Editor: This is the sixth 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
Part 5: The Battle for Rookie of the Year
On July 16, 1968, the Cincinnati Reds lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers by a 9-2 score. Don Drysdale, he of the 56 consecutive scoreless inning streak, got the win. With Pete Rose on the disabled list because of a fractured thumb, leadoff hitter Alex Johnson had three hits and so did Vada Pinson. But Reds ace Jim Maloney was knocked out early and the Reds were saddled with a record of 42-45 after the loss and not looking good.
They were in 6th place, 15 and 1⁄2 games behind the first-place St. Louis Cardinals.
Pitching was still the problem for the Reds. They led the National League in hitting and were hurting Marathon Oil with their home runs. “A player who hit a home run got 55 free gallons of gas from Marathon,” said pitcher George Culver. “But that didn’t mean much to us pitchers. But Tony Perez brought up that the regular players who hit the homers should share their gasoline with the pitchers as a team.”
“That didn’t go over very well. Pete [Rose] didn’t want to do that because he didn’t hit a lot of home runs. Johnny Bench said he’d keep the first 15 and then donate to the pitchers after that. But he hit 15 for the season so we didn’t get anything,” laughed the former Reds righthander.
Fortunately for the good guys, things would change quickly for the Cincinnati Reds after that loss to Drysdale. They went on a tear. True, they were far behind first-place St. Louis but they made a run.
At the same time, America’s culture was shifting a bit too. The top-rated TV show was Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In on NBC. Stoned Soul Picnic, by the 5th Dimension, was #3 on the rock charts with fast-climbing Jumpin’ Jack Flash at #5. And The Green Berets starring John Wayne was one of the top movies of the summer.
But the Reds were making a move– they won 11 of their next 13 games to finish the month of July, including one of their weirdest no-hitters ever, courtesy of Culver.
Weird you ask? The game didn’t even start until 10pm (EST), in the City of Brotherly Love. Johnny Bench didn’t catch it (he caught 154 games that season) and the Reds won by a 6-1 score. So in the Year of the Pitcher, George Culver’s no-hit win over the Philadelphia Phillies is the Reds contribution to that historic season.
Cincinnati’s hot-streak started with a 7-4 win over the Dodgers. Mack Jones’ two-run double and a sacrifice fly by Pinson provided the winning margin. Then, the Reds scored 37 runs in the next four games in routing Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It was capped with a 7-6, 12-inning win over the Pirates when Bench went 4 for 6 and Pinson rapped out three more hits.
Culver and Clay Carroll then combined on a 13-hit shutout of Pittsburgh in a 2-0 win. That’s right– a 13-hit shutout. Jerry Koosman slowed down the Reds by tossing a four-hit shutout (two by leadoff hitter Chico Ruiz) in a 2-0 Mets win. After New York won again by a 5-2 score, the Reds routed Tom Seaver in two innings and Carroll pitched four innings of no-hit, no run relief in a 5-3 win. Lee May homered twice in that game for the Reds.
In Philly, the Reds kept pouring it on. In the first game of a twin-bill, Tommy Helms went 3 for 4 and drove in a pair of runs in a 7-6 win. And then the second game featured Culver again but it didn’t start until 10 pm because of the length of the first game. Pat Corrales, the Reds backup catcher, started that game.
“That morning, I got out of bed and didn’t feel good,” said Culver. “I tried to eat at four in the afternoon and couldn’t. So I caught a cab to go to the game later instead of taking the bus. Then my foot started killing me because of an ingrown toenail and I had to get a cortisone shot to numb it. Because of that, I didn’t warm up hardly at all, maybe ten pitches. I was nowhere near being loose.”
In the second inning, Phillies’ first baseman Richie Allen reached on an error by Perez and advanced to second on a throwing error by shortstop Woody Woodward on the same play. Bill White got him to third on a ground ball to the right side of the infield and Cookie Rojas delivered a sacrifice fly for a 1-0 Philadelphia lead. It didn’t last long. Rose, back in the lineup, combined with Helms and Johnson for seven hits at the top of the Reds batting order and the Reds zipped to a 6-1 lead. Corrales added a pair of hits and knocked in two runs.
“I didn’t know I had a no-hitter until the fourth inning,” said Culver. “I thought the ball Allen hit was ruled a hit.” Culver still had a no-hitter after 7 innings. He started the 8th with back to back walks. “I was nervous, had never come close to throwing a no-hitter,” admitted Culver. “I was being too careful. Dave Bristol came out to the mound and told me to get my act together or he’d pull me from the game. That put me back down to Earth, real quick.”
Culver wiggled out of the jam and made history when he induced Rojas to pop out to first baseman Don Pavletich to end the game and win a rare 6-1 no-hitter. “Cookie was a manager in the winter leagues in Puerto Rico,” said the Reds righthander, “and I played for him down there. He was a good contact hitter. I was saying to myself, ‘Please Cookie, not now, don’t get a hit.’ I jumped up and down on the mound after he popped it up. After the game, the Reds broadcasters, Jim McIntyre and Joe Nuxhall, interviewed me on the field. The game didn’t end until 1 in the morning. There might have been a thousand Philly fans left and a lot were rooting for me.”
“So I go back into the clubhouse to get a beer. The clubhouse attendant said there wasn’t any left. Connie Mack Stadium was in a pretty rough neighborhood so it was hard to get a cab to get back to the hotel. By the time I did, everything was closed. I was going to go out and celebrate.
“Looking back on it,” added Culver, “it’s probably good that I didn’t.
“Having Pat catch the game was probably good for me. We were both from California and we were good buddies on the Reds. Pat was a great guy, every time he caught me, things flowed pretty good. But I was nervous late in the game. I’d never come close to throwing a no-hitter.”
The Reds won their final two games of the month over Philly and Pittsburgh. That was 11 of 13. They leaped from sixth place to second. But unfortunately, the Cardinals were also on fire with a 70-36 record, the best in baseball. The Reds won 11 of 13 but were still 14 and 1⁄2 games out.
They had made up exactly one game on St. Louis. One damn game.
Richard Nixon wasn’t gaining ground; he owned it. The former Vice President had routed Nelson Rockefeller in the Republican primaries for President with their Convention to be held at Miami Beach the next week. So relaxed was Nixon, he appeared on a cameo for Rowan and Martins’ Laugh-In. One of the many skits on that show was a “Sock it to me” segment. Nixon was willing to appear on the show for that feature. Here it is:
Vice President Hubert Humphrey had sewed up the Democratic nomination as well. Their Convention was to be held in Chicago as a political promise to Mayor Richard Daley. The Democrats were splintered and angry. Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. Vietnam was a disaster. LBJ wasn’t running. There was a large, anti-war faction in the Party. There were probably a lot of Democrats hoping the Convention would be held somewhere more remote– like in Boise, Idaho.
No such luck for them. Neither for the Reds. They had made a big move in the National League but were way behind the Cardinals. But there was still two months to go.
George Culver took a no-hit game into the seventh inning against San Diego a year later. Al Ferrara broke it up with a single to leftfield. “Man, it was hot in Cincinnati that day,” laughed Culver. “But that no-hitter in Philadelphia, I think the good Lord said to me, ‘This is your day. Don’t blow it.’”
Let’s close with the Fifth Dimension, a group which originated in LA but was quickly signed to Motown Records and produced some hits. You’ll hear the word ‘surry’ several times in this song titled Stoned Soul Picnic. It doesn’t appear in a dictionary. Laura Nyro, who wrote the song, said “Oh, it’s just a nice word.”
Some interpret it as a form of “let’s hurry.”
Can you surry, can you picnic?
Surry on down to a stoned soul picnic
There’ll be lots of time and wine
Red yellow honey, sassafras and Moonshine
The Reds were running out of time in August of 1968. Could they “surry” close to first place against the vaunted defending champion Cardinals?
Nixon would be in tranquil Miami Beach, awaiting coronation from the Republicans as “The Law and Order Candidate.” The Democrats would be in Chicago. Mayor Daley issued orders to the police to keep order. The Mayor’s photo would be on a sticker, welcoming Democrat delegates to Chicago and attached to every hotel telephone room in the City. Protesters were sure to be in force.
It was a Perfect Storm. Only in 1968.
The Battle of Michigan Avenue loomed. As did the second place Cincinnati Reds against the champion Cardinals led by nasty righthander Bob Gibson. “Gibson hated us,” said Culver, “but he hated everybody.”
To be continued…
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.”