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30 Years Ago: The Big Red Machine Steamrolls the Opposition

Future Hall of Famers Bench, Morgan, Perez and Anderson Guided the Reds to their second straight World Series, winning every Post-Season Game

By Gabriel Schechter

May 10, 2006

Big Red Machine exhibit

The Hall of Fame exhibit honoring Cincinnati's 1970s Big Red Machine features artifacts from Sparky Anderson, Johnny Bench, Dave Concepcion, Ken Griffey, George Foster, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and Pete Rose.

Thirty years ago, the 1976 Cincinnati Reds did what no other team has done since the dawn of the multi-tiered playoff age in 1969: they marched to the championship without losing a single game. Six other teams have gone through the postseason losing only one game (1969 Mets, 1970 Orioles, 1984 Tigers, 1989 A's, 1999 Yankees, and 2005 White Sox), but only the "Big Red Machine" triumphed unscathed, sweeping the Philadelphia Phillies and then the New York Yankees for their second straight title.

Two factors are commonly cited in accounting for the rise of the Reds from a very good team to a status as one of the greatest teams ever: the leadership of manager Sparky Anderson, and the 1972 trade which brought Joe Morgan (among others) to Cincinnati. However, the core of the team was developed by a rich farm system which supplied a steady stream of potent hitters and eventually produced a solid pitching staff. Five of the eight starters on the 1976 champions were home-grown: Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Johnny Bench, Dave Concepcion, and Ken Griffey. So were Lee May and Tommy Helms, the two players sent to Houston in the Morgan trade. Of the six pitchers who started most of the games in 1976, four were farm system products: Gary Nolan, Pat Zachry, Don Gullett, and Santo Alcala. So were two of the three relievers (Rawley Eastwick and Will McEnaney) who formed the core of the bullpen relied on so often by Anderson, nicknamed "Captain Hook" because of his frequent pitching changes. (The 1975 staff logging only 22 complete games, at that point the lowest figure ever for a National League champion).

Add that up, and fourteen of the twenty players who did the bulk of the work in 1976 were developed by the Reds. The team was loaded with talent.

The Reds led the major leagues in every offensive category with a perfectly balanced lineup. They hit more home runs, stole more bases, got more hits, drew more walks, and scored more runs. Pete Rose, who had moved from left field to third base, his fourth position, to make room for George Foster, batted leadoff and led the majors with 130 runs scored and 215 hits. Ken Griffey hit second, scored 111 runs and hit .336, losing the batting title on the season's final day to Bill Madlock. Joe Morgan hit third and put together his second straight MVP season, a career year with 27 home runs and 111 RBI, a .320 batting average, a league-leading .576 slugging percentage, and 60 stolen bases. Three big run-producers filled the middle of the batting order. George Foster led the league with 121 RBI, Tony Perez drove in 91 runs, and Johnny Bench (who suffered an uncharacteristically sub-par season with the limber) and backup catcher Bill Plummer combined to drive in 93. Eight Reds (including Concepcion and Geromino at the bottom of the batting order) stole bases in double figures, with a team success rate of 79%; even Bench had 13 steals and was caught only twice.

The '76 Reds had six pitchers who started at least 20 games, all winning in double figures. Add relief ace Rawly Eastwick, who led the league in saves, and the Reds became the first National League champions to have seven pitchers win in double figures. Gary Nolan, reborn as a control pitcher at age 28 after blowing out his arm as a youthful fireballer, led the staff with 34 starts, 239 innings pitched, and a 15-9 record. Eastwick and Pedro Borbon both logged over 100 innings in relief, while lefty Will McEnaney pitched in 55 games.

Let's not forget the defense. The 1976 Reds had the highest fielding percentage in the majors and committed the fewest errors. Only two teams in the National League turned more double plays. One hallmark of a championship team is their defensive strength up the middle, and few teams were ever as strong up the middle as the Big Red Machine. From 1974-1977, all four of its middle defenders won Gold Gloves. Bench was the Gold Glove catcher every year from 1968-1977, second baseman Morgan won five in a row from 1973-1977, lanky shortstop Concepcion won from 1974-1977 and again in 1979, and fleet center fielder Geronimo also won four straight from 1974-1977. Though Rose didn't have a strong arm, he was sure-handed and led the league's third basemen in fielding percentage in 1976.

After a slow start, the Reds got hot in May and caught the front-running Dodgers on May 29. Trailing 5-3 in the bottom of the 9th, the Reds got a game-tying two-out triple by Griffey, and Morgan singled Griffey in to win the game. They seized first place for good on June 4, won seven of their next eight games, and never looked back. Their lead over the Dodgers was six games at the All-Star break and 9½ by the end of July. They rolled to a 102-60 record, 10 games in front oof the Dodgers.

"Maybe the 1975 team performed better," Sparky Anderson stated on the eve of the playoffs, "but this year's roster contains more talent. There isn't another club in baseball that can match the eight players we can put on the field every day." They displayed that talent against their playoff opponents, the Phillies, who sported a 101-61 record and the second-best offense in the league, anchored by Mike Schmidt's 38 home runs and bolstered by the likes of Greg Luzinski and Dick Allen. Steve Carlton led the Phillies with 20 wins, Jim Lonborg added 18, and the bullpen featured a trio of stalwarts (Tug McGraw, Ron Reed, and Gene Garber) equal to Anderson's crew. Philadelphia fans expected a close battle, but it didn't turn out that way.

The first game, played at Philadelphia on October 9, was a duel between lefties Carlton and Don Gullett. In the sixth inning, Foster broke a 1-1 tie with a home run, and Gullett singled in a run. They added three runs in the eighth, Gullett and Rose doubling in the runs, and won 6-3. It had to dismay the Phillies to hold Griffey, Morgan, and Perez to one hit and get scorched anyway by a pitcher who drove in three runs all season but matched that total in this game while allowing only two hits.

Things looked more promising the next day for 62,651 fans jammed into Veterans Stadium as Jim Lonborg held the Reds hitless for five innings while his teammates gave him a 2-0 lead. It all came unglued in the sixth inning. After a leadoff walk and singles by Rose and Griffey, Phillies manager Danny Ozark replaced Lonborg with Garber. He walked Morgan intentionally to load the bases, always a risky move in the middle of a tough lineup. Perez hit a hot shot down the first-base line that Allen couldn't handle. Two runs scored on what could have been a double but was ruled an error. A fourth run scored on Foster's ground out, and Griffey and Perez drove in runs in the seventh inning which allowed the Reds to coast to a 6-2 victory.

The series went back to Cincinnati for the third game, played on October 12. This one started calmly but developed into a seesaw thriller. Nolan battled Jim Kaat into the sixth inning, and the Phillies scored twice in the seventh to go ahead 3-0. The Reds bounced back with four runs, taking the lead on a two-run triple by Geronimo. The Phillies came right back with two runs off Eastwick to regain the lead 5-4, and made it 6-4 with an unearned run in the ninth. With Reed starting his third inning of work, the Reds struck quickly on homers by Foster and Bench that tied the game. Exit Reed. Two more pitchers and five batters later, Griffey's bases-loaded single completed the second comeback and made the Reds the National League champions.

In the World Series, the Reds faced the New York Yankees, making their first Series appearance in a dozen years. Their lineup included American League home run champ Graig Nettles, .300 hitters Thurman Munson and Mickey Rivers, plus Chris Chambliss and Oscar Gamble. Catfish Hunter, Ed Figueroa, and Dock Ellis all won at least 17 games that season, and Sparky Lyle led the league in saves. Billy Martin's troops were riding an emotional high after defeating Kansas City in the playoffs on a fifth-game, ninth-inning home run by Chambliss.

Anderson felt that Munson and Rivers were the main offensive threats, claiming that "if you stop them, the other guys in the lineup aren't as effective." He was right. Though Munson smacked Reds pitchers for a .529 average, they stifled Rivers completely. Rose played way in at third base, as if Rivers were a pitcher preparing to sacrifice, daring him to slash the ball past him. "Sparky told me," Rose reported, "to play him in close, even if I had to shake his hand." Rivers didn't get on base until Game Three, and the first two times he did get on he was picked off first base and doubled off second. On offense, the Reds planned to attack the weak throwing arms of Rivers in center field and Roy White in left. Their aggressive running paid off handsomely, as they took extra bases repeatedly throughout the Fall Classic.

When the Series opened at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati for Game One, it didn't take the Reds long to establish their superiority. Morgan homered in the first inning, Concepcion tripled and scored in the third, and Perez singled in Griffey in the sixth, building a 3-1 lead. In the seventh, Bench began his march toward the Series MVP by tripling in a run and scoring on a wild pitch, the final tally in a rather ho-hum 5-1 opener which featured the first designated hitter in World Series history.

This was also the first Series with a Sunday night game, in Game Two at chilly Riverfront, the most exciting game of the Series. The Reds jumped on Catfish Hunter for three runs in the second inning, a rally launched with a double by designated hitter Dan Driessen. Foster and Concepcion singled in runs, and Griffey's sacrifice fly brought in the third. Fred Norman held the Yankees to one run in six innings, but the Yankees tied it 3-3 in the seventh inning. Hunter had settled down, and it was still 3-3 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth when Fred Stanley's throwing error allowed Griffey to reach second. Hunter walked Morgan intentionally, but Perez ripped the first pitch he saw into left field, and Griffey beat White's throw to score the winning run.

The Series moved to Yankee Stadium on October 19 for Game Three, in which the Reds rocked three New York pitchers for 13 hits and cruised to a 6-2 victory in front of 56,667 fans, stifling the Yankees and leaving the Reds on the verge of the double sweep.

A rainout delayed the inevitable until October 21, when Gary Nolan squared off against Ed Figueroa in Game Four. When Chambliss doubled in a run in the first inning, it gave the Yankees their first lead of the Series. Their party ended in the fourth inning, when Foster's single scored Morgan and Bench followed with a two-run home run which gave the Reds a 3-1 lead they never lost. The score was 3-2 through eight innings, when in the top of the ninth, things fell apart for the Yankees. Two walks and a wild pitch put an end to Figueroa's labors. It also brought the demise of Billy Martin, who was ejected for tossing a ball onto the field while debating the vagaries of the strike zone. Bench drilled his second home run of the game, a three-run shot off reliever Dick Tidrow, that put the game out of reach. Doubles by Geronimo and Concepcion produced another run, and when McEnaney mowed down the Yankees quickly in the bottom of the ninth, the Reds had their sweep, winning 7-2.

"The Reds are a good club," conceded Martin after the sweep was complete, "but they're not as awesome as people say they are. I didn't see that 'great power' until tonight. Our pitchers are better than theirs. We just didn't play up to our capabilities." Celebrating with champagne, Joe Morgan saw it differently: "How can you have a much better team than this one? Good power, good base-running, excellent pitching, very aggressive, a great bunch of guys, who could wish for more?"

Certainly nobody in my household could wish for more. My father was born in Cincinnati in 1906 and had suffered through World Series thrashings of the Reds by the Yankees in 1939 and 1961. We watched the 1976 games together, and when Foster caught Roy White's fly ball for the final out, my father turned to me with a wide grin and said, "I've been waiting seventy years for this!"

Baseball fans have been waiting thirty years since then for another team to duplicate Cincinnati's undefeated postseason.

Gabriel Schechter is a Research Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. View an archive of his articles. 

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