Editor: This is the fifth 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!
Part 1: Remembering 007’s Reds: a 50 Year Celebration
Part 2: King’s assassination delays 1968 Opening Day
Part 3: The Reds’ Raging Bull: Alex Johnson
Part 4: Another assassination, another baseball crisis
July 4, 1968. With the All-Star Game rapidly approaching, the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers had gained solid leads in, respectively, the National and American Leagues.
The Tigers had built an eight-game lead over second place Cleveland. The Cardinals had an 8-9 game lead over four teams: San Francisco, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. The Reds were going to Los Angeles for a crucial three-game series before the break, hoping to get closer to the Cardinals.
Meanwhile in Vietnam, President Johnson fired his manager, General William Westmoreland, and replaced him with General Creighton Abrams. Now a lame-duck President and with an election just months away, Johnson felt it was a good move. But LBJ had lost most of his public support after the Tet Offensive, including this candid assessment from none other than Walter Cronkite.
And the news that the Army had closed the base at Khe Sanh and withdrew American forces — after fighting a heroic 77-day siege and sustaining 2,500 casualties just months earlier in saving it -— both baffled and outraged many Americans.
On July 5, LA’s Don Drysdale and Cincy’s George Culver locked up in a classic pitchers duel. Both pitched 10 innings and neither allowed a run. Lee May’s two-RBI double in the 12th inning gave rubber-armed, submarine-throwing relief pitcher Ted Abernathy the win over Don Sutton.
The next night, pinch-hitter Chico Ruiz’s dramatic two-RBI single in the 9th inning gave the Reds and Clay Carroll a 3-2 win. And after breaking out to a 3-0 first inning lead in the final game on Sunday, the Reds hoped to get a three-game sweep. But starter Gerry Arrigo was routed and the Dodgers won 6-5.
So after the Cardinals swept their three-game series against the Giants — that finished with a climactic pitchers duel featuring Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal — the Reds found themselves ten games out at the All-Star break.
Five Reds made the National League All-Star team: Tony Perez, Leo Cardenas, Pete Rose, Tommy Helms, and a rookie catcher by the name of Johnny Bench. Rose missed the game due to a broken thumb and was replaced by Cubs outfielder Billy Williams.
There was another rookie on that National League squad: Jerry Koosman, a lefthanded starter for the suddenly respectable New York Mets. Koosman had an earned run average of under 2.00 when he was named to the team. And just a week earlier, he had pitched against the Reds at Crosley Field. Lee May -— the Big Bopper — blasted a three-run homer off Koosman and then hit a game winning triple in the 10th inning after Bench singled to give Clay Carroll his first victory as a Cincinnati Red.
And so it was that two of the best rookies in the National League, if not all of baseball — Koosman and Bench -— were All-Stars.
The game was in Houston that year at the Astrodome, the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” With AstroTurf, massive scoreboards, and air conditioning, the Dome was a pitcher’s paradise and in the Year of the Pitcher and 12 months before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would walk on the moon, it was appropriate and fitting for Houston to host the game. It was, in retrospect, a “safe site.” Many larger American cities were being torn apart by anti-war protests and rioting. Not so in Houston under Judge Roy Hofheinz’ Dome.
Tommy Helms started at second base and doubled off Luis Tiant in the second inning with no outs but was stranded after Tiant struck out two of the next three batters. He walked in the fourth inning against Blue Moon Odom and went 1 for 3 on the day. The NL scored the only run of the game when Willie McCovey rapped into a double play and Willie Mays scored from third base in the first inning.
Mays was selected as MVP in the NL’s 1-0 win. NL pitchers dominated the game– four future Hall of Famers shut out the Al for eight innings: Don Drysdale, Marichal, Steve Carlton and Tom Seaver.
“I’d just served my two weeks of duty with the Marine Reserves so I flew in the night before,” said Helms. “It was kind of a boring game. I made a couple plays at second base on balls hit by Carl Yastrzemski and Willie Horton and I got a hit off Tiant.
“But we had some great pitchers for us. They shut everybody down.”
Tommy was right. In those eight innings, NL pitchers yielded just three singles, two of them to pinch-hitters (Don Wert and Tony Oliva.)
Ironically, Koosman pitched in the 9th inning with Bench catching and got the save. (Here’s Koosman striking out Yaz for the last out of the game with Johnny Bench catching and Curt Gowdy doing the play by play for NBC.)
The Rookie of the Year race in 1968 for the National League went down to the wire and was the closest ever in history. Koosman’s numbers were very impressive: 6.0 WAR, 263 innings pitched, 2.08 ERA, 19-12 record, 7 shutouts and 178 strikeouts.
Bench played 154 games for the Reds, with a WAR of 5.0, 15 homers, 82 RBI’s, with a slash line of .275/.311/.433 — not to mention his cannon of an arm and outstanding defensive play. Koosman had the major media market advantage by playing in New York; he nearly won 20 games. Bench was an everyday player. The All-Star starter at catcher ahead of him was the Mets’ Jerry Grote so Johnny was clearly one of the best catchers in the National League as a rookie.
The end result? Johnny Bench won by a vote of 10.5. to 9.5. A single vote. He was the third Cincinnati Red in five years to be named Rookie of the Year (the other two being Rose in 1963 and Helms in 1966.)
“I had seen Johnny for the first time in 1965,” said Reds Manager Dave Bristol. “I met him and Gary Nolan there. Johnny had special abilities. You could see it then. I knew then he would be a great catcher, a special catcher. I knew he’d be a great player for the Cincinnati Reds.”
As Johnny Bench’s star rose, the four-star Army General, William Westmoreland, came home. He was promoted (naturally) to Army Chief of Staff upon coming home from Vietnam. But any hope of winning the Vietnam War was over. The Tet Offensive finished that. Westy’s strategy, a war of attrition, failed miserably. Here’s a quick clip of a hasty press conference during the Tet Offensive held by Westmoreland.
LBJ was finished. Westmoreland was finished. The Reds, although in third place, were nearly finished. St. Louis had the best record in baseball and the Cardinals had an incredible 1-2 pitching punch of Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton.
But the Reds could hit. In the Year of the Pitcher, they had far and away the best batting average in baseball. The Atlanta Braves were a distant second in the National League.
No one knew it at that time but the Big Red Machine was in its infancy stage.
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.”