February 22, 2010
INTRODUCTION TO BUCKY
The career of Bucky Walters is one of baseballs greatest Cinderella Stories. Bucky started his professional career as a pitcher but failed miserably. He then detoured into a lengthy stint at third base. When a ball club desperate for pitching switched him back to the mound, they created a Most Valuable Player and provided the National League with its dominant pitcher during World War II.
Bucky Walters was on the active roster of professional baseball teams from 1931 through 1949, 19 major league seasons. His career began in Boston as a 3rd baseman, converted to pitcher in Philadelphia, became a principal player in Cincinnati, and concluded his playing career as a pitcher/manager. Recognized as a team leader, Bucky was one of the first to be inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame (July 19, 1958).
From 1949 through 1958, Bucky continued his baseball career as a major league manager, minor league manager, coach and representative of the great sport of baseball. He retired from baseball in 1958, but continued his involvement as a supervisor and scout of the Philadelphia Phillies Farm System during the 1960’s.
Bucky Walters pitched in 16 seasons, one primarily as a 3rd baseman (1934), and one as an active player/manager (1949). His pitching statistics are based on 14 active pitching seasons.
Bucky’s professional career began at High Point in 1929 as a Philadelphia sandlot player during the Depression. He failed as a pitcher, but was recognized as a strong utility player capable of playing any position. Accustomed to playing where his manager wanted him, Bucky didn’t know what position he would play when the Boston Braves purchased his contract in 1929.
Although Bucky would become one of the greatest clutch pitchers of his day, his success story started with a terrific hitting streak in 1933 while playing with the San Francisco Missions. Over the first 90 games of the 1933 season, Bucky batted .381 and drove in 91 runs. During a visit by a Tom Yawkey of the Boston Red Sox, Bucky went 5 for 5 with 5 doubles. He was immediately bought by the Red Sox.
Soon after his arrival at the Hub, however, Walters suffered a broken thumb and never regained his hitting stroke. While with the Red Sox, Bucky proved of little value and was regarded a disappointment. He was traded to Philadelphia in 1934 and he was happy to be back in his hometown.
It would be in Philadelphia where a bad team with a pitiful pitching staff forced management to pitch anyone on the team. The Phillies were not a prosperous club during normal circumstances, and things were worse during the depression. Recalled Walters, “The Phillies would make a western road-trip just praying we wouldn’t get rained out in Chicago on Saturday or Sunday so they’d have enough money to get home.
Late in the 1934 season Bucky contracted poison ivy and missed several weeks. Upon his return he lost his hitting knack completely, and found himself out of the line-up. Convinced that Walters had potential, Jimmy Wilson, manager of the Phillies, thought he could bolster his pitching staff by converting Bucky from 3rd to pitcher. The Philadelphia pitching staff was often shell shocked by playing in the Baker Bowl, a hitters field. So, during the last week of 1934 Walters hurled seven innings, neither winning nor losing, but showing highlights of future fame. The following spring, Walters was listed as a pitcher.
But Bucky didn’t want to pitch. Recalled Wilson “Walters had the strongest arm on the club… The way he fired the ball from third to first you could see he couldn’t miss as a pitcher. But selling him was something else.”
Walters was in his sixth year as a pro and was having his best season. A competent adroit fielder, he was hitting .260 and going for the long ball.” Recalled Wilson, “He hit four or five out of the park, and every time that happened he was more determined than ever he wanted no part of pitching.”
To make things worse, the Phillies had traded for 3rd baseman Johnny Vergez in 1935 placing Bucky in the potential back-up position. He didn’t really want to pitch, but Wilson convinced him that pitching was his ticket to fame.
Recalled Walters, “I became a pitcher in a chicken shack somewhere between Orlando and Winter Haven.” “I had to get him a little plastered to convince him he could be a great pitcher,” was the way Jimmy Wilson told the story. By feeding him a few drinks, and several subtle comments about “big figures” for pitchers, Bucky finally agreed to pitch when confronted with the choice of pitching or sitting the bench.
After retirement, Bucky commented, “My only regret was not playing every day.”
Asked why he shifted Walters to pitcher, Wilson replied, “It was Bucky’s spirit, not necessarily his ability to throw a fast ball… I figured that all anybody needed to be a pitcher was guts like Walters had. So I made him a pitcher. That’s one place in baseball where you have guts – or you don’t.
Upon his conversion, Bucky was immediately recognized as a talented pitcher. Pitching for the Phillies, who often finished last, Bucky never had a winning season. In 1936, Bucky led the league with 21 defeats. Wilson consoled Walters. “Don’t feel bad because if you weren’t a pretty good pitcher, you wouldn’t have gotten a chance to lose that many.” Bucky also led the league in complete game shut-outs that same season.
In 1937 he earned his first appearance on the All-Star team. His All-star nomination with a losing record is clear statement that his peers recognized his talent. Bucky would later finish his career with 5 appearances and 6 All Star nominations.
By 1938 Bucky was a valuable asset to the Philadelphia management. Financial distress would often force them to sell developing players. The decision was made by Powel Crosley, Jr., Warren Giles, and Bill McKechnie to buy Bucky’s contract. Although the trade was originally cancelled by Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the executed trade was finalized June 13, 1938, between the two no-hit games of John Vander Meer. In fact, Bucky was on the warm up mound during the 8th and 9th innings of the second no-hit game.
In 1939, his first complete season as a Cincinnati Red, Bucky was the most powerful pitcher in baseball, winning the Triple Crown for wins, strikeouts, and era. He also batted .325 and is on a short list of Triple Crown winners to hit above .300 in the same season. During the 1939 season, “Walters turned in the best National league record since Diz Dean’s heyday with the Cards. He won 27, while losing 10. He was more responsible than any other one player in Cincinnati’s winning the National league flag.“
Under the leadership of Walters and Derringer, Cincinnati played the New York Yankees for the 1939 title. The bombers were too much for the Redlegs and swept the series in four games. Walters pitched game two but lost. He entered game four in relief of Derringer “and was tagged with a 7-4 loss in the tenth inning when [Ernie] Schnozz Lombardi pulled his famous swooning act at home plate.” “…knocked out by the knee of New York Yankees base runner Charlie “King Kong Keller. The ball is held tightly in Lombardi’s glove as one, two, and then three Yanks score the winning runs with two outs in the final inning of the final game.”
Walters would have his redemption in the Fall Classic the following year against the Detroit Tigers. Having another outstanding year in 1940, (22-10; 2.48 ERA) Walters started game two, and pitched a three-hit complete game, and won 5 – 3. The victory was the first post-season win for the Reds since the tainted 1919 World Series.
Further, down three games to two, Walters pitched a five hit shut-out to win game six. According to Dan Daniel, sports writer, “The contest that deadlocked the classic was all William Henry Bucky Walters… Walters had the satisfaction – yes, the distinction of shackling the Detroit power for 12 consecutive frames.” Mr. Daniel continues, “A strange feature of the Walters performance on the mound was his lack of thrill over it. But in the eighth inning Bucky hit a home run over the left field wall and got a big kick out of it. ‘I tingled all the way around the bases,’ exulted Walters after the game.”
Bucky was now the most powerful pitcher in baseball. According to Total Baseball, 6th Edition, The 400 Greatest, “for two magnificent years, 1939-1940, Walters was the premier pitcher in baseball. With Paul Derringer, he led the Reds to their first flags since 1919 after two decades of frustration.” Further, according to Total Baseball, Bucky received three (3) hypothetical Cy Young Awards given to players for years which no official award existed. Bucky is recognized as the best pitcher for the 1939, 1940, and 1944 seasons. All retired pitchers with 3 or more official Cy Young Awards have been inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Throughout the 1940’s Bucky continued to be among the best and most popular of his time. His 6-year MVP vote (1939 – 1944) found him #1 among pitchers, and #3 behind Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. From 1939 through 1947 his ERA was below 2.83 in seven (7) of eight (8) seasons. Unique to Bucky’s career, he recorded the first televised win (August 26th, 1939), he stole home (April 20th, 1946), he umpired a major league game, (July 10th, 1947). Furthermore, he led the majors in victories over the 15-year span from 1935 to 1949.
By 1949, the 40 year-old Walters had accumulated 198 wins. Despite 7 attempts in 1949, and one in 1950, Bucky could not record the necessary two wins to eclipse the recognized benchmark of 200 wins. Including the two World Series victories (1940), Bucky recorded 200 career wins.
Never wanting to be out of uniform, from 1950 through 1960, Bucky continued his involvement in baseball as a manager, coach, and scout.
Bucky, as the “Bell Cow” and one of the more popular players of the Cincinnati Reds, actively participated in promoting baseball. His on and off the field activity greatly influenced the growth of player representation. Prior to television (1939), players were routinely taken advantage of and discarded by ownership/ management without any pension or retirement benefits. The group of “Bell Cows” ultimately aided in the formation of the first pension plan for players, as well as the Major League Baseball Players Association.
A prophetic letter from Warren C. Giles, Member of the National Baseball Hall of
Fame, and past President of the Cincinnati Reds: