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To the Experts: Joel Luckhaupt
As the oldest franchise in professional baseball, the Cincinnati Reds history is a long and storied one, spanning from the first night game and the 1919 Black Sox scandal, to the Big Red Machine and Marge Schott. It’s almost too much to take in.
No worries. Author and self-described nerd Joel Luckhaupt released a new book earlier this month: 100 Things Reds Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. His second book on the Reds franchise, Luckhaupt chronicles the most important people, events, and facts in the team’s history. Sadly, questioning Dusty Baker’s bullpen management didn’t make the list.
Luckhaupt also serves as statistician for Fox Sports Ohio, the unseen mastermind compiling all those wonky figures and tidbits of information that Thom Brennaman, Chris Welch, and Jeff Brantley offer up during Reds broadcasts. (He’s basically the Oz of Reds TV.) I chatted with Joel about his new book, Chris Sabo’s eyewear, and the Reds hitter he would choose to save his life.
How did you get the job of statistician?
It’s a little weird. The main reason I got the job was because Mark Wagner, who had the job previously, passed away suddenly and unfortunately in 2010. That was shortly after I had written The Wire-to-Wire Reds with John Erardi, and through that I made contacts with a variety of people. A couple of them had given my name to—I guess it was Chris Welsh—as a possible replacement for Mark. That was at the end of 2010, so I just filled in, and I ended up getting the job full time in 2011.
And you had met Erardi by way of your previous work?
My writing style is very statistically based. I used to do a lot of sabermetric analysis. I was one of maybe two Reds bloggers who did that at the time. A friend of Erardi’s was familiar with the work I had been doing at Red Reporter, and John wanted to start doing more advanced statistical analysis in his articles, mainly around arguments about Adam Dunn and that kind of stuff. So he started asking me questions via email. Then in 2009, I decided I wanted to write a book, and realized there wasn’t really a book about the World-Series-winning 1990 Reds team. So I had gone to him and asked if he thought there was a book there, and he thought it was a great idea. About a week later he came back to me and said he’d like to help out. And it’s a good thing he did, because he had all of the contacts with all of the players and management.
Did that lead to you writing this new book?
The publisher has done about a dozen of those books for other teams, and they were looking for someone to write one for the Reds. Erardi had given them my name as a possible author. They contacted me back in early May of last year and asked if I would be interested in writing it, so that’s what I did all through the summer.
That’s a pretty quick turnaround.
It actually ended up being a longer turnaround than I had for Wire-to-Wire. We started writing that in November and had it done by the beginning of March 2010. So yeah, both books have been an incredibly quick turnaround. If I do another book, I may not even tell a publisher that I’m working on it so I can have over a year or so.
In a basic sense, how would you describe the content of 100 Things?
It’s about 80 percent history—players, teams, events, front office—that’s the main focus of it. And about 20 percent of it are things to do that enhance your experience of being a Reds fan.
Being a fan of the team your whole life, you were probably aware of a lot of things that went into the book. But was there anything particularly interesting that you learned during your research?
You know, the Bill McKechnie era Reds—the late 1930s/early 1940s, with guys like Paul Derringer, Bucky Walters, Ernie Lombardi, Johnny Vander Meer, even guys like Larry MacPhail and Powel Crosley Jr.—it was a very dynamic era for the team that I didn’t really know a whole lot about. You hear the stories about the first night game and that kind of stuff, but you don’t really know what it means in the context of that time. It just seems like a cool fact: the Reds had the first night game. Well, when you learn the whole story about how they were just trying to come up with new revenue because they were struggling to stay above water, and how they transformed into winning back-to-back pennants and a championship in 1940, that was a really interesting experience to learn all of that.
Which things were most fun for you to research and write about?
I’m a fan of the ‘80s and ‘90s Reds. That’s what I grew up on, so I was always excited about writing that kind of stuff. Eric Davis, Barry Larkin, Chris Sabo. They’re more recent, so a lot of people knew them, but it was fun to see if I could find new angles on them.
What was the toughest thing to leave out of the book? Was there a number 101?
There were about 20 things that were on the fringe. What it came down to were the things I felt I could find the best stories on. Somebody like Chris Sabo for instance, as a player he wasn’t that fascinating. He was a decent player but wasn’t great. He made a couple All-Star teams but he wasn’t necessarily an MVP-caliber player. But he did have a personality about him that really enhanced how memorable he is to Reds fans. Somebody like Sean Casey is the same way. Their personalities kind of trump their actual production and make them more important to Reds fans.
Plus, Sabo wore some gnarly Rec Specs.
Yeah, true. The Rec Specs and the blue-collar personality. He was the perfect player at the perfect time for that generation of Reds fans.
As statistician, you follow and work closely with the team. What are your thoughts on the 2013 season thus far?
The thing that has surprised me most is that it’s not just Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo getting on base a lot. Obviously nobody is getting on base as much as those guys, but guys like Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier and Jay Bruce are still doing a pretty good job of getting on base, which is a big reason why the team is scoring runs in bunches. I didn’t expect that.
What are your thoughts on Votto? Where does he rank at the moment in terms of the best players in the franchise’s history?
I have him like twelfth in the book, probably the fifth or sixth player listed. I think that’s pretty accurate for right now. If he continues to do what he’s done the past couple years, he’ll move up the list pretty quickly. With his contract, you can actually imagine him ending his career as the greatest Red ever. I think that’s a possibility if he stays healthy and relatively productive into his late 30s. I think he will go down as the best hitter in Reds history. For me, right now, it’s between Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson as the best hitter in team history. I think Votto is right there behind them in terms of what he can do, he just needs a few more years of production to be in that conversation.
You just alluded to this, but you’re on record as not having Pete Rose as the team’s best overall hitter. A lot of fans would probably list Pete as the best hitter in baseball history. What are your criteria?
Pete was basically a singles and doubles hitter. Robinson and Morgan both had much more power, and Morgan especially got on base at a much higher clip. He also stole bases. Rose was a great hitter, but he never had a lot of power or speed. But not putting him number one is not an insult to him. He’d likely still end up in the top five if I looked closer at the numbers. But a lot of Pete’s statistics are a result of him playing more games than any other player in history. That doesn’t take away from the fact that he was a great player, but when you have people that say he has the most hits ever so he has to be the best hitter—hits are a little bit deceptive.
Ridiculous hypothetical scenario: Runner on third, two outs, the run needs to score. Somehow, your life depends on it. You have one at-bat. Who do you want at the plate?
It’s hard to say. Without having the numbers in front of me, I’m guessing Pete is probably the most likely to make contact, which is what you want there. So it would probably be him. But I’ve never seen anyone who comes through in clutch situations better than Joey Votto.
Back to the book. Are you worried about the Reds winning the title this year and ruining your list of 100 things?
(laughs) No. It was inevitable that things would keep happening for the team after I released the book. It might even enhance it, because that would bring more attention to the Reds, so it’s going to make the stuff that happened before that much more special, particularly for newer and younger fans. It would have been nice to write about a recent world champion in the book, but I’ll take the most recent world champion in the same year the book came out. That’s fine with me.
At the risk of ruining your chance at a longer turnaround time, do you have anything else in the works?
I have a couple ideas bouncing around, but I learned my lesson last summer—it’s really hard to write a book and follow a baseball season. It’s unlikely that it will be anytime soon, but probably in the winter I might start doing some research and see if there is any actual book potential there.
Follow Joel on Twitter at @jluckhaupt and pick up his new book online or at any major bookstore.