All-stars -- and would-be hall-of-famers -- powered Cincy's Big Red Machine
By David Crawford Jones
In the science of color, red conjures passion and aggression, speed and ferocity. Drive a red car and you are more likely to push the accelerator; wave a red cape at a bull and it will charge. Red provokes action, excess and fury. By contrast, machines are known for their predictability and efficiency, for the ability to repeat the same task over and over again. In their precision and intricate design, they evoke images of gray steel, pistols firing and pumps oscillating.
Between red's heart, blood and fire, and the machine's control, balance and power, one finds almost the Platonic ideal of a great team, able to churn through the rigors of a 162-game schedule and then light itself afire in the must-win situation.
From 1970-76, the Big Red Machine perfectly encapsulated the yin and yang of what makes a great baseball team, averaging almost 98 wins a year while capturing five division titles, four NL pennants and back-to-back championships in 1975 and '76.
While other baseball dynasties achieved greatness with superlative pitching and balanced hitting, the Reds' success was linked to their everyday lineup, which by 1976 featured seven All-Stars, three future Hall of Famers and MLB's all-time hits king. Season after season, Cincinnati's offense collected runs and victories at a historic rate, leading more than one observer to dub them the greatest team ever.
"We didn't think we could get beat," second baseman Joe Morgan said, "because we almost never did get beat."
One hundred years before the Big Red Machine was set in motion, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the city's first ballclub, christened baseball's professional era with a perfect 65-0 record. But in the following century, the Queen City struggled to return to the summit, winning just five pennants and two world championships. Accordingly, when Bob Howsam took over as GM of the Reds prior to the 1967 season, he was determined to overhaul the franchise, which was coming off a seventh-place finish in '66.
The previous front office had not left the cupboard bare, though. The 1966 Reds already boasted two players who would play pivotal roles for the Big Red Machine: first baseman Tony Perez, then just 24 years old, and second baseman Pete Rose, who at 25 had already posted back-to-back 200-hit seasons in 1965 and '66. The farm system at the time featured catcher Johnny Bench, who would make his Major League debut in 1967 after spending the previous year pummeling pitchers in the Class A Carolina League.
Around this core, Howsam gradually assembled the pieces that would transform the Reds into one of the greatest baseball teams of the 20th century. In 1967, he signed 19-year-old shortstop Dave Concepcion out of Venezuela. The following year he dealt veteran pitcher Milt Pappas to the Braves for Clay Carroll, whose long relief skills would bolster an otherwise ordinary staff. After the Reds finished with 89 wins in 1969, their best total in five seasons, Howsam hired a new manager, the lightly experienced George "Sparky" Anderson, to take the reins. The hiring raised more than a few eyebrows, though; one local newspaper even responded with a giant "Sparky Who?" headline.
Anderson, for his part, confidently predicted that his young team would win the NL West by 10 games in 1970. It was a preposterous claim for a club that hadn't won anything in almost a decade -- that is until Cincinnati, bolstered by the first of Bench's two MVP seasons, won 102 games, besting its nearest rivals by 15 in the standings. Although the Reds would lose that year's Fall Classic to the Baltimore Orioles, the Big Red Machine had arrived.
But even then, Howsam wasn't done. When the Reds slumped in the standings in 1971, he executed two more critical trades, acquiring outfielder George Foster from the Giants and nabbing second baseman Morgan, center fielder Cesar Geronimo and starting pitcher Jack Billingham from the Astros. The latter package paid dividends in 1972, as the Reds won a pennant for the second time in three years, ultimately falling to the A's in a seven-game World Series in which all but one game was decided by just one run.
The early postseason setbacks of the Reds' dynasty could not mask its transcendent offense. Credit for coining the team's famous nickname has fallen to Cincinnati sportswriter Bob Hertzel, although others claim that it references the no-nonsense approach Howsam and Anderson instilled, requiring players to keep their hair short and beards shaved, and execute the fundamentals. Yet it was between the white lines that the team's aggressive personality and flair for excess manifested, often to devastating effect.
Rose, the team's captain and leadoff hitter, ran the bases like a man with his shoes on fire, routinely catapulting headfirst into second and third base and barreling through any catcher who dared to block home plate. Such tactics earned "Charlie Hustle" more than a few enemies, but also drew the admiration of his teammates, who appreciated his intensity, not to mention his three batting titles and willingness to play anywhere on the diamond.
"Pete played the game, always, for keeps," Morgan said. "Every game was the seventh game of the World Series. He had this unbelievable capacity to roar through 162 games as if they were each that one single game."
If Rose was the heart of the machine, Morgan and Bench comprised its engine. Arguably the greatest players in history at their respective positions, they each took home two NL MVP Awards from 1970-76. During his 17-year career with the Reds, Bench led the league in homers twice and RBIs three times while capturing 10 consecutive Gold Glove Awards. Morgan, a five-time Gold Glover himself, was an on-base dynamo, leading the league in 14 offensive categories during his career while swiping 689 bases and smashing 268 home runs, setting the record for second basemen at the time.
"That little man can do everything," Anderson said of the 5-foot-7 Texas native whom he described as "the smartest player I ever coached."
In addition to Rose, Morgan and Bench, the middle of the Reds' batting order also featured Perez, the Cuban first baseman who averaged 27 homers and 104 RBIs from 1969-76, and left fielder Foster. The latter's arrival as an everyday player in 1975 helped catapult the Reds to another NL pennant, as he finished second to Bench on the team in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS. Add in solid offensive contributions from Concepcion, Geronimo and Ken Griffey Sr., and the 1975 Reds scored 105 more runs than any other NL team, while also leading the Senior Circuit in OPS (.754) and steals (168). With a solid starting rotation backed by four Gold Glove winners in Bench, Morgan, Concepcion and Geronimo, the Reds won 108 regular-season games, the most by any NL team since the 1906 Chicago Cubs.
That year's World Series against the Red Sox is best remembered for the legendary Game 6, punctuated by Carlton Fisk's walk-off home run for Boston in the bottom of the 12th. That kind of painful loss has sunk other teams in the postseason, but the Reds bounced back the next night to take the Series with a come-from-behind, 4-3 victory, highlighted by a Perez home run and a two-out, ninth-inning single by Morgan. Left-handed reliever Will McEnaney, then just 23, retired the Red Sox in order in the bottom of the ninth to give Cincinnati its first championship in 35 years.
"We were too good to lose that World Series," Rose said afterward. "If the Red Sox had scored 10 runs, we would have scored 11. We could not lose."
Rose took home Series MVP honors, but much of the credit for his club's triumph belonged to Anderson, whose maneuvering of the 'pen helped to compensate for an average starting rotation. In seven games, Anderson made 23 pitching changes, the most ever in a World Series to that point. Although the manager preferred to deflect credit, the Reds recognized his brilliance and unique ability to balance their strong personalities. "Sparky was, by far, the best manager I ever played for," Rose later said. "He understood people better than anyone."
Having already climbed the baseball summit in 1975, the Big Red Machine secured immortality the following season with one of the most dominant offensive campaigns in history. Morgan won a second consecutive NL MVP Award while Foster led the league with 121 RBIs. Those contributions, coupled with strong performances from Rose (.323 average) and Griffey (.336), helped the Reds score a Major League-best 857 runs and lead MLB in doubles, triples, home runs, average, on-base percentage and slugging. After winning their division by 10 games, the Reds proceeded to sweep both the Phillies in the NLCS and the Yankees in the World Series, becoming the only team in the divisional era to go undefeated in the postseason.
The club's flawless performance in 1976 marked the end of the dynasty, as the Reds would not win another pennant until 1990. They remain the last NL team to win back-to-back world titles, and while others -- most notably the Yankees of 1996-2001 -- have since earned the distinction of the greatest dynasty of the modern era, no other club has captured the public imagination in quite the way that Cincinnati's Big Red Machine did. That immortality is surely a product of the group's offensive firepower.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that [we were] the greatest of all time," Anderson later said. "But if somebody else has a better [team], I want to sit and watch it."
As Bench put it, "The Big Red Machine will never be forgotten. They'll be remembered because of the professionals they had, the character they had, [and] the skill they had. Those teams were a symbol of what baseball really should be."
David Jones is a writer and baseball historian based in Ohio. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.