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.
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?