If I could do what I'd really like to do, I'd be a shortstop.
- Bucky Walters
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.
From 1929-34, the Reds' annual attendance never exceeded 386,000. The introduction of seven night games in 1935 boosted attendance to 449,000, but the first large increase came in 1939 when 981,443 fans showed up to watch Walters and Derringer spark the Reds to the pennant. The boost at the gate helped the Reds survive the Depression financially. More importantly, the Reds' success created a euphoria throughout Cincinnati, suggesting that, indeed, better days were ahead.
Philadelphia native William "Bucky" Walters, the oldest of seven children, who inherited his nickname from his father, a telephone employee, left Germantown High School in his sophomore year and broke into pro baseball in 1929 with the High Point, N.C., club. He later played for six other Minor League teams and parts of two seasons with the Boston Braves (1931-32), and the Boston Red Sox (1933-34), primarily as a third baseman, never appearing in more than 53 Major League games in one season. Between his stints with the two Boston teams, he played 91 games with the San Francisco Missions in the Pacific Coast League in 1933, hitting a sturdy .376. Late in the 1934 season, he was traded from the Red Sox to the Philadelphia Phillies.
The following year, convinced that Walters should refocus his career to pitching, Phillies manager Jimmie Wilson resorted to a bit of intrigue. He enlisted coaches Hans Lobert and Dick Spalding to have lunch with Walters at a chicken shack. Prolific baseball author Tom Meany, in his book Baseball's Greatest Pitchers, recounted the story.
Lobert, who had been a good third baseman with several clubs, opened the conversation with the wish he had become a pitcher, playing only every fourth day for big money.
Spalding, whose Major League experience was a brief "cup of coffee" stint, chimed in that perhaps he would have stuck in the Majors if he had been a pitcher rather than outfielder.
As they were about to finish their meal, manager Wilson "unexpectedly" arrived and snorted that he had been telling Walters he should switch to pitching for more than a year but that Walters was too hard-headed. "If he wants to be a third baseman in the Minors, that's his lookout," Wilson concluded.
The meeting ended when Walters agreed to try pitching, but only after a Wilson promise that if pitching didn't work out, he would get another shot at third base. Wilson sealed the deal by promising a bonus of $100 for every Walters win.
Other sources tell the same story but disagree on the bonus. One sets the amount at a more plausible $25 a game. Another mentions Wilson "loosing" Walters up with some fine wine at the meeting, and Walters settling for a bottle of that wine for each of his wins. Later, Walters volunteered that his only regret about his decision was not being in the lineup every day.
Converted to a starting pitcher, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Walters made 22 starts in 1935 for the woeful Phillies and finished with a 9-9 record, including a pair of shutouts. The Phillies' bandbox home park, Baker Bowl, with a very short 280-foot right field, plagued pitchers. The highlights of his first season on the mound were a 2-1 four-hitter over the defending NL champion Cardinals and a 1-0 shutout of the Chicago Cubs, who were destined to win the pennant that year. For good measure, Walters drove in the Phillies' only run in the 10th inning.
Walters' career hit bottom in 1936 with his depressing 11-21 season, but in 1937, he rebounded with a 14-15 season.
In 1938, Bill McKechnie took over as manager of the Reds, a team which finished in the league cellar in 1937. McKechnie, a veteran manager had led both the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series. By early June, he had his team playing .500 ball but sorely needed one more reliable starting pitcher. Wilson, Walters' manager in Philadelphia, was now a coach for the Reds. On the advice of Wilson, McKechnie urged Reds general manager Warren Giles to acquire Walters from the Phillies. Giles called Reds owner Powell Crosley, who approved the deal, offering two players and the $50,000 requested by the cash-strapped Phillies.
Walters' arrival was obscured by a city of baseball fans caught up in a frenzy of excitement. Two days earlier, on June 11, Johnny Vander Meer shut out the Boston Braves without a hit, winning 3-0. Four days later, Vandy faced the Brooklyn Dodgers in the first night game played in Ebbets Field.
Needing only two outs for an unprecedented consecutive no-hitter, Vandy walked the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth on only 18 pitches. McKechnie sent Walters to the bullpen to warm up and slowly walked to the mound to settle his pitcher. Vandy retired the final two hitters for his double no-hit miracle.
As a result, the arrival of Walters received meager press coverage and was little noted by the fans. Ironically, just one year later, Bucky Walters had replaced Vander Meer as the hometeam hero.
Walters came to the Reds with a record of 38-53 and and had never had a winning season until he arrived midseason in 1938, when he finished 15-14. Teammate Paul Derringer had been a dominant pitcher for years yet had no problem with Walters' dramatic rise to stardom in 1939 and admired the former third baseman's all-around play. "He can pitch with the best, swings a potent bat and his glove earns him up to six or even eight assists a game." Most years, Walters led the league in starting double plays by a pitcher.
Manger McKechnie had managed Walters in the past and was central in mentoring him toward his 1939 pinnacle. His patient, almost father-like interest in Walters -- who was still learning his new position -- worked wonders. Determined to use his skills to the maximum, McKechnie sent him to the mound every fourth game and often more frequently.
On the mound, Walters was cool, quiet, pure efficiency. He was always 'on,' never careless and threw a natural, deadly sinker that ran in on right-handed hitters.
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 Walters and Derringer each winning three. In game 11 of the streak, the Reds faced the league-leading Cardinals in St Louis. Walters defeated the Cards' leading pitcher, Lon Warneke, 7-5, and the Reds took over first place on May 26.
Walters was chosen with seven others Reds for the July 11 All-Star gGme against the American League at Yankee Stadium but did not appear in the game won by the AL, 3-1.
Another Reds streak that began on July 17 saw them 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.
Tom Swope, veteran sports writer for the Cincinnati Times-Star, wrote on Aug. 21 a feature article headlined "Reds' 'Me 'n Paul' Pitching Duo Greatest Since Dean Heyday." He noted that no pair of recent pitchers had matched the Dean brothers' 49 victories in 1934 and then predicted correctly that Walters and Derringer would win 52 games by season's end.
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. But the Reds won two of the games and still led the Cardinals by 3 1/2 games with only three to play, insuring the Reds the NL pennant for the first time in 20 years.
Reds fans were eager to attend World Series Games 3-5, scheduled at Crosley Field. Tickets were sold in a three -ame package at $16.50. Standing room-only tickets were $3.45; bleacher seats were $1.15. Scalpers were getting $10 per ticket. The Game 5 tickets were never used.
The four-game sweep of the 1939 World Series by the mighty New York Yankees, led by Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller and Red Ruffing, was disappointing but not unexpected. Derringer lost Game 1, 2-1, in the final innings, Walter lost Game 2, 4-0, and Junior Thompson was bested, 7-3, in Game 3. Derringer started Game 4 and pitched well but tired. Walters was called in a relief role in the eighth inning to hold a 4-2 Reds lead. He pitched well enough to hold the lead but was unable to overcome four crucial Reds errors, and the Reds lost, 7-4, in the 10th inning, giving the Yankees the Series championship and an abrupt end to the Reds' otherwise remarkable season.
During the season, Walters appeared in 39 games, indicating he routinely pitched with only three days' rest. At season's end, Walters easily won the NL Most Valuable Player Award and The Sporting News' Best All-Around Player Award. He tied the modern club record for most wins in a season with a 27-17 mark and led the league in ERA (2.29), innings pitched (319), strikeouts (137) and complete games (31 in 36 starts). He also starred at the plate, batting .325. The Cy Young Award for baseball's most effective pitcher was not created until 1956, but STATS, Inc. awarded Walters, based on his statistics, a retroactive Cy Young as the best pitcher in 1939.
In the offseason, according to baseball guru Bill James, "Walters attended, by actual count, 65 banquets and award ceremonies." The grandest banquet was in Philadelphia and was sponsored by the Sportscasters of the Quaker City. Walters was presented The Sporting News' "Best All-Round" Player Trophy along with high praise from Ford Frick, Wilson and Vander Meer.
The Reds and their fans went from unbounded joy to subdued disappointment, but not despair, after the World Series. McKechnie was certain his club was much better than their World Series play. He was convinced as ever that championships were won with good pitching and strong defense, and the Reds would still have Walters and Derringer, a solid defense and the bats of Ernie Lombardi, Frank McCormick, Ival Goodman and Billy Werber.
With general manager Warren Giles, McKechnie identified the team's two weaknesses: left field and backup pitching to support Walters and Derringer. Within a few months, they traded for pitchers Jim Turner and Joe Beggs and purchased the contract of outfielder Mike McCormick.
The 1940 Reds infield, led by cheerleader Werber, was the best defensive infield in the history of Major League Baseball, committing only 117 errors in 156 games for an sterling .981 fielding percentage.
The result was a strong ballclub that won 100 games, captured the NL pennant rather easily by a 12-game margin over the Brooklyn Dodgers and defeated the Detroit Tigers in a tense, exciting, seven-game World Series.
The first two games of the new season were harbingers of things to come. On Opening Day, Derringer won, 2-1, over the Chicago Cubs, the first Opening Day win for the Reds since 1932. The next day, Walters was the winner in another 2-1 game. The pattern was set. Among the Reds' 100 season wins, 42 games decided by one run.
While the Reds were winning 15 of their first 18 games, the Dodgers were keeping pace. For the first half of the season, it was nip-and-tuck with league leadership changing seven times. Walters won nine consecutive games.
The annual All-Star Game became a showcase of Reds talent. McKechnie managed the NL to a 4-0 victory over the AL. Walters and Derringer each pitched two scoreless innings.
After the All-Star Break, the Reds quickly pulled away from the Dodgers, winning two games against the Bums at Crosley Field. Again, Walters and Derringer were the winning pitchers. On July 23 at Ebbetts Field, the contenders engaged in an all-out brawl over a spiking incident, but the final blows were delivered by the Reds, who won both games in the doubleheader. They swept the series with a 6-3 Walters win and led the Dodgers by eight games. It appeared they would glide toward a championship.
Then the tragedy. On Aug. 3, while the Reds were engaged in a doubleheader with the Boston Braves, Willard Hershberger, their capable and popular backup catcher, put a razor to his throat and died in the bathtub of his Boston hotel room. It remains Major League Baseball's only in-season player suicide.
Hershberger had the reputation of excessive introspection. When the Reds would lose with him behind the plate, he would blame himself for the loss. On July 26, Ernie Lombardi twisted his ankle. Hershberger became the everyday catcher and blamed himself, as quickly the Reds lost five of six games. He went hitless in all five games, and his batting average plummeted from .368 to .306. He lost 15 pounds and displayed symptoms of dehydration, exhaustion and bouts of insomnia.
The problem escalated to crisis on July 31. In the bottom of the ninth against the Giants at the Polo Grounds, Walters was leading, 4-1, with two outs and no one on base. Just one strike away from victory on four different batters, he failed to retire all four and lost the game on a Harry Danning home run, 5-4.
Hershberger was too stunned to move. He stood at home plate in disbelief as his teammates headed for the dugout. Blaming himself for calling the wrong pitch to Danning and signaling other bad-pitch calls, he whined to Werber, "If Ernie had been catching, we would never have lost that game."
The Reds moved to Boston and lost a doubleheader to the Braves. In the second game, a 12-inning, 4-3 loss, with men on base in five-at-bats, Hershberger went hitless and failed to field a bunt that clearly was his play to make.
After the game, McKechnie approached him about his obvious depression. "Is there anything wrong?" he asked. Hershie replied, "There is plenty wrong with me." In an evening-long conversation that followed, Hershberger told his manager, "My father killed himself, and I am going to do the same." After many hours of talking and crying, it seemed to McKechnie that Hershberger's mood had lifted and with it, his depression. They went together to dinner and McKechnie believed the crisis was over.
Next day, however, Hershberger did not appear at the ballpark, and McKechnie sent a friend to the Copley Hotel to find him. Between games of the doubleheader, McKechnie addressed his players, "We have an unusually sick man among us. He is so sick mentally that we must overlook anything he does and try to raise his spirits."
Before the message was delivered, Hershberger was already dead.
In his memoirs, Werber wrote that Walters mourned the death more deeply than any member of the team. Bucky and Werber were usually roommates on the road but booked separate rooms in Boston. Walters was expecting a visit from his wife. When his wife had to cancel her visit, Walters asked Werber to spend the night in his room. "I can't bear being alone after this."
Werber replied he was already unpacked and didn't want to switch rooms and repack. "When I came up after dinner, there wasn't a thing left in my room. Walters had packed everything in my bags, took them to a larger room he had hired and unpacked everything again. That night, I saw what Walters was going through. The pressure was on all of us, but especially on him."
In part to honor Hershberger, the Reds completed their season with vigor. Between Aug. 31 and Sept. 21, they won 19 games, with Walters winning nine and losing only two. On July 29, the Reds won their 100th game of the season for the first time in club history. At season's end, it was Walters with a 22-10 record and Derringer at 20-12.
The World Series against the Detroit Tigers, played in seven consecutive days, was uphill for the Reds down to the final game. Ernie Lombardi had reinjured his ankle and played only a few innings. He was replaced by 40-year-old, out-of-shape Jimmie Wilson, who shed his coaching duties to go behind the plate. Lonnie Frey also was injured and replaced by Eddie Joost.
Game 1 at Crosley Field was a debacle. The Reds faced the Tigers' ace, big and bold Buck "Bo Bo" Newsom, who was coming off a 20-5 year, and lost, 7-2.
Game 2 was immediately considered a "must" win for the Reds. McKechnie called on Walters to even the series before the games moved to Detroit. He struggled in the first inning, walking the first two batters on eight pitches. Wilson walked slowly to the mound to speak to the former third baseman he had convinced many years back to become a pitcher. "Now, look, just calm down. Just be yourself. Let them hit the ball."
After Wilson's mound visit, Walters allowed two first-inning runs. The Reds came back with two runs in both the second and third innings. Walters finished by setting the Tigers down, 5-3, with a complete-game three-hitter to tie the Series.
The Tigers regained their lead with a 7-4 win in Game 3. Again down a game, McKechnie named Derringer to start Game 4 even though he was winless in his five previous World Series starts. At day's end, Derringer was celebrating his first World Series win, having allowed only five hits in a 5-2 victory.
Game 5 was no contest. Detroit's main man, Hank Greenberg, who finished the regular season with a .341 batting average and 150 RBIs, hit a homer and had four RBIS as the Tigers prevailed behind Newsom, 8-0.
When the Series returned to Cincinnati for Game6six, the Reds needed to win the final two games to win the Series. McKechnie made his plan clear. He would pitch Walters and Derringer with full expectation that each of his marvelous pitchers would win their games and the championship.
Walters, pitching once more a "must-win" game, shut out the Tigers, who managed only five hits in the 4-0 Reds' victory. Bucky added offense by knocking in a run in the third inning and became the first pitcher to hit a home run in a World Series game in 14 years with his eighth-inning blast.
Game 7 pitted Derringer against Newsom. Derringer was pitching with only two days' rest and Newsom with only one day's rest. Derringer retired all six hitters he faced in the eighth and ninth innings for the 2-1 win, appropriately another one-run Reds' victory.
Bedlam reigned after the game at the ballpark and across all of Cincinnati. A United Press release reported "all night and until pre-dawn Joe Cincinnati threw blizzards of confetti, torn up newspapers and phone books on to the streets. Streetcars were pushed off their tracks. People were singing, shouting, laughing, dancing. It was the greatest celebration since Armistice Day. The cops gave up trying to keep the streets open for traffic."
For the season, Walters won 22 games, lost 10 and led the league with a 2.48 ERA and 22 complete games. Derringer was 20-12 with a 3.06 ERA, two one-hitters, 115 strikeouts and again led the league in fewest walks per nine innings (1.46). Over the two seasons, 1939-40, Walters and Derringer won a combined 94 games and completed 114 games in 144 starts. No pair of pitching teammates ever matched their two-season brilliance again.
During the 1940 season, powerful voices in the press were calling loudly for an end to baseball's discrimination against blacks. The magazine Friday solicited comments on the issue from a number of Major League players and managers. Walters, Vander Meer, and McKechnie were among those who praised the ability of black players and supported their admission to professional baseball.
The Sporting News, following the 1940 season, devised a rating system to determine the best players in Major League Baseball. Sixteen premier baseball writers rated players on 10 qualities deemed necessary in a star: ability, dependability, application, team value, popularity, initiative, aggressiveness, courage, fellowship and deportment. Walters was the easy winner, garnering 14,074 points. Joe DiMaggio was second with 12,592 points. Frank McCormick finished fourth, and Derringer 10th, just ahead of Ted Williams.
Eight players and two pitchers, chosen by Babe Ruth, represented the United States as "America's Team" at the 1940 World's Fair. Walters was one of the pitchers.
Bill Howard, a motion picture director for Warner Brothers, talked to Walters after the 1940 season about making a movie on his rags-to-riches career. Howard's considerable effort failed. In a February 1941 letter to Bucky, he reported that although he convinced Pat O'Brian to appear in the film, the studio turned down the proposal, contending, "There has never been a good baseball picture. We don't like them."
For seven seasons, 1941-47, Walters never had a losing season with the Reds, but his performances in his final years fell far below his best seasons with a 58-54 record.
After his magical 1939-40 seasons, Walters performed very well again in 1941 with a 19-15 record and a league-leading 27 complete games as the Reds finished in third place, but far behind the Cardinals and Dodgers. The Reds offense was horrid. Their team batting average was .231, lowest in the NL since 1910. Not one Red in the staring lineup hit above .300.
Hank Sauer was brought up from the Minors to play nine games at the end of the season. In Danny Peary's oral history, We Played The Game, Sauer recalls, "When I came up to the Reds, Walters was the only player who treated me like one of the guys. No one else ever talked to me. Bucky even bought me dinner."
In 1942-43, Walters' combined record was 30-29. But in 1944, he was once more the ace of the Reds staff when, for the last time, he won more than 20 games in a splendid comeback year. Again the workhorse of the staff, he pitched 285 innings with an ERA of 2.40 and posted a strong 24-8 record, helping the Reds to a third-place finish.
From November 1944 through January 1945, Walters joined Mel Ott, Frank Frisch and Dutch Leonard as members of a USO Tour group who visited U.S. troops in Europe. Bucky was photographed being welcomed by Gens. Omar Bradley and George Patton. The group was in Europe during the fiercest and deadliest months of the war and were nearly caught behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge. He was invited to join a similar USO Tour in 1943 but had to cancel at the last moment for an emergency appendectomy.
Walter's reputation as a good hitter was confirmed when he hit two home runs on May 20, 1945. His long record of avoiding serious injury ended on July 31 when he injured his arm in a 2-0 shutout win. He worked in only two more contests that year, yet his season-ending 2.68 ERA was under 3.00 for the eighth time in nine years.
Johnny Neun replaced McKechnie as Reds manager for the 1947 season. Although the Reds developed another spectacular pitcher, Ewell Blackwell, they finished fifth. Blackwell won on Opening Day and beginning May 10, he won 16 games in a row, included a no-hit game against Boston. While Blackwell was a green rookie, Walters was his mentor, teaching him to throw a sinker. In his last year as a full time pitcher, Walter had a 8-8 record.
When the umpire crew failed to show up for a game on July 10, Walters won new honors when chosen to serve as a replacement umpire.
He received a thank-you letter from league president Ford Frick with a check, a "little token" of Frick's appreciation for a job well done.
On Father's Day, Walters was honored as the Reds' outstanding father by the Junior Chamber of Commerce. The last night game of the season, Sept. 9, was designated "Bucky Walters Night." At the special pregame appreciation ceremony, Bucky was presented with a Lincoln limousine and four white turkeys. Fittingly for the occasion, Bucky responded with his final career win, a 2-0 shutout of the Boston Braves before 24,351 fans.
When Neun failed to move the Reds forward, Walters was named the Reds manager in the middle of the 1948 season. Still hoping to get two more wins to bring him to the cherished 200-win plateau, Bucky requested he be named player-manager. He never reached his 200-win goal. Appearing in seven games, he was unable to win a single one. Later, reflecting on his career, he mused, "I won two World Series games, that makes 200."
His record as a manger was undistinguished, as the Reds finished seventh in both of his years as manager. It is not clear if he was a poor manager, as he inherited a very weak team. Stress and poor health contributed to Walter's problems. He had been warned by his doctors in midseason to resign, but doggedly stuck it out.
Furthermore, Walters 'relationship with Giles was difficult in 1949. When a rumor was floated in June of 1949 that Luke Sewell would replace Walters as manager, Giles wrote a "Dear Bucky" letter, saying, "If I was thinking of a successor either now or in the future, I assure you it would not be Luke Sewell." With only three games remaining in 1949, Giles named Luke Sewell the new Reds manager.
Despite Giles' reservations about Walters' abilities as manager, he still considered him an asset to the Reds and offered him a position with the Reds for 1950, with duties yet to be determined, at a salary of $10,000.
Walters chose to leave the Reds. Billy Southworth, the Boston Braves manager, believed Walters "had a way with ballplayers" and hired him as a coach for 1950. Bucky made his last appearance on the mound with a four-inning relief job. When Tommy Holmes succeeded Southworth as Braves manager in 1951, he retained Walters, explaining, "Bucky is a good man to have around a ballclub." Bucky was with the Boston/Milwaukee Braves from 1950-55.
It was back to the Minor Leagues for Bucky in 1952. In midseason, the Braves loaned him to the Milwaukee Brewers in the American Association to serve as their manager. As a result, he earned a new opportunity to test his managerial skills and proved worthy as he led the Brewers to a first-place, 101-win finish. Next year, the Braves moved to Milwaukee and became the Milwaukee Braves. Walters returned as pitching coach for the Braves through 1955. He concluded his 28-year professional baseball career coaching for the New York Giants from 1956-57.
The Giants moved west to San Francisco in 1958 and offered Walters a handsome sum of $25,000 to go with them, but he declined, explaining he wanted to stay close to his family.
In 1958, Walters returned home to his family in Philadelphia and served as farm director and scout for the Philadelphia Phillies for two years. He then left baseball behind and worked several years as the public relations representative for the Philadelphia-based Ferco Machine Screw Company.
He took up golf and was champion at a nearby club. In 1977, he lost a leg (above the knee) due to arteriosclerosis and never fully recovered.
Bucky was inducted to the Ohio Baseball Hall of Fame in 1978.
One day after his 82nd birthday, he died on April 20, 1991, in Abington, Pa.
William (Bucky) Walters was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1958 in the first year of inductees to the Reds Hall of Fame.