More Than 80 Years Of Reds' MVPs: Part I

May 17, 2019

Major League Baseball is a team sport, one where all 25 players on the roster have a role to play if the team is to have success.

What other game has the concept of "sacrifice flies" and "sacrifice bunts," where a hitter gives himself up willingly to move a teammate into scoring position to increase the odds of scoring runs?

But baseball is also a game where individual achievement is given its due.

The highest honor a player can be given for his individual performance is the Most Valuable Player award, the MVP, which is awarded to one player in the American League and another in the National League. Its formal name is the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Award, named after the first commissioner of baseball, a native of the tiny Butler County village of Millville, who ruled the game from 1920 until his death in 1944.

The first official MVP awards were given in 1931, with the Baseball Writers Association of America voting on the recipients. That year, Philadelphia A's pitcher Lefty Grove was the American League winner, while St. Louis second baseman Frankie Frisch won in the National League.

Last season, Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers and Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox were the MVPs.

The Cincinnati Reds have had their fair share of National League MVPs over the years – 10 players have won the award 12 times. Four of them have been enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown – it would likely have been five, had Pete Rose not been banned from baseball in 1989 for betting on the game.

The 1970s was the decade when the Reds dominated the National League MVP voting.

Members of the "Big Red Machine" – one of the greatest teams to ever set foot on a baseball diamond – won the award six out of the 10 years of the 1970s.

Because the Reds' list of MVPs is so extensive, we've broken out this roundup into two articles. You can read Part II here, featuring the most recent five – Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, George Foster, Barry Larkin and Joey Votto. 

Ernie Lombardi (1938)

Ernie Lombardi of the Cincinnati Reds, National League batting king, as he slammed out a ball in his first batting practice at Tampa, Florida, March 4, 1939.
Credit AP

Known as "The Schnozz" for the prominent nose that dominated the Reds catcher's face, he was, during his 10 years as a Red, unquestionably one of the most popular players in the history of the franchise. The fans at Crosley Field loved Ernie.

It's one reason he is one of the four players with a bronze statue on Crosley Terrace in front of Great American Ball Park. All four played their entire Reds' careers at Crosley and were voted in by the fans.

He was also one of the slowest human beings ever to set foot on a major league baseball field.

Ernie was so slow, one wag said "that he could turn a triple into a single."

It didn't matter.

He batted .311 in his 10 seasons with the Reds. But 1938 was, by far, his greatest year,

Lombardi struck out only 14 times in 529 plate appearances in his MVP year – a mind-boggling number. He led the league with a .342 batting average, and had 19 home runs and 95 RBIs. And, as a testimony to his slowness of foot, he also led the league in the number of double plays he grounded into: 30.

He played in two World Series for the Reds – 1939, which the Reds lost to the Yankees; and 1940, which the Reds won over the Detroit Tigers.

The Boston Braves who bought his contract from the Reds after the 1941 season, ended up trading him to the New York Giants.  The Giants ended up releasing him after the 1947 season and his playing career was over.

After baseball, Ernie led an unhappy life, bouncing from job to job, including a stint as a press box assistant at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. He was passed over again and again for baseball's Hall of Fame. He died in September 1977. It wasn't until 1986 that the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee voted him into the Hall.

In 2003, he was immortalized in bronze outside Great American Ball Park.

And, Saturday, when the Reds meet the Dodgers at Great American Ball Park, the first 20,000 fans will go home with a Ernie Lombardi bobblehead.

Bucky Walters (1939)

Credit Wikimedia Commons

His career as a major league pitcher began with five seasons with his hometown team, the Philadelphia Phillies. But his record there was mediocre at best – 38 wins, 53 losses and an unremarkable 4.48 earned run average.

It was not until Walters was traded to the Cincinnati Reds before the 1938 season that his career began to take off.

In 1938, the focus was on Johnny Vander Meer, who threw his back-to-back no-hitters that season. Bucky's 11-6 record was OK, but nothing to write home about.

But 1939 – well, that was another story. That was a year the Reds won the National League pennant for the first time in 20 years and Walters led the way on what turned out to be a very good pitching staff.

Bucky's numbers in 1939 were eye-popping: a league-leading 27 wins with only 11 losses; a league-leading earned run average of 2.29; an astounding number of innings pitched – 319 – an amount that would make most modern pitchers' arms fall off; and a league-leading 137 strike outs.

Bucky, who threw a wicked sinking fastball that tied hitters in knots, sustained his excellence for the next five seasons, racking up 121 wins between 1939 and 1944 – the most of any major league pitcher. He also had the lowest ERA over the period, 2.67.

While he went 0-2 in the 1939 World Series which the Reds lost to the Yankees, he and the Reds were back in the World Series the next season. Walters went 2-0 in 1940, leading the Reds to a World Series victory over the Tigers.

He was, quite simply, the best pitcher in baseball in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Bucky ended up pitching 11 seasons for the Reds and, soon, his playing career was over.

But he is a member of the Reds Hall of Fame, ranking fourth all-time in wins with 160.

Frank McCormick (1940)

Frank McCormick, center, with fellow 1942 Reds' All-Stars at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, N.Y., from left: Bill McKechnie and Bucky Walters, pitchers; McCormick, first baseman; Johnny Vander Meer, pitcher; and Paul Derringer, pitcher.
Credit AP

It is hard to imagine the Cincinnati Reds winning NL pennants and going to the World Series in 1939 and 1940 without Frank McCormick.

In his first three full seasons as a Red (1938-1940), McCormick played like a man possessed. He practically put the team on his back and carried them to the World Series.

And this was after languishing in the minor leagues for a number of years for a team that did not think he was ready.

Here's all he did in 1938-1940:

  • Batted .327, .332 and .309;
  • Drove in 106, 128 and 127 runs;
  • Hit 40 or more doubles each year;
  • And became only the third player in history to lead the league in hits for three consecutive years.

Little wonder that after Lombardi and Walters had won the MVP, it was McCormick's turn in 1940.

Long after his playing career was over, McCormick was one of the Reds' TV broadcasters, and a link to an earlier day when his Reds dominated the National League. In 1958, he was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame as one of the inaugural class, along with his former teammates, Paul Derringer, Lombardi, Vander Meer and Walters.

Frank Robinson (1961)

Credit AP

If all "Robby" had done in his major league career was win a National League MVP, he would be remembered by Reds fans.

But in fact, Robinson, who died in February at the age of 83, is one of the greatest players to ever play the game – a player on a level with greats like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente.

A fiery, fierce competitor, Robby led an upstart Reds team to the National League pennant in 1961. And, although they lost the World Series in five games, no one had ever expected the Reds to be there in the first place.

That was the year Frank won his National League MVP, with what was a typical Robinson year at the plate – 37 home runs, 124 RBI and a .342 batting average.

Reds fans' emotions ran the gamut from despondent to enraged when, after the 1965 season, Robinson was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for pitchers Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson – without question, one of the worst trades in the history of baseball.

What did Robinson do in his first season at Baltimore?

Well, he won the American League MVP. And he achieved the rare feat of achieving the "Triple Crown" by leading the American League in home runs, RBI and batting average.

And, in 1970, he helped the Orioles defeat the Reds in the World Series. We can only imagine how that series might have been different if Frank Robinson had been in a Reds uniform.

When his playing days were over, Frank made history again, becoming the first African American manager in major league baseball, taking the helm of the Cleveland Indians.

Robby was estranged from the Reds organization for many years, but he returned to Cincinnati to a hero's welcome when his statue outside Great American Ball Park was dedicated.

But, in Cooperstown, where his Hall of Fame plaque hangs, he is portrayed wearing an Orioles hat. Would that it be a Reds cap.

Johnny Bench (1970, 1972)

Credit Harry Hall / AP

Very few will ever know what it is like to be the very best who ever practiced his or her craft.

Johnny Lee Bench of Binger, Oklahoma, knows.

There is some argument on this, but broad consensus is that it is true: Bench was the greatest catcher in the history of Major League Baseball.

Those who saw him play from his Rookie of the Year season in 1968 to the end of his career in 1983, when he homered before a sold-out Riverfront Stadium, can testify to his greatness as a catcher.

And, to think, that in 1965, the Reds used their first-round draft pick to take outfielder Bernie Carbo. Somehow, when the Reds second-round pick came around, the high school catcher from Binger was still on the board and the Reds drafted Johnny Bench.

A stroke of luck on the part of the Reds organization.

Of course, Bench is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 1989, alongside the Red Sox Carl Yastrzemski, the star of the Boston team the Reds beat in seven games in the 1975 World Series.

And, of course, his statue stands outside the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, coming out of a crouch to throw yet another runner out at second base.

So, it can be no surprise that Bench has not one, but two MVP awards.

In 1970, he led the league with 45 home runs and 148 RBI. In 1972, he led the NL with 40 home runs and 125 RBI. And the Reds went to the World Series both years, losing to the Orioles in 1970 and to the Oakland A's in 1972.

Perhaps Sparky Anderson, the manager of the Big Red Machine, said it best.

"I wouldn't embarrass any other catcher by comparing him to Johnny Bench,'' Sparky said.

Editor's note: This is the first of two columns in our series on Cincinnati Reds At 150. It focuses on the 10 Reds who have won National League Most Valuable Player Awards. Next week's edition will look at the most recent five: Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, George Foster, Barry Larkin and Joey Votto.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Cincinnati Reds At 150" here.