America’s pastime presents a hefty math problem. Baseball is a sport of numbers that’s often distilled into equations offering insight through statistics and percentages reflecting team achievements and player progress.
The numbers don’t challenge All-Star pitcher and Bethany native Allie Reynolds, who today would have celebrated his 93rd birthday. The Muscogee Creek Indian led the New York Yankees to five straight world titles, and statistically, the “Superchief,” as he was known, ranks among the best righthanded pitchers of all-time.
None of the numbers, that is, except one: the number one. Reynolds was a single vote shy of being elected into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.
When he entered the major leagues in 1942 at the age of 25, Reynolds was married with three children, the oldest being 7. Sporting a grin, he would always say he’d started early and happily so. The pitcher had always hoped to one day get an apartment in New York so he could bring his family from Oklahoma up for the summer.
An Associated Press reporter’s take was that Reynolds wish would prove “tougher than pitching a no-hitter,” a feat he managed twice in the same season in 1951, an achievement shared by only three other pitchers in MLB history: Johnny Vander Meer, Virgil Trucks and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.
Reynolds downplayed the accomplishment, telling The New York Times in 1951 that “A no-hitter is not the best standard by which to judge a pitcher. That’s just luck. I’ve pitched four games better than the no-hitters and lost three of them.”
Reynolds began his professional career with the Cleveland Indians. He played five seasons and a recorded a league-best with 151 strikeouts his second year with ” The Tribe,” before he was traded to the Yankees. Cleveland chose to pursue Yankee second baseman Joe “Flash” Gordon, and offered the Yankees any of its pitchers. When Yankee executive Larry MacPhail consulted Joe DiMaggio on the decision, the baseball icon picked Reynolds.
“I’m a fastball hitter, but he can buzz his hard one by me any time he has a mind to,” DiMaggio told AP in 1946. Reynolds said his best pitch was his fastball, which legend says often topped the 100-mph mark.
“Mine is a rising fastball,” he told AP in 1947, coincidentally the same year he led the league with 23 home runs. “Some fellows throw a fastball which sinks, but mine really takes off. And my slider has a little ‘English’ on it.”
Reynolds was a standout even during his days at Capitol Hill High School, and his overall athletic ability is considered by some baseball historians as second only to one ” another Oklahoma athlete.
“We compared him to (Jim) Thorpe,” said Royse Parr, co-author of “The Glory Days of Summer: A History of Baseball of Oklahoma.” “He went to college on a track scholarship. He played fullback in football. He never played baseball, just church league softball. He was throwing his javelin when (Oklahoma A&M baseball coach) Hank Iba saw him and fibbed to him. Said he had sore-armed pitchers and saw if Allie could warm up for him. He went down and started striking people out.”
Reynolds’ best professional year came in 1952 when he captured his fourth of five-straight World Series titles. He threw for a league-best 2.06 earned run average, six shutouts and 106 strikeouts while recording the nation’s fifth-best 20 wins. Reynolds and another Oklahoma native, Mickey Mantle, were remembered as saving Game 6 in the World Series, tying the count with the Dodgers 3-3. The next day, Reynolds went on to pitch ” and win ” Game 7.
“They played like hell,” then-Yankee manager Casey Stengel told AP in 1952. “We had to play ‘em like hell to catch up.”
But playing like hell started to catch up with the aging athlete, who turned 35 that season. Just two years prior, Reynolds began experiencing pain in his throwing elbow, which started affecting his play.
“Reynolds is a man with a bad arm,” wrote United Press International in 1951. “Ever so often it swells and becomes stiff enough to sideline him. Doctors figure it’s bone chips. And Reynolds knows his next pitch might be his last.”
On Sept. 18, 1954, he threw his last pitch. At 37, he left the field with 182 career-wins and 107 losses, a 3.30 ERA, 1,423 strikeouts and six World Series titles.
Craig Muder, director of communications at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., said the numbers Reynolds put up were impressive ” the kind of stats that could earn him induction.
“He certainly had an outstanding career,” Muder said. “First of all, he pitched in six World Series and the Yankees won all of them. (His statistics) are outstanding numbers. He was runner-up Most Valuable Player for the American League in 1952. He was very highly thought of.”
‘He has been overlooked’
Even after a baseball player’s career ends, the numbers are still being calculated.
As soon as six years after retirement, players are eligible for the Hall of Fame and hope to receive the 75 percent of votes for induction. Reynolds struggled on the ballot from the ’60s to the ’90s, never receiving more than 30 percent of the votes.
He died in 1994 of lymphoma and diabetes, and was honored as “one of the Yankees’ greatest right-handed pitchers” in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park and the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. He won the Jim Thorpe Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, and saw Oklahoma State University’s baseball park take on his name.
Although several of his former teammates ” DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Mantle, Johnny Mize and Phil Rizzuto ” have been elected to the Hall of Fame, Reynolds never was and may never be.
Parr said that Reynolds’ age when he entered the MLB might have kept him from receiving enough votes.
“He was an old man by the time he got to the major leagues,” Parr said. “He stayed too long for college and minor-league play.”
Still, others are stumped by Reynolds’ absence from one of the sport’s biggest honors.
“I don’t understand why the Hall of Fame hasn’t embraced him yet,” said Gerald Wofford, communication director for the Muscogee Creek Nation, the tribe to which Reynolds belonged. “To me, it’s a terrible shame. Not to take away from other honorees, they certainly deserve it, but here is a gentleman who played for a great Yankees organization. He had one of the lowest ERAs in the league. I just think he has been overlooked.”
According to the Baseball Almanac, there have been 50 American Indian baseball players in Major League Baseball. Of those, only three are included in the hall of fame.
Despite only being represented by a handful of those Indian players, the Muscogee Creek Nation is very proud of their baseball legacy, said Wofford, who hopes Reynolds’ absence from the hall of fame isn’t discriminatory.
“We’ve come a long way,” he said about baseball’s racially sensitive past. “Baseball in so many ways has mirrored American society and how we judge ourselves. With Allie named ‘Superchief,’ you do have to wonder that, but as a Native American, I really hope that’s not the case. It would be a terrible shame.
“I think a very important part of baseball society has been ignored,” Wofford said. “A great number of the sport was impacted by Native Americans early in its youth. Where do you put the Native American? (Major League Baseball) did make exemptions for Negro League players and made amends to represent them. We are caught in the middle ” accepted and not accepted. The contribution has been great; you can’t deny that. I think that’s one thing that baseball has to come to terms with.”
George Tiger, Creek Nation council representative from 1994 to 1995, said he recognized Reynolds’ Hall of Fame qualities and tried to help the pitcher find a way onto the most recent ballot in 2008.
“We had attempted to petition,” he said. “When Allie was playing, being a member of the nation, it brought a lot of pride to our tribe. Personally, I think he should have been in a long time ago. If he were short one vote, I think he should be put in there next time.”
Although Reynolds was short one vote on the last ballot, the pitcher isn’t guaranteed to receive enough for induction in 2013, when the Veterans’ Committee nominates players who took the field before World War II.
“It’s very difficult to get in the mind of voters,” Muder said. “Of more than 17,000 men who have played baseball, a little more than 1 percent is in the Hall of Fame. But Allie Reynolds, by any definition, is a great player.” “Luke Atkinson