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The Big Red Machine

The Big Red Machine

The Big Red Machine

Armed with superstar talent and a quotable manager, and dressed in blindingly white uniforms and drab black shoes, the conservative Cincinnati ballclub of the 1970s became known as “The Big Red Machine.“ Their brand of baseball: taking the extra base, stealing bags, crack defense, dominating relief pitching to back up solid starters, and an offense that featured seven All-Stars, was both exciting and intimidating.

 

If you were a sports fan in Ohio in the 1970s, outside of Woody Hayes and his Ohio State Buckeyes football juggernaut, you had one option: rooting for the Cincinnati Reds. With apologies to the Bengals and Browns of the NFL and the lowly Indians in the American League, the Cincinnati baseball team was not only the team of Ohio in the 1970s, they were unquestionably the team of the decade in all of professional sports. Armed with superstar talent and a quotable manager, and dressed in blindingly white uniforms and drab black shoes, the conservative Cincinnati ballclub was “The Big Red Machine.“ Their brand of baseball: taking the extra base, stealing bags, crack defense, dominating relief pitching to back up solid starters, and an offense that featured seven All-Stars, was both exciting and intimidating.

“We don’t like to look ahead,“ said Dodgers manager Walt Alston in a 1973 interview with Sport Magazine, but we always know when that team [Cincinnati] is coming up on our schedule.“

Behind Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Johnny Bench, the Reds established their dominance immediately as the decade opened. In 1970, they won 70 of their first 100 games of the season, tying a record. They never looked back.

But their success in the regular season did not translate into championships right away.

In 1970, 1972, and 1973, the Big Red Machine rolled their way into the post-season. In 1970 -  Sparky Anderson’s rookie season as manager - the Baltimore Orioles, themselves in the midst of a dynastic period, stopped them in the World Series, thanks in large part to the left hand of Brooks Robinson, which snared line drives (many off the bat of Bench) headed for left field.

In the ‘72 World Series, the Oakland A’s (launching their own dynasty) defeated the Reds in a tight seven-game classic. The next fall, the Reds were toppled by New York in the NL Playoffs, which featured a fight between Cincinnati’s Pete Rose and Mets’ shortstop Bud Harrelson. By this time, second baseman Joe Morgan (acquired in a shrewd deal with Houston) and shortstop Davey Concepcion were on hand to lend their talents.

After missing the playoffs in 1974, the Reds put it all together in 1975, combining their speed and power (they paced the league in both stolen bases and home runs) to enjoy one of the best seasons in baseball hsitory. The Reds won 108 games, the most in the National League in 70 years, burying the Dodgers in their wake. In the playoffs they rolled over Philadelphia in three straight games (Rose batted .357) and advanced to face the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.

The ‘75 Fall Classic was one of the most exciting in history, and the most written-about. The Reds were a powerful offensive team, built around their “great eight” of Bench (C), Perez (1B), Morgan (MVP at 2B), Concepcion (SS), Rose (3B), George Foster (LF), Cesar Geronimo (Gold Glove in CF), and Ken Griffey (RF).

The Sox had rookie American League MVP and Rookie of the Year Fred Lynn, veteran Carl Yastrzemski, and ace hurler Luis Tiant. Several future Hall of Famers performed in the Series.

Rose had his best World Series, batting .370 (10-for-27) with five walks. After losing the historic sixth game on Carlton Fisk’s magical homer, the Reds won Game Seven, earning their first title in 35 years. They followed with another Series victory in 1976, cruising past the overmatched Phillies and Yankees, winning all seven of their post-season games. They remain the only team to go undefeated in the post-season in the playoff era.

After those victories, the Reds took their place among the great teams of all-time. The Big Red Machine has rightfully been compared to the 1927 Yankees, the DiMaggio/Gehrig 1930sYankees, the A’s of 1929-1931, the Mantle-Era Yankees, Musial’s 1940s Cardinals, and the 1972-1974 A’s. Other teams since, namely the 1988-1990 A’s and the 1990s Yankees, have joined the debate.

Following their back-to-back titles, the Reds seemed poised to add to their pennant collection, especially after acquiring Tom Seaver in 1977. But the trade of Perez prior to the ‘77 season proved to be the nail in the coffin of the Big Red Machine. Cincinnati GM Bob Howsam felt that young Dan Driessen was ready to take over at first base, but he miscalculated the value of Perez in the clubhouse. Perez’s leadership was never replaced.

The team lost their position in first place to the Dodgers in 1977 and 1978, and when Rose signed with the Phillies as a free agent in 1979, the reign was truly over. Sparky Anderson was fired following the 1978 season, seemingly because he had the audacity to finish in second place.

In ‘79 under John McNamara, the team rebounded to win the division title before losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the playoffs. In 1981, the Reds managed the best record in the National League but the player strike (which resulted in a split-season format) cost them a post-season birth. Bench, Concepcion, Foster, and Griffey were still in place, but Joe Morgan had been shipped away.

Finally in 1982 the wheels really fell off the Big Red Machine when the team lost 101 games to begin a three-year slide of losing seasons. Not until Pete Rose returned as player/manager late in 1984 did things begin to turn around.

In 2005, when the members of the Big Red Machine were reunited at Cinergy Field in Cincinnati to honor the 30th anniversary of the 1975 season, their general manager reflected on that era.

“Cincinnati was a conservative city, and I wanted the players to represent that properly. The way they looked, the way they played, the way they wore the uniform, the way they acted off the field. We wanted them to become part of the team but also part of the community.“

Good Genes

The Reds were one of the most talented group of players in history - and that talent was passed on to their children. Four members of the Big Red Machine had their sons reach the major leagues - Pedro Borbon’s son Pedro Jr., Ken Griffey’s son Ken Jr., Tony Perez’ son Eduardo, and Pete Rose’s son Pete, Jr.

Baseball Men

Several former Reds from the 1970s championship teams went on to key baseball jobs after their playing days ended:

Tony Perez and Pete Rose both managed the Reds, and Tony also was a coach for several years. In 2001, Perez was named interim manager of the Florida Marlins, after serving as assistant to the GM. Ken Griffey served as batting coach for the Reds and the Mariners, both times while his son played under him. Don Gullett was a major league pitching coach, and of course, Sparky Anderson went on to win a World Series title with the Detroit Tigers and finish third all-time in wins by a manager. Joe Morgan shunned offers to stay in the game as a manager or front office exexutive, and launched a long, succesful career as a broadcaster.

By The Baseball Page
Tuesday, 15 Mar 2011

 

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