Tigers stole signs from Reds during 1940 World Series

Ace pitchers Paul Derringer and Bucky Walters flank catcher Ernie Lombardi. Derringer and Walters won 42 games in 1940.

When Tigers’ pinch-hitter Earl Averill hit a routine grounder to second base in the ninth inning of Game Seven of the 1940 World Series, Cincinnati pitcher Paul Derringer watched teammate Lonny Frey toss the ball to first for the final out. Derringer had his second complete game victory in four days and the Reds were World Champions. It had been a hard fought, emotional, and extremely close Series, one of the best in history to that point.

But it may have never gotten to seven games if Detroit didn’t know every pitch that Cincinnati’s pitchers were throwing. Ultimately, of course, it didn’t matter, the Reds superior pitching won out.

The Reds were defending National League champs in 1940, having won the flag the previous year before being swept by the New York Yankees in the Fall Classic. During the season the Reds encountered tragedy when one of their catchers, Willard Hershberger, took his own life while the team was in Boston to play the Braves. Hershberger slit his own jugular vein in the shower at the team’s Boston hotel just one day after having caught all 12 innings in the second game of a doubleheader. For many years Hershberger had been suffering from depression, in part stemming from the suicide of his father, for which Willard felt responsible. At the time of his suicide the Reds were six games up in the NL standings, and they wobbled a little bit, losing 10 of 18, but then their talent lifted them and they won 24 of 28 to run away from their competitors. One of their coaches, 40-year old Jimmie Wilson, came out of retirement to take Hershberger’s place behind the plate. He shared catching duties with veteran Ernie Lombardi, a former batting champion.

Lombardi and Wilson had the pleasure of putting down signs for two of baseball’s best pitchers – Paul Derringer and Bucky Walters. Derringer was a tall right-hander from Kentucky with a strong, durable arm and an uncanny knack for putting the ball where he wanted it. He won 20 games four times for the Reds and fired two one-hitters in 1940. Walters was a slim righty from Philadelphia who didn’t even start pitching until he was 25 years old. Prior to that he’d been an infielder but his strong arm prompted Wilson (at that time the player/manager of the Reds) to suggest that Walters transition to the mound. It proved to be a wise decision as Bucky went on to be the top winner in the Senior Circuit in the late 1930s and early 1940s. As biographer Sheldon Appleton has pointed out, from 1939-1946, Walters led the NL in wins, ERA, innings, and complete games. With Walters and Derringer starting 1/3 of their games in 1940, the Reds had a vaunted 1-2 punch to take on the Tigers.

While the Reds were a team mostly in their prime, Detroit was a veteran club, still fueled by the stars who led them to consecutive pennants in 1934-1935. 37-year old second baseman Charlie Gehringer and 29-year old Hank Greenberg teamed with Rudy York, the slugging Native American first baseman, to form an efficient offensive attack. The Tigers were a team that primarily pummeled the opposition into submission. They scored 888 runs – 181 more than Cincinnati – with Greenberg and York accounting for 73 of their 134 homers and 284 RBI between them. The 1940 World Series was billed as a clash between baseball’s best pitching staff and the game’s most powerful lineup. Had experts known that great advanced scouting meant that the Tigers knew all of the Reds’ signs, they would have made Detroit the favorites. But outside the Bengal clubhouse, that information was kept secret.

When Derringer threw the first pitch in Game One at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, Tiger leadoff man Dick Bartell knew what was coming. The secret was that Reds’ catchers Wilson and Lombardi were tipping off the pitches. Armed with that inside info, Greenberg started a rally in the second inning with a single, York followed with one of his own, Pinky Higgins singled later, and so on. By the time the Tigers were done they had played five runs off of a puzzled Derringer. Detroit won the game, 7-2. The Tigers pounced on Walters the next afternoon, pushing across two runs in the first, but Cincinnati’s batters figured out Schoolboy Rowe and eked out a 5-3 victory to knot the Series.

When the two teams went to Detroit for Game Three, the Bengal bats erupted again for a 7-4 win, pounding out 13 hits against Cincinnati’s #3 starter “Milkman Jim” Turner and the bullpen. But in Game Four, pitching on two days rest, Derringer mowed down the Tigers and secured a 5-2 win, allowing just five hits. Gehringer may have known what the Reds’ hurler was going to throw, but he still went 0-for-4 and had just two hits in his 16 at-bats through the first four games. But it seems that when they faced a lesser pitcher, the fact that the Tigs had the signs helped them immensely. In Game Five on Sunday afternoon at Briggs Stadium, the Tigers smacked 13 hits in a 8-0 laugher. In that game, Detroit starter Bobo Newsom tossed a gutsy three-hit shutout just three days after his father died from a heart attack.

The teams returned to Cincinnati for Game Six, the Tigers needing one victory to take the title. Reds skipper Bill McKechnie had his two aces slated for the final two games – he gave the ball to Walters in Game Six, hoping to force a seventh and deciding game. Bucky didn’t disappoint – he cruised through the Detroit lineup allowing just seven baserunners in a 4-0 shutout that barely took two hours to complete.

“We knew every pitch the Reds were throwing against us,” Detroit catcher Birdie Tebbets said. “The screwiest part of it was that it didn’t do us a damn bit of good.”

But Detroit wouldn’t just roll over against Derringer. In dramatic fashion, Newsom took the ball for Game Seven on just a single day of rest. He battled gamely and in the third inning he was staked to a 1-0 lead on an RBI-single by Gehringer. But the Reds scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh off Bobo and Derringer shut the door. The Cincinnati ace was just too much for Detroit’s lineup, even when the Tiger batters knew what was coming.

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