John Vuckovich was the answer. He had to be the answer.
As the Reds started the 1975 baseball season, they knew they had one of the best teams in baseball. The year before, they had the second best record in baseball (98-74) but finished second place in their division to the hated Los Angeles Dodgers by four games and missed the playoffs. They had decent pitching and a great lineup except for that pesky third base position.
To solve the third base problem, the Reds traded for Denis Menke in 1972. That didn’t work out. They brought up Dan Driessen in 1973 and while the Reds loved his bat, his defense was deemed not acceptable. So the Reds acquired Vuckovich on October 22, 1974 for pitcher Pat Osburn from the Milwaukee Brewers. Vuckovich was a slick fielder but not much of a hitter. Reds manager Sparky Anderson thought he could hide “Balsa” (so named because of Vuckovich’s weak bat) in the eighth position and still win riding the slugging of guys like Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Ken Griffey and Dave Concepcion. Rumors were that Reds General Manager Bob Howsam had tried to swap Perez for a third baseman but couldn’t get it done. There were no heir-apparents at the third base position in the minor leagues.
So who else was there? It had to be John Vuckovich.
This was the thinking of the Reds brain-trust as spring training finished in March of 1975. Little did anyone know that within the next three months, Sparky Anderson would make two decisions that would cement the finishing of the Big Red Machine, lead to a pair of World Championships and propel the Reds skipper into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Top 5 Movies of 1975 (according to me)
The Eiger Sanction
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Three Days of the Condor
Best Sports Movie of 1975
Hard Times (starring Charles Bronson as a Depression-era bare knuckled fighter)
Top 5 Albums of 1975 (according to me again)
Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen)
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (Elton John)
Katy Lied (Steely Dan)
Physical Graffiti (Led Zeppelin)
Welcome to My Nightmare (Alice Cooper)
On Opening Day, the Reds beat LA in extra innings. Vuckovich got a standing ovation in the eighth inning from the crowd at Riverfront Stadium when he made a diving catch off the bat of Davey Lopes. He went 1 for 3. They swept LA on the opening homestand but then got beat up in California and the wheels started coming off. Vuckovich wasn’t hitting at all. This was no surprise. In over 500 career at bats, Balsa had a .160 batting average, historically one of the worst ever.
Anderson’s frustration peaked at Dodger Stadium. On April 16 in the second inning, Sparky used a pinch hitter (Driessen) for Vuckovich with runners in scoring position. In the second inning. Vuckovich threw a tantrum, smashing light bulbs in the dugout tunnel. To make matters worse, the Reds blew a 6-0 lead that night in losing to the Dodgers. With the Reds treading water, the Dodgers four games ahead and Vuckovich’s bat dormant, Sparky got desperate. He started platooning Daryl Chaney (another notorious bad hitter) with reserve Doug Flynn. On May 2, Anderson started Chaney in a 6-5 loss to Atlanta. Chaney went 0 for 2 before Terry Crowley pinch hit for him.
Sparky had seen enough. Third base, always a problem for him at Cincinnati, was becoming a black hole. Vuckovich, Chaney and Flynn were batting a combined .151 and something had to be done.
It was Derby Day (May 3) Foolish Pleasure would win at Churchill Downs that Saturday. Sparky Anderson went up to Pete Rose the night before. Pete was breaking in a glove for his kid at first base taking some pre-game ground balls and throws. “I wish you played on the other side,” Sparky said. “I do,” Rose replied, “in left field.” “I sure would like to get George Foster and Danny Driessen some time in left field. Would you be willing to try third base to make that happen?” asked Anderson.
Rose agreed, he said, as long as it wouldn’t hurt the team. He went into the dugout, came out with another glove and started to field ground balls. On May 3, Rose started at third base and was tested right off the bat by Atlanta speedster Ralph Garr (nicknamed ‘The Roadrunner’) but Rose gunned him out on a hard hit ground ball to his left. Vuckovich came in for defense late, Rose went back to left field for the final inning. Gary Nolan threw a complete game five-hitter for his first victory of the season in a 6-1 Reds win.
Reds General Manager Bob Howsam was in Arizona the day of The Switch. When he looked at the newspaper the next morning, The Architect thought either his eyes were failing or it was a misprint in the box score of Rose playing at third base. He sipped his coffee and assumed the latter. Sparky made the move on his own.
Even after the move, the Reds struggled for a while. They were 18-19 on May 16th. But after that, they went on an incredible streak, winning 64 of their next 84 games. Driessen was struggling in May (a .227 average) and Foster emerged as the regular left fielder.
The Great Eight was complete. The Reds started a run of dominance.
Just as the Reds took off, disaster struck. Don Gullett suffered a fractured thumb when hit by a line drive. Sparky lost his ace. Sparky lost one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. But Sparky had a plan, one that he genuinely felt would work. He would turn into Captain Hook. The bullpen would be used frequently and at the first sign of fatigue from a starting pitcher. Other teams would have to beat a fresh bullpen guy — not a faltering starter. Sparky split the difference with his corps relievers — Will McEnaney (5-2, 15 saves), Rawly Eastwick (5-3, 22 saves), Clay Carroll (7-5, 7 saves) and Pedro Borbon (9-5, 5 saves.) Nolan (15-9). Jack Billingham (15-10) and Fred Norman (12-4) gave the Reds consistent starting pitching. Pat Darcy (11-5) and Clay Kirby (10-6) chipped in as well.
This was vintage Sparky. He went with the hot hand in the bullpen. He never, ever relied solely on one closer. Cincinnati set a record for consecutive games without a starter tossing a complete game (45) in 1975. It didn’t matter. It was the beginning of the end of the “complete game” stat.
After Gullett’s injury, the Reds increased their lead. They doubled it. They were running on afterburners. 25 times in the 1975 season, the Reds won games in the 9th inning. During a 15-game stretch in June, they didn’t commit an error. Foster got hot. Morgan had an MVP season. The move to third base didn’t affect Rose’s hitting (.316) The Reds clinched the West on September 7th. Cincinnati posted a record of 108-54 and won the NL West by a staggering 20 games. The Big Red Machine was completed. Gullett rejoined the rotation. John Vuckovich was sent to Triple A Indianapolis in May (the Reds called up Rawlins Jackson Eastwick III) and then released in August, with a .211 batting average (8 for 38, three doubles). The Reds entered the 1975 postseason on a mission.
The Reds swept the Pirates and showed little mercy. It was the perfect combination of starting pitching (strong performances by Gullett, Norman and Nolan) speed (10 stolen bases, including 7 in Game 2) and power (home runs by Perez, Rose, Concepcion and Gullett.). The closest contest was Game 3, which featured a great start by Pirate rookie lefty John Candalaria (14 strikeouts). Ed Armbrister drove in the go ahead run in the 10th inning of a 5-3 win with a sacrifice fly.
After losing Game One to Luis Tiant 6-0, the Reds trailed 2-1 in the 9th inning of Game Two to Bill Lee and the Red Sox. That’s when Dave Concepcion (who should be in the Hall of Fame) came up big. With Bench at third base and two outs, Concepcion singled, stole second base and scored on Griffey’s base hit. The teams split the next two games at Riverfront, both one-run affairs. Gullett dominated Game Five, Perez clubbed two home runs and the Reds took a 3-2 Series lead.
After three days of rainouts, the question was who would Sparky Anderson start in Game Six? The Red Sox were bringing back Tiant. This upset Lee, who whined to the Boston press about being shoved back to a potential Game Seven. Anderson chose Nolan over Billingham for two reasons; “Cactus Jack” could pitch well out of the bullpen, while Nolan was at times doubtful because of his balky elbow and shoulder. He had to be pulled from Game Three because of a stiff neck after 4 innings of work. Second, the Red Sox were weaker against breaking stuff. Their power came off fastballs and hard stuff. Using Nolan meant that before Game Six even started, Sparky was prepared to use every arm in the bullpen and on the staff except for Gullett. Billingham was equally upset, but kept his thoughts and quotes to himself.
Tiant shutout the Reds in Game One. In Game four, the Reds had him on the ropes numerous times. By Game Six, they had Tiant pegged. They knocked him out, taking a 6-3 lead. The only Boston runs came on a three-run homer by Fred Lynn off Nolan. Sparky was using pitchers at an alarming rate but they had shut Boston down.
It was in the 8th that Bernie Carbo hit a pinch hit three-run homer off Eastwick to tie the game. Sparky second guessed himself to his death on this one; He started to remove Eastwick for McEnanay but stopped. The game eventually ended when Carlton Fisk hit the home run off Pat Darcy. The only Reds pitcher left in the bullpen was Clay Kirby.
Gullett was shaky in Game Seven, walking home two runs. Boston took a 3-0 lead and the Reds looked to be in bad shape. With Rose on first, Bench hit a double play ball that Denny Doyle threw away thanks in part to the fierce slide by Rose, allowing Bench to take second base and extend the inning. Perez then deposited a Bill Lee pitch onto Landsdown Avenue and the Reds were back in business. Rose knocked in the tying run and Morgan the winning run in the 9th inning of another one run game. Billingham had been effective in relief, both in Games Six and Seven. When Cesar Geronimo caught Carl Yasztremski’s flyball in the 9th inning, the Reds were World Champions.
Interviewing Sparky Anderson
In 1993, I interviewed Sparky Anderson for the newspaper I was working for. I sat in the dugout at old Tiger Stadium with Sparky for 35 minutes. We talked about all sorts of things, including the 1975 season. I asked him if he feared being second guessed on the selection of Nolan in Game Six if the Reds had lost the Series. “Not at all,” Sparky said to me. “I never lost sleep on that one. My one regret was leaving Eastwick in to face Carbo. I actually started on the field to take him out and bring McEnaney in. But for some reason, I stopped. I don’t know why. I just stopped. I didn’t bring McEnaney in.”
Sparky was polite and direct. I had heard he was that way. He talked about both the good and bad days in Cincinnati. “To this day, when I am with somebody and we’re driving past the hotel in Los Angeles where Dick Wagner fired me, I point to the hotel and say, ‘Hey, that’s where I got fired at’.”
Sparky also maintained that the best World Series he saw was the one in 1972 against Oakland; not the 1975 WS with Boston. “No offense to the Red Sox or that Baltimore team in 1970, but that Oakland team was the best one we ever played against. Six of the seven games were decided by one run. They had great pitching with Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman. It’s my fault we lost. I blew Game Four in the 9th inning.” (Note– Sparky was talking about ignoring Ray Shore’s scouting report on Angel Mangual’s game winning hit. Dave Concepcion was out of position, Sparky saw it but didn’t correct it.)
I asked Sparky about being inducted into the Hall of Fame — which hat would be on his sculpture? Cincinnati or Detroit? He didn’t hesitate to answer. “Everything I have done, all the good things that have happened to me is because of Mr. Howsam,” Sparky said. “So to me, there is no doubt of which hat I will wear if I’m lucky enough to get voted in.”
When we finished, I thanked him again for his time and we shook hands. Sparky flashed a big grin. “John, you know what?” he said. “It doesn’t cost a dime to be nice to people. Not a single dime.” He patted me on the shoulder, turned and went into the clubhouse. I got the feeling Sparky said that quite a bit, and actually meant every word of it.
Up Next: The 1976 season. Perfection.
John lives in Galesburg, Illinois and has been a Reds fan all of his life. He is a retired firefighter and a Veteran who served for 32 years but stays active at the local Humane Society. His favorite Reds players include Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Tony Perez, Eric Davis, and Bronson Arroyo. While writing, he frequently listens to the music of Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan. He is flanked in the photo by ever-loyal “Reptar.”