|An Afternoon with Red Lucas|
By Allen H. Quimby
Red Lucas had three strong points as a National League player in the 1920s and 1930s. He had excellent control as a pitcher, the best for any hurler in his era; he completed most of the games he started, having the best record in the NL since 1920; and he was a very good hitter, being used more frequently as a pinch hitter than any other player of his generation. Yet, Red Lucas never has received much recognition for his talents.
Having done considerable research on Lucas' career, I jumped at the opportunity to visit him in his home in Nashville, Tennessee, to discuss his background and his contributions.
Born Charles Fred Lucas at Columbia, Tennessee, on April 28, 1902, Lucas played his early baseball at a country school he attended some five miles from town. In fact, he reminisces, it was the school's teacher, Mrs. Timmons, who umpired daily for the two teams selected at the beginning of each school year.
In 1918 the Lucas family moved north about 50 miles to Nashville, where Red's father got a job at a gun powder factory during World War I. After a stint in the amateur Nashville City League, Lucas was taken by major league pitcher Tom "Shotgun" Rogers to a try-out in 1920, after which he signed a contract with Bartow in the Class D Florida State League. But his journey to the major leagues was abruptly detoured when he was released after only a few weeks at Bartow.
Back at Nashville Red was watching a ballgame one day at Shelby Park when he was given a wire telling him to report to Rome in the Georgia State League. It was there he finished the 1920 season. The next year found him still in Class D ball, playing for Jackson and then Greenwood in the Mississippi State League, where during a playoff game late in the season, he pitched a no-hit, no-run game for Greenwood over Clarksdale. Red recalls his mound opponent that day was Earl Webb another native Tennessean, who would later play in the outfield with the Boston Red Sox and set the major league season record for doubles with 67 in 1931.
After the playoffs, Lucas jumped to Class A and finished the 1921 season with the hometown Nashville team. He stayed with Nashville in 1922 and posted a 20-18 won-lost record with the club. The manager of the club was Larry Doyle, former second baseman for John McGraw's New York Giants, and he sold Red to the New Yorkers near the close of the 1922 season. He failed to get into a game that season, however, due in part to a broken ankle he received in a pepper game.
Following a brief major league baptism in relief in the spring of 1923, McGraw sent Lucas to San Antonio - as an outfielder instead of a pitcher. But, as Red recalls, San Antonio had too many good hitting outfielders (led by Ike Boone, who hit .402 that year) for him to win a spot in the outfield. But back on the mound he was able to win 18 games for San Antonio, and won a return trip to the majors in 1924, this time as a member of Dave Bancroft's Boston Braves. He pitched without distinction in relief most of the year and by 1925 Bancroft decided to make a second baseman of him. However, poor early season hitting landed Lucas in Seattle, where he pitched the remainder of the season. In 1926 Seattle sold him to Cincinnati and he was back in the majors, this time to stay.
With a pitching staff that included Eppa Rixey, Carl Mays, Dolf Luque, and Pete Donohue, Red first worked in the bullpen. However, a sore arm in the starting rotation soon brought him a start against none other than Grover Cleveland Alexander of the Cardinals. As Red remembers, he beat Alex 2-1 in a game that took an hour and ten minutes. Neither of these pitchers wasted any time with walks. Red had only 11 starts in 1926 but won eight games. He became a regular starter in 1927 and won 18 games for a seventh place club. One of his most memorable performances came in this season and Red remembered everything about it except when it happened. Actually it was July 22, 1927.
I was pitching at Brooklyn against Dazzy Vance, who was then
about the best in the National League. In the sixth inning, Hank
Deberry - he was the guy who always caught Vance - hit a
grounder down to our shortstop, Hughie Critz. Critz came in to
scoop it up and it went right between his legs. It was scored as a
hit and, while we were a little surprised, I didn't let it bother me.
Deberry was erased in a double play and we went on to win 3-0.
It was the only hit off me in that game and I didn't give up any
walks either, so I felt pretty good about it. Oh, it would have been
great if it could have been called an error - there were very few
no-hitters pitched at that time - but that's all part of the game.
The National League was a very heavy hitting circuit in those years, particularly in 1929 and 1930 when some teams were hitting over .300 with many home runs sprinkled in. But Lucas not only survived that period but excelled under the circumstances. He did not have much of a fast ball, but had an excellent breaking ball with "soft curves and an even softer change of pace." His control was marvelous. In 1931 he walked only 18 batters in 220 innings, one of the all-time best season performances. He also built up a spectacular career record which ranks him among the all-time control leaders with more than 2000 innings pitched.
Lucas was almost exclusively a starting pitcher in this period. While it was still common practice for top starters like Grove, Hubbel and Dean to fill a fireman role, Lucas seldom did this. In fact, he went from September 22, 1930, to June 28, 1934 without pitching in relief. He ran up a string of 100 consecutive starts. It was in this stretch, from August 13, 1931, to July 15, 1932, when he hurled 27 consecutive complete games. The string was broken when a 3-3 tie game went into extra innings and Lucas was lifted. He was no stranger to extra inning games, however, as he beat the Cards 5-4 in 17 innings on April 25, 1928, and outdueled Roy Parmelee of the Giants 1-0 in 15 innings on July 16, 1933.
In four seasons, 1927, 1929, 1931, and 1932, he led all NL pitchers in complete game performance. He completed 90 percent of his starts in 1932 (28 of 31), a percentage figure never since attained in the Senior Circuit. This is how he ranks among complete game leaders who have worked at least 2000 innings since 1920.
One reason Lucas could complete so many of his games was because of his great control, which we already discussed. Another reason was his ability to hit, which made it unnecessary to send in a pinch hitter for him. Red demonstrated his hitting ability in his first year with the Reds in 1926 when he hit .303. He joined with Dolf Luque (.346) and Pete Donohue (.3 11), to give the club three hurlers hitting over .300, a unique occurrence in this century. From that time on he was used pretty regularly as the club's chief pinch hitter. For three consecutive years, 1929-30-1, he led the league in pinch hits. A righthanded thrower, he batted from the left side.
He hit two pinch homers which he remembers well. The first came in the second game of a doubleheader at the Polo Grounds (September 20, 1930). Red was sent in to hit in the top of the ninth with two men on and with the Giants leading 3-1. He hit a Freddie Fitzsimmons fastball into the upper deck in left for an opposite field homer to give the Reds a 4-3 lead. Unfortunately the Giants came back with two runs in the bottom of the ninth to win 5-4. Red's other pinch homer was against the Dodgers at Cincinnati on May 27, 1933. Again he connected with two mates on, this time in the sixth off Ray Benge, to give the Reds a 4-3 victory.
Lucas was a real pinch hitting pioneer. He concluded his career in 1938 with 114 hits in 437 at bats. He was way ahead of his nearest rivals in both leagues in both hits and appearances. His record for pinch hits was not approached until a generation later when pinch hitting became a much used specialty. Today there are more than 40 players who compiled 60 career pinch hits. Lucas is the only hurler on the list. For comparison purposes, here are the leading career pinch hitters in 1940 and after the 1980 season.
Most Career Pinch Hits, 1940 Most Career Pinch Hits, 1980
Neither Red's hitting nor pitching, good as they were, could elevate his club very high in the standings. The Reds, weak at the plate and only fair in the field, finished seventh four times and last three times through the 1933 season. He was somewhat better off with the Pirates, finishing fifth, fourth twice, third, and second. Under these circumstances he was fortunate to close out his career with a 157-135 won-lost record, considerably better than his team's won-lost percentage.
The closest he got to a pennant was in 1938, his final year, when he was used as a spot starter by Pirate manager Pie Traynor. He pitched the Bucs to a 5-3 victory over Paul Derringer and the Reds on September 25, right before the disastrous series with the Cubs, which included Hartnett's home run victory and Chicago's take-over of first place. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported the Lucas victory on the front page under a headline of FORMER PAL.
The Reds certainly will be glad when old Red Lucas finally gets
washed up. His win today was his 14th straight over his former club
since he was traded down the river back in the fall of 1933 for a
couple of blokes named Tony Piet and Adam Comorosky. Since
then the Nashville Narcissus has made our boys suffer the tortures
of hades every time he faced them.
Lucas considers Rogers Hornsby the best hitter he ever faced but, upon reflection, selected Babe Phelps, a catcher with the Cubs and Dodgers, as the toughest individual batter for him to retire. Similarly, Dazzy Vance and Carl Hubbell were the best pitchers he saw, but Wild Bill Hallahan was the toughest hurler for him to hit against. He calls the July 16, 1933, twinbill between the Giants and Reds the best pair of games he ever saw. This was the day, mentioned previously, when Lucas beat Parmelee 1-0 in the 15-inning opener, and Carl Hubbell bested Paul Derringer 1-0 in the nightcap.
Red's highest salary was the $16,500 he got from Cincinnati in 1933. His only salary dispute occurred when he sought a two-year contract from Cincy owner Sid Weil. Weil wouldn't go for it, but at least, Red recalls, he did not cut his pay. Red figured in Larry MacPhail's first trade as the new Cincy general manager dealt him to the Pirates after the 1933 season.
With the Pirates, his career briefly touched that of Babe Ruth, who was closing out his career with the Braves in May 1935. He served up the Bambino's 712th home run on May 25, when Ruth hit his last three homers. Lucas was no longer on the mound when the Babe drilled numbers 713 and 714 off Guy Bush, but he remembers the last one disappearing over the right-center field stands in Forbes Field - the longest homer Red had ever seen.
Lucas chuckles about being accused of adding a spitball to his repertoire of fast ball, curve, change-up, and a "loose" forkball. He confesses he loaded up the ball only twice once to Gabby Hartnett who lined the wet one down the third base line, and once to Pie Traynor who was retired. Traynor was later his manager on the Pirates and Red had a good 15-4 season for him in 1936. Other managers he played under included McGraw and Bancroft, already mentioned, Jack Hendricks, Dan Howley, and Donie Bush. While he recalls McGraw always managed an inning or two ahead and called the pitches for his catchers, Red considers Bush the "best baseball man" he ever played for.
Lucas does not receive any pension from major league baseball as he left the majors almost ten years before that system went into effect. From 1939 to 1949 he played, coached, and managed in the minors. From 1944 to 1946 he was with hometown Nashville, and that's where he later worked for the State of Tennessee from 1953 to 1977. He was employed as a truck inspector for the Department of Revenue and also served several years as a deputy sheriff.
The red hair which was his trademark has faded and thinned. He had been slowed down by a heart attack in November 1979 but is now much improved. Surprisingly, there is no southern drawl when he speaks, but a certain crispness in his delivery. He has a good recall of events and does not exaggerate his contributions. His nickname, the Nashville Narcissus, was penned by Colonel Bob Newhall, a reporter for the old Cincinnati Tribune, when Red was a fast flowering player with the Redlegs.
Lucas, nearing 80 years old, still follows baseball on TV and occasionally in person when he can get to Cincinnati. His primary baseball association was with former teammate Andy High, prior to the latter's recent death. A widower for several years, Red talks proudly of his three children a daughter who teaches school in Nashville, and two sons who graduated from Duke University. He still lives in the same home he moved into in 1929, but such consistency should be expected of a pitcher with his control and complete game performance.