By Zane Miller
Over the course of the 120-year history of the Cincinnati Reds in the MLB, the team has had several notable starting pitchers take the mound. However, out of all of them, only one has been elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame by pitching most of their career with the Reds, with that being 266-game winner Eppa Rixey, who pitched in Cincinnati from 1921 to 1933.
Born on May 3rd, 1891, Rixey grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia and remained in the city as he attended college, enrolling in the University of Virginia and eventually graduating with a master’s degrees in both Latin and chemistry in 1914. On top of his academic achievements, Rixey also became a standout athlete, representing the school in both men’s basketball and, as you’ve probably already guessed, baseball. While the baseball team reportedly struggled during Rixey’s time at Virginia, he would still play well enough to attract the attention of the team’s assistant coach, Cy Rigler. However, Rigler’s word carried more weight than most, as he wore many hats in the baseball world at the time.
Rigler is best known for his lengthy career as an umpire for the MLB, serving in the role from 1906 to 1935, officiating in 10 World Series along the way and is also believed to be the first umpire to use hand signals to convey on-field calls. On top of that, Rigler also did scouting work for the Philadelphia Phillies organization, despite the pretty obvious conflict of interest for an umpire to do so. However, with no rules preventing this at the time (though there would be shortly after this situation took place), Rigler was able to convince the Phillies to take a chance on Eppa Rixey and bring him up for the 1912 campaign.
Rixey picked up his first career win in dominating fashion on July 5th, 1912, as the Phillies defeated the Boston (now Atlanta) Braves 10-0 with Rixey going all nine innings with seven hits, two walks and five strikeouts in the complete game shutout. The remainder of his rookie year would be mostly successful as well, picking up a 10-10 record, with an ERA of 2.50 in 162 innings pitched, claiming 59 strikeouts in the process. However, the Phillies would still be left searching for their first World Series appearance in franchise history with a season record of 73-79.
Rixey’s sophomore season saw him carry on his progress with a 9-5 record, getting a 3.12 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 155 and two-thirds innings pitched, helping the Phillies to an 88-63 season, though they would come up just one spot short of a World Series berth to the 101-win New York (now San Francisco) Giants. Despite keeping the sophomore slump at bay temporarily, it would catch up with him in 1914. In what would be one of the worst seasons of his career, Rixey pitched just 103 innings, yet finished with an abysmal 2-11 record in 24 games, ballooning his ERA to 4.37 with 41 strikeouts as the team struggled to a 74-80 showing. Undaunted by the off year, both Rixey and the Phillies would bounce back in a major way in 1915.
While Rixey posted a record of 11-12, this is one of those cases where the win-loss record isn’t indicative of how the season went as a whole, as he contributed 176 and two-thirds innings with a 2.39 ERA and 88 strikeouts as the Phillies went 90-62 to claim the National League pennant and face the Boston Red Sox in the 1915 World Series. Rixey first appeared in game five of the series on October 13th, with the Phillies facing elimination as the Red Sox held a lead of three games to one. Coming into the contest in relief of starter Erskine Mayer, who had given up two runs in two and a third innings, he held Boston scoreless through the next four and two-thirds innings with just one hit and a pair of walks, allowing the Philadelphia offense to do the rest to keep their championship hopes alive, as they hung onto a 4-2 advantage going into the eighth. In that inning, however, the situation for the Phillies began to go awry.
As Rixey gave up a leadoff single to Red Sox first baseman Del Gainer, left fielder Duffy Lewis took advantage of the narrow window of opportunity with a home run to the deep center field of Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl, tying the game at four apiece. Though Rixey got out of the inning without further incident, Boston’s offense would not be silenced in the ninth.
With the score still knotted up, Rixey claimed his first strikeout of the day with a punchout of his pitching counterpart Rube Foster. However, veteran right fielder Harry Hooper, who had already hit one home run off of Mayer back in the third inning, smashed his second of the game to center field as well, putting the Red Sox out in front for the first time on the afternoon. Though he ended the inning with a strikeout of center fielder Tris Speaker, the Phillies would be unable to force a game six as the offense went down in order in the bottom of the inning as the Red Sox claimed their third World Series title. Unfortunately for Rixey, this would be the only World Series appearance of his career.
In 1916, Rixey had the best season of his time in Philadelphia, scoring a 22-10 record with an ERA of 1.85, with this being the only year he would have a sub-2 ERA. In addition, he would also post a career-high 134 strikeouts, though perhaps the most eye-popping stat of the season is the 287 innings pitched, more than 100 more than his previous highest total. Despite his best efforts, the Phillies would narrowly miss making back-to-back World Series visits, losing the NL title to the Brooklyn Robins (now Los Angeles Dodgers). The 1917 season saw Rixey provide a comparable output to the previous year despite what a 16-21 record would suggest, as he had a 2.27 ERA in 281 and a third innings pitched and crossed the 100-strikeout mark for a second time with 121, though the Phillies again were runners-up in the NL as the Giants took the World Series spot. Although Rixey had established himself by this point as a mainstay of the Phillies’ rotation, his career was about to hit a sudden turning point.
With the United States being engaged in World War I throughout the 1918 MLB season, many players temporarily left the league to enlist in the military, with Rixey being no exception as he sat out the full season to join the Chemical Warfare Division overseas in Europe. Once he returned after the war for the 1919 season, however, he did not post anywhere near the numbers he had in his two most recent years, getting a 6-12 finish with a 3.97 ERA in 154 innings, while striking out 63. His 1920 stats were mixed, as he took an ERA of 3.48 to an 11-22 record, though he somewhat returned to form with 284 innings pitched, as well as getting 109 strikeouts to reach triple-digit strikeout numbers for the third and final time of his career.
By this point, Rixey had reportedly become disgruntled with manager Gavvy Cravath. Though I couldn’t find specific reasons as to why he felt this way, it’s safe to assume that finishing last in the National League for two straight seasons did not help smooth out the relationship. With his underwhelming performance since returning from military service, the Phillies were ready to move on from Rixey, and he was traded to the Reds on November 22nd, 1920. Though Rixey’s time in the City of Brotherly Love had its fair share of highlights, he was about to find another level in Cincinnati.