The Cincinnati Reds landscape is littered with pitchers who have contended with injuries. Are we living in a unique period, with fragile pitchers and unsure management? It’s worth remembering that even our most respected and beloved managers — including Fred Hutchinson, Dave Bristol. Sparky Anderson, Davey Johnson and Lou Piniella — have been as perplexed and frustrated as we are today. Unfortunately, history does repeat itself.
Sparky’s Fab Four
As the Reds steamrolled the NL West to 102 wins during the 1970 season under rookie skipper Sparky Anderson, the big four of the Reds starting rotation was Gary Nolan, Wayne Simpson, Jim Merritt and Jim McGlothlin. With those four on the mound, the Reds won 70 of their first 100 games. They were clearly the best team in baseball when you consider they also had players like Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Bobby Tolan, Tony Perez, Lee May, Bernie Carbo and “I’m just a Hubcap” Tommy Helms of the Big Red Machine.
Simpson started the season 14-1 and was virtually unbeatable. The big hard-throwing right-hander was the next Bob Gibson. The kid was 7-14 in Triple A the season before and the light suddenly turned on that winter in Puerto Rico. But he blew his shoulder out on a fastball to Cubs left fielder Billy Williams that July. Wayne Simpson was finished, even though he lingered with the Reds until 1972.
McGlothlin started off fast in 1970 but took a line drive off his knee in June. He got hurt again in August. He kept pitching but wasn’t close to being 100%.
Left hander Merritt won 20 games in 1970 but popped his elbow in September. He limped to the finish line and got bombed in the World Series by the Orioles. In 1971, he was 1-11 and got booed out of Cincinnati.
Only Gary Nolan survived the season. He won 18 in ’70, pitched even better in 1971 but missed the next two seasons due to an assortment of arm injures before coming. (More on Nolan later.)
But Sparky had four hotshot young pitching prospects up his sleeves. They were the future of the Reds. All were either with the Reds or at Indianapolis in Triple A. The Reds would survive these injuries that decimated their pitching staff.
Those four pitchers were Don Gullett, Ross Grimsley, Mel Behney and Milt Wilcox. Only Wilcox was a right hander — the other three were lefties. (Sound familiar? Remember the Cueto trade?)
Sparky called them ‘Young Don Gullett,’ ‘Mr,.Grimsley’, ‘Young Mel Behney’ and ‘Milt’ He raved about them and swore pitching coach Larry Shepherd, who was compared to a Marine drill instructor, would whip them into shape.
Gullett and Wilcox pitched in 1970 and did well. They even performed respectably in the World Series against the Big Bad Birds. 1971, here we come.
Young Don Gullett (18 years old) did. In 1971, he finished 16-6 in a 79-83 season for the Reds. He had it all. A blazing fastball. A natural pitching motion. A great athlete, Gullet could even help himself with the bat and ran the bases well. “Wall to wall heat” is how Pirates slugger Willie Stargell described Gullet’s fastball. In a relief appearance against the World Champion Mets in August 1970, Young Don Gullett struck out six Mets hitters in a row and 8 of the 12 he faced. For the next six seasons, Don Gullett anchored the Reds pitching staff. He was the guy, he was the ace.
But in 1972, he contracted hepatitis and finished a mediocre 9-10. He had good seasons in 1973 and 1974 and was on his way to a 20-game winning season in 1975 when he got injured by a line drive and fractured his thumb. He won just 11 games but was a big factor in the Reds World Championships in 1975 and 1976. In ’76 he showed up at spring training out of shape and Anderson fumed.
And eight months later, Don Gullett was gone. Just like that. He wanted a five-year contract in 1977 and Reds GM Bob Howsam balked, offering instead just a two-year deal. Gullett abandoned the Reds for the Yankees. It was Cincinnati’s first free agent defection. And two years later, Don Gullett retired as an active baseball player because of injuries.
The other three of Sparky’s Fab Four had mixed results. Mel Behney washed out. Wilcox was traded after the 1971 season but the Reds gave up on him too early. Wilcox was a late bloomer. His career took off and in 1984 (reunited with Sparky at Detroit) he won 17 games, came within one out of a perfect game against the White Sox and won games in the AL playoffs and 1984 World Series.
Grimsley stuck with the Reds until 1974. He pitched one of the all-time great Cincinnati postseason games with his clutch Game 4 victory over the Pirates in 1972, pitching a sparkling two-hitter. But the left hander was too aloof for Sparky. Grimsley’s belief in black magic spooked Anderson and he asked Howsam to trade Grimsley after the 1973 season. Ross went to the Orioles for Merv Rettenmund and had very good success for Earl Weaver and Baltimore, despite growing one of the biggest Afros in baseball, That trade didn’t work out for Howsam, Sparky or the Reds. Grimsley was a 20-game winner for the Montreal Expos in 1977. The Reds sure could have used Ross Grimsley that season.
From Flamethrower to Magician
18-year old right hander Gary Nolan burst on the scene in Cincinnati in 1967 in a big way. In his debut on April 15 against Houston, he struck out the side in the first inning using a wicked, nasty fastball. On June 7 in a memorable game against the Giants, San Francisco got two runners on base in the 6th inning of a 0-0 game. Nolan then struck out Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Jim Ray Hart. He fanned Mays four times that day. “No one’s ever done that to me,” said Mays after the game.
Nolan was 14-8 that season with 208 strikeouts. He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting, losing out to Tom Seaver (understandable) and Dick Hughes (not understandable). On Opening Day of 1969, Nolan struck out 12 Dodgers but lost 3-2 to Don Drysdale. Then, Nolan’s first shoulder injury occurred. While in Triple A Indianapolis, he became demoralized but learned to throw the changeup and in 1970, the Reds had a different pitcher.
For the next two seasons, Nolan pitched well. But he hurt his shoulder again just before the All-Star break in 1972, missing more time. He finished with a 15-5 record and a spiffy 1.99 ERA.
He missed most of the 1973 and 1974 seasons. Gary Nolan felt betrayed by both Reds management and teammates that felt he could pitch when he couldn’t because of the pain. Nolan sold his house in Cincinnati. But he came back one more time and helped the Reds to back-to-back World Series titles.
By then, Gary was a finesse pitcher, using a devastating change up and curve with a decent fastball. The late, great sportswriter Earl Lawson called Nolan a “magician” on the mound. Nolan was a master of the strike zone, not giving up many walks although was was bitten by the home run ball.
Nolan’s last start for the Reds came in Game 4 of the 1976 Series when he defeated New York at Yankee Stadium. It was his only World Series win. Injuries resurfaced in 1977, he was traded to the Angels and retired at the end of the season.
Today, Gary Nolan is a member of the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame.
The All-American Boy
Jack Armstrong personified the fast start the 1990 Cincinnati Reds had when they last won the World Series. Cincinnati went wire to wire in first place and Armstrong, a 6’5” right hander jumped out to an 8-1 record. He was selected to start the 1990 All-Star game, the last Reds pitcher to do that and just the seventh in Reds history to start for the National League. He pitched three scoreless innings.
A first round selection in the 1987 draft, Armstrong took the fast route to the big leagues. But he pitched himself out of the rotation by the time the playoffs started. Still, Armstrong pitched three innings of shutout relief in Game 2 of the Reds win over Oakland.
He slipped to a 7-13 record in 1991 and the Reds traded Armstrong and Scott Scudder to the Cleveland Indians for Greg Swindell. A torn rotator cuff finished Jack Armstrong’s career in 1994 at the age of 27.
One win for C.J.
C.J. Nitkowski was yet another first round draft pick of the Reds in 1994. He was also another lefty. Like others, he had a fast-track to the big leagues and made his debut in Cincinnati on June 3, 1995. Used primarily out of the bullpen, C.J. never gained any traction. In July of 1995 he was packaged with two other players in a trade for David Wells — remember when the Reds used to be “buyers”?
The change of scenery didn’t help C.J. During a 10-year career he compiled a 10-32 record and also played ball in Japan and South Korea.
Bonus Baby Flame Out
Chris Gruler was a first round draft pick of the pitching-starved Reds in 2002. Gruler was the answer.
After signing with the Reds, he went off to Billings (Rookie League) where he pitched 16 innings and allowed just two runs. His fastball was clocked at 96 MPH. He then went to Dayton in 2003 and started off strong, even carrying a no-hitter into the 6th inning against Cedar Rapids.
And then it went south. He was raked for 19 runs in just a five inning span over three games. Multiple shoulder surgeries later, he was out of baseball. In the minor leagues, he had a 3-5 record over 27 appearances with an ERA of 5.08.
He never pitched for the Cincinnati Reds.
Tired of hearing about the potential of Robert Stephenson? Cody Reed? Amir Garrett?
Frustrated about injuries to Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey and Brandon Finnegan?
Sick and tired of watching one after another rookie pitcher make his Reds debut?
Unfortunately, difficulties with pitching is a large part of Reds history. Time and time again under countless managers and pitching coaches, young, would-be-star pitchers have arrived and departed.
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.”