds like any other team have attempted to find a diamond amongst the numerous rocks in the game, it’s during the spring that projects are undertaken and the Reds are fraught with players who were once projects for them and stars for another. At no time was this more obvious than the mid 1930’s, when if anything was missing from the Cincinnati baseball world it was a star player. In the era of DiMaggio, Greenberg, Pepper, Ducky and Dean the Reds had a roster that was vacant of anyone even resembling a current star. The Reds were in constant search for an offense in an era that seemed was swimming neck deep in offense everywhere but Cincinnati.

How bad was it? Here are the worst team offenses in the National League from 1930-1937, no shortage of Reds teams there. Following that is the worst total offense of those years.

1930-1937          YEAR      R
1    Reds               1933      496
2    Braves             1931      533
3    Braves             1933      552
T4   Reds               1932      575
T4   Braves             1935      575
6    Braves             1937      579
7    Reds               1934      590
8    Reds               1931      602
9    Phillies           1933      607
10   Reds               1937      612

RUNS                             R
1    Braves                     4895
2    Reds                       4908
3    Dodgers                    5658
4    Pirates                    5880
5    Phillies                   5889
6    Giants                     6122
7    Cubs                       6310

8 Cardinals 6400In 1935 the Reds cut an option deal with the Cardinals to take a look at a young hitter from Rochester who had hit .339 the prior year. The deal was simple, for fifty five thousand dollars the Reds could purchase him if they found him to their liking. So instead of going to Cardinals camp the big hitter headed to Tampa that spring.The players name was Johnny Mize.

Mize’s performance in a Reds uniform was good enough to cause Sunny Jim Bottomley the Reds incumbent retread slugger to jump camp, seeing Mize play was the writing on the wall and Jim could only foresee a future of watching the Reds play from the bench instead of the field.

Of course there was a catch, after all it was Branch Rickey on the other side of the deal. Johnny Mize needed knee surgery in an era that surgery was an iffy subject. In a fit of bad decision making and a moment that involved the usual dollar watching a small town franchise must endure, the Reds decided to pass on Johnny Mize and sent him back to the Cardinals. Sunny Jim came back to the team and Mize had the knee operated on, using it to carry him on 809 extra base hits over the next 18 years and eventually to the to the Hall of Fame. Meanwhile in Cincinnati the Reds slotted the relieved Bottomley in as the starting 1st baseman and 400 at bats and a pitiful .617 OPS later he was relived of his duties and jettisoned off to a place that must have been worse than Cincinnati in the mid 30’s. St. Louis, but this time as a Brown, not a Cardinal. Being a St. Louis Brown was a baseball fate often believed to be worse than death, and at no time more than during the Depression.

Fixing something that’s not broke.

It wouldn’t be spring if the papers didn’t ponder the teams attempt to alter the approach of certain ballplayers, whether it is way they hold the bat, scoop a grounder or plant their feet. There seems to always be something that causes the coaches to retch in the dugout during BP, or worse yet a game. The result is they think spring is the time that they (the coaches) can fix your game.

If this instance arises I suggest everyone take it slow.

Following the Mize/Bottomley debacle the Reds found that they were once again looking for a 1st baseman and in the winter of 1936 the Reds and GM Larry MacPhail were also looking for an increased revenue stream to help boost the teams bottom line. The later of those problems enabled the Reds to cut a deal to train in Puerto Rico, making the Reds the first team to train outside of the USA, adding firsts to the list was McPhail’s goal, coming in first was the managing staffs. As far as the search for a first baseman goes the Reds once again dipped into the rich vein of talent that was mined by the best, this year eschewing the Cardinals the Reds turned to the American League for help specifically the Yankees, who offered the Reds an option to purchase Newark first sacker George McQuinn, a spray hitter that had an unfortunate situation. He was slotted behind Lou Gehrig and had yet been asked to join the Yankees and because of this he never sniffed a Yankee camp much alone an at bat during the regular season. At the age of 25 the Yankees saw him as an asset ready to be moved along for the right price, the team that was kicking the tires of McQuinn the most was the Reds. Unfortunately the Reds also wanted to reshape the 25-year-old McQuinn’s plate approach.

Sometimes bad teams are their own worst enemy and in this instance the Reds proved why they were holding down the bottom of the standings most years. In the book “Even the Browns” McQuinn reminisces about his brief National League career as a Red.
“The Yankees finally sold me on a look-see basis. Charlie Dressen was the manager at Cincinnati and he almost ruined my career. We trained in Puerto Rico in 1936. He must have known I wasn’t a pull hitter; I hit balls down the left field line, left center, right center, but I seldom pulled the ball. You’d think with all the success I had had they would let me alone. But from the first day in camp, the first time I walked up to the batters box, Charlie and a coach yelled at me, pull the ball, pull the ball, pull the ball! They changed my whole stance, turned me around tried to get me to pull the ball… I was playing everyday, but I was in such a slump that I couldn’t do anything right. So they returned me to the Yankees and I gradually worked my way around and hit .330 again. “

McQuinn had 6700 plate appearances in the major leagues and because of the Reds attempt to fix something that wasn’t broken they missed out on a slice of a .324/.384/.477/.861 player, one who oddly eventually ended up moving on to the Browns and replacing the man he was being asked to replace in Cincinnati, Sunny Jim Bottomley. Irony abounds in the world of baseball.

Fixing something that’s not broke. Version 2.0

Hank Sauer came to camp in Tampa in 1949 fresh off setting the Reds single season record for home runs, the 31-year-old WW 2 vet had worked his way through the Reds system since the early 1940’s and had starred at Rochester after the war, yet still he could get no interest from Warren Giles until 1948 when deadball era manager Bill McKetchnie finally left. It was then that he finally won the left field job and ended up the season with 35 home runs, a Reds team record. Sauer was a dead pull hitter playing in a park that boasted that it had the most expansive outfield in the major leagues, however the LF line was only 328 feet away and the wall was 18 feet high. However, operating under the adage that a manager knows best in the spring of 1949 Reds manager Bucky Walters entered camp with a pet project, he and his staff were going to get Hank Sauer to use the whole field, not only would he get 30 home runs buy he would rack up the doubles as well. Sauer was no spring chicken, and the 31 year old took offense to the request and promptly replied, “You wanted to provide power and I hit 35 homers, what in the hell is wrong with that?” Despite his pleas they still attempted the change, focusing much of the spring on taking the ball to right field. Sauer eventually worked so much that his hands swelled up from the change in approach, limiting all his baseball activities, it was then that the project was stopped and Sauer was allowed to return to his prior hitting approach. Because of the lack of regular work Sauer had a hard time finding his stroke in the early part of 1949 and by June he had only batted 152 times and he had only .673 OPS.

Once again the Reds brain trust made a move that they would rather forget than remember when they traded Sauer and Frank Baumholtz to the Cubs for Peanuts Lawrey and Harry Walker, a lopsided deal if there ever was one, this deal was later termed by Reds GM Warren Giles as “The worst deal I ever made.”

When asked by the Sauer why he was traded Bucky Walters replied, ” Because I couldn’t make an all around hitter out of you.” Sauer went on to hit 242 home runs for assorted teams around baseball and took home the MVP award in 1952. He never was much of a doubles hitter only topping 25 twice in his career. However his dead pull hitting made him a popular slugger in a hitter’s era and the Reds got nothing out of it other than the heartbreak of watching him do it in another teams uniform.

Bucky Walters was let go by the Reds after the 153rd game of the season. He never managed in the major leagues again.

I wonder why.

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