Big Red Machine / Editorials / Reds History

When Giants Walked the Turf

great8As I watched the feed of the ceremony from GABP stream to my computer screen many miles away, one thought took front and center: I know I’ll never see their like again.

Growing up in the 60s and 70s, with no Internet and no cable TV, I would impatiently wait all week until Saturday, when the fatherly and all-knowing voice of Mel Allen would spread the gospel of Baseball, Cincinnati-style. Allen’s national TV program, “This Week in Baseball,” was a highlight show of the past week’s important moments, and rarely did a week go by when the Big Red Machine failed to put its own indelible stamp on the landscape of the season. Cincinnati wasn’t flyover country in the eyes of the eastern media in those days, it was “Baseball Central” and everybody—from the league offices in New York to the locals at Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles, hanging out until it was time to bounce in the 7th inning to get a jump home on the 405—knew it, too.

Show of hands: how many of you would be happy if this 2013 team won 96 games? That would mean finishing 15-4. It would almost certainly take the division. Now consider this: in the nine years Sparky Anderson piloted the Reds, they averaged 96 wins a season.  Astonishing stuff.

BRM 70-78

The Reds of the 70s will always be revered for those eight guys you may have heard of and for the offense they celebrated, but their defense and pitching was far better than most remember. Although Jim Merritt was the only starting pitcher in the era to win 20 games for the Reds (1970), Jack Billingham, a workhorse who threw 200 innings five times for the Reds, also won 19 games in successive seasons. The Reds had great starting pitching, it’s just that much of it was ravaged by injuries. Merritt, Gary Nolan, Wayne Simpson, and Don Gullett were all gifted hurlers whom suffered debilitating injuries and in some cases multiple setbacks that kept the Reds of the 70s from being known as a pitching machine as well as a run machine.

Did you know that in the crucible years between 1970 and 1976, the Cincinnati pitching staff was actually above league average? You can thank George Anderson for that. In a break from managerial tradition, Sparky eschewed the “complete game” ethos of the time for a methodology that relied heavily on the bullpen. Today, we beg our manager to see the merit in a 4-out save. Forty plus years ago, Captain Hook completely rethought how pitching staffs could be used—and the rest of Baseball followed him. Eventually.

I’ve heard almost no mention of Bob Howsam this week, the architect of the Big Red Machine. That’s a shame because none of this happens without Howsam’s talent, drive and foresight. The Machine, like Rome, wasn’t built in a day. Howsam arrived in 1967 and by 1970, a young Machine was in the World Series.  When Howsam realized that the team playing in Crosley Field was too plodding for the wall-to-wall billiard table that was now the team’s home down on the riverfront, he went out and made a controversial trade that was none too popular in Cincinnati at the time.  The three wheels of the Big Red Machine (Rose, Bench and Perez) were short one steel belted radial: Joe Morgan. If the populace wasn’t happy to see popular players Lee May and Tommy Helms leave town, Joe would soon make everyone forget both, as he flapped and stole his way into the hearts of Reds fans.

The Great 8 get all the glory and rightfully so. However, before those players could make history, the Machine was augmented with complimentary players: Ty Cline, Bobby Tolan, Wayne Granger, Hal McRae, Denis Menke, Jim McGlothlin, Darrel Chaney, Freddy Norman, Doug Flynn, Clay Carroll, Ross Grimsley, Dan Driessen, Rawley Eastwick, names big and small, all of whom made measurable contributions to a Machine that had to learn what losing meant in those early years before it could learn how to win in ’75 and ’76. Howsam was the master mechanic who put it all together, retooled it when it broke down, hired an unknown coach to drive, then stood back and watched from the shadows as the Machine roared into history.

 

The Big Red Machine By the Numbers:

1970: Reds begin the first 100 games 70-30, forty games over .500.

1976: Reds led NL and AL in RUNS, BA, OBP, SLG, DOUBLES, TRIPLES, HRs; and the NL in stolen bases.

1970-76: Gary Nolan and Don Gullet won 65% of the games they started, more than Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman

Gold Gloves: Bench, Concepcion, Morgan, Geronimo.

 

It’s a kaleidoscope of memories I’m left with now:

  • Bernie Carbo sliding into home and being tagged by Orioles catcher Elrod Hendrick’s mitt, while he held the ball in his bare hand; the irrefutable proof held in my hands at the mailbox three days later on the cover of Sports Illustrated;
  • the barrel of Bobby Tolan’s bat pointing due north as he awaited the pitch;
  • the anticipation when Joe Morgan planted one foot outside the sliding box and onto the hot turf at first base as he took his lead—and the buzz that ensured because an entire stadium KNEW he was on the move;
  • Johnny Bench’s epic home run in the bottom of the ninth off Dave Giusti, a ball that left the field over the head of Roberto Clemente who had just gotten his 3000th hit, but tragically would never play in another game;
  • Hal King’s walk-off home run on Banner Day at Riverfront Stadium, the first game of a double-header I watched from in the Red seats high above home plate on my 18th birthday, a day that saw the Reds—trailing a Dodger team with an insurmountable eleven game lead—cut two games into on a hot, July 1 day, before eventually overtaking the hated Penguin and his Hollywood crew a few weeks later;
  • Cesar Geronimo throwing a ball with the speed and unbridled fury of a man who could throw a strawberry through a freight train;
  • Pete Rose going yard, defiantly rounding the bases in front of 50,000 angry fans at Shea Stadium, fist held high, a day after introducing Bud Harrelson to the infield dirt at second base;
  • the taste of a New York Met hat in the mouth of Pedro Borbon;
  • Mickey Rivers—the 1976 Yankees’ version of Billy Hamilton—becoming a non-factor because of the gunshot arm of the greatest catcher to ever squat behind the dish;

… and every damn moment that postponed the glory to come: Brooks Robinson’s wizardry; Wayne Simpson’s wrecked shoulder; Dwight Evan’s over-the-shoulder catch; Joe Rudi, Gene Tenace and all those stupid white shoes.

I remember all that and more.  How ‘bout you?

14 thoughts on “When Giants Walked the Turf

  1. My hands on memory is from the first game of Sunday doubleheader of the old fashion kind versus the Cubs at Riverfront in the middle of the 41-9 run in 1975.
    Gary Nolan and Rick Reuschel of the Cubs were hooked up in a pitching duel. The Cubs scratched together a run in the 6th to take a 1 nil lead.

    In the bottom of the 7th Morgan reached base on a walk. With Bench at the plate, he proceeded to badger Reuschel dancing off first base, drawing numerous throws. Reuschel finally came home and it was a mistake pitch which Bench nailed for a 2 run home run. The Reds went on to win the game 2-1 and sweep the twin bill 8-5 in the night cap.

    My experience was made all the more better by the fact I had a pair of binoculars with me and was lucky enough to catch a clean view of the moment of impact of bat and ball as Bench connected on the home run pitch. It was one of those shots of which Marty always used to say, if it is high enough its gone; and it is.

    At the 1979 LCS versus the Pirates, I was also present to see Bench hit a similar ball to the same part of the park (left center) which did not quite clear the wall; and appeared to nearly knock the wall down. It sounded like a gunshot when it struck the wall. On this occasion, I was sitting in a row of temporary seats at the back of the Plaza (green) Level behind the Reds dugout. From where I sat, it looked as though this ball bit by Bench had absolutely no hump on it and may have still been on the rise when it impacted the wall.

  2. Great stuff Richard.

    IMO, the most important hit during a Reds regular season game was the Hal King bottom of the 9th homer off Don Sutton. There was two outs as well. Talk about a clutch hit. I haven’t seen the Reds HOF but I would hope this great moment is enshrined there.

    • @CharlotteNCRedsFan: When you see the Reds H of F, take somebody along who doesn’t know what you know … my friend was astonished that I had a story for what seemed like every one of the players included on the autographs wall. Well, not Eppa Rixey. I ain’t **that** old.

  3. I suppose, and rightfully, a couple of other fan bases are saying we live in the past … that the real baseball is still played successfully under the McDonald’s arch on the Mississippi or in the Bronx. It’s hard to argue with that on one hand, still something else to remember that all things in life are eventually in the past. With baseball, it IS about our history, not what the scribes think WILL happen.

    My history of the Reds goes back to 1956 and I looked up a particular box score of a game that I got to see that year — in seats behind home plate. I am going to include the link to that box score. Just relate it to the people who played that summer night.

    This isn’t BRM stuff … this is MY youth … my fondest memories of a team that would produce the 1961 pennant — which, after all these years, remains my most powerful memory of this great franchise.

    Here’s the box score of that 1956 game. Yeah … wow! Robby’s HR hit the top of the wall and rolled along it for what seemed like a week. How I remember this is simple. It’s impossible to forget. I was 10.

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CIN/CIN195607170.shtml

      • @Johnu1: Yes, Brooks was one of the Reds color line breakers, not that I really knew or understood this at the time. And BTW, it sound like you are actually older than me by three or four years.

        Do you remember the some of the jokes about Nuxie and his notoriously hard time at getting started on the mound each time out? The one I remember is that on the nights he was starting, the 8 o’clock bus from Cincy to Hamilton ran 20 minutes late because they always held it to see if they needed to stop at Crosley Field and pick up Nuxie (for you youngsters, at that time games started at 8:05 and Joe lived in Hamilton).

        • @OhioJim: Almost everyone in Butler and Hamilton counties knew Nuxie, either by seeing him or by sharing a glass of beer with him. Nuxie was one of those guys, as were most players in those days, who would stop at various restaurants and bars and just be among the people.

          Nuxie also has the interesting distinction of being with the Athletics in 1961 after being traded in the winter of ’60. He came back to the Reds in ’62. Do the math. 1961 was the ONLY year he was not with the Reds — the year they won the pennant.

          Nuxie also had a relationship with a woman who was the daughter of the man for whom I was named. I won’t say more about it than that.

  4. I was born in 1970. My older brother was born in 1961. We live in New York. He became a Reds fan around the year I was born, and turned me into a Reds fan by the time I could crawl. My earliest Reds memories are collecting Reds baseball cards in 1977, following Rose’s hit streak in 1978 (remember that like it was yesterday) and the ’79 playoffs.

    I realize you were only counting Sparky’s tenure, but I am one whi believes the ’79 team needs to be included in any talk of the BRM. Same decade, Bench, Morgan, Griffey, Concepcion and Foster all still starting… No reason they should be left out.

    The most impressive thing about the BRM is the individual hardware. They “only” won two WS, but the reason they are the team of the decade and the “great eight” is because: In eight seasons from 1970-1977, four different Reds players won 6 MVPs. That is RIDICULOUS. In four straight seasons (I forget which four), Bench, Morgan, Concepcion and Geronimo won every Gold Glove – 16 total. Rose won the batting title in ’73 (not to mention ’68 and ’69). Home run titles, RBI titles, stolen base titles…all from different players. This was a team that excelled at every offensive facet of the game. And yes, the pitching was generally underrated. As Bench has always said, they may not have had the consistent depth, but we’d put Gullet up against any ace of the era. And we had a darn good bullpen – and a manager who knew how to use it.

    We will never see a team like it again.

    I was at the BRM softball game Rose organized at Cinergy…a sold out crowd for a softball game! Outside of winning the 1990 WS, it is my favorite moment as a fan. Wish I could have been there Friday night, but I have a feeling I know exactly how it felt.

  5. Curious on the chart, excluded the 1979 NL-W title team that went 0-3 to the eventual W.S. winner Pirates.

    1980 was 89-73, still not too shabby.

    And 1981, which was the best record in baseball. The strike screwed the Reds out of post-season.

    1982 was

  6. Everything. Absolutely everything.

    –This one Reds’ comeback game in the mid-70s? When Perez hit a two-run shot to win the first game of a twinbill. The Reds must’ve scored 4 or 5 runs in the bottom of the ninth. Norman pitched a shutout in the second game.

    –Bench hitting two homers in the clinching Game 4 of the 1976 World Series and then sounding so humble, saying how it was his turn after the team carried him all season. …

    “Here comes Foster, the Reds win the pennant !!!!!!” ……. Does that give anybody else the chills, too?

    Mickey Rivers even more of a nonfactor because Pete Rose played so far in at third base that Rivers had no chance to do what some cynics thought was the only thing he could do: bunt.

    And while we’re at it: The first batter of Rose’s 1975 debut at third base, Ralph Garr, who could fly, hitting him a grounder, that Rose managed to field, and the machine was setting into place. Though I remember reading that in left field that night was Dan Driessen, Foster was actually in right. Interesting.

    • @vegastypo:

      Here’s the game you’re talking about…2 in the bottom of the 8th and 1 in the bottom of the 9th. (I remember this also, it was the day I got my driver’s license and my buds and I made the trip to the ballpark). Here’s the second game.

      Speaking of Fred Norman…if you haven’t heard the Redleg Radio interview with him, check it out, I think it’s one of our best.

      Also, I do take issue with Richard’s crediting Bench with stopping Mickey Rivers in the ’76 Series…he was 1 for 2 in SB, but he was held to a .167 BA and .211 OBP b/c Pete played about 30 feet from home plate and dared him to bunt.

      And the MVP Award was mentioned earlier…check these numbers

      Year – # of players in top 10 of voting (places in top ten)

      69 – 2 (4th, 10th)
      70 – 3 (1,2,7)
      71 – 0 Only time all decade
      72 – 2 (1,4)
      73 – 4 (1,4,7,10)
      74 – 2 (4,8)
      75 – 3 (1,4,5)
      76 – 4 (1,2,4,8) (Let that one sink in for a minute)
      77 – 1 (1)
      78 – 1 (6)
      79 – 2 (5,9)

  7. Excellent piece, Richard. In 1976 I was working at the first Mr Gatti’s pizza place in Kentucky. They may have had the first giant projection tv. Great gig.

    I loved watching the video of the old timers out on the field in their spots. Love that MLB has softened that much with Pete. My brother and I attended the softball Pete Lovefest at Riverfront too when they had to strip off everything MLB from the park before the game could happen. This week was the one we all needed to see.

    And they youngsters for this year are playing pretty good ball too. You can see the adoration they feel for the BRM. Baseball is such a beautiful game.

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