Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.
The Reds are currently in the midst of their worst run of seasons since the late 1940’s, as of late they have been wallowing in the pool of bad pitching, historically bad pitching. No team is infallible and occasionally franchises do dip their toe into the pool, some seem to even soak their feet longer than others, getting wrinkled skin in the process. In the 21st century the Reds have chosen to dive headfirst into the pool and take a nice long swim. How bad has it been? The past three seasons in Cincinnati has resulted in a team ERA above 5.00, each poor enough to rank in the top 25 of the worst ERA’s in modern National League history. That’s how bad it has been. The Reds have had as much success finding pitching as Ethan Frome had sledding.
Compounding already difficult matters is the current state of the Reds front office. At best they have been guilty of being stiff and inactive, at worst they can be accused of attacking the Reds pitching weakness like the Three Stooges attacked a plumbing job. At the close of the 2005 season Reds fans resigned that more losing was ahead, highlighted by yet another long winter of minor moves and washed-up veteran signings. With that hovering above the horizon, it looked to be a bleak winter indeed.
This all shifted in early November, when an announcement gave long suffering fans a faint glimmer of hope.
Carl Lindner agreed Wednesday to sell his controlling interest in the Cincinnati Reds to a group of area businessmen, keeping baseball’s first professional franchise in local hands. The group is headed by Robert Castellini, chairman of a Cincinnati-based Produce Company, and Tom and Joe Williams, relatives of a family that owned the team when it became the Big Red Machine in the 1970s.
Reds Press Release 11-2-05
Ownership transfer can and should be an exciting moment for teams that float aimlessly across the lunchrooms of the game. Any change is good when you spend most of your seasons enviously sneaking peaks at the popular kids table, watching them all having a good time day after day as the Reds have regularly been doing since the 70’s. Most fans forced to live with this sense of mediocrity harbor secret sugar daddy wishes from new ownership, others just want a different approach to be considered, which in the baseball world should also imply a fresh blueprint when it comes to how the team is developed, deployed and marketed, especially if your team lives in the long shadow of a dynasty like the Big Red Machine.
In a provincial town like Cincinnati change is not always warmly embraced, it’s not unusual for many of the writers to end up more focused on the local ownership angle than on the changes it might bring.
Even with a new stadium and 40-year lease, there is still more than the usual worry about where the Reds owner currently gets his mail delivered.
“In selecting the Castellini group, the commitment of Bob Castellini and Tom and Joe Williams to our community was a very important factor to all of us,”
George Strike Reds Minority Owner 11/02/2005
Over the years much handwringing has occurred in Cincinnati over the issue of local ownership. This concern is often loud and borderline xenophobic in nature. Outside interests haven’t staked ownership in the Reds since Indianapolis resident John Brush ran the team in the 1890’s. He also happened to own a piece of the Giants at the time and orchestrated the theft of Christy Matthewson, relegating the Reds to the second division for much of the early 20th century.”
Having witnessed the movement of many franchises in the 50’s and 60’s and having fought off suitors, the Cincinnatians possessed a fear of outside groups running the city’s longest held sports franchise. Of course every coin has two sides and the side effect caused by this handwringing is that the more pertinent details involved in the business of baseball, such as the state of the new owners baseball acumen, often get overlooked in the parade to congratulate the local hero for saving the ball team from some carpetbagger city.
This is best exhibited in the most recent chief executives of the Reds, one legendary for her lack of baseball knowledge (Marge Schott), and the other for his business success outside the game and subsequent failure as an owner of the local nine (Carl Lindner).
After years of egg on your face management in the Reds organization, a change was on the horizon and perhaps a glimmer of hope could be found near the end of the press release.
Two of the Williams’ descendants — Thomas and William Jr. — will be part of the new ownership group with Castellini, who would become the team’s chief operating officer. All three are part of the St. Louis Cardinals’ ownership group led by Bill DeWitt Jr. and would have to sell their interests in that club.
Reds Press Release 11-2-05
Three former Reds owner’s names mentioned, a brief flash that touches the memory of the best times in the long history of baseball in Cincinnati, great column filler for the local writers, rehashing the Crosley era and the Big Red Machine never gets old in Cincinnati.
The Williams Brothers’ father and uncle both owned a piece of the Reds in the Big Red Machine era and Bill DeWitt Jr. the current Cardinals owner is a Cincinnati resident and got his start in baseball when his father owned the Reds in the early 60’s. Since the DeWitt group purchased the Cardinals in 1996, they have had the second best winning percentage in the National League. The Reds on the other hand in that time frame ranked 11th.
The dreamers and optimists may see this as a faint glimmer of hope that the new owners might have an inkling of what they are going to do to when they are in control. There is a world of difference between the Reds and the Cardinals organizations at this point and time, is it possible that someone from the St. Louis Cardinals could help Reds fix their lingering problem?
We shouldn’t be surprised, it’s not as though it hasn’t happened numerous times before.
The Reds have a rarely mentioned family secret. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s also not the cloth from which local baseball legends are cut from. Simply put, without the St.Louis Cardinals influence, the Reds might never have gotten their act together during the Depression. They might never have rebuilt their struggling franchise, had the first night game, Won NL championships in 1939 and 1940, nor sculpt Crosley into the legendary park most remember it to have been. Without the Cardinals, the Big Red Machine doesn’t happen the way it did. Without the Cardinals the Reds could have vacated Cincinnati during the Depression.
This of course did happen. All of the above came to blossom 101 years ago when the Cincinnati Reds crossed paths with a ballplayer named Branch Rickey.
“Late that season, the Reds thought they had dug up a fine young catching prospect, a brainy youth by the name of Branch Rickey. He accompanied the team to Rushville, Indiana and performed behind the bat for them in an exhibition game. But the young Rickey refused to play on Sunday, and the Reds, not being Sabbatarians, passed him up.”
“They were to meet him frequently later.”
Lee Allen The History of the Cincinnati Reds
Allen’s passage lays the groundwork for one of the most important relationships in Cincinnati baseball history, one that has been almost as important as local ownership has been, and certainly one that has been more advantageous to the baseball side of the ledger.
From 1934 to 1978 each one of the Reds GM’s worked for or with Branch Rickey, all of them save Bob Howsam came to the Reds when Rickey was with the Cardinals. Each man brought a part of the Rickey method to Cincinnati, and the end result was the Big Red Machine Era. This connection is perhaps one of the main reasons why the Reds are still in Cincinnati and not just a memory sewed on a retro jersey at Foot Locker.
Twenty-two years after the Reds cut him, Rickey had weaved a career as college coach and American League manager. In 1914 he gained notoriety for the use of a stopwatch to time base runners speed and pitchers delivery time to the plate. After jumping to the National League in 1919, he built the Cardinals into the most efficient team of the 1920s, buying only one player for cash from 1919-1939. This was the start of an amazing twenty year run that produced a .593 winning percentage, nine National League titles and six World Series triumphs. Rickey then moved to the Dodgers where he repeated the process in Brooklyn.
No one since has had the vision of Rickey. He was an innovator, teacher, organizer, talent evaluator and dynasty builder. He changed the landscape of baseball from his emergence in 1914, blending the dieing science of inside baseball, the art of scratching for runs during the deadball era with the calculating precision of today’s Moneyball approach to valuing the marketplace. When power came into vogue he seamlessly moved that aspect of the game into his arsenal. Ever the teacher, Rickey enabled those who learned from him to take those skills and apply them to the teams they ran.
The Reds are one of the lucky recipients of that style and their 4-decade run of Rickey-trained executives is responsible for the majority of the high points in Cincinnati Reds team history.
Seven years after the Cardinals surprised the world by beating the Yankees in the 1926 World Series, the Reds were finishing up their fourth straight seasons of sub .400 baseball. The team was so bad that only 218,000 fans came out to see them play in 1933.
1930 7th 59 95 .383 33
1931 8th 58 96 .377 43
1932 8th 60 94 .390 30
1933 8th 58 94 .382 33
Following Sidney Weil’s final gasp to hold on to the team he handed the Reds over to the The Central Trust Company, later that year the National League owners’ meeting convened, with the issue of who should run the team on its docket. Branch Rickey suggested and endorsed Larry MacPhail. Oddly enough MacPhail had entered the baseball world when he purchased the Columbus AA team from a financially strapped Reds in 1931. MacPhail immediately turned the lethargic Columbus organization around, taking the baseball industry by storm with his success, highlighted by his introduction of night baseball to the American Association. The next year he sold the club at a profit to the Cardinals and continued on as the GM, thus beginning his long time tumultuous association with Branch Rickey.
W L PCT
194 264 .424
It was MacPhail’s marketing plans that enabled Columbus to outdraw many of the Major League teams in 1933, including their parent team the Cardinals, who were drawing so poorly in the their two-team city that possible moves to Montreal and Detroit were explored early in the decade. Despite the continued success of Columbus under MacPhail, the two men could not coexist and soon MacPhail found himself a former Cardinal employee. Despite their differences, Rickey knew that MacPhail had the ability to turn around the Cincinnati franchise. An endorsement from the successful Cardinals GM was enough for the Central Trust Company’s immediate needs. In December of 1933, MacPhail took the wheel of the moribund Cincinnati Reds, winners of one title in 43 years they had been in the National League. Without hesitation he began gunning the gas in an attempt to drive the buggy of a franchise out of the ditch it was stuck in.
His first order of business was finding a local owner, one with vision and preferably deep pockets. Local businessman Powell Crosley was exactly the type of owner the Reds needed to drive them into what MacPhail hoped to be profitable future. It was Crosley’s cash and willingness to spend that helped fuel the first part of the franchise’s rebirth, but it was MacPhail’s energy and sense of showmanship that redirected the franchise financially and regenerated a sense of pride about the team in the eyes of the general public.
MacPhail began by painting and cleaning up the crumbling Redland Field, and at Crosley’s insistence the team renamed the field in honor of the new patron. It was obvious that the franchise needed a fresh revenue stream to compete against the bigger cities and the other teams that had a jump on the nuances of farm systems. It was then that MacPhail decided to try bringing night baseball to the Major Leagues, changing the face of the game in a time that demanded change to survive. Despite initial dissention from both leagues owners he eventually rode the issue until he was allowed to schedule seven night games in 1935. These games averaged 18,620 paying customers, and the remaining sixty-nine day games averaged only 4,607. It was obvious that the face of the game would never look the same.
MacPhail had other tricks up his sleeve. He contracted baseball’s first team-hired announcer when he brought Red Barber to town in 1935, and he was also the first GM to utilize air travel.
In an ironic twist, the man who bought a minor league team from the Reds during the lean years is also responsible for establishing the seeds to the Reds first farm system. Locally, he can take credit for introducing the “Knot Hole Club” to the Cincinnati. This youth ticket program was first established in St. Louis, Rickey recognized that a good place to market the team was in the local schools. MacPhail applied this same theory to the Cincinnati area, changing the landscape of the Reds fan base by creating a relationship between adults and children that was bonded by baseball. This program helped foster the team’s first wave of young fans and planted the seeds of a lifelong interest in the Reds for many children, who in turned passed that interest on to their children during the Big Red Machine era. To this day organized youth baseball in the Cincinnati area is still referred to as “Knot Hole.”
All these off the field changes helped bring positive press and a semblance of success off the field to the Reds. Ever the panderer to the fans interest in the team, one of MacPhail’s office innovations involved a direct line to WLW, the 500,000-watt radio station owned by Crosley. Often if a baseball visitor came in the office, Larry would activate the feed to let the listeners in on his conversations. Imagine the amusement hearing the discussions involving Babe Herman’s performance clauses!
As with many frantic personalities MacPhail had his personal shortcomings. Being volatile was a large part of Larry’s life and work experience, a voracious drinker MacPhail was known to be a difficult character and by the end of the 1936 season, he had worn out many of his relationships in the Cincinnati area and abruptly resigned for numerous unmentioned reasons. Twenty years later it was revealed in a Sports Illustrated article that several reasons played into his departure, including his fathers illness and Powell Crosley refusing to sell him shares of the now increasingly popular team, despite a previously promised deal.
MacPhail’s sudden departure might have left a large hole in any of the prior Reds ownership groups. However this time Crosley and company were prepared, announcing the next day that their intent was to continue with the slow, but steady plan to regain respectability. The Reds had an immediate replacement in mind too. Despite the rumors of Branch Rickey coming to town and purchasing the team, Rickey remained in St.Louis and once again a former Cardinal employee ended up in the Cincinnati general manager’s office. Warren Giles, who had been running the Cardinals ‘top farm team in Rochester was the Reds’, surprise choice. Giles brought his assistant Gabe Paul to the Reds and also lured the Reds’ first great manager to the club.
Warren Giles 1937-1950
Won NL championships in 1939 and 1940, Won World Championship 1940
W L PCT
1136 1165 .494
Gabe Paul 1950-1960
W L PCT
674 712 .486
Bill McKechnie had managed in Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Boston, but it was his stint for Giles in Rochester that endeared him to the new Reds GM. Ironically McKechnie also had a unique bit of prior history with the Reds, being obtained from the Giants with Christy Mathewson and Edd Roush back in 1916, a trade that changed the makeup of the Reds and produced the 1919 Champions. Giles was convinced that McKechnie was the man to guide the Reds if success was to be obtained anytime in the near future.
Giles and Paul guided the franchise from 1938-1960, with Giles handing the keys to the office to Paul in 1951. The first major payoff was achieved in 1939 and 1940 when the Reds won back-to-back titles and one world championship. The amazing resurgence since Crosley bought the team was evident at the gate where the 1939 Reds drew almost 775,000 more fans to the park than the 1934 team had. These numbers helped enrich the Reds organization, lining the pockets of Crosley and McKechnie, who had an attendance clause in his contract. As a Baseball man Giles was more similar Rickey than he was to MacPhail, favoring tightfisted spending and sound financial methods, as did his mentor. The players knew Giles as being a tough negotiator and somewhat of cheap GM in the post war era. He also was also prone to building his teams around speed at the expense of power. This was the type of game McKechnie’s favored, deadball in root with power taking a back seat to defense and pitching. This played extremely well in the expansive grounds of Crosley Field in tandem with the 1939 and 1940 team’s infield defense, legendary for its efficiency. However the transition wasn’t as smooth in the post war age when slugging became more of the norm across both leagues.
The major failing of the Giles tenure occurred during the lean war years. Not being a rich franchise, the Reds attendance had always helped dictate the team’s spending money, all of baseball experienced a downturn in revenue during the war years, and how they spent their limited resources during the conflict would likely help them after the war, the Reds, gambled that the war would last awhile. This belief led them to change their approach to signing prospects. Rather than scout and sign potential players who might be on their way to the service, the Reds decided to forgo singing most players until the war was over. This proved to be a faulty approach as teams like the Dodgers (who were being run by Branch Rickey) had signed numerous young military recruits with hope that the war would end sooner than later. At the end of the war, the Reds had far fewer bodies to sort through than many other organizations and it was soon evident in the standings.
Giles strong suit was the meticulous building of a healthy infrastructure, allowing the Reds to endure the postwar setback and continue to be a healthy organization. Giles helped redefine and change the structure of the Reds front office, expanding the operations from the bare, bare bones of the Weil years to a deeper, more professional organization. He also reached out to the community with the establishment of the annual Kid Glove game in the late 40’s, and endorsed the family as the main clientele of the team. This small change in fan culture at Crosley Field helped increase the fan base beyond the locals that had been traveling to the west end since Bid McPhee picked it barehanded in the Beer and Whiskey league. Much credit is given to the massive radio network maintained by the Reds during this era. Waite Hoyt and Burger beer brought Reds baseball to the nooks and crannies of the states that surrounded the Ohio Valley. This was a proven success, as these long time listeners would represent a consistent “out of town” commuter fan base that would help fuel the Big Red Machine to record attendance numbers in the mid 70’s.
Giles left the Reds to be President of the National League in 1950. Without missing a beat, in stepped his longtime assistant Gabe Paul, who entered the job at a point that mirrors the current Reds teams’ runs of bad luck. In the fifties the Cincinnati franchise was more notorious for changing the team name to Redlegs during the height of the McCarthy era than they were for the teams’ play on the diamond. The two years that the team wasn’t below .500 revealed the rabid potential attendance base that the Reds possessed. In 1956 and 1957, the Reds achieved their first attendance of a million or more, making them the final franchise in the major leagues to achieve that goal. Their popularity was highlighted by the famous 1957 All Star Game ballot stuffing incident and came at an opportune time for Crosley and Paul to use the threat of moving to the vacated New York area to wrangle parking improvements from the city.
As the city spread out and the downtown area aged it was becoming obvious that the Reds had begun to outgrow the little ballpark on the west side of town. On the Baseball side of the coin Paul’s tenure was marked with a few poor managerial hiring’s (Mayo Smith, Rogers Hornsby), consistently inadequate pitching and a plethora of impressive slugging. The Reds of fifties embraced station-to-station style of baseball. It was an offensive explosion that had not ever been a regular visitor in the Queen City. Naturally the locals loved it, and 30 years after the long ball had entered the game in New York, it finally made its way to the Ohio Valley where all the fans embraced it. With an increased organizational emphasis on slugging, Gabe Paul built some impressive hitting teams in the late fifties, teams that captured the imagination of the locals. Since that time the offense first approach has been a familiar one for the Reds and except for a few seasons this approach has been the Reds staple for over 50 years now. This is most recently seen in last year’s offensive heavy squad that led the National League in runs scored, but finished far below .500.
Prior to the 50’s, the Reds could boast a team ERA 0.10 above the league average since 1900. Since Giles left the Reds the Reds have had a 3.95 team ERA, good for tenth in the National League and -0.11 below the league average. Despite the sub-average ERA the Reds franchise have had a .522 winning percentage in that time span, the prior 50 years had seen a .481 winning percentage. Of the original 16 franchises, only the Red Sox have had a higher team ERA and a .500+ record since 1950. The overall winning percentage barely scratched the surface of .500 over the Giles/Paul era, however the Reds organization expanded and got stronger than ever before. They developed a minor league system and created a vast, rabid culture of fans spread across Middle America with their large radio network. Giles and Paul had helped stabilized the franchise in an era that that demanded you adapt or die. Other teams such as the Philadelphia A’s and Washington Senators tried to hold out against the rising cost of player development, night baseball and radio broadcasts and they eventually had to go look for a fan base that reflected as brightly as the one the Reds possessed.
In the late 1950’s Branch Rickey and some associates (including Denver businessman Bob Howsam) attempted to seed a new baseball league to expand the game to areas without MLB. Because of this threat, baseball decided to expand beyond their traditional borders, creating new challenges and job openings in the game. When Gabe Paul resigned to run the new Houston franchise in 1960, once again a former Rickey employee stepped in to take control of the Reds.
The Talent Evaluator
Bill DeWitt’s life and baseball is rich in the mythos of an age long gone. He began his career in baseball as a 14-year-old selling Soda Pop at Robinson Field in 1916. After awhile DeWitt was able to climb from the stands and into the offices inside the park, there he ran errands and worked as an office boy. By 1935 he was one of Branch Rickey’s assistants. In 1936 the park’s owners and other tenant, the St. Louis Browns, were looking for a new owner. Once again Branch Rickey was queried, and once again he declined, but offered an opinion, to the other Cardinal employee in the room, Bill DeWitt. Rickey suggested that perhaps DeWitt could help the Browns find a buyer and he did. A few weeks later DeWitt himself put together a group to buy the ailing Browns. The downside of the deal was that the team came without their main revenue stream the ballpark, Sportsman Park. With DeWitt as GM, the Browns had fewer dollars and drew fewer fans than any team in baseball. Because of this predicament, they languished near the cellar until the war began.
Bill DeWitt 1960-1966
1 NL Title
W L PCT
534 428 .555
It was during the war that DeWitt’s ability to build a team began show. DeWitt felt he could increase his chances to win by stocking the team with players that were less likely to be drafted. This approach worked, as the team won more than 82 games 3 times from 1943-1945, and finally won their first and only American League pennant. DeWitt was awarded with The Sporting News Baseball Executive of the year award in 1944. Bill DeWitt moved out of St. Louis in 1949 when he sold the team to Bill Veeck, who later borrowed Dewitt’s sons uniform for a gag he planned at the ballpark in 1951. After a spending the late 50’s in Detroit, DeWitt accepted the Reds job, vacated by Gabe Paul. In the winter of 1961 Rickey-trained DeWitt believed that talent was malleable, and that a team could be built without spending too much of the gate receipts. This attribute was increasingly hardened from difficult times as GM of the often-broke Browns. Tightfisted, DeWitt often felt a need to be proactive because of financial constraints. This led to a fearless trader and a man who was not afraid to shake things up.
DeWitt’s previous trades as GM of the Tigers had included such trades as the infamous Harvey Kuhn for Rocky Colavito and the managerial swap of Joe Gordon for Jimmy Dykes. Bill DeWitt took this boldness to Cincinnati, and under his guidance the rebuilt Reds won the National League title for the first time in 21 years. In his first year, Bill DeWitt could do very little wrong as the Reds GM. Again he won The Sporting News Baseball Executive of the year award, becoming the first to win in both leagues. This success so buoyed him in the community that the Crosley Estate upon putting the team up for sale targeted DeWitt as a buyer. Dewitt accepted the challenge and became the Reds first new owner in 28 years. Despite a lack of excessive funds DeWitt’s Rickeysque approach helped take the Reds to the top of the league much quicker than anticipated. His belief that it’s better to deal a man a year early than a year too late would prove to be his Reds legacy on the positive side and the negative, with the latter proving to be his undoing.
Between 1961-1965 the Reds won 89 games or better four times. The farm system was richly producing players like Rose, Helms and Perez, and the first draft under DeWitt brought Johnny Bench. The future finally looked bright for both the Reds and Bill DeWitt. In truth the future was much brighter for the former than the latter.
DeWitt’s demise as Reds owner began following the 89 win 1965 season and can be traced to three significant incidents. 1) the never forgotten trade of Frank Robinson, 2) the hiring of Don Heffner as manager in 1966, 3) -eventually his undoing - being ahead of his time and eschewing the multi-use stadium that the city was lobbying for.
Woefully inadequate in the car-driven 60’s, Crosley Field and the surrounding area were beginning to show its age. Dewitt’s’ first suggestion to fix the problem was in 1964 when he announced that Crosley should be expanded. Like the idea to expand Cinergy Field in the late 90’s, the idea was deemed too expensive for the final result. Once that idea was discarded, other options began to be explored. One idea that had graced city planners’ maps for the past 50 years was a riverfront location. Along with this came the hope to revitalize a dieing downtown.
There were problems though, among them DeWitt didn’t like the plans. DeWitt let it be know that he frowned heavily on the plans of building of a multi-use stadium as well as the riverfront location. He in turn preferred a location in the suburbs. This posed a problem for both DeWitt and the city planners who were looking for a centerpiece in the plan to rebuild downtown. The fury for closure on this issue was expanded by the background murmur that the team was possibly going to be sold to out of town interests and would be moving to San Diego. This led former Reds GM and current National League President Warren Giles to make a public announcement, that no outside interests would be allowed to purchase the Reds unless local buyers could not be found.
In December of 1966 local interests once again stepped forward to purchase the team from Bill Dewitt, and almost a year from the day that he traded Frank Robinson, Bill DeWitt sold his team to the 617 Inc. group led by Frank Dale and a cartel of local businessman. Part of that group included The Williams Brothers, and current Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. who also was the owner of that uniform that Bill Veeck borrowed from his father back in 1951
The Dynasty Builder
5 NL West Titles, 4 NL Titles, 2 World Championships
W L PCT
1122 813 .580
“Your Ballpark is a stage. People sit there for three hours watching a show. The players are the actors in uniform. The producers are the coaches and managers throughout the system. It is up to them to make the actors perform well.”
Bob Howsam “Cincinnati and the Big Red Machine”
Not only did Bill DeWitt vacate the owners’ office, but also his departure left the team without a GM. The 617 Inc. Company knew very little about the business of baseball, and like good businessmen they embarked on a search to find the right man for the job. Initially, the group had two targets. Ironically both had history of working with Branch Rickey.
Out west they eyed Dodger employee Buzzie Bavasi. Though flattered, Buzzie rebuffed the groups’ advances, hoping instead to one day be named President of the Dodgers. The Reds other choice was current Cardinals general manager Bob Howsam, who had reached the major leagues, ranks a few years earlier and helped the Cardinals win the famous 1964 pennant race. Howsam’s contributions in St Louis included opening their new stadium and leaving them a great roster of players, which was evident by their back-to-back pennants in 1967 and 1968, after Howsam left for the Reds job. Howsam had shallow roots in St Louis, and found the challenge in Cincinnati to be intriguing. This time the new owners were successful, luring Howsam away from the Cardinals, on January 22nd, 1966. Bob Howsam joined the Reds front office, becoming the 5th Branch Rickey disciple since 1934 into the leadership role of the Cincinnati Reds.
Howsam’s family owned the Denver Bears in the early 50’s, and it was there that Howsam learned to market a baseball team to a community. He did such fine job in 1951 that he was named The Sporting News Minor League Executive of the year. Before expansion and an organized draft a well-run minor league organization could count on being courted by a Major League team in search of a new talent pipeline. It wasn’t until 1953 that Howsam’s real education in baseball would begin. At the conclusion of the 1953 season, the Denver team severed their working agreement with the Braves and began courting relationships with other franchises. At the time Rickey was with the cellar dwelling Pirates, and was working diligently to expand the team’s meager talent base. Rickey, always on the lookout for bright young men, struck an agreement with the Bears. Thus, Branch Rickey began his relationship with Bob Howsam.
“I would watch him work with the pitchers, listen to him lecture the players, and I was like a puppy dog. He allowed me to be right at his elbow,”
Bob Howsam. “Big Red Dynasty”
Howsam leaned towards the Rickey style of play throughout his career as a GM, citing speed as a key asset, looking for power first foremost, and eschewing smaller pitchers if a larger man was available. Later on that decade, Howsam worked with Rickey on the plans for the Continental League, and also helped with the forming of the American Football League, becoming the first owner of the Denver Broncos. In the early 60’s, Howsam thought that his career in sports had come to an end, until once again a Branch Rickey recommendation was solicited. This time it was the Cardinals doing the asking. In 1964 Rickey was an advisor to owner Augie Busch, who happened to be displeased with current Cardinals GM Bing Devine. Just as he had endorsed Larry MacPhail at that National League meeting 30 years prior, Rickey recommended Bob Howsam as the man capable of being the right kind of leader to guide the franchise in the increasingly modern times. Like a good Rickey pupil, Howsam expanded the scouting staff and traded the aging veterans after their initial success. However, after too many office power struggles in St. Louis, Howsam was more than happy to listen to any other offers.
The Reds situation wasn’t without its problems. DeWitt’s ownership was marked with a distinct lack of cash, evidenced by the small staff and sub standard equipment they had been using. The infrastructure of the Reds operation was not up to Howsam’s standards. His immediate reaction to the situation recalled MacPhail’s vigor in remaking the franchise during the darkest days of the Depression. Shortly after arriving, Howsam had lobbied for more cash, and poured this money into a larger, more experienced staff and facilities. A first class organization consisted of capable people from top to bottom, and the best equipment to get the job done. Howsam wasted no time, adding a new minor league team to the club’s holdings, and expanding the scouting network far beyond the prior administrations. This increased the sheer number player the Reds had under contract, allowing them to have more prospects to pick and choose from than ever before. Howsam’s skills reached beyond the office. He made astute trades for players like George Foster, Cesar Geronimo, Joe Morgan, Fred Norman and Clay Carroll over the years. His ability to see the impact of the game on turf, early, enabled him to capitalize on this knowledge when the Reds moved out of Crosley and into Riverfront. Howsam created the Reds Speaker Bureau and expanded the Reds off-season marketing push in the outer areas of Reds country, soliciting the longtime listeners of Reds announcing legend Waite Hoyt. The next ten years of Reds baseball produced five NL West titles and four World Series appearances. After handing off the GM job to his long-time assistant Dick Wagner, Howsam returned to the Reds in the mid 80’s, restoring the team to a contender almost as fast as Wagner had destroyed it. Bob Howsam brought the knowledge of modern day sports marketing to the Reds and tethered it to the game philosophy espoused by Rickey. His guidance was the major component in building a legendary team that the city embraced with never-matched passion.
No Owner or general manager is perfect, each one of these men had qualities that has negatively affected the Reds franchise as well as enriched it. Even Bob Howsam had shortcomings. His failure to embrace free agency helped hasten the Reds demise from super team to also-rans. Thirty years after the famous 1975 World Series, “The Big Red Machine” still casts a very long shadow in the Ohio Valley. Every Reds team has been measured against them.
In many ways the culture of the Reds franchise is still stuck in the 1970’s, clinging to the memory of the best team in the city’s history, letting the anniversaries of the past events take the place of the real celebration of a winning and competitive franchise. The recent legacy created by the Schott and Lindner ownerships hasn’t delivered many memories to be celebrated at the ballpark recently much alone in thirty years, leaving the fan base in a bitter mood buying fewer and fewer tickets and spending more and more time cursing the Reds rather than praising them.
But beneath all this is a small glimmer of hope, down at the local ballpark the office awaits another Cardinal trained employee to come in and fix what ails the Reds, all it will take is some innovation, organization and vision and a sense of immediacy.
As the new ownership group takes the helm today, (nearly thirty years to the day after Bob Howsam came to the Reds) it would do them well to remember his words on coming into a new organization.
“I always said if I was ever to go run another organization, I would fire everyone no matter what, and then hire everybody back that I wanted. So they understand that they are there because of me. Otherwise your loyalties are not very good. Fellows, thinking, ”Well he didn’t bring me in.”
Bob Howsam “Big Red Dynasty”
The fans are getting restless and are ready for a change, now’s a good time to start.