July 1, 1973: Third-string catcher Hal King slugs one of the most famous home runs in Reds’ history, a two-out three-run walkoff home run in the ninth inning to give the Reds a 4-3 come from behind win over the division league Los Angeles Dodgers. The King home run moved the fourth place Reds to nine games behind the Dodgers.
King’s homer is widely credited with sparking the Reds to an incredible 60-26 finish, with the Reds overtaking the Dodgers and winning the National League’s Western Division with a 99-63 record, 3.5 games ahead of the second place Dodgers. While King’s homer sparked the first win of the Reds’ comeback, the series fireworks actually began the night before, on Saturday, June 30.
The Reds had struggled to defend their 1972 National League pennant. They lost their first two games of the season and had barely played .500 ball for the first half, entering a four game series with the Dodgers only three games above .500 at 39-36. The Reds were leading the Dodgers on this Saturday, 5-1, on the strength of home runs by Tony Perez and Bobby Tolan. However, the wheels fell off in the Dodgers’ seventh when Los Angeles scored six times off Reds relievers Clay Carroll and Pedro Borbon, three of the runs unearned. The Reds tied it in the bottom of the ninth Joe Morgan, pinch hitting for Cesar Geronimo, stroked a two-run homer scoring Dan Driessen, who had singled off Dodgers reliever Pete Richert.
Both teams had multiple opportunities to win the game in extra innings. The Reds left runners on second and third in the 11th when Larry Stahl flied to right, and left runners stranded on first and second in the 12th when Pete Rose struck out. The Dodgers left runners on first and third in the 11th when Don Gullett struck out Lee Lacy and stranded a runner on third in the 12th when Gullett induced pitcher Andy Messersmith, pinch hitting for Brewer, to popup to Gullett on a bunt. The Dodgers won it in the 13th when Lacy singled to right field off reliever Ed Sprague to score Manny Mota. The Dodgers won this thriller, 8-7, and the Reds were now 11 games out first place on July 1.
Sunday called for a doubleheader between the two clubs. The Dodgers started future Hall of Famer Don Sutton while the Reds countered with newly acquired lefty Fred Norman. The Dodgers were leading 3-1 going to the bottom of the ninth when Tony Perez led off with a double. However, Tolan popped up to the second baseman and Stahl struck out and the Reds were down to their final out. Reds manager Sparky Anderson called on star catcher Johnny Bench to pinch hit for shortstop Dave Concepcion. Bench had hit a ninth-inning game-tying homer off Sutton on June 22 (the Dodgers won that game in 10 innings), but on this day Sutton pitched around Bench, eventually intentionally walking him bringing the potential winning run to the plate (Bench lifetime vs. Sutton: .900 OPS with 12 homers in 160 plate appearances). Scheduled to bat was light hitting “catch and throw” catcher Bill Plummer (.541 OPS), but Anderson sent lefty power hitting catcher Hal King to the plate to pinch hit.
King had been acquired in the offseason from the Texas Rangers for sore-armed former 20-game winning Reds pitcher Jim Merritt. King had been a former Astros, Braves, and Rangers catcher whose best season came in 1970 when he batted .260 with 11 homers in 239 plate appearances with the Braves. His career average was .214 with 20 homers in 742 plate appearances. He had pinch hit the previous night vs. the Dodgers in the 12th inning and had reached on a fielder’s choice. King had previously homered off Sutton, a grand slam back in 1971 while with the Atlanta Braves (info from “Big Red Dynasty” by Greg Rhodes and John Erardi). King had been recalled from AAA Indianapolis in the middle of June and had gone 1-10 since joining the Reds, the “1” being a solo homer in his first game as a Red vs. the San Francisco Giants. Sutton got two strikes on King, before King powered a Sutton screwball over the right field wall to give the Reds a 4-3 walk-off win.
The Dodger win wasn’t the last of King’s heroics. On July 9, King powered a grand slam home run off his former Brave batterymate Pat Jarvis, then pitching for the Montreal Expos, in a seven-run Reds sixth inning to give the Reds a 11-6 victory. Then on August 17, King’s pinch hit homer in the top of the tenth inning provided the winning margin for the Reds in a 2-1 victory over the New York Mets.
In two seasons, Hal King played in only 55 games with the Reds, covering 69 plate appearances. He batted .183 with four homers and 13 rbi, with three of the home runs being game winners. He was out of baseball after the 1974 season.
Many remember King’s game winning home run off Sutton, but he wasn’t the only hero that day. King’s homer came in the first game of the doubleheader. Game two was also an extra inning win for the Reds. Trailing 2-0 in the sixth, Tony Perez plated a run with a single, and Pete Rose tied the game in the seventh with another single. The game went into the 10th with the Dodgers getting runners on first and second off Pedro Borbon before Steve Yeager flied to centerfield and pitcher Charlie Hough lined to right to end the Dodgers threat. The Reds won it in the bottom of the tenth when Joe Morgan drew a one-out walk and advanced to second on a passed ball. One out later, Johnny Bench walked, and Perez followed with a single to left scoring Morgan and giving the Reds their second come from behind victory on the day, both coming in their last at bat. The Reds had narrowed the gap to nine games behind the Dodgers.
The series excitement still wasn’t over. The Dodgers stayed over for a fourth game in the series, a Monday game in Cincinnati. Once again, the Dodgers were leading 2-0 through the middle of the sixth inning. Phil Gagliano, pinch hitting for Jim McGlothlin, drew a one-out walk and Rose followed with a single to center. Morgan doubled to score Gagliano, and Rose scored on a Dan Driessen sacrifice fly to knot the game at 2-2. Again, the Reds on the game in their last at bat when Johnny Bench led off with an infield single. Reliever Tom Hall pinch ran for Bench, and he scored when Perez homered to give the Reds the 4-2 victory. The Dodgers’ lead had been cut to eight games.
Perez and King had provided the game winning highlights (now you know why Perez is considered a clutch performer), but nearly all the Reds contributed to the come from behind wins. The Reds pitching staff was incredible. They had allowed a total of 15 runs over 41 innings, but six of those runs came in the seventh inning of the first game of the series. Reds’ pitchers allowed only seven runs over the final 35 innings of the four game series against the Dodgers, whose offense had been the best in the league to that point.
The Reds finally caught the Dodgers on September 3 when the Reds beat the Astros, 4-3, while the Dodgers were losing to the Giants, 11-8. The Reds took first for good the next day when they scored five times in the top of the tenth to beat the Astros 12-7 as the Dodgers lost to Giants again. The Reds never looked back and finished the season 3.5 games ahead of the Dodgers. The Reds were upset in the National League Championship Series, losing to the New York Mets, three games to two.