Reds History

The 1979 Pennant Race: McNamara’s Band

(This is the second in a series of articles on historic pennant races involving the Cincinnati Reds in the modern era of baseball.)

1979 was a year of transition for the Cincinnati Reds. It was the year of John McNamara, a baseball lifer journeyman who was forced upon Reds fans. It was the year of Frank Pastore, an unknown pitcher, who would start the most crucial game of the year in late September. 1979 was a year the Reds lost their starting leftfielder and rightfielder for 25% of the season. And it was their first year since 1970 without Sparky Anderson and the first without Pete Rose since 1963.

Strange days indeed. Gasoline went over a dollar a gallon. The “misery index” was created. The Carter Presidency was doomed. There was, as Carter himself said, a “crises of confidence.”

There wasn’t a lot of confidence on Opening Day of 1979 at Riverfront Stadium. That’s for sure.

Top 5 Movies of 1979 (according to me)

Apocalypse Now

The Great Santini

Escape from Alcatraz

The In-Laws

The Champ

Best Sports Movie of 1979

Rocky II

Top 5 Albums of 1979 (according to me again)

The Wall (Pink Floyd)

In Through the Outdoor (Led Zeppelin)

Breakfast in America (Supertramp)

Damn the Torpedoes (Tom Petty)

Rust Never Sleeps (Neil Young)

Historic Achievement

Johnny Bench became the all-time leading home runs leader for catchers in baseball history

Reds Manager

John McNamara

Going into the Season

To many Reds fans, the off season after 1978 was a disaster. Reds General Manager Dick Wagner fired Sparky Anderson, ostensibly for finishing second to the Dodgers again. The Reds were 92-69 in 1978, finishing second to the Dodgers for consecutive seasons. Worse, Pete Rose signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Phillies. Wagner also dismissed most of Anderson’s coaches. The new manager was John McNamara, the new third baseman Ray Knight and a new leadoff would have to emerge from somewhere. McNamara tabbed Griffey for that role in spring training. Experts picked the Reds to finish third or fourth. Things didn’t look too good.

McNamara’s Band

The new Reds skipper was a low key guy. He never had a history of shaking things up when he managed the A’s and Padres before and he didn’t make bold moves in Cincinnati, either. The Reds suffered three key injuries in 1979 to make matters worse; Griffey (the Opening Day leadoff hitter) suffered a season-ending knee injury in June, George Foster aggravated a muscle pull in the All-Star Game and missed 40 games and #2 starter Bill Bonham was ineffective down the stretch with a forearm problem. McNamara inserted Dave Collins as a starting outfielder and also put him in the leadoff spot; both moves paid off. Knight was a pleasant surprise, batting over .300 and becoming the Reds MVP that year. Wagner signed former Oriole outfielder Paul Blair as a free agent (that move didn’t pan out) and then he traded Pedro Borbon to San Francisco for outfielder Hector Cruz (that one was a bit better.)

Morgan-Concepcion

The career paths of Joe Morgan and Dave Concepcion started spiraling in different directions. In Morgan’s final season with Cincinnati he batted just .250 with 9 home runs and 30 RBI’s. Wagner seemed to think that career utilityman Junior Kennedy could take over Morgan’s second base position. Reds fans weren’t buying that. Concepcion was the best shortstop in baseball during the 1979 season. He batted .281, hit a career high 16 homers and drove in 84 RBI’s while winning another Gold Glove. With Griffey out and Morgan limited to just 132 games, the Reds offense was built around 5 players — Foster, Concepcion, Knight, Johnny Bench and Dan Driessen, all of whom knocked in at least 75 runs. Collins gave them speed at the leadoff position (.318) and Cruz became a reliable fourth outfielder.

Frank Pastore

In the Reds Opening Day 11-5 loss to San Francisco, about the only good thing was three shutout innings pitched by a guy named Frank Pastore. The righthander pitched well in spring training (allowing just six hits in 15 innings of work) and kept it up in April (four saves and a win) but was shelled in May and sent back to Triple A. With Bonham out, the Reds called Pastore back and he and Tom Seaver (16-6, 3.14) were the Reds best hurlers down the stretch. Mike LaCoss started off with an 8-0 record but it was very deceiving; The tall lanky righthander skidded back to earth and finished 14-8. Fred Norman was 11-12 and Bonham 9-7 that season. Tom Hume (17 saves) and Doug Bair (18) were the best relievers in 1979 for McNamara.

A New Rival

The two-time defending NL champion Dodgers were never really in the race. They finished in third place with a record of 79-83. The NL West came down to the Reds and Houston Astros. The Reds took the lead in August and had a 2 1/2 game lead going into Houston for a crucial three-game series in the Astrodome on September 23. Seaver and JR Richard locked into a duel that ended with the Astros winning 3-2 in 13 innings. Richard pitched 11 innings (striking out 15 Reds) and Seaver went 9. Joe Niekro won his twentieth game the next night as Houston beat the Reds and LaCoss 4-1 to pull within a half game. It was Frank Pastore who won the biggest game of the year the next night, throwing a complete game 7-1 victory. It stopped the bleeding and the Reds led by 1 1/2 games with a week to go. Five days later, Pastore threw a four-hit shutout against Atlanta that clinched the Division title.

The Playoffs

After holding off the Astros, the Reds played an old nemesis, the Pittsburgh Pirates, in the playoffs. This was the “We Are Family” Pirates, led by Willie Stargell and Dave Parker. The first two games were at Riverfront Stadium and the Reds lost each in extra innings. Seaver and Pastore pitched well but Hume and Bair gave up home runs in extra innings and the Pirates took a 2-0 lead. LaCoss was hit hard in Game 3, and the Pirates won easily 7-1. It was the first time ever the Reds had been swept in an NL playoff Series.

Meeting Mac

In mid-October of 1979, I stopped by Northgate Lanes, a bowling alley in Galesburg, Illinois for a beer. At the bar that night, I saw a well dressed older guy with a distinctive hawk nose. It was John McNamara. What, I asked myself, is John McNamara doing here in Galesburg, 370 miles west up Interstate 74 from Cincinnati?

After downing a beer, I went over to McNamara who was having a cup of coffee and unbothered by anyone. “Excuse me, but aren’t you John McNamara, the manager of the Reds?” I asked. “I sure am,” replied McNamara extending his right hand out for a handshake. Despite what was a disappointing performance in the playoffs, McNamara was glad to talk baseball. We did for over an hour. We talked about the centerfield situation, second base and Frank Pastore, of course. He enjoyed our conversation, and I certainly did. I didn’t bother him for an autograph or a picture; we just talked about the Reds. No one bothered us because no one around here recognized him. It turns out he was on his way to Rock Island (about 40 miles from here) to visit relatives enroute to California.

And how ironic is this? Seven years later when McNamara’s Boston Red Sox were one strike away from a World Series victory over the Mets in Game 6, I was at the same bar. I was rooting for Boston because (1) I like McNamara and (2) I hate the Mets. That’s when the ball went between Bill Buckner’s legs, the Mets won Game 6 and won again the next night.

Summary

If you just look at win-loss records, the Reds were slightly worse in 1979 (90-71) than they were in 1978 (92-69.). And that’s what led to Dick Wagner being one of the most hated men in Cincinnati history after he fired Sparky Anderson. Wagner gambled — and was right — that Knight could replace Rose at third base. Collins filled in well for Griffey.

1979 was the end of the Reds most successful decade — ever. There hasn’t been one like it since, not even close. In a way, 1979 was a fitting close of the ’70s; another Division title, another season of two million-plus fans in attendance at Riverfront Stadium and Wagner’s solutions fit at that time; Knight for Rose, Mac for Sparky, Hume and Bair for Eastwick and McEnaney.

But the Reds farm system was starting to dry up. Wagner gambled on players like Paul Householder, Eddie Milner, Gary Redus and Nick Esasky later and came up empty. Within three years, Foster and Griffey were gone. Bench was a third baseman. Knight was traded. The Reds finished in last place in 1982.

Pastore flamed out as well. The 21-year old had a solid season in 1980 (14-7) but that was his high water mark. After his career ended in 1986, Pastore, a former atheist, became the host of a Christian talk radio show in Los Angeles. He died, tragically, in a motorcycle accident on December 17, 2012.

Still, to this day, mention 1979 and I think of Frank Pastore and the way he pitched during the stretch run.

Next up: 1999

11 thoughts on “The 1979 Pennant Race: McNamara’s Band

  1. This reminded me of the transition from Davey Johnson to Knight in the 90s, but with worse results. The reds have often made poor decisions in transitioning from successful teams. This fact worries me for the next 3 years.

  2. I was at game one of the 1979 League Championship season. I fell into a seat in the last row of the “Greens” right behind the Reds dugout (it was actually a folding chair put down in that area they had marked off behind the sections).

    Aside from the fact that in the end the Reds lost, I have two memories of that night. The first is that it was unbelievably cold for that time of year. I recall folks muttering on the concourse that they hadn’t been that cold at a Bengals game in mid to late December.

    The second thing I remember is that Bench hit a ball that may have been the hardest hit baseball I have ever seen in person. The ball couldn’t have ever been more than if even as much as 10 feet off the ground. It smacked the wall on the fly to the LF side of the 375 foot marker. The gunshot like sound of it hitting the wall was audible over the roar of the crowd from where I was sitting. The wall which was erected in some sort of track structure with back supports for each panel continued to visibly vibrate for a couple of seconds after the impact. Although the play by play indicates Bench had a triple as well as a single in that game, I’m reasonably certain the wall rattler was the single. .

  3. I never became baseball aware until 1982- I wonder if Wagner was the idiot so many made him out to be or just really unlucky with the years Berenyi and Shirley and basically everyone in the bullpen had you would think a staff with Soto, Seaver, Pastore and Charlie Leibrandt would dominate…I am not sure if they got anything for Griffey or Collins deemed worthwhile but Wagner let those 2 go and for Foster and Knight they got Alex Trevino to catch and Cesar Cedeno- Foster never did much as I recall but Knight had some solid years- Milner, Redus, and Esasky had some decent seasons but I think Wagner was gone before the end of 83

    • The unlucky part was in reference to Frank Pastore never really getting better, or Paul Householder emerging- the Reds had so much talent for awhile but they just got cheap and eventually just ran it out all of town until there just a burnt out Johnny Bench playing 3rd and and an aging SS trying to carry the team

      • Paul Householder brings back bad memories…..thinking he would be the next big thing I invested in a lot of 1000 Householder rookie cards. Not my best investment of all time………

  4. Am i missing something, is this series only years the reds were in the pennent race but did’nt win the world series? Should’nt 1990 be next, what about 2975 and 1976?

  5. Two things about this story.

    First, I was in a computer baseball league around 1988ish. It was the Strategic Simulations Baseball game. I chose the 1979 Reds for my team since they were the last team, up until that point, to win the division. My computer version of the 1979 Reds didn’t win the league but performed very well considering they were going up against the likes of the 1927 Yankees.

    Second, I was working as a busboy at Don Hall’s Factory in Fort Wayne in Indiana circa 1992 when I noticed John McNamara was eating in there alone. I went up to him and told him that I had “managed” his 1979 Reds in my computer league a few years prior–he probably wondered what kind of dork does that? He looked surprised that I had recoginized him or the team (since I would have been young in ’79). I didn’t even think about discussing the 1986 Red Sox with him. He was the nicest guy. I had him sign a placemat for me that hung in my familial home. Just a very nice experience. Too bad he didn’t have more of an opportunity with the Reds–from 1981 “baseball’s best record” to being fired in the middle of the next year.

  6. Thanks for article, really enjoyed it. Here is another little nugget about Frank Pastore from Wikipedia: Shortly after he was released by the Rangers, Pastore set a new record at the The Big Texan Steak Ranch restaurant in Amarillo, Texas by eating a meal of 72-ounce ribeye steak, salad, baked potato, shrimp cocktail, and roll in 9 minutes, 30 seconds. That record stood until it was broken by Joey Chestnut on 24 March 2008, when he finished his same-sized steak meal in just 8 minutes 52 seconds. Pastore congratulated Chestnut on air shortly thereafter. (The overall human record is 4 minutes 58 seconds, by a woman named Molly Schuyler, who finished the first of her 2 meals on 26 May 2014. She subsequently had seconds and completed them both after 14 minutes 57 seconds elapsed.)

  7. My wife and I moved to Houston in 1977. I was in the airport one time in 1979 and met Sparky Anderson. I told him how I was a big Reds fan even though I now lived in Houston and how disappointed I was in the Reds letting him go. He asked me if I they fired me too.

    Later that year, I was sent to Japan for work. It was during the World Series between the Pirates and the Orioles. I remember waking up the first night around 3 am and listening to one of the games on the radio. I watched some of the Japanese World Series (or whatever they call it) on TV. Don’t remember the teams, but the fans of one of the teams brought pots to the game and constantly drummed them.

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