Grave Story: Red Lucas (1902-1986)

Here lies Red Lucas, a consistent starting pitcher for 16 years in the major leagues. His real claim to fame, though, came with a bat – Lucas is one of the best pinch hitters in baseball history. Lucas played for the New York Giants (1923), Boston Braves (1924-25), Cincinnati Reds (1926-33) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1935-38).

Charles Fred “Red” Lucas was born in Columbia, Tenn., on April 28, 1902, but his family moved to Nashville when he was a youth. The nickname came from his hair color; he was called everything from “titian-haired” to “carrot-crested” to a “brickyard blonde” in his early days. The Tennessean referred to him constantly as “Red Rose Lucas.” He first tried out for his hometown Nashville Volunteers in 1920, when he was 18 years old and had just graduated from high school. He didn’t make the team, but they farmed him out to a team in Rome, Ga., to get a little more experience. There is not much known about that team, aside from the fact that it was managed by former major leaguer Tim Bowden, but Lucas evidently made a good impression. “’Red’ has many of the ear marks of a boxman [pitcher in 1920’s baseballese] and according to Tom Rogers will be heard from,” reported The Tennessean. Rogers was a former Vol and big-league pitcher, so he knew a little something about what it took to be a good boxman, er, pitcher.

Lucas made a few stops in Mississippi in 1921 before joining the Vols late in the summer. He stayed with the team for a full season in 1922 and won 20 games. He also hit .307 with a couple of home runs. It wasn’t a brilliant season – he had a 4.63 ERA and gave up 358 hits in 282 innings – but it was a good one, particularly for a 20-year-old. At the end of the season, the Vols sold his contract to the New York Giants for a rumored price of $6,000.

Red Lucas was an ace on many bad Cincinnati ballclubs. Source: The Tampa Tribune, September 11-1929.

The 1923 Giants won the NL pennant and lost the World Series to the Yankees. They were led by manager John McGraw and a slew of Hall of Famers, including Frankie Frisch and Ross Youngs. Lucas broke camp with the team but only stayed on the roster until early May. He got into three games and threw 5-1/3 scoreless innings. He got knocked around by the Braves in one outing, allowing 5 unearned runs on 5 hits and 4 walks in 4 innings. He was returned to the minors, where he won 18 games for San Antonio Bears of the Texas League.

Lucas was then drafted by the Boston Braves, but the relationship wasn’t a good fit. It didn’t seem like the team really knew what to do with him. They were aware of his success at a starting pitcher in the minors, but they also knew he could hit. So, they experimented with Lucas as a two-way player, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle like the Red Sox had done with Babe Ruth a few seasons prior. The experiment worked in 1924 as far as hs hitting went. In 33 games, Lucas hit .333 and handled a few innings at third base well. He struggled on the mound, though. In 27 games, 4 of which were starts, Lucas went 1-4 with a 5.16 ERA. The Braves seems to take that to mean that Lucas wasn’t a big-league pitcher. Manager Dave Bancroft tried to convert him into a second baseman, and fielded the position pretty well. He hit just .150 in 6 games in April, and that seemed to end the Red Lucas experiment for Boston. On April 24, he was released outright to Seattle of the Pacific Coast League. He had another fine year – as a pitcher – and was sold to the Reds. The Reds also experimented briefly with him as a two-way player, but they eventually hit on the secret of success with Red Lucas: Put him on the mound, keep him on the mound, and stick a bat in his hands on the days when he isn’t on the mound. Credit long-time president Garry Herrmann for acquiring Lucas, believing in him and giving him a third chance at the majors.

This picture was from an ad campaign for Herb Juice, which promised to cure constipation. Not all endorsement deals are glamorous ones.

All of Lucas’ success in the minor leagues came as a starting pitcher, but neither the Braves nor the Giants gave him more than just token starting assignments. Lucas spent a couple of seasons as a swingman for the Reds – starting and relieving in roughly equal amounts. Once the Reds kept him in the starting rotation, he became a reliable, iron man pitcher. On the days when he wasn’t starting, Lucas became the first man off the bench when a pinch hitter was needed.

When he first joined Cincinnati, the team had some good veteran pitchers like Eppa Rixey, Carl Mays and Dolf Luque. He gradually worked his way into the starting rotation. By 1927, Lucas started 23 of his 37 games and completed 19 of them. He went 18-11 with a 3.38 ERA and led all Reds pitchers with 239-2/3 innings pitched. One of those games was a 1-hit, 3-0 masterpiece against the Brooklyn Dodgers on July 22. He allowed a single up the middle to catcher Hank DeBerry in the 6th inning, and that hit could have been charged as an error by second baseman Hughie Critz.

In 1928, Lucas led the NL with 4 shutouts, in spite of the fact that he missed nearly a month with a broken ulna, courtesy of a line drive that caught him in the arm while he was throwing batting practice to teammate Bubbles Hargrave. That was the only season between 1927 and 1933 that Lucas failed to throw more than 200 innings.

Lucas led the NL in complete games 3 times, including back-to-back seasons in 1931 (24 CGs) and 1932 (28). In 1928, Lucas pitched all 17 innings of a 5-4 win over the Cardinals. He closed out the 1931 season with 9 straight complete games and started 1932 with 18 straight CGs. That’s 240-1/3 consecutive innings with no help from the bullpen. He won a career-high 19 games with the 1929 Reds, led the NL in WHIP (1.204) and finished 6th in the MVP voting. He also struck out a career high number of batters – with 70. Lucas wasn’t a strikeout pitcher by any means, but he had pinpoint control – in 15 seasons as a pitcher, he threw a grand total of 7 wild pitches!

Then there was his hitting. Between 1926 through the end of his career, Lucas came to bat as a pinch hitter anywhere between 20 and 68 times a season. He ended up with 114 pinch hits in his career, including a couple of home runs. That was an MLB record at the time he retired and was still good enough for 5th all time when he died. Today, Lucas’ 114 pinch hits are still 11th-best all-time.

In 1933, Lucas had another strong season, (3.40 ERA, 21 complete games and 3 shutouts in 29 starts), but his record dropped to 10-16. The Reds finished in 8th place with a 58-94 record, and Lucas and Larry Benton were the only pitchers with double-digit win totals. In need of offense, new Reds president Larry MacPhail traded Lucas and outfielder Walter Roettger to Pittsburgh for second baseman Tony Piet and outfielder Adam Comorosky.

Red Lucas, in his post-playing career as a minor-league manager. Source: The Courier, May 12, 1948.

Lucas had some good seasons with the Pirates, but he wasn’t quite the machine he was with the Reds. He never reached 200 innings with the Bucs and only twice in five seasons did he top 170. He did have one last great season in 1936, when he went 15-4 with a 3.18 ERA and 12 complete games. He walked just 26 batters in 175-2/3 innings, for an MLB-leading 1.3 walks per 9 innings.

Lucas’ MLB career ended after the 1938 season. He made just 13 starts for Pittsburgh, though he had a 6-3 record and 3.54 ERA. In 16 seasons, Lucas won a total of 157 games against 135 losses with a 3.72 ERA. He completed 204 games and threw 22 shutouts. He struck out 602 batters and walked 455, with a career 1.255 WHIP and 1.611 walks per 9 innings, which is in the Top 30 all-time. He was also a lifetime .281 hitter and topped the .300 mark six times. Lucas had the misfortune of being a good pitcher on bad teams, in an era before All-Star teams, so he never got the recognition that he deserved. It’s a shame he’s largely forgotten today, because he was one of the best pitchers in the NL for a long time.

Lucas didn’t surrender many home runs, but he was the starter against the Boston Braves in 1935 when Babe Ruth hit 3 homers in a game for the last time in his career. Lucas gave up career home run 712. He said in his SABR bio that it was the longest home run he ever saw.

Lucas played and managed in the minors until 1949. He later worked as a truck weight inspector for the Tennessee Department of Revenue until 1968. He was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1965. Red Lucas died on July 9, 1986 after a sudden illness. He was 84 years old and is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville.

Columnist Warren Brown covered baseball in Lucas’ early days, and Brown took note of the redhead’s attempts to stick in the majors anyway he could. Brown was especially pleased to see Lucas make the most of his opportunity with the Reds and wrote a story about him in The Dayton Herald entitled “Failure Never Could Put a Dent in Lucas’ Courage.” He speculated that, had Lucas not stuck with the Reds as a pitcher, he might have tried to come back as a catcher.

“He has tried pitching, infielding and outfielding,” Brown wrote of Lucas. “But most important of all, he has tried.”

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