All the speculation on whether Bryan Price would return to the Reds as their manager has now concluded. He will be back next year for sure, with an option year included. To most involved with Redleg Nation, we see that as eminently fair. Price hasn’t had the benefit of really playing with a full deck of cards and this rebuilding process has been brutal.
The return of Price got my fertile mind thinking. The Reds have had a total of 20 managers since Fred Hutchinson passed away in 1964. That includes Tommy Helms, who took over for Pete Rose after the gambling fiasco of 1989. As we all know, managers are hired to be fired. Seldom do you see one simply walk away from the game after winning a championship or resigning to put off the inevitable.
That’s been the case of the aforementioned 20, which counts Bryan Price.
Going back, the release/firing of previous Reds managers since the Reds lost Hutch are justified in some cases; in others, they are not.
Managers many times pay the price when their General Managers make bad moves (i.e. trades, free agent signings) or when the scouting department is cut too thin (Marge Schott era) or they simply aren’t given enough time to prove their genius (Tony Perez, Pete Mackanin) or a new GM is hired and he “wants his own man” on the job (Dick Wagner.)
So in my humble opinion, there are four specific cases in which I didn’t feel the Reds were warranted in firing their manager: Dick Sisler, Dave Bristol, Sparky Anderson and Davey Johnson. Without further ado:
When Hutch had to leave the team due to his illness in the heat of the 1964 pennant race, Sisler took over. Coincidence or not, the Reds went on an eight game winning streak to propel themselves into the middle of an historically tight pennant race among four teams. Many second guess Sisler’s choice of a starting pitcher (John Tsitouris) on the final day of the season, in which the Phillies blasted the Reds 10-0. But emotionally, the Reds were spent; Hutch was dying before their eyes, they had blown a 1-0 16-inning game the week before and two days before the season finished, a fight broke out in the clubhouse between Jim O’Toole and Leo Cardenas, after another tough defeat.
In 1965, Sisler had what Pete Rose has called the best hitting Reds team of all time. (And this was before Johnny Bench and Lee May arrived.) The stats seem to prove it– the ’65 Reds led the National League (then 10 teams) in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, were second in home runs and fourth in stolen bases. Of the eight regulars, Tommy Harper had the lowest batting average (.257) but hit 18 homers, drove in 64 runs and stole 35 bases.
The trouble was pitching. Sisler had two studs in starting pitchers Jim Maloney (20-9) and Sammy Ellis (22-10). He had a solid, young reliever in Billy McCool and a veteran in Joe Nuxhall. But the rest of the staff struggled. The Reds team ERA (3.88) was 9th in the NL and they allowed the third-most home runs of any NL team.
They finished with an 89-73 record, fourth in the NL, and 8 games behind the NL winning Los Angeles Dodgers.
Then GM Bill DeWitt—the architect of the ’61 Ragamuffin Reds—made two moves. He fired Sisler and traded Frank Robinson. The former move wasn’t wise, the latter was a disaster.
DeWitt hired Don Heffner as the new Reds manager. The Reds had little or no respect for Heffner. They called him “Old Shakey” because of his nervousness and he didn’t complete the 1966 season. And while Robinson won the Triple Crown and the Orioles won the World Series, the Reds fell below .500.
Ironically, Bristol replaced Heffner. Dave Bristol was a young, fiery bold manager that came up in the Reds system. He knew most of his players and they had his respect. The Reds bounced back from that miserable ’66 season but couldn’t challenge the Cardinals dominance in the NL in 1967 and 1968.
But in 1969, the hated Cardinals were in another Division. The Reds were in the NL West and had a powerful lineup. Rose, Bobby Tolan, Tony Perez, Bench, May (The Big Bopper) and Alex Johnson, probably the strongest, most physical player they had. They clobbered the ball and would win 19-17 one day, lose 12-8 the next. The problem was—you guessed it– pitching.
The ace was Jim Merritt, a 17-game winner. But Jim Maloney was injured and won 12 games. So was Gary Nolan. Tony Cloninger had a 12-17 record. Wayne Granger and Clay Carroll were solid in the bullpen but that was about it.
The Reds were in contention until the final two weeks of the season and fell short. Once again, as in 1965, their record was 89-73. And General Manager Bob Howsam probably wanted to hire his own man because he inherited 007 (Bristol’s nickname.) Howsam’s reason for firing Bristol was that the Reds should have stayed in contention longer. Even Hall of Fame writer Earl Lawson wrote that Howsam’s reason for firing Bristol was lame.
In a flurry of moves that winter, Howsam traded Johnson for Jim McGlothlin, a pitcher. Young pitchers Don Gullett and Milt Wilcox would be on the roster. So was Wayne Simpson, who started off the 1970 season 14-1.
Howsam also canned Bristol and hired Georgie Anderson.
The headlines were “Sparky Who?” when George Anderson was hired to replace Bristol. Back then, Cincinnati sports teams had Hall of Fame, well known coaches in Paul Brown and Bob Cousy. That didn’t faze Anderson a bit. “I hope we have all sorts of champions while I’m here in Cincinnati,” he said at his introductory press conference.
Anderson’s body of work is well-known. He’s in the Hall of Fame, after all. Except for a relapse in 1971, the Reds won or were in contention every year from 1970-1978. It was Anderson’s gamble that resulted in Rose’s move to third base and the insertion of George Foster to leftfield. It was Anderson who relied heavily on the bullpen which alienated his starters but helped revolutionize the game.
Dick Wagner was named the new General Manager in February 1978. The Reds had some injuries that year (most notably to Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan) but pitching depth killed them again. They finished strong, winning 21 of their last 29 games but never got close enough to the Dodgers. Their final record was 92-69, four games behind LA.
After the season ended, MLB sent the Reds on a “goodwill” tour to Japan. They played 14 games against a team of Japanese All-Stars. You can imagine that after the grind of a 162 game season, that’s hardly what the Reds or Sparky wanted to do. They finished with a 14-1-1 record on the tour.
Wagner fired Sparky in a hotel room in LA after their return from the Far East. Rumors were that Wagner wanted to make changes to Sparky’s coaching staff; that would have been a battle. It was also felt that Sparky had eased up on the gas pedal when it came to discipline and treatment of his veterans. The Stalag 17 spring training camps from the early ’70s were gone. The Reds clubhouse after games was full of kids of the players, friends and associates. Instead of addressing those issues, Wagner made the move from Anderson to John McNamara. The dismissal of Sparky and Pete Rose’s free agency move to Philadelphia jolted Redleg Nation. It was the worst off-season in a generation.
Johnson was one of the underrated Reds managers in my lifetime. He played under Earl Weaver, had a solid big league career and was respected in the game. Some have forgotten this now, but he managed some pretty good Cincinnati teams. Named as manager 44 games into the 1993 season, Johnson’s Reds led the NL West in 1994 (66-48) but the strike wiped out that year. The Reds won going away in 1995 (85-59), knocked off LA in the playoffs but then lost to Atlanta. Rumors swirled that Johnson never really hit it off with Owner Marge Schott. Given Schott’s fiery, blunt personality, that’s understandable. She was reportedly miffed Johnson was living with his fiancee, instead of being married.
Schott fired Johnson and named Ray Knight as manager.
Aside from Johnson, the other three managers never had a top notch pitching staff the year they were fired. With that in mind, let’s close this article with a quote from Sparky Anderson.
“You give us the pitching some of these clubs have and no one could touch us. But God has a way of not arranging that because it’s not as much fun.”