Bucky Walters: A forgotten legacy

Following my article, “Why Cy,” back in February, I received a wide array of e-mails. Some praised the ideas presented, some offered advice on alternative methods, and others yelled at me because Cy Young had 511 wins and it is pure blasphemy to suggest the award was improperly named.

One particular response to the article stood out from the rest: A reader named Jeffrey pointed out that every pitcher with three or more hypothetical awards had been inducted into the Hall of Fame except Bucky Walters. After a cursory scan of Bucky’s statistics, I wrote him off as “not having the numbers.”

I then received a document from Jeffrey comparing Bucky’s statistics to several of his peers. Upon scanning the figures, the gap in my mind lessened quite a bit. Jeffrey then revealed he is Bucky’s grandson and has been working and researching for more than 15 years in the hope that Bucky will one day be enshrined in Cooperstown. What struck me as odd was that I had never heard of Bucky Walters. He had been nothing more than an old-time player I scribbled down when investigating hypothetical award-winners. It was not as if Bucky had been on my radar and information on Marvin Benard or Jayhawk Owens pushed him out; plain and simple I had never heard of him.

Jeffrey and I continued talking and I began researching Bucky’s career. Through materials sent by Jeffrey—a scrapbook made by Bucky’s wife, among others—and my own findings it became painstakingly clear Bucky had a better career than we give him credit for. The major reason for this is our reliance solely on statistics to inform us about those we never had the chance to watch. I asked about 50 people, split between my age range (early-mid 20s) and twice my age (two times early-mid 20s) and only six people had heard of him; all were from the older age range and only two of those six actually knew something about his career.

Let me make it clear from the start: This is not an article necessarily designed to drum up Hall of Fame support for a seemingly forgotten pitcher. Rather, it’s an effort to help him be remembered.

Thoughts on Bucky

Included in the materials Jeffrey sent me are dozens of letters to and from Bucky from some very prominent figures. Let’s look at what others, whose opinions are likely more valuable than mine, had to say:

“Bucky was the money pitcher of his day.”
—Seymore Siwoff, ELIAS Sports Bureau

“Because you are a member of our all-time teams, I thought you might like to have a specially printed copy of the complete roster. Needless to say, it comes to you with the best wishes of two of your biggest fans.”
—Richard Nixon, former U.S. President

“When the time comes that you want to sign a contract and you find this one isn’t satisfactory, you tell me what figure you want me to put in and it will be put in.”
Warren Giles, former Reds GM and VP

“I certainly remember Bucky as a great pitcher who had a magnificent career.”
—Bud Selig, current MLB commissioner

“Bucky had a wonderful career and a great reputation to match. He has reached the consideration of the Veterans Committee and I’m certain it will continue.”
—Joe Brown, past chairman of the HOF Veterans Committee

“Bucky was a great player, a great pitcher, and certainly deserving of being inducted into the Hall of Fame.”
Tommy Lasorda, former L.A. Dodgers manager

“It’s rare that a man is a big league infielder, pitcher, and manager… but Bucky is a rare man.”
—Fay Vincent, former MLB commissioner

Early career

Born in Mount Airy, Pa., about 25 minutes from my current home, Bucky began his professional career in 1929; he was drafted by the Boston Braves and assigned to play at High Point in North Carolina. His big break came in 1933. While playing for the San Francisco Missions, Bucky had driven in 91 runs during the first 90 games of the season. Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey came to watch a Missions game and, after witnessing a 5-for-5 with five doubles performance, bought Bucky right on the spot. Despite the vast potential the Red Sox organization saw upon watching him play third base, he broke his thumb soon after arriving. Unfortunately, he never regained his natural hitting stroke.

Though his Red Sox tenure turned out to be short-lived, Bucky did have some big moments. On May 6, 1934, the team scored 12 runs off Detroit’s Firpo Marberry in the fourth inning. Contributing to these runs were a record-tying four consecutive triples from Carl Reynolds, Moose Solters, Rick Ferrell and Bucky Walters. This foursome added two singles, a walk and a double in their subsequent plate appearances that inning. One week later, May 13, 1934, Bucky hit a grand slam and a two-run homer to help the Red Sox steamroll Chicago to the tune of 14-2.

Bucky goes home

Disappointed with his production—69 for 283, 12 doubles, seven triples, eight homers, 46 RBI in 75 games—the Red Sox sold Bucky to the Phillies on June 13, 1934. He welcomed the move; it allowed him to return home to the sandlots on which he grew up playing. Back in 1934, the Phillies were somewhat of a laughingstock, often struggling to make money. Bucky remarked that the players prayed against rainouts while on road trips to help ensure they could pay their way home. Bad luck followed Bucky to Philadelphia: A case of poison ivy pushed him out of the lineup for three weeks.

Bucky’s production failed to return after his recovery. A once-promising third base prospect now struggled to remain in the lineup. Joe Brown, past chairman of the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee, even remarked, “Had he not been injured after joining Boston, he would have been a very successful third baseman. He had, as they say, all the tools.”

Phillies manager Jimmy Wilson did not want to give up on the fire-filled personality Bucky possessed but also knew it would be an upward battle for him to have a full career as an infielder. Wilson then decided it would be a great idea for Walters to become a pitcher. He had a tremendous arm from third base and the skipper saw true pitching potential. On top of that, due to the dearth of quality starters in the Philadelphia rotation, Wilson figured Bucky would not be any worse. Walters appeared in two games in 1934, giving up one run in seven innings; he struck out seven while walking two.

Third base to starting pitcher

Make no mistake: Bucky Walters did not want to pitch. Despite his injuries and the success many saw in him as a pitcher, his desire was to remain at the hot corner. Prior to the 1935 season, though, the Phillies traded for third baseman Johnny Vergez; now Bucky was not guaranteed a starting job in the infield. Walters still strived to prove he could produce as a position player. In fact, at the end of his career, he still lamented the move, saying, “My only regret is not being able to play every day.”

There are different accounts of how Wilson convinced Walters to become a pitcher, but the bottom line is that he did. According to manager Wilson, Bucky did not agree to the move until extremely intoxicated, at which point he became more “open-minded” to the idea. According to Bucky, it was Wilson’s never-ending insistence that the poorest pitcher would still make more money than a backup third baseman.

Walters also decided the move was more fiscally responsible for him and his new bride. Wilson also said Bucky had guts, and that pitcher is the only position where you either have guts, or you don’t.

In his first spring training start of 1935, things did not go as planned. Against the Reds, Bucky hit Chick Hafey and Johnny Mize with pitches, prompting Larry MacPhail to stand and shout, “Get that bum out of there before someone gets killed!”

Bucky threw hard. Today we speculate on how hard someone like, say, Rafael Furcal would throw if he came in to pitch, but this infielder-pitcher conversion actually took place. If Furcal did suddenly decide to pitch, it is unlikely he would be taken seriously, at least in the beginning; the same can be said of Bucky. According to Walters, opposing players that spring would remark, “Hey you, Walters, get in there so I can get a hit.” This motivated Bucky, a player with the DiMaggio mindset that a fan may be seeing him for the first time on any given night; he would owe it to said fan to deliver his best possible effort.

After he worked his tail off that spring, Bucky’s first regular season start saw him befuddle the defending champion Cardinals en route to a 2-1 win. He still wanted to play every day, though, saying “I’d go back to third base if it paid the same.” That season, 1935, Bucky went 9-9 in 24 starts; he averaged 6.29 IP/gm and posted a 106 ERA+. Though not earth-shatteringly spectacular numbers, they are more than respectable when given that he had been a third baseman for the past six years.

Phillies tenure

Bucky pitched for the Phillies from 1935 until the halfway point of 1938. A lack of run support and defensive aid resulted in won-lost records 9-9, 11-21, 14-15 and 4-8 for the half-season in 1938. Though won-loss records are terrible evaluative barometers, they really hurt Bucky in this case. Manager Wilson knew Bucky was progressing nicely and assured him that only great pitchers would be in the position to record as many losses. As further evidence of how highly he was thought of, Bucky was chosen to the 1937 All-Star team, back when it was not mandatory for a representative from each team to be chosen.

On June 13, 1938, Bucky stood at 4-8 with a 5.23 ERA. His Phillies tenure officially ended on this day. In deciding Bucky was the guy capable of propelling the Reds to a potential pennant, Cinncinnati GM Giles met with owner Powel Crosby Jr. about pulling the trigger on a trade.

The Cincinnati ace

“We can buy Walters from Philadelphia, and it may mean a pennant by 1939,” Giles said. “It will cost around $50,000 and two players.” After just 10 seconds, Crosby responded, “Want me to loan you the money?”

The workings of the trade were a tad odd, initially nixed by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The first draft saw Bucky going to the Reds for Al Hollingsworth and the 50K, with the condition that if Hollingsworth did not meet the Phillies’ standards they could have a mulligan and undo the trade. Landis thought this condition to be absurd and denied the trade. The condition was replaced with Virgil Davis and the result saw Walters heading to Cincinnati as Hollingsworth, Davis and the money went to Philadelphia.

Interestingly, the trade was completed in between Johnny Vander Meer’s two no-hitters for the Reds. In fact, toward the seventh inning of the second no-hitter, Bucky began warming up and was showered with boos by the Ebbets Field crowd; they were rooting for the opposing Vander Meer on this day.

Now on a team that provided defense aid and run support, Bucky finished the 1938 season 11-6 with a 3.69 ERA. The 1939 season indeed brought a pennant for the Reds. It also saw Walters with one of the best pitching seasons of all time; he went 27-11, with a 2.29 ERA, 168 ERA+ over 319 innings. He had 36 starts, 31 complete games and a 1.13 WHIP. He was named the NL MVP and was also the winning pitcher, on Aug. 26, of the first televised game in baseball history.

The Yankees swept the Reds in the World Series. Walters was on the mound, in relief of Paul Derringer in game four, when a controversial play sealed the Reds’ fate. With the bases loaded in the 10th inning, Yankees base runner Charlie Keller knocked out catcher Ernie Lombardi—literally knocked him out—allowing three runs to score.

World Series revenge

The next year proved to be another tremendous season for Bucky, who went 22-10 with a 2.48 ERA and 154 ERA+; he went for 305 innings in 36 starts, completing 29 games. He would have been awarded his second straight best-pitcher award had it been in existence. Bucky finished third in MVP voting as well. He won his first nine decisions, not losing until June 2.

On July 31, Bucky had a 4-1 lead against New York, in the ninth, with two outs, when the game was blown. Despite getting two strikes on four consecutive batters he surrendered two two-run homers to Harry Danning and Burgess Whitehead. Though “just another game” at the time, it proved to be much more meaningful no more than one month later. In blaming himself for calling the wrong pitches, backup catcher Willard Hershberger slit his throat on Aug. 3. Devastated, Bucky never spoke of this, though it was evident he never truly recovered from its impact, even after his career had ended.

The Reds again won the pennant and, this time, were determined to make up for the “embarrassment” of being swept the year before. After the Reds lost Game 1, Bucky twirled a three-hit shutout in Game 2; the win was the Reds’ first postseason victory since the Black Sox scandal in 1919. With Cincinnati down three games to two, Bucky took the mound in Game 6 and turned in a masterful two-hit shutout; he also added a home run. When asked about his performance afterward, Bucky was most excited about the home run. The Reds won game seven, and the World Series.

Wartime baseball

Much of the criticism of Walters’ career is because it spanned the era of lesser competition due to World War II. Because of the war, any male aged 21-36 had to register for the draft. Bucky did so, and was listed 1-A, but never received the call to duty. Despite this he still did his part, giving motivational speeches to troops on USO tours. Accompanied by the likes of Mel Ott, Frankie Frisch, and Dutch Leonard, the players were almost trapped by the advancing German army at the Battle of the Bulge.

Wartime pitcher or not, Bucky’s best seasons resulted in him leading pitchers in wins and MVP voting from 1939-1947; only Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio finished higher than he in MVP voting. From 1935-1949, a 15-year span, he led major league baseball in wins, 198.

A career ends

In 1944, Bucky had another masterful season, winning his third hypothetical best pitcher award. Going 23-8 with a 2.40 ERA and 146 ERA+, he also finished fifth in MVP voting. In his 11-year tenure with the Reds, he averaged a 15-10 record with a 2.93 ERA. On July 10, 1947, Bucky even umpired a game. Due to a mix-up between the league office and the umpires, nobody showed up and some players had to serve as umps. The game ran smoothly.

He won his 198th, and final, game in 1947 on Bucky Walters Appreciation Night. Never backing down to pressure, Bucky delivered a two-hit shutout. He appeared in only seven games in 1948, as he was promoted to manage the Reds during the season. He failed to win a game that season and did not appear in a game in 1949, focusing solely on his managerial responsibilities before being replaced.

In 1950, he returned as a pitcher to the Boston Braves—where it all started—with the hopes of winning two more games and getting to 200, but he was unsuccessful in his sole attempt.

From 1950-1957 he served as a pitching coach and had a brief stint as the minor league Milwaukee Brewers manager in 1952. He continued as a scout into the 1960s before returning home to Philadelphia. His baseball career spanned five decades that saw him rack up a plethora of accomplishments. Additionally, his work as a “bell cow” was integral in garnering pension plans for retired players; his work also helped the formation of the first MLB Players Association.

Remembering Bucky

If screenwriter/director William K. Howard had his way, we would remember Bucky and there would be no reason for me to write this article. The Warner Bros. filmmaker from 1921-1945 directed 54 films, but “the one that got away” always bothered him, as expressed to Bucky in a letter. Howard was so in love with Bucky’s story that he approached film executives about a movie revolving around Walters; the request was denied because baseball pictures did not sell well.

Bucky Walters always possessed a never-quit mindset, even when on dialysis late in life, but when he had to lose a leg, grandson Jeffrey remarked, it was the first time he had ever seen Bucky beaten. When he died in 1991, a day after his 82nd birthday, at a hospital no more than five minutes from my house, I was a six-year old arguing with classmates over who could be Leonardo or Donatello. Who would have known that, 17 years later, I would be one of his biggest fans?

As mentioned at the start of this article it is almost a universal certainty that people my age do not know Bucky; it isn’t until you get upwards of the 45-50 age range do we find significant percentages of those aware of his accomplishments. This is truly a shame as Bucky was considered “the money pitcher of his day.”

My odyssey with Bucky is just beginning, as this summer I am going to begin collaborating with Jeffrey on a book about Bucky’s career and his pursuit to get Bucky into the Hall of Fame. Many fans and media members express desire for players to “play the right way” and not be “controversial.” Well, Bucky Walters was a guy who gave his all every night, put his team ahead of personal success, and was so modest and appreciative of his teammates that an interviewer actually asked him to just talk about himself.

This is William Henry “Bucky” Walters, a man whose off the field accomplishments were equally as important as those on the field, a debatable Hall of Fame candidate but definitely an unfairly forgotten player in drastic need of remembrance.

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