Record: 93-61, finished 1st out of 8 team National League. Lost World Series to Yankees in 5 games.
Did this team matter?: No? The ’61 Reds won about 10 more games than their runs scored vs. runs allowed ratio would have anticipated. And then were steamrolled by a historically great Yankees team, as though they were little more than a casual footnote. Or…yes? The franchise, by and large, had mostly been irrelevant since the early 1940s and taking advantage of good fortune can be a propellant towards a better future. This season not only represented a 26-win improvement over 1960, it also marked the kick-off of a stretch in which the Reds would be a winning team (pretty much every season) until the early 1980s. Also, in the midst of the Cold War, allowing the Yankees to prevail over the Reds was a nice prophetic touch.
Performances to remember: Vada Pinson is fascinating to me because his career has the shape of a hall of famer. He debuted at age 19 and was a full-time player (and an outright star) by age 20, a la Mantle, Trout, Griffey. He played 18 seasons and accumulated over 10,000 plate appearances, which stacks up against all but the most exceptionally durable. He has a career bWAR total of 54, which is maybe about nine wins shy of what might be considered a reliable Hall of Fame floor. Half a win a year. So close.
You could look at his career in slightly different ways to come to the same result. Pinson ended his career with 256 home runs. Three more per year would have put him over 300…which might have edged him over the line with some voters. Or 14 more hits per season (one additional hit every two weeks) would have given him 3,000 base knocks, a nearly ironclad lock for election.
In 1961, Pinson recorded his most valuable season. He hit well: 131 OPS+, 208 hits, 101 runs scored, 23 stolen bases. And he defended, by far, at a level better than any other season in his career, according to the modern metrics. And if 1961 was his normal defensive season, he might have been seen as comparable to Richie Ashburn, at least value-wise. Ashburn had the same career OPS+ as Pinson (but was more of a walks and singles guy than Pinson) and played fewer seasons/games/etc. But he was a superb glove year in and year out and…is in the Hall of Fame.
Wikipedia says: “The Reds were…the last team to win the National League in the 154-game schedule era, before going to a 162-game schedule a year later.”
Uniform notes: 1961’s uniforms married two pre-existing constructs, namely the pinstriped uniforms of the late 1950’s with the blue-backed wishbone C logo of the 1940’s and early 1950’s.
My fashion-conscious, non-baseball-fan tween of a daughter says: “This is the same thing as the other striped one but it has ugly sleeves and the number on the front again.”
Record: 97-57, finished 1st in 8-team National League, lost World Series to Yankees in four games.
Did this team matter?: You betcha. Not only did the Reds win the pennant, they set the stage for the franchise’s second world championship the following year.
Performances to remember: Lonny Frey’s career had three significant before and after stories to it, and they all nearly coincided in 1939.
First, Frey came into the league as a shortstop. One of the best quotes ever recorded about any baseball player was when Roger Kahn mused that Frey’s only weakness as a shortstop was batted balls. He was a dreadful fielder as a shortstop with the Dodgers (51 errors in 117 games in 1936!), but he’d eventually be picked up by the Reds (prior to the 1938 season) and was turned into a second baseman, where he excelled defensively.
Second, the Reds convinced him to give up switch hitting before the 1939 season. Looking back, I wonder if this request was met with skepticism. Frey was a competent hitter over the first several seasons of his career, compiling a .275 batting average through 1938. He didn’t hit for power, but had a great eye and had a 104 OPS+, which is generally pretty good for a middle infielder. Maybe the Reds had earned some goodwill by moving him successfully to 2nd base, but Frey became a permanent left-handed hitter and posted the best hitting season of his career in 1939, with a .291 average and 11 homers (123 OPS+) in just 125 games.
Finally, the reason he played in only 125 games in 1939 was that he was platooned with Eddie Joost, a young right-handed hotshot-fielding rookie. In 1940, Joost absorbed the full time shortstop role, and Frey graduated to a full-time player again. His rate numbers were never again what they were in 1939, although Frey was definitely a valuable contributor through the remainder of his time with the Reds.
Wikipedia says: “During the season, Paul Derringer and Bucky Walters became the last pitchers to win at least 25 games in one season for the Reds in the 20th century.”
Uniform notes: 1939 would kick off the first of eight seasons where the Reds ostensibly had as much blue in their uniform as red. However, blue had been an on/off component of Cincy uniforms since at least 1900 and would continue in some form or fashion until 1956.
My fashion-conscious, non-baseball-fan tween of a daughter says: “Oooh, more blue. It has a front thing and a side thing, that’s good.”
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