In his first at-bat as a Cincinnati Red on Opening Day of 1969, Bobby Tolan smacked a home run into the Sun Deck of Crosley Field off Don Drysdale. It was the start of a stellar four-year run for Tolan, who was the heir apparent to the centerfield position vacated with the trade of Reds legend Vada Pinson.
After a severe injury caused Tolan to miss the entire 1971 season, he bounced back big in 1972, winning not only the Comeback Player of the Year but also the coveted Hutch Award (given to the player who “best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire” of Fred Hutchinson, by persevering through adversity). Then came a fateful Game 7 of the 1972 World Series. And then came the disastrous 1973 season for Bobby Tolan. Before the end of September of that year, the Reds traded him to the San Diego Padres.
Six years, three teams and one season in Japan later, Bobby Tolan played his final baseball game in 1979 — back in San Diego.
The story of Bobby Tolan is tragic in a sense. Sparky Anderson called the Tolan situation the single biggest failure of his tenure as a Reds manager. “I take full blame for the situation that came up in 1973 with Bobby Tolan,” said Anderson. “I consider this my greatest failure as a manager because I sensed what was happening to him, saw it develop and did not take the time to do something about it early in the crisis.”
Many in the Reds organization — from General Manager Bob Howsam to Pete Rose — tried talking to Bobby during that fateful 1973 season. Nothing worked. After a stellar four-year playing career with the Reds, Tolan was gone. And he was never the same player after that.
Bobby’s career started with the Reds the day after the Cardinals lost the 1968 World Series to Mickey Lolich and the Detroit Tigers, St. Louis traded Tolan, then a spare outfielder, to Cincinnati along with relief pitcher Wayne Granger for Pinson. Howsam knew of Tolan from his days in St. Louis and always kept an eye on him for a trade. This was one of Howsam’s best deals. Granger took over the closer role (before it was called a “closer”) and was a workhorse in the bullpen.
And Tolan? Manager Dave Bristol penciled him into centerfield and the second position in the batting order and let him play. 152 games, to be exact. Tolan didn’t disappoint. He batted .305, smacked 21 home runs and knocked in 93 runs with an .347 OBP and stole 26 bases. He was an integral part of the budding Big Red Machine.
Tolan had a beautiful drag bunt that he used often to beat out hits. He wasn’t the centerfielder Vada Pinson was, but he was definitely serviceable in that position. The 5’11” inch, 170 pounder was athletic and could hit lefties. And he was just 23 years old during that 1969 season.
Tolan was even better in 1970. His average climbed to .316, he hit 16 home runs, knocked in 80 runs and stole 57 bases while increasing his OBP to .384. Tolan had established himself as one of the best outfielders in baseball. He was a big part in the Reds 102-win season and a National League pennant. Bobby Tolan was a star.
And then it happened. Reds players, back in those days, put together a traveling basketball team in which they played in the Tri-State area for charity events. Howsam frowned upon that. During a game in Frankfort, Kentucky on January 7, 1971, Tolan ripped his Achilles tendon. After surgery and during his rehab, Tolan tore it again in May while running in the outfield The season was gone.
Tolan’s injury, combined with arm problems by Jim Merritt and Wayne Simpson, doomed the Reds. Anderson initially tried Hal McRae in centerfield but that didn’t work. The Reds traded for George Foster from the Giants and Anderson plugged him in centerfield but it wasn’t a natural position for Foster, either. The Reds slipped from 102 wins to 79.
The Reds weren’t sure Tolan could come back. Howsam engineered The Trade, which brought Joe Morgan, Jack Billingham, Denis Menke, and Cesar Geronimo to the Reds but at a high price; the Astros acquired the right side of the Reds infield (Lee May and Tommy Helms, along with utility player Jimmy Stewart.)
Tolan had a great 1972 season– he played in 149 games and batted .283. Some of his offensive numbers declined a bit but he was still good enough to be one of the best centerfielders in the National League. Coupled with Morgan and Geronimo, Tolan made the Reds a more athletic team. Tony Perez made the move to first base and while Menke was a disappointment — he had a good August at the plate but that was about it — he filled the void at third base. The Reds won the NL pennant once again.
After 6 games in the World Series, Cincinnati and Oakland were tied 3-3. Five of the six games had been decided by just one run. Oakland’s great pitching staff (Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman, Rollie Fingers) had negated the Reds power but Morgan and Tolan were running like crazy and killing them on the bases. While A’s catcher Gene Tenace was hitting for surprising power, he couldn’t throw anybody out.
In Game 7, Tolan had two defensive lapses that crucially hurt the Reds. He made an error in the first and then misplayed a ball hit off the bat of Sal Bando that led to another run. Tolan was 7 for 26 in the Series and he knocked in six runs and stole five bases.
Bobby got off to a slow start in 1973. He never got into a rhythm. He quit bunting. He didn’t seem as fast as he used to be. Anderson took away the “green light” sign that permitted Tolan to steal on his own decision.
He struggled to bat over the Mendoza Line. Twice, Tolan started to grow a beard, which was against team rules and Sparky had him shave it off. After Cincinnati clawed back into the pennant race with the Dodgers, Tolan complained of a back injury. He missed some doctor appointments, which upset Howsam. The Reds GM sent Sheldon “Chief” Bender to order Tolan to the doctor the next day. Words were exchanged and a fight broke out. Tolan was suspended by the Reds.
Howsam worked the phones and found a trade partner for Tolan in the Padres, who were cellar-
dwellers that year. The Reds got pitcher Clay Kirby in return. Kirby had a couple of decent years for the Reds (winning 12 and 10 games) but is perhaps best known for being the only Reds hurler on the pitching staff not to pitch in game 6 of the 1975 World Series. Bobby went to the Padres, then the Phillies, then the Pirates, then a year in Japan in 1978, then another stop in San Diego. And then he was done.
The Reds, like most teams, have had their share of one-year wonders. A player who has a great season and then, for whatever reason, drops off the radar. In Bobby Tolan’s case you have a rare guy who played at an outstanding level for three years and then was gone. Was it just a deterioration of his skills and a loss of speed? Was it a bad attitude fueled by the misplays in Game 7 of the World Series? Did Sparky really mismanage this or is there anything he could have done?
Or was it all of the above?
Tolan had a son who was playing in the Washington Nationals farm system in 2009, Robbie Tolan. On December 31, 2009, Robbie and a cousin had just returned to their home in Bellaire, Texas at 2am from a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant. After getting out of the car, they were ordered to stop by a police officer under suspcion of stealing a car. At some point in this exchange, family members got involved. Robbie Tolan was shot in the altercation and suffered an injury to his liver. He never played baseball again. The police officer was found not guilty by a jury but the City of Bellaire (a suburb in southwestern Houston) paid a $110,000 settlement from a civil lawsuit to the Tolan family.
Another tragedy, another baseball career finished.
For whatever reason, Bobby Tolan is never at any of the Reds functions, in which several former Reds players attend. Maybe the Reds don’t invite him. Maybe they haven’t reached out to him. Or maybe Bobby doesn’t want to attend. He’s 75 years old now but 1973 was a long time ago.
I think most Reds fans would love to see Bobby Tolan again. We are a forgiving bunch. The good memories of Bobby Tolan— the unique batting stance, the #28 Reds uniform, the World Series games are what most fans would remember.
Vada Pinson died too young. Fans would have loved to see him at Reds Fest or at Great American Ballpark. Vada was a special kind of a player and one of the best centerfielders in Reds history.
Bobby Tolan would certainly rank in the Top 10 centerfielders in Reds history. His short term of service with Cincinnati probably keeps him out of the Reds Hall of Fame (along with the Chief Bender fight) but regardless, he was an important part of the beginning of the Big Red Machine.