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Echoes of Cincinnati Reds Baseball
The Greatest Stories Ever Told
By Mark Stallard
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 Triumph Books
All rights reserved.
New York World
Twenty Years a Player
One of the first great players to don a Reds uniform, Bid McPhee spent all 18 years of his major league career with Cincinnati. Only four other players have played more games as a second-sacker than "King Bid," who was considered the best second baseman of the 19th century. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000, McPhee led his league in double plays 11 times and posted the best fielding average in nine seasons. In 1987, the New York World ran this profile article about the great second baseman.
John Alexander McPhee, or "Biddy," as he is familiarly called, the second baseman of the Cincinnati Reds, is a record-breaker in the tenure of service on the diamond, as well as in his standing for playing. His engagement for this season makes 20 years that he has been regularly engaged in the sport. He has outserved several generations of players, and has played with all of the leading baseballists of his time.
He was born in Massena, New York, November 1, 1859. His father was a Scotchman, and his mother came from a prominent Yankee family of Puritan stock. John T. Brush, president of the Cincinnati club, was also born in Massena, New York. Although about the same age, Brush and McPhee never knew each other until Brush became the owner of the Cincinnati club.
He has had many chances to go to other clubs, but his many friends in Cincinnati and his great liking for the city of his adoption keep him here. He is a great home favorite and has been the recipient of many presents from admiring friends in this city.
A few days ago action was taken by McPhee's local admirers for the purpose of presenting him a substantial testimonial in recognition of his long and faithful service with the Cincinnati team.
Testimonial to McPhee
Subscriptions to this are now pouring in. The Chamber of Commerce, W.W. Peabody, vice president of the B.O. & S.W. RR; Samuel Bailey, former United States Sub-Treasurer, and many other prominent persons are taking an active part in the affair. Substantial, indeed, will be the testimonial, as rumor has it that a house and lot will be presented to him.
For many years McPhee was recognized as the only player in the league playing an infield position who did not use a glove. It has been in the last season or two only that he resorted to the use of a glove, which was brought about by an injury to his left hand that left that member tender.
While he has been for many years looked upon as the "King" second baseman, he is so graceful and accurate in his position that many plays from McPhee are not called great because his action is quiet and unassuming and the baseball public has become used to them.
When McPhee was seven years old his family removed to Kaithsburg, a small hamlet of 1,700 inhabitants in western Illinois, where Park Wilson, the great backstop of the New York club, was born and reared. Wilson's father was running a dry-goods store in the town, and McPhee was for some time a clerk and an all-around helper in the store. Both Wilson and McPhee played with a local team called the Ictorias. They were called by the fans the "fly-catchers."
The team sent East for uniforms and played all the clubs of the surrounding towns, being a leading feature for the county fairs at that time. This club won the first prize in the district league. The prize was a nickel-plated bat. McPhee was at that time playing behind the bat, and was a good catcher. He was the youngest player in the team, being only 16 years of age. In 1877 he and Elmer Rockwell were signed by the club at Davenport, Iowa, and they constituted what was then known as a crack battery, with Rockwell in the box and McPhee behind the bat.
In the Davenport club McPhee also played second base and in the right field in 1878. In 1879 McPhee did not play ball, but secured a position as clerk in a commission house in Davenport. In the spring of 1880 he went to Akron, Ohio, and played second base in the semi-league club that played the Cleveland club on off days.
In the autumn of 1880 O.P. Caylor formed the American Association and sent Charlie Jones, the old left fielder of the Reds, to Akron, to sign McPhee, Sam Wise, and Kemmler, the two latter being now out of the business, while McPhee is still playing with Cincinnati. McPhee lives in this city with his parents, who have resided here since 1884. He is a man of excellent habits, always takes good care of himself, smokes and drinks very little, and spends most of his time at home.
McPhee on How to Play
When asked how to play second base, McPhee said he played it no different than anyone else. He said that a good shortstop is a great help to the second baseman, and when the two understand each other well they can cover much more ground and do it safely.
Of course, there is much depending on all members of the team playing well together, but no two men, not even the batteries, can mutually help each other more than the second baseman and the shortstop. McPhee said when he was playing ball he always tried to avoid accidents. While he always wanted to win, yet he would prefer to be credited with an error than with an injury, and for that reason he has only been out of the game on account of disabilities for three weeks during his long career of 20 years.
He says the batters are getting things down so fine now that they can fool all the fielders, usually hitting the ball as they please and driving it where least expected — formerly the fielders would take certain positions for the right-handed men and other positions for the left-handed men, but now there is no such thing as catching the batter by shifting around in this manner. There was also much interest in studying certain batters who were known to drive the ball in given directions, but now the batter hits to dodge the fielders, and this part of the sport is almost down to a fine art, so much so that the fielders are unable to keep up with it.
McPhee has held the second-base record off and on for many years and is without doubt at the head of the list on the average. While he is considered one of the best men that ever covered second base, he also stands high as a good batter and a man who attends strictly to his business in the general interest of his team.
McPhee is bright and a good talker. He stands well in his own community.CHAPTER 2
Four Hundred to One
The man who made the "bottle bat" famous, or maybe it was the other way around. Heine Groh's lumber had a nontapered barrel with a thin handle, and he batted with a wide-open stance that allowed him to drop bunts or slap the ball to the opposite field. The Reds' third baseman for nine seasons, Groh was a member of the 1919 world champions. The September 1915 issue of Baseball Magazine profiled Groh's hitting technique.
How should a big-league player stand at bat? When a single player uses one system and four hundred of his mates use quite another, the chances seem to be overwhelmingly in favor of the four hundred. But the arguments brought out by Heine Groh in explanation of his unique method are surely plausible, while the arguments in favor of the prevailing type are by no means so convincing. There must be some best way to stand at bat. And if the present way isn't the best, why not have a change?
When Pop Anson used to bat, he grasped the bludgeon firmly, faced the pitcher with his feet squarely on the ground, and as the ball whirled from the pitcher's hand he stepped forward to meet it. Evidence goes to show that a good many old timers followed the same system of facing the pitcher with a resolute, steadfast gaze and a steady hand. Why is it that as baseball progressed the batter turned more and more from his head-on attitude until he finally stood with his side toward the pitcher and had to crane his neck if he would see the ball? Was it an improvement on the old style?
We believe no one knows why batters stand as they do when they take their position at the plate. No two of them stand exactly alike. But there is a wide difference between the type of Pop Anson and any assumed by modern big-league batters.
Did we say any? No, there is one exception, for Heine Groh, of Cincinnati, is the sole survivor in the big leagues of an old tradition immortalized by Pop Anson. Groh alone stands facing the pitcher instead of sideways. And Groh steps forward to meet the ball just as the old timers used to do.
Any batting example set by Pop Anson is good enough for someone to follow, for Anson was one of the three or four greatest batters in the records of the game. For the matter of that, Groh himself is a batter of no mean proclivities and it has puzzled many people to know why it was that McGraw made his famous trade with Joe Tinker to get Fromme. Fromme has gone but Ames still pitches apparently as well as he ever did. And Groh, thrown in for good measure, is one of the best infielders in the league. McGraw couldn't use him at second base, his rightful position, because he had Larry Doyle. But Groh outbatted Larry all last season and fielded much the better of the two. Still, that's beside the story.
Groh gives a very plausible argument in favor of his own peculiar method. He says, "By standing facing the pitcher, you can see both foul lines, watch the pitcher's windup motion better, and follow the ball better. These things are very important. In addition, by standing in that way, the batter unconsciously steps forward to meet the ball. When he swings, the force of the swing itself carries him toward first base and really gets him into his stride. I have always batted in that way, although sometimes I have been told that I should change my system. I know Kinsella told me I had better try the ordinary style of batting when I first signed with the Giants. The only reason he gave for this was that I was liable to get hit in the head standing as I did. It never seemed to me that there was any likelihood of this. I should think a man would be better able to dodge a pitched ball by facing it than he could by standing with his side toward it, for in facing it he could twist with equal ease to either side. Some players have told me that they shouldn't think I could hit the ball very hard meeting it in that way. You don't have to hit the ball very hard to drive it safe, and the records will show that I have made quite a few extra-base hits."
What Groh says is substantially correct. Last year he batted .288, which is very good for an infielder. Furthermore, he made 18 doubles, four triples, and two home runs.
Oddly enough on the very day that I talked to Groh he went into the game and knocked out two two-base hits. Both were vicious drives that traveled fast and far. They were a clinching argument against the fallacy that the batter who meets the ball fair cannot hit it hard.
Tommy Leach, fellow teammate of Groh's, and a veteran of many years' experience, related the following, "Groh came to me early in the season and asked me if I thought he ought to try to change his style. He said that some persons were criticizing him and wondered if he might do better by standing in the regulation way. I told him to pay no attention to such remarks, that every batter had his individual style and that his was well adapted to his own peculiar needs. There are a good many arguments in favor of Groh's style. There is no doubt the batter in such a position can see the ball better and follow the foul lines better. The only objection that I would be inclined to say is that the batter is likely to hit late and so drive the ball to right field, but most batters have the tendency to hit either into one field or another, so that that handicap isn't as great as it seems."
Jake Daubert, who has led the league two years in batting, claims that he once used Groh's system. "I was in the minor leagues at the time," says Jake, "and it seemed natural for me to face the pitcher. I always thought there were good arguments in favor of that style, but as I was a weak hitter at the time, I changed over and finally got going pretty well at the regulation way. No doubt if I had been able to hit at first, I would have stuck to that system, as I probably wouldn't have hit well at that stage of the game under any circumstances."
Zack Wheat's principal objection to the attitude of Groh at the bat is this, "I don't think I could swing well at the ball standing that way. I generally swing from the handle of the bat. I don't think any one who does swing for extra-base hits could use that system, but for the man who chops at the ball and chokes up on the bat, I should think it would be just about right."
Hans Wagner doesn't say much, generally, but he was rather interested in the intimation that almost all big-league batters were not using the best style. "Pop Anson used to bat that way, sure enough," said Wagner, "and it looks like good dope. I don't bat that way myself, and I don't just know why. I guess it didn't come natural to me, that's all."
Wagner's argument seems to be the prevailing one among ballplayers. They don't bat that way because it doesn't come natural, or, in other words, because they have been used to seeing everyone else bat in the ordinary style. But it doesn't come natural to a right-handed man to bat left-handed and there are a great many other things about baseball that players have learned and in which they now excel that didn't come natural at first.
To an outsider, the man who sits in the stand, it does look rather strange to see a player stand up with his side toward the pitcher like a crab, and crane his neck around in order to get a view of the ball. Instead of being a natural position, it looks very unnatural.
Jimmy Archer, the famous Cubs backstop, however, was a firm adherent of the modern method. He said, "Groh almost always hits toward right field. That is because, standing as he does, he swings a trifle late. There are advantages to his system, he gets into his stride easier, but the managers never try to teach a player how to hit. They know that every man must hit in his own way, if at all."
All this is true, no doubt, but what Archer says of the managers hardly applies. It would be foolish to try to get Ty Cobb or Tris Speaker or any one of the veteran sluggers to change their manner of swinging at the bat, but the managers have made many more radical changes in their recruit players than this change would necessitate, and if there is any merit in the idea, as seems to be the case, it would be to the managers' advantage to encourage the Groh style of batting among their younger players.
For, after all is said and done, the main argument in favor of the prevailing style is no argument at all. The batter stands as he does simply because everybody else stands that way, and he has always been accustomed to the type from the days of his infancy. It has probably, in most cases, never even occurred to him that there might be a better way, and the managers apparently have given no thought to the subject either.
If there is merit in the idea, which seems to be the case at first blush, its general adoption might conceivably revolutionize the entire science of batting, exempting the sluggers, who would object to the system because it curtails the length of their swing. It might prove an advantage to the rank and file, the players who are inclined to chop at the ball. In any case, the idea seems to have been most fruitful of success in certain striking cases and deserves far more consideration than it has apparently received.
For Groh's argument seems unanswerable. "You can see the ball better with two eyes than you can with an eye and a half. For that is about all you really use when you twist your neck to get a sight of the ball."
Excerpted from Echoes of Cincinnati Reds Baseball by Mark Stallard. Copyright © 2007 Triumph Books. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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