[This is the first in a series of articles on historic pennant races involving the Cincinnati Reds in the modern era of baseball.]
On July 1, 1973, five days before the newest James Bond movie was released (Live and Let Die) the Reds were in dire straits before a majestic three run home run turned their season around. It was one of the biggest home runs in the history of Riverfront Stadium and came off the bat of a third string catcher who had only eight hits the entire season. It jolted the Reds into the pennant race.
It was also the year Ken Griffey Sr made his debut. It was Dave Concepcion’s “breakout” season. And it was a season in which the Reds hit high gear in July, roared past three other teams in their Division and won the National League West.
The reasons? The Home Run, a mid-season trade and a promotion from Triple A.
Top 5 Movies (according to me)
- The Sting
- American Graffiti
- Magnum Force
- Paper Moon
Best Sports Movie of 1973
- Bang the Drum Slowly
Top 5 Albums (according to me again)
- Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Elton John)
- Band on the Run (Wings)
- The Captain and Me (Doobie Brothers)
- Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd)
- Brothers and Sisters (The Allman Brothers)
- The Pete Rose-Bud Harrelson brawl in Game 3 of the NL playoffs knocked the Yom Kipper War off Page 1 of the New York newspapers
- Sparky Anderson
Going into the Season
The Reds were defending NL Champions and had lost a 7-game World Series to Oakland in 1972. GM Bob Howsam made one major trade in the off season, acquiring pitcher Roger “Spider” Nelson and Richie Scheinblum from the Kansas City Royals for Hal McRae and Wayne Simpson. This wasn’t one of Howsam’s better trades. Nelson (3-2, 3.46 ERA) pitched only 54 innings for the Reds in ’73 because of arm problems.
The Reds started slow because of injuries to Spider and pitcher Gary Nolan and the combined batting slumps of Denis Menke, Bobby Tolan and Cesar Geronimo. Menke’s problems were a big concern as he was coming off a 1972 season in which he performed poorly at the plate and was even worse in the post season. Geronimo was still a work in progress offensively and was primarily in right field. Tolan was in a funk, partly because of defensive breakdowns in Game 7 of the WS in centerfield and a mysterious back injury.
Dave Concepcion’s fast start at the plate cemented his future as a shortstop but he broke his ankle at the All-Star break and was gone for the remainder of the season. The Reds were then forced to turn to Daryl Chaney — a decent shortstop on the field but an absolutely horrible hitter at the plate.
On the plus side, Pete Rose was having an MVP type year, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez were consistent and Joe Morgan was having another fine season. The pitching staff was anchored by Jack Billingham, Don Gullett and Ross Grimsley as starters with Clay Carroll, Pedro Borbon and Tom Hall leading the bullpen.
The Turning Point
The Reds were only three games above .500 and struggling when the first place Los Angeles Dodgers came into Riverfront Stadium June 30. The Reds were buried in 4th place and 10 games out. Cincinnati blew a 5-1 lead and lost in 13 innings to LA that Friday night and were 11 games behind going into a double header (remember them?) the next day. This was to be the low point of the season.
On that pivotal July 1, Don Sutton was cruising with a 3-1 lead in the 9th inning. Tony Perez doubled to open the 9th but Sutton got Tolan to pop up and Larry Stahl to ground out. Sparky Anderson sent up Johnny Bench as a pinch hitter for Concepcion and Sutton intentionally walked him to bring up Hal King, the Reds third string catcher.
King, to put it best, was what you would call a journeyman. He had played sparingly with Atlanta and Texas before landing in Cincinnati. But King turned on a Sutton screwball and launched one of the most dramatic walk off home runs in Cincinnati history. The Reds were 4-3 winners and a few hours later, Perez lined a game winning RBI to win the second game. The next day Perez hit a game winning home run and the Reds were on their way. They would finish the season on a 60-26 tear, catching the Dodgers on September 3 and winning the West with a 99-63 record, 3 and ½ games ahead of the Dodgers.
Howsam made what many considered a minor trade on June 12 but it had major ramifications. Cincinnati traded Gene Locklear, a reserve outfielder, and minor league Mike Johnson for Padres lefthander Fred Norman. At the time of the trade, Norman was 1-5 with a 4.26 ERA. In his first two starts with the Reds, Norman threw consecutive shutouts. He went on to win 12 games and bolster the pitching staff. Howsam also acquired rightfielder Andy Kosco from the Red Sox for pitcher Mel Behney. Kosco, a righthanded hitter, platooned with Geronimo in right and had some decent numbers — a .280 batting average along with 9 home runs and 21 RBI’s.
The Cobra Comes to Cincinnati
By July, the Reds had seen enough of Denis Menke. They called up Dan Driessen, a lefthanded hitting first baseman by trade, but they put him at third base. Driessen was nicknamed “the cobra” because of his quick bat speed. Driessen was tearing up Triple A, hitting nearly .400 for the season. Driessen’s bat was desperately needed, with Concepcion out, Tolan discouraged and Geronimo struggling. Menke stayed with the Reds the rest of the season but was traded back to Houston for Pat Darcy and cash after the playoffs concluded.
The Beard and Griffey
Tolan’s funk grew worse. He started to grow a mustache and a beard, rules which went against Sparky’s policy of no facial hair. Tolan was eventually suspended and then traded to San Diego. In his place, the Reds called up young phenom Ken Griffey who played in right field. Geronimo was then moved to center. Griffey responded well, batting over .300 in September. The influx of Norman, Driessen, Griffey and Kosco strengthened the Reds roster. Reds fans were especially giddy over Driessen, especially if he could master the art of playing third base.
The Reds faced the New York Mets, who struggled and won an incredibly weak NL Eastern Division with an 82-79 record. On July 8, the Mets were 12 and ½ games out of first place, very similar to Cincinnati. As late as August 30th, the Mets were in last place in the NL East. The Reds were favored but the Mets had some strong pitching. Tom Seaver (who would later that year become the first non-20 game winner to capture the Cy Young Award) and Jack Billingham had a classic pitchers duel in Game 1. It took home runs by Pete Rose in the 8th inning and Johnny Bench in the 9th to top the Mets 2-1.
Mets lefty Jon Matlack dominated the Reds in Game 2. New York shutout Cincinnati and Don Gullett 2-0. Kosco had the only two hits for Cincinnati. Matlack struck out Geronimo three times in three plate appearances.
Jerry Koosman beat the Reds in Game 3, by a 7-2 score. Grimsley was shelled in the second inning and knocked out. The Rose-Harrelson brawl occurred late in this game when Rose attempted to break up a double play and Sparky pulled the Reds from the field when Shea Stadium fans pelted Rose in leftfield with an assortment of beer cans, other objects and even a whiskey bottle. Sparky’s famous quote was, “Pete Rose has done too much for baseball to die in left field at Shea Stadium.”
Rose had one of the all-time great playoff games in Game 4. With the Reds on the brink of elimination, the 1973 NL MVP went 5 for 5 and hit the game winning home run in the 13th inning of a 2-1 Reds win. The rest of the Reds lineup was listless against Mets lefty George Stone. Anderson, desperate to extend the Series, used two starters; Norman and Gullett combined to pitch nine innings of one-run ball before the bullpen took over.
Billingham and Seaver hooked up again in the decisive Game 5 at Shea Stadium. New York took a quick 2-0 lead but Cincinnati tied it up 2-2 going into the home half of the 5th inning.
Bobby Pfeil started that inning with a double off Billingham. Felix Milan tried to bunt him to third. Billingham pounced on the ball and fired a strike to third baseman Driessen in an effort to gun down Pfeil. Driessen, however, caught the ball and made no effort to tag the Mets baserunner. Both runners were safe. Sparky pulled Billingham and brought in Hall. The Mets then proceeded to score five runs and basically wrap the game up.
Ironically, Denis Menke (2 for 8 with a home run) had a better series than Driessen (2 for 16), Perez (2 for 22) , Morgan (2 for 20) and Geronimo (1 for 15).
1973 was Dave Concepcion’s breakout year. It was Griffey’s debut year. The Great Eight were closer to being formed. Rose won his third batting title (.338) and Bench was still the best catcher in baseball. Morgan solidified his standing as one of the best second basemen in baseball.
But the Dan Driessen issue made its debut. It would linger for three more years– where to play him? In 1973, Driessen batted .301, with 4 home runs and 47 RBI’s while stealing 8 bases. Howsam tried to trade Perez for George Brett and the Royals balked. Then he tried to trade Perez for Greg Nettles. The Yankees turned him down. Each trade would have moved Driessen to first base and given the Reds a bonafide star at third base.
The playoff loss to the Mets left Reds fans devastated but proved again that superior pitching in a short series is an advantage. Still, the moves made in 1973 were positive. The Reds got closer.
And Hal King, a little known reserve baseball player, had his finest moment in baseball by whacking one of the biggest home runs in the history of Riverfront Stadium.
Up Next: 1979