His control was so good that he once stood on the mound blindfolded and threw six of 10 pitches over the plate for strikes.
- Authors Lonnie Wheeler and John Baskin from 'The Cincinnati Game'
In 1939, Cincinnati Reds pitchers Paul Derringer and Bucky Walters combined to win 52 games, more than half of their team's 97 wins, to lead their team to a National League championship. They became the first tandem of NL pitchers on the same team to win a combined 52 games since 1916 when Pete Alexander and Eppa Rixey, a former Red, won 55 games for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Since then, no two pitchers on the same team in the NL have reached their 52-win threshold. They were not only the two best pitchers on the 1939 Reds, they were the two best pitchers in the entire league.
The 1939 championship year ended a long drought of mediocre baseball in Cincinnati. Only two years earlier, the Reds had finished last in the NL. From 1927-37, they never finished higher than fifth and in five of those years, they ended the season in last place.
But Paul Derringer's dominance over his opponents in 1939 did not come easily. In the 1930s, Derringer suffered through disastrous seasons. In 1933, his first season with the Reds, Derringer lost 27 games, the most by any NL pitcher in one year since 1910.
Born in Springfield, Ky., on Oct. 17, 1906, Derringer, son of a tobacco farmer, played high school baseball as a catcher, but after the team's pitcher failed miserably, Derringer volunteered to take the mound, pitched well and never deserted his new position. Soon thereafter, he displayed his potential with the Coalwood, W.V., mining baseball team in 1926. The St. Louis Cardinals were impressed and signed him. After his first two years in the Minors in Danville, Ill., he moved up to the Rochester (N.Y.) Red Wings and in 1929-30, led them to a pair of International League pennants.
Branch Rickey, the legendary general manager, was so impressed with Derringer at the Cardinals Spring Training camp in 1931, he sent Dizzy Dean to the Minors to make room for the 24 year-old, 6-foot-3, 205-pound Derringer. Derringer promptly validated Rickey's decision by going 18-8 to aid the Cards to their 1931 NL championship. He notched four shutouts, the second-highest total in the league, put together a streak of 33 consecutive scoreless innings in September and became the first rookie to lead the NL in winning percentage.
Rickey played a central role in the trade that brought Derringer to the Reds in May of 1933. After winning the World Series in 1931, the St. Louis Cardinals slipped all the way to seventh place in 1932. Rickey, desperate to improve his team's defense, coveted the Reds' veteran shortstop, Leo Durocher, a weak hitter but a splendid fielder. The cellar-dwelling Reds needed any help they could get.
Sidney Weil was the Reds owner from 1929-33. During those years, the team spent two years in the cellar and two years in seventh place. Still, he made two marvelous trades, bringing Ernie Lombardi and Paul Derringer to the Reds, establishing a foundation for the resurgent 1939 club.
In an unpublished memoir written for his family, Weil recalled the Derringer story. Rickey requested a meeting in the lobby of the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York. He said he needed a good shortstop for St. Louis to make a run for the pennant. Eventually, the discussion got around to Durocher. Weil said Durocher was untouchable, but Rickey persisted and offered Paul Derringer, whom Weil had been trying to get for a long time. Weil consulted with Reds manager Donie Busch, who agreed he should be willing to swim across the river to make the deal, and the deal was made. Derringer joined the Reds on May 11, 1933.
In the five seasons between his disastrous 1933 record and 1939, Derringer was a solid performer for the erratic Reds, winning 87 games while losing 80. After the 1937 season, Warren Giles, who became Reds general manager on Sept. 19, 1936, wrote an evaluation of the Reds to newly-appointed Reds manager Bill McKechnie that noted, "Derringer lacks guts, Should try to trade him." Fortunately, Bill McKechnie, who knew Derringer from their days together in St. Louis, arrived in time to squelch the trade. In 1938, in McKechnie's first year as Reds manager, Derringer led the league in games started, complete games and innings pitched.
In their book Crosley Field, Greg Rhodes and John Erardi recall that Derringer was emotional, outgoing and aggressive. He would ask his teammates in the dugout, "When are you bastards going to get me a run?" Derringer rarely pitched low-hit games but was money in the bank when the game was on the line. He threw screwballs from three different angles, several fastballs and on rare occasions, a spitball. His control was superb.
Highly competitive and prone to displays of anger, Derringer often found himself in conflicts, including several at the ballpark. He never got along with Dean when they were together on the Cardinals. After coming to the Reds, Derringer had a pregame altercation with Dean in the Crosley Field visitor's dugout on June 6, 1933. Words were exchanged, and blows followed, with Derringer landing the first hit.
In 1936, Larry MacPhail, who became the Reds' general manger in November 1933, fined Derringer $250 for not sliding in a play at home, then suspended him and lectured him for an hour. Furious, Derringer flung an inkwell at MacPhail, missing him by inches. MacPhail gasped, "You might have killed me," to which Derringer replied, "That's what I was meaning to do." MacPhail grabbed his checkbook and gave Derringer a check for $750. "That's a bonus for missing me."
His own teammates were targets of his quick temper in 1937. In June, he punched Phil Weintraub after accusing him of not hustling in the outfield. Bullpen catcher Gus Brittain dared to suggest Derringer was lazy in his pregame warm-up. Derringer then signaled he would throw a fastball but threw instead a curve that bounced off Brittain's ankle. Moments later, they faced off in the dugout. Derringer picked up Brittain's mask and threw it at his head. It took nearly half the team to separate them.
More serious was an alleged fracas on June 27, 1936, when Robert Condon, an associate of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, accused Derringer of breaking into his room at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, where he was hosting a private affair during the Democratic Convention. Condon claimed that Derringer, obviously under the influence of alcohol, demanded to join the party. Condon refused him access and said Derringer then hit him behind his ear, knocked him to the floor and repeatedly jumped on him. Condon filed charges stating that his injuries required eight weeks' recuperation and resulted in a significant loss of income. Condon asked $25,000 in damages.
Derringer denied everything but was eventually ordered to appear in a New York court on May 10, 1939, to face the charges. He lost the case and was ordered to pay $8,100 in damages but refused to play the fine. To avoid arrest, he did not join the Reds for a three-game series with the New York Giants. When Derringer was elected to the NL All-Star team, with the game scheduled for July 11 at Yankee Stadium, Derringer and the Reds agreed to settle the matter. Derringer, with some monetary help from the Reds, paid a negotiated settlement prior to the All-Star Game.
Bill Werber, who joined the Reds just before their championship years, remembers in his late-in-life memoir Memories of a Ballplayer a crucial moment in Derringer's career. In the first game of the 1939 World Series against New York at Yankee Stadium, Derringer and Red Ruffing were hooked up in a pitching duel with the score tied, 1-1, going into the last of the ninth. Charlie Keller smacked a long fly ball to the outfield that fell between right fielder Ival Goodman and center fielder Harry Craft for a double. Goodman should have caught the ball but perhaps was bedeviled by the October shadows of Yankee Stadium. Bill Dickey then singled to drive in Keller, hanging a 2-1 loss on Derringer and the Reds.
Derringer was visibly upset. When he saw Goodman in the clubhouse, he popped off, "If you got no guts, get out of here. That was the most gutless effort I've ever seen." Goodman could not accept the gutless charge and threw a right hand at Derringer's jaw. Teammates immediately separated the two, and McKechnie hollered, "Shut the doors, don't let any sportswriters in the door." Never a line appeared in print about the aborted fight.
Another side of Paul Derringer was displayed immediately after the Goodman confrontation. Lee Allen, once the historian for the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, revealed the story in Cooperstown Corner, a collection of his columns.
The story came to Allen from Red Ruffing, the Yankees' winning pitcher in that first 1939 Series game. Ruffing got the story from umpire Bill McGowan, who worked behind the plate in that game. While McGowan was still changing clothes in the umpire's dressing room, he was told Derringer was outside asking to see him. He suspected Derringer would be furious after losing such a close game and had no desire to see him but reluctantly poked his head out when Derringer exclaimed, "Bill, I just want to tell you that's the greatest job of calling balls and strikes I've ever experienced. You did not miss one pitch." When McGowan told Ruffing the story, he said "I had never heard such a thing before, and it gave me a very warm feeling." Many years later, over lunch, Allen repeated Ruffing's story to his good friend, Paul Derringer, who admitted the story was true.
Equally impressive was his "workhorse" contribution. Derringer appeared in 38 games, often pitching on three days' rest and frequently on two days' rest, an endurance and competitive effort rarely matched.
Diverse as they were off the mound, Derringer and Walters were solidly bonded in the ballpark. They supported and admired each other in the most important area of their lives -- their dedication to win ballgames. When asked about Derringer, Walters said, "Duke is a bit cocky. But is it cocky if you can back it up? He is a horse, a winner."
Throughout the season, the Reds battled the St. Louis Cardinals' "Gashouse Gang" for first place. The Cardinals opened the season with a 20-9 record and held down first place.
After an underwhelming 11-10 start, with Walters and Derringer winning nine games, on May 16, the Reds inaugurated a 12-game winning streak. The first 10 wins were at home, with Derringer and Walters each winning three. In game 11 of the streak, the Reds faced the league-leading Cardinals in St. Louis and won. The Reds took over first place on May 26.
Seven Reds were chosen for the July 11 All-Star Game against the American League at Yankee Stadium. Lonny Frey, Frank McCormick, Ernie Lombardi and Ival Goodman were in the starting lineup. Derringer, as the chosen starting pitcher, completed the first three innings, allowing no runs and two hits, but the AL prevailed, 3-1.
Another streak that began on July 17 saw the Reds win 14 of 15 games. After a doubleheader sweep of the Phillies on July 31 before 30,298 fans at Crosley Field, the Reds boasted a 60-30 record and a 12-game lead over St Louis.
Going into August, the Reds held their lead with a league-best fielding average of .975 and a batting average of .273, third-best in league.
But the Cardinals, determined not to hand over the pennant to the Reds so easily, came alive in September. They slugged their way to 20 victories in 24 days. The Reds' lead was reduced to 3 1/2 games by Sept. 26, when the Cards came into Crosley with the wind at their back for a "crucial" four-game series.
Manger McKechnie had lost 23 pounds in six weeks. He got a bit of fresh air when Gene Thompson, the Reds' most effective pitcher behind Walters and Derringer, won the first game of a doubleheader, 3-1. McKechnie lost more pounds when the Reds had only four hits in the second game of the doubleheader, losing 6-0. And on the next day, he saw his team's hitters again on holiday, sending Walters to a 4-0 loss, the second straight game the Reds failed to score.
The Reds' lead was now a precarious 2 1/2 games. They had not scored a run in 24 consecutive innings. Derringer was scheduled to pitch Game 4 on Sept. 28, and hope was revived. But the anguish continued as "Oom Paul" was very hittable. He gave up 14 hits, including a home run, a triple and three doubles. In the seventh inning, he allowed four hits but no runs, made possible when Goodman threw out Joe Medwick at third to begin the inning. Another Cards rally was squashed when Lombardi threw out Johnny Hopp on a pick-off peg to second base.
Throughout the game, McKechnie paced in the dugout. "The big fellow doesn't have it," he kept repeating. "Who have you got that's any better?" asked coach Jimmy Wilson. "Leave him in there. Maybe he'll settle down."
Despite getting roughed up by the Cards hitters, Derringer, always the jokester, came to the dugout in the middle of the game and sat next to coach Hank Gowdy. He told Gowdy he was tired because he had played 27 holes of golf that morning prior to the game. Gowdy groaned and buried his head in his hands while Derringer struggled to stifle his laugh.
Derringer took the mound in the ninth with a 5-3 lead. Catcher Lombardi later told reporters Derringer never threw harder in his career then he did that inning. He stuck out Medwick and Johnny Mize on six pitches to end the game. The Reds led the Cardinals by 3 1/2 games with only three to play at Pittsburgh, insuring the Reds the NL pennant for the first time in 20 years.
Derringer finished the season with a 25-7 record and a league-leading .781 winning percentage, a new Reds all-time record. He led the league in fewest walks allowed per nine innings (1.05), walking only 35 batters in 301 innings -- with 12 of them intentional passes -- and completed 28 of his 35 starts. His ERA was 2.93. And he could bunt, leading the league with 17 sacrifice hits. He finished third in the MVP voting behind Walters and Cardinals slugger Johnny Mize and his league-leading .349 batting average.