Heavy hitters saved Reds 50 years ago
Cincinnati in '56 had a lineup that hit homers, won 91 games, ensured team didn't leave city.
By Pete Conrad
Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1956, it was plain to everyone who followed Major League Baseball — the Cincinnati Reds were in trouble.
The Reds hadn't had a winning season since 1944. Attendance was down. Crosley Field was deteriorating. There were rumors that owner Powell Crosley might sell the team, perhaps even flee to another city.
As if anyone needed further reason to sneer at his franchise, Crosley had changed the team's official nickname to "Redlegs" because communists also were referred to as "Reds."
The cupboard wasn't completely bare for manager Birdie Tebbetts. Slugging first baseman Ted Kluszewski had led the National League with 49 homers two years earlier and his biceps still pulsed with power. Hamilton's Joe Nuxhall had been an All-Star pitcher the year before and was in his prime. Rookie outfielder Frank Robinson was showing great potential.
The '56 Reds didn't win any championships. They finished in third place with a 91-63 record, two games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers, one game behind the Milwaukee Braves.
But they gave their city something just as important — a reason to cheer.
Heavy hitters, pitchers
The Reds of a half-decade ago developed a trait they share with this year's surprising Cincinnati squad. They could hit home runs in bunches, and it gave the team a sense of control.
"We'd go into the seventh, eighth inning two runs down, and it could be bam, bam, bam," Nuxhall said. "If we were close, we had all the confidence in the world we could get them."
The heavy hitters were Robinson (38 home runs), outfielder Wally Post (36), Kluszewski (35), outfielder Gus Bell (29) and catcher Ed Bailey (28).
Cincinnati's pitching took a shocking turn in '56. Brooks Lawrence was brilliant, compiling a 19-10 record. Nuxhall went 13-11 and led the staff with a 3.99 ERA. Johnny Klippstein (12-11) and Art Fowler (11-11) were solid starters. Hersh Freeman (14-5, 18 saves) was perhaps the best reliever in baseball that season.
The '56 season remains one of the most significant in team history. It marked the beginning of a Hall of Fame career for Robinson, who was named NL Rookie of the Year. It also marked Cincinnati as a baseball town on the rise.
But it was a close call. Without the unexpected success of '56, Crosley might have been tempted to move or sell to out-of-town interests. In which case, the excitement later created by the Reds' 1961 NL pennant, the Big Red Machine of the 1970s and the wire-to-wire champions of 1990 never would have happened.
Not, at least, in Cincinnati.
1956 Reds lineup
Player POS AVG HR RBI
Johnny Temple 2B .285 2 41
Frank Robinson LF .290 38 83
Gus Bell CF .292 29 84
Ted Kluszewski 1B .302 35 102
Wally Post RF .249 36 83
Ed Bailey C .300 28 75
Ray Jablonski 3B .256 15 66
Roy McMillan SS .263 3 62
Smokey Burgess C .275 12 39
George Crowe OF .250 10 23
Bob Thurman OF .295 8 22