Hall of Fame Question: Where’s Allie Reynolds?

Contributing Writer

OKLAHOMA’S SUPER CHIEF: Oklahoman and Native American Allie Reynolds became known as “The Super Chief??? in baseball circles after throwing two no-hitters in 1951. One of the greatest pitchers ever, he has been overlooked by Hall of Fame voters despite being a leader in the New York Yankees dynasty of the late 1940s and into the 1950s.

There is an interesting conundrum in modern sports logic: we insist that players win a championship (get a “ring” in contemporary parlance) to be considered great but we don’t automatically consider stars on multiple championship teams to be great.

A prime example illustrating the first half of that point is Karl Malone, a truly great NBA player but ringless. Malone deliberately signed with the Los Angeles Lakers for his final season (2003) in order to cap his career with a ring. That seemed a slam-dunk as the Lakers had won three straight titles and their two stars, Shaq and Kobe, were in the primes of their careers. The Malone-augmented Lakers did not win a fourth straight title but that didn’t hurt Malone’s reputation. He has not gone down in history as “Mr. Anti-ring” but as probably the greatest power forward of all time.

The prime example illustrating the second half of the point is Oklahoma’s own Allie Reynolds, the greatest pitcher for the New York Yankees when they won the World Series for five straight seasons (1949-53). Reynolds was the ace of the starting rotation in most of those years and, in some of them, simultaneously served as the big-game closer – a truly astonishing achievement.

Reynolds was also the No. 1 starter for the Yankees in 1947, another World Series winner, giving him six rings in seven years. Winning the World Series six times adds up to winning 24 games. Reynolds won seven of those games (second highest in history) and saved another four, meaning he was the major pitching factor in nearly 50 percent of those World Series victories – something that is totally unprecedented. For example, the Yankees’ Whitey Ford is the all-time leader in World Series victories with 10. But he has no saves and also lost the most series games (8, Reynolds lost 2). Bob Gibson of St. Louis and Red Ruffing of the Yankees tied Reynolds with seven victories in the Series, but neither had a save.

Ford, Gibson, Ruffing and three of Reynolds’ teammates on the ‘47-’53 Yankees (Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, and Yogi Berra) are all in the Hall Fame. But Reynolds is not. It is an incredible injustice to one of baseball’s greatest champions and one of the greatest athletes ever produced by Oklahoma. The word athlete was used, instead of baseball player, in the previous sentence for a specific reason. The fact that Reynolds gained fame as a pitcher has obscured the reality that he was a superb athlete who is routinely cited as the best athlete on those great Yankee teams.

Reynolds was born in Bethany, near Oklahoma City, in 1915, and starred in various sports in high school and at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State). His overall athletic ability is put into perspective by the fact that the historical record is unclear regarding whether OSU recruited him primarily for football or track. Ironically, baseball was not then a major focus for Reynolds and his readjustment of priorities is the stuff of mythology. Henry Iba, OSU’s legendary basketball coach and also the baseball coach in the 1930s, spotted Reynolds in the stands during a workout and asked him to help pitch batting practice. Reynolds, without throwing a single warm-up pitch, struck out four straight batters. OSU’s official records state that none of them even hit a foul ball.

Going to college (common today but rare at that time for a big-time baseball talent) delayed Reynolds’ professional career and he didn’t make it to the major leagues (with the Cleveland Indians) until 1943 when he was 28. He was traded to the Yankees prior to the 1947 season. The Yankee brass had another pitcher in mind but none other than the great DiMaggio intervened and advised them to take Reynolds. “I’m a fastball hitter,” he is reputed to have said, “and I can’t get around on Reynolds.”

There were no radar guns in Reynolds’ era but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence confirming DiMaggio’s opinion. Many contemporary observers think that only Bob Feller had more heat and not by much. Jerry Coleman, a Yankee teammate for six years and associated with baseball in some capacity ever since, has said that Reynolds threw so hard that he could have been a consistent winner throwing only fastballs.

Reynolds was essentially a .500 pitcher in his four years with the Indians but his eight years with the Yankees rank with the greatest of all time. He won 56 percent of his starts as a Yankee, 36 points better than Ford and almost 40 better than Sandy Koufax with the Dodgers. He also had 89 relief appearances with a 15-9 record and 41 saves. The worst year that Reynolds had with the Yankees was 1950 when (despite bone chips in his elbow) he finished 16-12. He won 65 percent of the time in his other seven years in New York. His career numbers (including his Indian years) were 182 wins, 107 losses, and 49 saves. The fact that his career victory total is less than 200 is usually cited as the reason that he is not in the Hall of Fame. But that should get one of the famous asterisks invented by Ford Frick (when Roger Maris topped Babe Ruth’s 60 homers).

Reynolds’ total number of starts was somewhat limited for two reasons: by his importance as the big-game closer and because Yankee manager Casey Stengel used to platoon his pitchers as he did his field players. He would frequently hold Reynolds back so that he would be available to pitch against the better teams and, thus, he didn’t get many “easy” victories against the inferior teams of the era. Stengel also operated this way with Ford when he became the ace of the staff in the second half of the 1950s. The fact that Reynolds and Ford could thrive (many pitchers couldn’t) under this irregular scheduling was one of the big reasons the Yankees won consistently and should be “factored in” when assessing their status.

Statistics aren’t the best way to evaluate Reynolds. They are probably best put into perspective by looking at some key games in 1949 and 1951.

The opening game in the 1949 series, matching Reynolds against Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers, is one of the greatest games ever pitched. The Yankees won, 1-0, on a walkoff homer by Tommy Henrich. Reynolds gave up two hits (one a fly ball that should have been caught but was lost in the sun) and struck out 13. Two games later, Reynolds came on in relief and retired all 10 men he faced, five by strikeout. That’s pretty impressive but it gets more impressive when noted that the Dodger lineup had four Hall of Famers (Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Roy Campanella) plus Gil Hodges (who still gets Hall of Fame votes) plus Carl Furillo (.299 lifetime average) plus Newcombe (an excellent hitter with a .271 lifetime average).

However, what Reynolds did in 1951 was even more impressive, a no-hitter (his second of that season!) against the Boston Red Sox to clinch the pennant. The Bosox of that era were awesome offensively. The team average in 1950 was .302. It was a more reasonable .266 in 1951, but they still led the majors in runs scored. The lineup included several people with lifetime averages over or near .300 – the great Ted Williams, Junior Stephens, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio.
Williams came to the plate with two out in the ninth and hit a pop foul that, incredibly, was dropped by Berra. So Reynolds needed to retire Williams, often cited as the greatest hitter ever, twice to complete the no-hitter. Amazingly, Williams popped up to almost the same spot and Berra caught this one.

The conclusion is that, on his good days—and the numbers imply they happened much more often than not—Reynolds, either starting or relieving, was about as good as anybody who ever pitched, and he was often at his best, virtually unhittable, in the biggest games.

At the peak of his career with the Yankees, Reynolds asked Bill Dickey, who had been the star catcher on the final Ruth-Gehrig teams and on the early DiMaggio teams, if he could have played for the Yankees during those dominating eras. “You would have been just fine,” Dickey answered.

Casey Stengel was even more complimentary when he rated Reynolds the fourth best player (behind DiMaggio, Berra, and Mantle) on his Yankees. Stengel, involved in major league baseball for about 40 years as a player or manager, said that Reynolds was the best pitcher he’d ever seen at combining starting and relieving. His faith in Reynolds was regularly displayed by using him in relief in big games even when he’d had minimal rest. History shows that Reynolds got the final out, as a relief pitcher, in the World Series of 1950, ’51, and ’53 – even though he’d been in the starting rotation. He didn’t get the final out in 1952 but did get the victory in the seventh game. That climaxed one of the great pitching performances ever. Reynolds started the first and fourth games, losing the first (although pitching well) and tossing a shutout in the fourth. Stengel then called on him in relief, with the bases loaded, in both the sixth and seventh games and he picked up a save and victory.

The compliments by Dickey and Stengel and a handful (plus one) of World Series rings gave Reynolds, who died in 1994, the last laugh against the Hall of Fame voters – a group that needs to do some serious rethinking about the greatest pitcher on baseball’s greatest dynasty and realize that his performance over several years was as important as any in creating that dynasty.

Updated 05-07-2007

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