The Reds’ 10 Greatest Pitchers
Eppa Rixey (1921-33)
The tall (6’5”) Virginian native was a rare case of a pitcher whose earned run averages actually improved once the deadball era came to an end; calling Philadelphia’s bandboxed Baker Bowl as his home before the 1920s may have had something to do with it. Upon his arrival with the Reds, Rixey’s fortunes turned, spending the rest of his career in Cincinnati with seldom an off-year, losing record or postgame tantrum that earned him a notorious reputation as a clubhouse destroyer back in Philadelphia.
Unlike most ballplayers of the time, Rixey came from family money, choosing baseball over chemistry in college. Whether pitching earned him more money in the long run is debatable, but he certainly earned more fame; in his first five years with the Reds, he won exactly 100 games—an average of 20 per year, as he surpassed the milestone three times between 1922-25, capped by a league-high 25 victories in 1922. Rixey’s success came from a package of finesse pitches that hardly overpowered opponents but kept them tied in knots. When his career came to an end at the age of 42, Rixey earned a spot in the record book as the game’s winningest left-handed pitcher, remaining there until Warren Spahn came along.
Bucky Walters (1938-48)
Like Rixey, Walters was another refugee from the Phillies who came to the Reds during a time when there was a much bigger disparity of fortune between the two franchises—as Walters escaped the bankrupt-bound Phillies and found a Cincinnati team on the rise towards complete success.
Walters arrived on the major league scene at Boston as an infielder, toiling with the Braves and Red Sox with little success both at his position and at the plate. With the Phillies, he was encouraged to try pitching, and it wasn’t until he developed a slider to go with a sharp fastball that he became an unexpected ace in the making.
With the Reds, Walters became an instant star. In 1939, his first full season in Cincinnati, Walters led the NL in just about everything. He completed 31 of his 39 starts, posting a 27-11 record and 2.29 ERA in 319 innings—he even had his best year as a hitter, batting .325 in 129 at-bats—to capture the National League’s MVP award and lift the Reds to their first NL pennant in 20 years. He performed a not-so-modest encore a year later, again leading the NL in wins (22, against just 10 losses) and ERA (2.48) as the Reds repeated as league champions and, this time, took it all by defeating Detroit in a tense, seven-game World Series. Walters, who had floundered at the 1939 Fall Classic against the New York Yankees, was sharp against the Tigers—triumphing in two complete game efforts while adding a double and home run on offense.
Walters played through World War II as he neither enlisted nor was drafted; despite weakened competition, his effectiveness actually slipped a notch or two, storming back with another bravura effort in 1944 when he compiled a 23-8 record and 2.40 ERA. He suffered arm problems a year later and never was the same.
Dolf Luque (1918-29)
The Cuban native was one of the few Latinos—and certainly the best—to populate the majors during the first three decades of the 20th Century, and he probably wouldn’t have gotten the chance had he not been light-skinned. In the midst of, easily, his best year in 1923, Luque unfortunately played to the hot-headed Latino stereotype when, fed up with racist baiting from the Giants’ dugout, he stormed over and took on all of its occupants, saving the biggest blow for an unsuspecting Casey Stengel.
Luque finished that year leading the majors with 27 wins and a 1.93 ERA that, after Pete Alexander’s 1.91 mark in 1920, was the best seen in baseball during the 1920s. Outside of that remarkable campaign, Luque came off as a .500 pitcher despite consistently solid ERAs in the face of the jack-rabbit offense of the 1920s; in fact, he won a second ERA title in 1925 with a 2.63 figure—yet finished the year at 16-18. Luque was dealt to Brooklyn in 1930 and, two years later, to New York—where he took on the role of reliever; appearing in the 1933 World Series for the Giants at age 43, he helped ice the championship over Washington by throwing 4.1 scoreless relief innings in Game Five as the Giants won in 10 innings.
Pete Donohue (1921-30)
The right-hander from Athens, Texas enjoyed a relatively short but immensely sweet tenure with the Reds, breaking out in 1922 at the age of 21 with an 18-9 record and 3.12 ERA—then following up by winning 20-plus games three times over the next four years, including a league-high 20 in 1926. Donohue had an immediate drop-off afterward, crashing to 6-16 in 1927; he somewhat recovered—but not enough to satisfy the Reds, who traded him to the Giants midway through 1930. At the plate, Donohue was no easy out, hitting .246 with 87 RBIs in 732 career at-bats.
Noodles Hahn (1899-1905)
At age 20, the rookie southpaw became an instant workhorse, maintaining the stress for the next six years until his arm finally gave up. Hahn threw a no-hitter in his rookie season, led the NL in strikeouts in each of his first three years, won 20-plus games four times throughout his first five seasons and is the second youngest pitcher (after Bob Feller) to reach 100 career wins. His omnipresence on the mound reached its peak in 1901 when he recorded career highs in innings pitched (375.1), complete games (41) and strikeouts (239), winning 22 games for a Cincinnati team that collectively could only total 30 more; it was the highest percentage of a team’s total victories accrued by one player until Steve Carlton got credit for 27 of Philadelphia’s 59 wins in 1972.
Wisely, Hahn sensed the overuse of his arm well before it went kaput and he used his spare time training to become a veterinarian, a post-baseball occupation that would serve him well long after his playing days ended.
Paul Derringer (1933-42)
The Kentucky native experienced the thick and thin of the Reds’ down-and-up fortunes during the 1930s, losing over 20 games in Cincinnati over each of his first two years (despite respectable ERAs) before teaming up with Walters to form baseball’s best one-two pitching punch at the time and help win successive NL pennants for the Reds.
In 1935, Derringer showed he was head of the curve in the team’s progress by winning 20 games while no one else on the staff won more than eight. He would secure three more 20-win campaigns—all in succession, from 1938-40—capping the drive with a knockout World Series performance in which he clinched the classic seven-game bout against Detroit by forging a complete-game, 2-1 victory in the series’ finale on just two days’ rest. After the Reds’ pennant run, Derringer’s run support slipped and it showed in his won-loss totals; he was shipped off to the Chicago Cubs in 1943, where he would play three more years.
Johnny Vander Meer (1937-43, 1946-49)
A wild, left-handed fireballer who led the NL three times in strikeouts, twice in walks, and lost as many games as he won for the Reds, Vander Meer is nevertheless immortalized for throwing two straight no-hitters in 1938, an accomplishment unmatched before or since.
Vander Meer was a top prospect who engendered much love from The Sporting News; he was named the scribe’s top minor league player in 1936, and two years later—in his sophomore campaign with the Reds—was named the top major league player, his double no-no feat possibly trumping the fabulous efforts put forward by much more deserving players.
Two years’ worth of military service in World War II cut into Vander Meer’s prime as a pitcher, and he was slow to return to form upon war’s end with spotty results through the rest of the 1940s. Vander Meer appeared in four All-Star Games, striking out 11 and allowing no earned runs in 8.2 innings of work.
Jose Rijo (1988-1995, 2001-02)
The fastball artist, who claimed Juan Marichal as a father-in-law, is fondly remembered in Cincinnati for his stellar pitching during the 1990 World Series that earned him MVP honors against the team that traded him to the Reds, the Oakland A’s.
A top baseball prospect in 1984, Rijo was forced onto the baseball scene at age 18 by George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees, hoping that he’d be an instant hit and steal the limelight from the crosstown Mets and their teenage pitching sensation, Dwight Gooden. Rijo couldn’t respond to the heavy burden and was moved on to the A’s, where he struggled for another three years. Dealt to the Reds, Rijo finally found his groove, producing winning records and sub-3.00 ERAs over his first six years in Cincinnati. After succumbing to elbow problems in 1995, he retired—then made a two-year comeback with the Reds between 2001-02 to mixed results, becoming the first player (Minnie Minoso excepted) making good on a legitimate comeback after receiving Hall of Fame votes.
Johnny Cueto (2008-15)
There certainly was something about the right-handed Dominican native when he exploded on the scene in 2008, striking out 18 batters while walking none over his first two starts—something no other major league pitcher had ever done to start a career. And although Cueto mostly struggled for the rest of his rookie campaign, those early signs of greatness would translate to future stardom.
Using a variance of pitching motions that confounded hitters—from a quick pitch to a stop-and-shimmy windup—Cueto produced a 92-63 record through seven-plus seasons before the financially tight-fisted Reds, wary of his impending free agency, dealt him to the eventual champion Kansas City Royals. While with Cincinnati, Cueto barely missed a 20-win performance in 2012 when he failed to earn a victory in his last start, but two years later knocked out a rare hit to bring in the go-ahead run (raising his career average over .100) to reach the milestone in, again, his last outing. Seven K’s on that day also gave him 242 for the year and a share of the NL strikeout crown with Washington’s Stephen Strasburg.
Cueto was as excellent with his concentration toward baserunners as he was with opposing batters; only 24 players successfully stole bases in 61 attempts when he pitched.
The downside for Cueto was his reputation as a hothead, a notoriety that reached ugly proportions in 2010 when, in the midst of a brawl, he gave a kick to the head of St. Louis catcher Jason LaRue, who was concussed so badly that he was forced to retire from the game.
Ewell Blackwell (1942, 1946-52)
Nicknamed “The Whip” for a fiery sidearm delivery that spooked opposing right-handed hitters, the lanky, 6’6” Blackwell endured a yo-yo tenure in Cincinnati from which moments of greatness were chopped up from assorted interruptions that included appendicitis, a kidney operation, arm injuries and three years of military service during World War II. In spite of these various intrusions, Blackwell appeared in six straight All-Star Games, winning the 1950 contest.
Blackwell is best recalled for nearly matching teammate Johnny Vander Meer’s achievement of throwing two consecutive no-hitters; with Vander Meer watching from the sidelines, Blackwell was two outs away from equaling the feat when Brooklyn’s Eddie Stanky hit a sharp comebacker between Blackwell’s legs and into the outfield for a base hit. The near-double no-no in 1947 was the marquee moment in what was clearly his best season, winning 22, losing eight, striking out 193 and fielding a 2.47 ERA.
Cincinnati Reds Team History A decade-by-decade history of the Reds, the ballparks they’ve played in, and the four people who are on the franchise’s Mount Rushmore.
The Reds’ 10 Greatest Hitters A list of the 10 greatest hitters based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Reds’ 10 Most Memorable Games A list of 10 memorable games and other notable personal achievements that have defined the Reds’ history.