Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Talking to Ex-Reds Pitcher Jim O'Toole: The 1961 Pennant and Tough Love From Manager Fred Hutchinson

Over four years in the early sixties, Jim O'Toole was the best left-handed pitcher in the National League not named Spahn or Koufax. A brash, competitive battler, starting in 1961 he won 19, 16, 17 and 17 games for the Cincinnati Reds.

After his playing days, the Chicago-raised O'Toole made Cincinnati his adopted city. A member of the Reds' Hall of Fame, O'Toole never misses an Opening Day and has a reputation as a great story-teller. I had the chance to sit down and talk to O'Toole a few years ago while researching the Fred Hutchinson book. He introduced me to the Cincinnati institution of Camp Washington Chili. Both O'Toole and the food turned out to be as good as advertised.

O'Toole was signed by the Reds in December of 1957 and proceeded to go 20-8 at AA Nashville in his first year of professional baseball. "I had a good year, won 20 games in the minors and was named minor league player of the year," he said. "I came up at the end of the year and pitched a 2-hitter against the Braves [ed. note: 7 innings, 4 hits, 1 earned run] who were the National League champs that year. They had their ace lineup that game too: Aaron, Adcock, Mathews. Then Parade Magazine flew me to New York because I was minor league player of the year and I go on the Ed Sullivan Show. Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra were there too and they were getting ready to face the Braves in the Series. So here I was 21 years old telling Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra how to pitch to the Braves. You think I had a big head?"

The Reds of the 1950s had been a team with good hitting but woeful pitching and had rarely contended except for the slugging team of 1956. Managers Birdie Tebbetts and Mayo Smith were not exactly disciplinarians and the Reds were viewed as one of the rowdiest off-field teams in the league. All that changed when the Reds fired Smith and brought in Fred Hutchinson midway through the 1959 season.

“When Hutch took over, we knew his reputation because both [Jim] Brosnan and [Eddie] Kasko had played for him in St. Louis,” said O’Toole. “So we knew what we were getting. When he said to do something, you didn’t ask why, you just did it. If he said to get the hell out of the shower and out of the clubhouse and get on the bus after a bad game, you didn't waste time looking for a towel. He was tough. But we were glad because we had talent and needed discipline.”

"I hadn't been pitching a lot in 1959, they had been going with the older pitchers. When Hutch came in, he saw what I had and gave me the ball. I ended up winning every other game. He gave me the confidence I needed. Hutch was a guy who had been a pitcher, he knew pitching. He knew how much I wanted to win. I was a lot like him. We were both very competitive and hot-tempered. He was a great guy to play for."

Perhaps because they were alike, the two sometimes butted heads. "In 1960 I got married during the season. We planned it for when the team was in Chicago, our hometown. There was a big party and most of the guys were there and we were out late. The next day I get to the ball park feeling pretty bad. I didn't think I would have to pitch but Hutch goes, 'You're starting.' It was hot and humid and miserable. I was dead after just warming up. The first batter fouls off about 25 pitches and finally I throw one on the black and the umpire, Jocko Conlon, calls it ball four. Conlon was known for his quick temper. I called time out and got right in Conlon's face and called him all sorts of names."

"He took off his mask and said, 'O'Toole, I've heard enough of your bullshit. I know you got married last night and you want to get thrown out. But if we all have to suffer in this heat, you do too. I'm not throwing you out. Now get your ass back out there and pitch.'"

After the game, when asked why he had O'Toole pitch the day after his wedding, Hutchinson told reporters, "I didn't set his wedding date."

One game against the Dodgers, O’Toole appeared to be struggling but didn’t appreciate the fact that the manager wanted to bring in a reliever.  “I’m ahead 3-2 in the ninth and the first guy gets on with an error,” said O’Toole. “The next batter breaks his bat and the ball comes floating at me in slow motion and goes right through my legs. I’m really steaming. Hutch comes out and growls, ‘Gimme the ball. Field your damn position.’”

 “I said, ‘No way. I’m finishing this game. Our bullpen hasn’t gotten anybody out in a week.’”
“And he says, ‘Gimme the damn ball.’”
“And we argued back and forth, calling each other names and cussing at each other. Kasko and Blasingame are right behind me adding up the fines, saying ‘That’s a hundred dollars. That’s two hundred dollars.’”

“Finally, I say, ‘Here’s the damn ball.’ And I walk off the field.”
“And he goes, ‘I’ll see you after the game.’”
“So I go in the clubhouse and cool down. Brosnan gets them out and we win. Hutch comes in and walks right by me, doesn’t say a word. I’m starting to feel bad for acting that way and I’m sure I’m going to get hit with a huge fine. So I go into his office and say, ‘I’m sorry for blowing my stack out there, but I just didn’t want to come out of that game.’”
“He looks at me and says, ‘O’Toole, if you weren’t like that I wouldn’t have you on my team. Now get the hell outta here.’”

The Reds finished the 1959 season at 39-35 for Hutchinson and had promise for 1960, but a series of injuries and slumps rendered the season a disappointing 67-87.
Most national publications predicted more of the same for the 1961 Reds; few gave them any consideration for even a first division finish.

“Nobody gave us much of a chance to be good in 1961,” said O’Toole. “No one thought we had a shot. But Hutch really rallied us. He drove us. He was the perfect guy for that team."
The Reds surprised teams early and got off to a good start.

A key turning point in the season came in late April in Los Angeles. The Reds were swept in a three game series by the Dodgers. “We got killed. We played like a bunch of high school kids. After the [last game] Hutch calls a meeting. We had been out there from ten in the morning. Now its seven at night and he says, ‘Guys, don’t take your uniforms off.’ We all looked at him. We were worn out. He said, ‘We’re going to go back out there and I’m going to teach you how to play this game.'” The weary team trudged back on to the field and were put through a simulated game  with pitchers throwing full speed and everyone hustling under the watchful eye of their manager.

“Everyone was bitching but he taught us a lesson. That night, we said, ‘There’s no game tomorrow, let’s go out.’ So we all went out together as a team. It brought us together because we were all tired and mad at Hutch. So we all went out and had a good time.”

To make one further point, Hutchinson pulled a rare bed check that night. O’Toole was scheduled to pitch the next game and came in around midnight like a good boy—not so the rest of the team. A standing rule on the team was that players were not allowed to drink in the hotel bar, that was where the coaches and manager drank.
“[Gene] Freese rode back to the hotel with me, but instead of heading up to his room, he went in the hotel bar for a few more drinks. The first guy Freese sees when he goes into the hotel bar is Hutch. Not knowing what else to do, Freese bought Hutch a drink.”

 Unknown to the third baseman, the manager had just called his room and his roommate, Gordy Coleman, covered for him and said that Freese was in bed asleep and he didn’t want to wake him.

“Hutch said, ‘Hey Gene, it’s good to see you, tough game today. Oh, by the way, I just called your room and your roommate said you were sleeping.'”

“Out of the 25 guys on the team, I think he caught 20 of them out late that night. He fined everybody a hundred bucks. After that, we got the message.”

Not long afterwards, the Reds launched a ten-game winning streak and vaulted into first place.
By June the Reds were still leading the pack. Someone in the press coined the term “Ragamuffin Reds” for the underdogs and the name stuck. Rather than feel insulted, however, the players made it their battle cry.

Another key moment came in late June against Milwaukee. O’Toole and the Reds felt that the Braves were stealing signs. “I was throwing pretty good but they’re hitting line drives all over the place. Mathews hit one out down the left field line and he’s a lefthanded pull hitter. There’s no way he could have hit that unless he knew what was coming. I get to the bench and I’m hot. I said, ‘What the hell’s going on?’"

“And [Joe] Jay says, ‘I just saw [Braves pitcher Bob] Buhl. He’s got binoculars down there in the bullpen and he’s relaying signs.’"
“So we changed the signs, but I’m still pretty hot. The next inning I got on first base and I tell Adcock, ‘You guys are stealing signs. There’s no way Mathews hits that curve ball out to left.’
And he says, ‘Now you know we wouldn’t do that.’”

“And I said, ‘Tell Mathews the next time I see him digging in like he knows what’s coming I’m going to stick it right in his ear.’ So I guess he must have relayed that to Mathews. A few innings later, I’m on first again and Kasko hits a double off the wall. I round third and try to score but I slipped and fell down. Then I got in a rundown between Mathews and Torre.”

As Mathews went to tag O’Toole, the pitcher's elbow "accidentally" landed on the third baseman’s chin. Mathews jumped on O’Toole and the benches cleared for one of the biggest fights in baseball that year. At one point, O’Toole’s father, a Chicago cop who was watching the game, started to join the brawl. He had one leg over the rail before he was pulled back by family.

When Hutchinson worked his way to the middle of the pile and pulled off Mathews (a guy who frequently came over to Hutchinson's Florida house for cookouts in the offseason), he asked, "What are you trying to do to my pitcher, Ed?”
Mathews replied, “But Hutch, he tried to knock the ball out of my glove.”
Hutchinson responded, “What did you want him to do, give you a kiss?”

“That fight kind of brought us together," said O'Toole. "We felt like it was us against the world."

And in the 1961 season, the Ragamuffin Reds beat the world. They roared to the pennant behind the slugging of Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson and the world's greatest pinch-hitter, Jerry Lynch. Joe
Jay won 21 games, O’Toole 19. Freese and Coleman each hit 26 home runs. Relief pitcher Jim Brosnan saved games and wrote another best seller. It was the high point of their lives. O'Toole used his World Series share for a down payment on a house--a house in which he still lives 64 years later.

Although Hutchinson was tough, his players universally respected him and, O'Toole was quick to add, he had a heart of gold. The money from the LA-bedcheck fines? He gave it all back at the end of the season. The guys who paid with checks discovered that the checks had never been cashed.

O'Toole (right) and Fred Hutchinson discuss the Bronx Bombers in Yankee Stadium in Game One of the 1961 World Series. O'Toole pitched well but the Reds lost to Whitey Ford 2-0. Number 9 is catcher Darrel Johnson, who later fans will remember as facing the Reds as the Red Sox manager in the 1975 Series.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      * 

O'Toole recalled the pain of the 1964 season. Hutchinson had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in the offseason and was told by his brother, a famous cancer surgeon in Seattle, that he probably had less than a year to live. Rather than wallow in pity, Hutchinson gamely tried to finish out the season with his team.

The players watched as their manager refused to complain, but lost weight and withered before their eyes. "To see a man who was built like John Wayne go from 220 pounds to 150 pounds over three months was terrible," said O'Toole. A late winning streak put the Reds into position to play for the pennant on the last day of the season, but they lost. "We tried so hard to win it for Hutch but fell just short. When he went around the clubhouse shaking hands and saying goodbye after that last game, there wasn't a dry eye in the place."

Hutchinson died shortly after the season ended. O'Toole traveled from Cincinnati to Florida for the funeral.

Today Hutchinson is honored with the annual Hutch Award, given to the major league player who demonstrates courage and overcomes adversity. The award is presented in a ceremony in Hutchinson's hometown of Seattle where the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center stands. "They flew me out to Seattle to give the Hutch Award to Trevor Hoffman a few years ago. I got to see Hutch's wife [90+ year old Patsy] again; a sweet lady. Before the game [Seattle vs. New York] she asked me if I could get an autograph for her grandson of Derek Jeter. So I asked Torre and he called the clubhouse boy over and said, 'Tell Jeter if he wants to play today I need an autographed ball for Fred Hutchinson's wife.' The ball was there in two seconds."

O'Toole never forgot Hutchinson, who he regards as the best manager he ever had. "He was a great one. I think about him all the time."

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