To celebrate the 150th anniversary of baseball’s oldest franchise, this article will cover eight of what I consider to be the most iconic moments in the Reds’ modern history. For historical purposes, I always consider “modern history” to coincide with Frank Robinson’s rookie season of 1956.
Limiting this to eight was tough. I started with just five but quickly understood it couldn’t be that few.
I didn’t limit these “moments” to just a specific at-bat or a pitcher’s start or a key play. I wanted to include hirings, firings, trades, managerial decisions, General Manager decisions and baseball rulings that ultimately affected the Reds.
So here’s my Elite Eight. Give me your thoughts. I considered roughly 25 from a list I comprised and had to trim it down. On my original list of 25, I had the trade for Ken Griffey Junior. The passing of Joe Nuxhall. The Nasty Boys. The Frank Robinson trade. The equally disastrous trade of Tony Perez. Bowie Kuhn’s disgraceful veto of the Vida Blue trade. (Imagine a pitching staff with both Tom Seaver and Vida Blue.)
I did omit — on purpose — other moments I mention in this six-month series, such as Tom Browning’s perfect game, several dramatic moments of Johnny Bench’s career and also crucial decisions made by the Reds front office and managers.
Here we go and they are in chronological order:
Chico Ruiz’ Mad Dash (1964)
The 1964 pennant race was in control of the Philadelphia Phillies. They jumped out to a lead, were considered the best team in the NL, had the All-Star MVP in Johnny Callison, a bright young star in Ritchie Allen, established veterans in Cookie Rojas and Tony Taylor, a genius manager in Gene Mauch and a strong 1-2 pitching punch in Jim Bunning and Chris Short.
With just two weeks to go in the regular season, the Phillies had a 6 ½ game lead over the Reds. Right behind Cincinnati were the Cardinals (7 games out) and the Giants (8).
It has been a good, but not great season for Cincinnati. The Reds still had the corps of their 1961 NL pennant team; players such as Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Gordy Coleman, Johnny Edwards and pitchers Joey Jay and Jim O’Toole. Fred Hutchinson was still their skipper but Hutch had been diagnosed with cancer. Stunned, the Reds slowly watched Hutch suffer from it’s ravaging affects as the season went on. When Hutch was honored with a birthday cake at Crosley Field in a pregame ceremony in August, his right eye had swollen shut and he had lost significant weight. Hutch resigned and the Reds appointed Coach Dick Sisler as the new Reds skipper.
And so it was on September 21 at Connie Mack Stadium that the Reds opened a series against the first-place Phillies. Making a rare start for the Reds that night at third base was Chico Ruiz, a Cuban native, who was a utility player for the Reds. Ruiz was fairly dependable, had good speed, not a lot of power but Ruiz could play multiple positions. He was also eccentric. He relished his role as a bench player. Pressed into a need to start for two consecutive weeks one season, an exhausted Ruiz told Cincinnati sportswriters he was making a demand of the Reds; “Bench me or trade me,” Ruiz said with a laugh.
The Reds-Phillies game that night was a pitchers dual between Cincinnati’s John Tsitouris (7-11) and Phillie righthander Art Mahaffey (12-8). In the 6th inning, Pete Rose led off and grounded out to Taylor. Ruiz, batting just .237, then lined a base hit to right field. Pinson followed with another hit to right field and Ruiz scampered to third base but Pinson was gunned down at second by Callison for the second out. That brought to the plate Robinson, Cincy’s best player and only .300 hitter.
The Reds third base coach was Reggie Otero. He had been in the Reds organization for years and probably was best known for a fist fight he had with Johnny Temple. Like Ruiz, he was from Cuba.
On the season, Chico Ruiz had six stolen bases. He had good but not explosive, Billy Hamilton-type speed. Sisler gave no strategic signs to Otero or Ruiz. Why would he? Robinson was his best hitter and there were two outs. Mahaffey had fairly decent control and he got ahead of Robinson on the count.
And then it happened. On Mahaffey’s 2-2 pitch to Robby, Ruiz broke for home plate.
Robinson saw Ruiz coming and immediately broke into a bunting stance, to try and block catcher Clay Dalrymple’s sight of Ruiz. Mahaffey also saw Ruiz running while he was winding up to pitch. His delivery, altered because of a running Ruiz, sailed far to the right and high of Dalrymple– he made a nice play to even catch it. Ruiz scored easily without being decapitated by Frank Robinson’s swing.
Tsitouris made the one run stand up. He threw a six-hit shutout, striking out Ruben Amaro to end the game. “I do not think,” sad Ruiz after the game, “I would do that again,” It was a totally spontaneous play; created by Ruiz and without guidance from Sisler or a shocked Otero.
It was a crushing loss to the Phillies. The Reds beat the Phillies again the next when Ruiz homered. “Chico F—- Ruiz,” yelled Mauch after the game. “We lost to Chico F—- Ruiz.!” Cincinnati completed the sweep the next night when Vada Pinson beat out a bunt and slammed two home runs in the Reds win.. The Phillies collapsed in an historic meltdown.
It was a bittersweet and tragic season for the Reds. They lost the pennant the last day of the season, when Tsitouris got routed and the Cardinals beat the Mets, using Bob Gibson out of the bullpen to clinch an 11-5 win over the hapless Mets. Tsitouris showed up at Crosley Field before the final game with his car packed for the trip home, an ominous sign. Sisler was second-guessed for not starting his best pitcher, Jim Maloney on two-days rest. Tragically, the Reds lost Hutch two months later to cancer.
“He showed us how to die,” said Cincinnati Post writer Earl Lawson of Hutch. “He was out of the John Wayne mold.”
Chico Ruiz died in a car accident in California in 1971.
The Trade (1971)
Long-time Reds fans know what “the trade” is. It was orchestrated by General Manager Bob Howsam after the 1971 season. It involved the Houston Astros. It’s rightfully regarded as one of the biggest in Reds history.
The end result of The Trade was this: Cincinnati swapped Lee May, Tommy Helms and Jimmie Stewart to the Astros for Joe Morgan, Jack Billingham, Dennis Menke, Ed Armbrister and Cesar Geronimo.
It didn’t start out that way. Not even close.
After the move to Riverfront Stadium in June 1970, Howsam knew the Reds needed to become a faster team. The disappointing 1971 season proved that as well. At a meeting of the Reds front office staff, Sparky Anderson targeted Morgan as player he would most like to get. Howsam approached Astros GM Spec Richardson offering a simple one for one trade: May for Morgan. Richardson balked, saying he needed a second baseman to replace Morgan.
After a few weeks, the trade evolved: Tommy Helms was added but Howsam asked for much more in return: pitcher Jack Billingham, Denis Menke, a third baseman, and an outfield prospect named Caesar Geonimo. This offer had to get the blessing of Astros Manager Harry “The Hat” Walker. But Walker wasn’t around. Richardson delayed Howsam, saying “The Hat is hunting” or “The Hat needs to approve this.”
When Walker came back, he wanted Stewart added to the mix, a utility player and clubhouse leader, thrown in the package. Howsam agreed but wanted to add one player as well in Armbrister. The Hat agreed.
When the trade was announced in November, Reds fans were not very happy about losing Lee May; he was clearly a fan favorite and was coming off a great 1971 season. In contrast, Morgan had batted just .253 in 1971 and rumors were he and The Hat didn’t get along very well. This didn’t bother Anderson at all.
It was Howsam’s signature deal. He made other great ones and a few that were terrible. But this was huge in refining the Big Red Machine. Howsam got a Hall of Famer (Morgan), an innings-eater and near 20-game winner (Billingham) and a Gold Glove centerfielder (Geronimo). Menke didn’t work out– he went from a good field, average hitter at third base, to a good field, poor hitter at third base and Armbrister’s claim to fame is a bunt in Game 3 of the 1975 World Series.
But the trade resulted in back to back World Series champs.
Hal King’s Home Run (1973)
Date: July 1, 1973.
Situation: Trailing the Los Angeles Dodgers by 11 games in the NL West, the Reds are losing 3-1 in the 9th inning to Dodger Ace Don Sutton (9-4, 2.37 ERA). Tony Perez is on second base with two outs. Sutton intentionally walks Johnny Bench.
Batter: Hal King, backup catcher for Bench, is inserted as a pinch hitter. On the season, King is hitting .182 with just one home run.
Result: With the count 2-1, Sutton throws a high fastball that King waves at and misses to even the count. King looks lost on the swing. Sutton then throws a screwball and King launches it into the rightfield stands for a game-winning three run homer. Tony Perez wins the second of the doubleheader (young guys– two games for the price of one, unheard of anymore) with an RBI single in the 10th inning.
Ramifications: King’s blast results in a power move by the Reds that results in Cincinnati’s capturing the NL West in the 1973 season. To be sure, there were two big moves made by the Reds in ’73— (1) the trade for future Reds Hall of Famer Fred Norman and (2) the call up of Dan Driessen to play third base and jettison Menke. Driessen batted .301 for the season. A late season call up of Ken Griffey was a boost. It also helped that Rose won his third batting title and an MVP award. But the jolt supplied by Hal King is etched in Cincinnati Reds history.
Sparky’s bold move (1975)
After the trade of Lee May and the move of Tony Perez to first base, third base was a thorn in the side of Manager Sparky Anderson. In Menke’s season and a half with the Reds, he had one good month offensively (August 1972) but he clearly wasn’t the answer. Driessen was a great hitter but not a pure third baseman and his gaffe in Game 5 of the 1973 NL playoffs wasn’t forgotten.
At the start of the 1975 season, Anderson gambled John Vuckovich was the answer. A good field/no hit infielder, Sparky was hoping the Reds could withstand his weak bat. After an impressive Opening Day (a double and two nifty plays at third base), Vuckovich went into the tank. Nicknamed “balsa” because of his soft bat, Anderson started losing patience and pinch hit for Vuckovich liberally– once in the second inning of a game. Vuckovich threw a temper tantrum that night breaking light bulbs with his balsa bat and Anderson was infuriated.
Anderson knew that Pete Rose had been moved to third base once before; that happened in 1966 under the order of Manager Don Heffner. The results weren’t good. Sparky took a different approach and asked Rose about it during a pregame warmup. Rose agreed. There were two big results from this: (1) George Foster and his “Black Betsy” bat got into the lineup and (2) Sparky’s batting order looked like this: Rose, Morgan, Bench, Perez, Foster, Griffey, Concepcion and Geronimo. That’s a pretty tough lineup.
Sparky made this call. Vuckovich was sent to Indy. When Reds GM Bob Howsam saw the box score of Rose’s first game at third base in a newspaper while he was in Arizona, his initial reaction was disbelief– he thought it was a misprint– followed by a wonder if Anderson had lost his mind.
It completed the Big Red Machine. And two World Series championships. The Great Eight was completed.
Tony Perez meets Landsdown Street (1975)
Tied 3-3 in the 1975 World Series against the Boston Red Sox, the Reds were trailing 3-0 in the 6th inning of the 7th game. Don Gullet was uncharacteristically wild and Boston knocked him out early. The Reds bullpen kept the Reds close but Bill Lee, an eccentric, somewhat-goofy lefty had stifled the Reds. Pete Rose walked up and down the Reds dugout cursing, encouraging his team to come back.
In the 6th, Rose was on first base with one out and Johnny Bench was at the plate. Bench hit a routine ground ball to shortstop Rick Burlson. It was a sure double play. Rose was out at second but he barreled into Boston second baseman Rick Burlson with a hard slide forcing a wild throw to first. Bench went to second base and Tony Perez came to the plate. It was the kind of play you don’t see anymore. But that was Pete Rose.
Before the game, Lee was told not to throw Perez any off speed stuff. Stay away from it. But Lee threw his “eephus” pitch, an off-speed lob ball. Perez later said he wasn’t looking for it but it was in his mind. He crushed it.
The ball roared out of Fenway Park bouncing into Boston’s Landsdown Street. The Reds were alive and back into the game. They eventually won 4-3, thanks to an RBI-single by Rose that tied the game and a game winning hit by Joe Morgan.
Tony Perez. In one of his more memorable quotes, Sparky Anderson said, “If a game goes on long enough, Tony Perez will find a way to end it.”
He didn’t end this one. But the combination of Pete Rose’s hustle play and Perez’ rocket launch of a home run certainly got the Reds in business. Clay Carroll got the win in relief. Will McEnaney the save.
The split-season concept drawn up by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn due to a players’ strike meant that the team with the best record in baseball (the Reds) missed the playoffs when the 1981 regular season concluded. The strike started in June and was settled in August.
In the first “half” of the season, the Reds were 35-21 and finished ½ game behind the Dodgers in the NL West. They had won seven in a row when the strike hit, the seventh win being a complete-game win by Tom Seaver over the Mets. In the second half, the Reds were 31-21 and finished ½ game behind the Astros. Overall record: 66-42, best in baseball. But no playoffs for the Reds. Houston and LA advanced.
It happened to the Cardinals, too. St. Louis (overall) had the best record in the NL East but failed to make the playoffs as well.
It was the first split-season in baseball since 1892. Attendance plummeted 17% when the games resumed. I’m surprised it wasn’t more.
Maybe the Reds wouldn’t have made the playoffs in the long run. They weren’t a powerhouse team, for sure. But they had .300 hitters in Dave Concepcion, Johnny Bench and Ken Griffey, a great leadoff batter in Dave Collins and a powerful bat in George Foster. Tom Seaver (14-2) was having a fabulous season and Mario Soto (12-9) was hitting his stride and the Reds had a great bullpen. A 1-2 pitching punch of Seaver and Soto in a short playoff series would have been a great advantage for the Reds.
The Dodgers ultimately won the World Series. They weren’t a powerhouse team, either.
But we’ll never know. Say “split-season” to me today and I still get angry.
Like Pete Rose or not, you have to admit if you were alive and a Reds fan where you were at when Rose became the Hit King. It was hit 4,192 in a career that netted 4,256. It happened at Riverfront Stadium, the pitcher was San Diego’s Eric Show and it was a single to left field.
Even more dramatic was a game two days before in Chicago when Rose threatened to break the record at at Wrigley Field. He came up against Cub closer Lee Smith in the dusk of a late inning game but struck out. “It sounded like a strike,” said Rose after the game. Marge Schott had to be chain-smoking during that game, fearing the loss of a sellout crowd in Cincinnati to watch Rose make history in Chicago. Cubs fans were on their feet, cheering for Rose.
Rose got the hit off Show on September 8, 1985 on a 2-1 pitch. The radio call was made by Marty Brennaman. But you could hear Joe Nuxhall in the background yelling, “There it is! There it is! Get down!”
There’s several other Pete Rose moments worthy of consideration: the 44 game hitting streak in 1978, the last day of the regular season winning of batting title championships in both 1968 and 1969 (against Marty Alou and the Great one, Roberto Clemente) and the Pete Rose War in New York against the Mets in the 1973 playoffs.
Billy Hatcher and his .750 batting average (1990)
The last time the Reds were baseball champs was 1990. That’s sad, but true. But it was a special team, a unique combination of players.
The Nasty Boys. Sweet Lou. Larkin and Sabo. Mr. Perfect. And Billy Hatcher.
Hatcher played for seven teams in his career and was only a Red for three years (1990-1992). Cincinnati traded minor leaguers Jeff Richardson and Mike Roesler to the Cubs for Hatcher. In 1990, he batted .276 and stole 30 bases while playing centerfield and posting a fielding percentage of .997. Hatcher had a big game against the Cubs in 1990 when he doubled four times. But in the World Series against Oakland, he was simply unreal.
Hatcher got a first inning walk in Game 1 and then proceeded to get seven straight hits in Games 1 and 2. For the Series, he batted .750, the highest batting average in a World Series since Babe Ruth batted .625 in the World Series of 1928.
Hatcher’s Series ended in Game 4 when a pitch from Dave Stewart broke his hand with a pitch. Amazingly, Hatcher wasn’t the MVP of the ’90 Series; Jose Rijo was (and deservedly so) for his two magnificent pitching performances against the favored A’s. Rijo dominated them.
But man, a .750 batting average in the World Series. Take a bow, Billy.
Photo of Riverfront Stadium by Rick Dikeman. The license for the photo can be found here.