Editor: This is the fourth installment of a season-long series by our resident Reds historian, John Ring. The series will examine the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Cincinnati Reds, a team on the brink (of huge success) playing during a year that it seemed the world was on the brink. Enjoy!
On June 4, 1968, the entire National League — all ten teams — were in the pennant race.
St. Louis was in first place with a 29-21 record. But the Cincinnati Reds, in 7th place with a record of 24-24, were just four games behind the defending National League champions. Last place Pittsburgh trailed by just 7.5 games.
In the Year of the Pitcher, Cincinnati had the bats. A trio of Reds — Alex Johnson, Tommy Helms, and Pete Rose — were batting over .300. They had a pair of sluggers in Tony Perez and Lee May. Add to that centerfielder Vada Pinson, shortstop Leo Cardenas, and a rookie catcher named Johnny Bench, and there wasn’t an easy out in the starting eight.
Bench was still feeling his way by June — his average was at .256 — but he was getting better and better. Defensively, he already had established a reputation for a killer arm and was a revolutionary kind of a catcher. Offensively, he was on his way to figuring it out.
The big question for Manager Dave Bristol was this: did he have enough pitching to keep the Reds in contention? Here’s an interview with the Reds skipper before the 1968 season began.
June 4 — a Wednesday — the Reds took on the Atlanta Braves in a night game. There were 6,544 fans at Crosley Field that summer night. Lefthander Gerry Arrigo pitched a beautiful game, scattering eight Braves hits over 8 and 2/3 innings of work. Lefty Billy McCool came in and retired Tito Francona for the save. Rose and Perez had RBI singles. The Reds climbed over the .500 mark.
When Cardenas tucked away Francona’s pop up at 10pm (EST) the polls were getting ready to close in California. There was a big Presidential primary election that day for the Democratic Party in the Golden State and in South Dakota. That race was as close as the National League. It was in turmoil. And it was going to get worse.
This was, after all, 1968.
In March, President Lyndon Johnson pulled out of the race after beating challenger Eugene McCarthy by a 49-42% margin in New Hampshire. Taking Johnson’s place and the mantle of his Party was Vice President Hubert Humphrey. But just four days after the New Hampshire primary, New York Senator Robert Kennedy entered the fray. The McCarthy camp, fueled by the anti-war fever, was outraged.
Kennedy won a big primary election in Indiana. McCarthy countered with a huge win in Oregon just a week before the California primary. Humphrey had the big Unions and traditional Democrats. McCarthy’s populism came from the colleges and anti-war activists. Kennedy was a favorite among minorities, Catholics and ‘Kennedy Democrats’.
California was huge. Kennedy campaigned in the ghettos and barrios, McCarthy went to the college campuses. Polls showed it was a tight race with Kennedy a slight favorite, but too close to call. Both RFK and Clean Gene wanted to take Humphrey on in a one on one contest in Chicago, the site of the 1968 Democratic Convention. A three-way race weakened both of them and virtually ensured a Humphrey nomination.
Five hours after Billy McCool retired Francona, the results poured in. Kennedy won the State of California by a 46% to 42% margin. He also won South Dakota. RFK gave a victory speech (he mentioned Don Drysdale’s sixth consecutive shutout which happened hours earlier at Dodger Stadium) at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and then exited through the kitchen where he was met by a disgruntled and intoxicated man named Sirhan Sirhan. He had a gun.
And so, on June 5, the nation awoke to the news of another Kennedy assassination. RFK would linger for 26 hours after the shooting before being pronounced dead.
Dallas, LA. Once again. Oswald, Sirhan. Once again.
That night at Crosley Field, 19-year old Gary Nolan was brilliant when he took the mound against Atlanta. He shut out the Braves 10-0, allowing just three hits. Nolan lowered his ERA to 1.20 in the win. Tony Perez and Lee May each homered. It was perfect timing because the Cardinals were coming to town for games on Friday, a doubleheader on Saturday night, and a day game on Sunday. And the Reds, by pure luck, wouldn’t have to face big, bad Bob Gibson.
In the opener against the Cardinals on Friday night, Jim Maloney was, well, Jim Maloney. He dominated St. Louis, pitching a complete game victory. He gave up a home run to Curt Flood but struck out nine Cardinals. Pete Rose went 2 for 4, knocked in two runs, and gunned down Orlando Cepeda at the plate from right field. Nolan and Maloney’s back to back gems were good news for Bristol. The Reds were making a move. With Nolan healthy and Maloney the ace, Reds Country seemed primed to have a big weekend.
Kennedy’s body was flown back to New York City for the visitation and funeral to be held on Saturday morning. After the service in NYC, he would be taken by train to Washington DC for burial. Baseball teams looked for guidance, just as they did for the funeral of Martin Luther King just months earlier. They didn’t get much.
Commissioner William Eckert’s directions were that no games would be started on Saturday June 8 until the final rites were given for Senator Kennedy at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. It was figured that the train would leave New York City by 1230 (EST) and the trip to DC would take four hours, so the night games would be able to start on time.
But trouble started in San Francisco. The Giants were hosting the Mets that Saturday at Candlestick Park for “Bat Day,” traditionally a large draw for teams during that era. Mets players met twice and voted unanimously not to play. New York Manager Gil Hodges simply said he would be in church on Saturday and not at the game that day. The Mets were not going to play ball. The Giants front office was stunned and angry. They appealed to the Commissioner and demanded to be reimbursed $80,000 for lost revenue if the game was canceled.
MLB (and Eckert) were silent. Five other games were canceled on Saturday and Sunday. Small rebellions by players started to break out. Not a word was muttered by Eckert.
Houston players Bob Aspromonte and Rusty Staub told the Astros they would refuse to play on Saturday. Player Representative Dave Guisti intervened but said Houston GM Spec Richardson was putting “the strongest economic pressure to bear” on the players. Staub and Aspromonte sat Saturday’s game out and were docked one day’s pay.
Roberto Clemente threatened to do the same but Pirates manager Larry Shepherd talked him into playing. Shepherd couldn’t persuade Maury Wills to take the field. Wills balked and instead sat in the Pirates locker room reading “To Seek a Newer World,” a book written by Senator Kennedy.
In Cincinnati, the Reds were as clearly divided as a team could be. Player Representative Milt Pappas called a team meeting about sitting out the game and the vote came back 12-12. With a 25-man roster, the math didn’t add up. “Somebody said ‘Alex Johnson didn’t vote’,” said pitcher George Culver. “So we found Alex and asked him to vote and he said, ‘What does everyone else want to do?’ and the entire team cracked up. I mean, the vote was 12-12.”
“I was starting the game that night and went out to warm up,” said Culver. “Then I got called back in for the vote. Then I went out to warm up again. Then I came back in because Dave Bristol and Bob Howsam talked to us. Crosley was packed. It was a pennant race. The Cardinals were in town for a double header. We voted. It was tied. It was a tense situation. Pappas didn’t want us to play and move the double header to Sunday and then make up the Saturday game. Howsam and Bristol wanted to play. I went out and warmed up again.”
Reds GM Bob Howsam called the Commissioner’s Office for guidance as Crosley Field filled up with fans and the funeral train crawled to Washington DC. Due to large crowds lining the railroad tracks to pay their last respects to Senator Kennedy and a problem with the mechanical brakes, the train moved slowly and the four-hour time to DC doubled. Howsam and Eckert decided to go ahead and start the game, despite Eckert’s previous policy.
Dave Bristol went back in the Reds clubhouse. “I put a blank lineup card on the table,” said Bristol. “I said, ‘Boys, we’re gonna play a game tonight and I just need nine guys. If you want to play ball, sign up’ and then I walked out. But I heard Pappas say, ‘If you follow him, I’m resigning as your player representative.’ “
“I knew my team pretty good. Tommy Helms, Jim Maloney, George Culver, and Pete Rose led the way and the others followed.”
The Reds and Cardinals agreed to play just one game that Saturday night. The twinbill would take place on Sunday. Culver, who would pitch over 200 innings that year, was worn out from warming up so much. “All those warm-up sessions got to me,” said Culver. “I didn’t have much left in the tank because of that.”
The Cardinals knocked out Culver in the fourth inning and Nelson Briles got the win in a 7-2 victory for St. Louis. But the next day at Crosley Field was truly bizarre.
In Game 1 of the twinbill, the Reds stormed out to an 8-0 lead with Arrigo on the mound and in cruise control. The lefty started the fifth inning by giving up a base hit to weak-hitting shortstop Dal Maxvill, but he came back to strike out Lou Brock and get a fly out. “We were talking in the dugout about getting a sweep and going out for a late dinner,” said Culver, “and then all of a sudden the roof came in.”
The Cardinals got four hits and a walk, knocking out Arrigo. They greeted reliever Bob Lee with two more hits and a walk, and then Brock crushed a three-run homer.
It was a 10-run inning, after there were two outs. St. Louis held on and won 10-8. The Reds had knocked out future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton in the fourth inning but melted down against journeyman reliever Ron Willis, who gave up just one hit in five innings of work.
In Game 2, the Cardinals routed McCool in the first inning, scoring five runs for a quick lead. Bristol, showing a sense of urgency, emptied the bullpen and thought the Reds could bounce back. “A five-spot was nothing, not to the hitters we had that year,” said Bristol. “I knew we’d fight back and get in the game.”
Pappas was actually huge in this game, coming in for long relief (6 innings) and shutting the Cardinals down. The Reds rallied on a Pinson home run in the fourth and Vada’s two-RBI single in the sixth. Mack Jones ripped a two-run homer. Bench’s sacrifice fly tied the game in the 8th and then Cardenas hit a game winning double that drove in Perez for a 7-6 win in 12 innings. Culver got the win by pitching a scoreless 12th against the Cardinals.
“Bristol was going with me as long as I could go,” said Culver. “I only went an inning but was ready to go as long as I could. We needed that win, especially after that first game.”
“That was Culver, you gave him the ball and he’d pitch. He would do anything for the team,” said Bristol.
The Reds and Cardinals split their four-game series. But blowing an 8-0 lead in one game and not facing Gibson meant a split was essentially a downer for the Reds.
It was a tense, up and down June weekend in Cincinnati. It was a weekend of mourning for the nation. Once again, MLB came away looking rudderless and without direction. 1968 had taken another tragic turn.
From a political standpoint, Humphrey was strengthened. His nomination seemed secured in Chicago. Richard Nixon had fended off challenges from Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney and was the “law and order” candidate for the Republicans. Alabama Governor George Wallace, a Democrat, was making noises about launching an independent Presidential campaign.
There were repercussions in Cincinnati as well. On June 11, Howsam traded Pappas, along with Ted Davidson, to the Braves for Tony Cloninger, Clay Carroll, and Woody Woodward. It was a win-win for the Reds. Carroll became a stalwart relief pitcher and is now in the Reds Hall of Fame, Cloninger started (with mixed results) for three seasons and Woodward was a stop-gap shortstop until Dave Concepcion was ready. Plus, Howsam got rid of the last vestiges of the disastrous Frank Robinson trade made two years earlier by Bill DeWitt, and Milt Pappas was no longer the player representative of the Cincinnati Reds.
The shocking assassination of RFK was already in the rear view mirror. A chapter was closed. Here’s a video of the funeral train, making its way from New York City to Washington DC while William Eckert was silent, Bob Howsam and Dave Bristol looked for some guidance, Maury Wills read a book, Gil Hodges was in church, and George Culver warmed up time and time again on the near west side of Cincinnati as Crosley Field filled up with fans to watch the Cardinals and Reds battle it out for the 1968 National League pennant.
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.”