June 24, 1970–Johnny Bench and Lee May hit back-to-back home runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to overtake the San Francisco Giants and give the Reds a 5-4 win in the last Reds’ game played at Crosley Field.
The Giants had taken a 4-2 lead through the middle of the fifth inning, when Pete Rose stroked a one-out double. Bobby Tolan followed with a single to centerfield off Giants starter Juan Marichal to score Rose with Tolan moving to second base on the throw to the plate. Tolan was erased when he was caught off second base on a Tony Perez grounder to third base. The inning ended when Reds’ catcher Johnny Bench forced Perez at second base on a grounder to shortstop.
The Reds threatened in the seventh when Pete Rose hit a one-out triple to right field, but was left stranded when Tolan grounded to second and Perez grounded to first. The Reds took the lead for good in the eighth when Bench clubbed his 25th home run of the season and May followed with his 19th to give the Reds the lead. Reliever Don McMahon replaced Marichal and promptly hit Reds’ rookie Bernie Carbo with a pitch, and Reds’ supersub, Jimmy Stewart was called to run for Carbo who had to leave the game. Stewart was thrown out stealing and McMahon retired the final two Reds’ hitters of the inning with the Reds leading 5-4. Reds’ closer Wayne Granger pitched two scoreless innings to get the win.
The 1970 Reds had six exceptional offensive players in their everyday lineup: Rose (seasonal OPS .855), Tolan (.860), Perez (.990), Bench (.932), May (.782), and Carbo (1.004). They were even more amazing at the time of Crosley’s closing: Rose (.877), Tolan (.900), Perez (1.133), Bench (1.032), May (.870), and Carbo (1.084). They all slumped after Crosley’s closing and it took the Reds through 1971 to retool the team to take advantage of the new field properties.
The Reds had played at Crosley Field, named for former Reds’ owner Powel Crosley since 1912 when the field was originally named Redland Field. It was renamed Crosley Field in honor of owner Crosley in 1934. Riverfront Stadium, of cookie cutter-artificial turf design, was set to open in time for the Major League All-Star game on July 14, 1970. The first Reds’ game played in Riverfront (later named Cinergy Field) was on June 30, 1970, when the Braves defeated the Reds, 8-2. Hank Aaron hit the first home run in the park; Tommy Helms was the first Red to homer as he hit hit the left field foul pole inches above the fence in a July 1 victory over the Braves, 9-2. It was Helms’s only homer of the year. Wayne Simpson was the first Reds’ pitcher to get a win. It’s interesting to note that attendance on July 1 was 51,050, but dropped to 12,693 the next day despite the Reds being 9.5 games ahead in first place.
Many remember Crosley Field as a power hitter’s dream, but Crosley’s history proved to be more of a pitcher’s paradise until it’s later years. In “Redleg Journal” (authored by Greg Rhodes and John Snyder) has a page titled “Crosley Field: the Astrodome of the 1930’s” in reference to the former Houston Astro ballpark where long flies died in the outfield.
Rhodes and Snyder chronicle how that Redland Field in the 1920’s and 30’s was an extraordinarily difficult park to hit home runs, even during baseball’s offensive explosion. From 1920 through 1937, the Reds averaged nine home runs at home per year. During this same period, Reds’ and opponents players hit a total of 299 home runs at home while hitting 1067 on the road.
During this era, the Reds’ pitching flourished. The 1919 World Series champion team received great pitching; Eppa Rixey became a Hall of Famer, and he was flanked by two outstanding hurlers in Dolf Luque and Pete Donohue. Paul Derringer and Bucky Walters were one of the greatest 1-2 punches in major league history and those Reds pitchers used Crosley Field to their advantage during this “run suppression” stage. Johnny Vander Meer and Ewell Blackwell terrorized hitters during the 1940’s. In later days, the 1961 World Series team learned to pitch despite the park’s home run capabilities and Jim Maloney and Gary Nolan electrified the masses with their strikeout rates.
Eventually, to keep up with the trends and to take advantage of newly developed Reds power hitting, the
Reds decided to tinker with the stadium design. The Reds moved the fences in by about 20 feet in 1927 without much difference in home run totals. In 1938, the Reds moved homeplate 20 feet further away from the backstop to create dimensions of 328 feet to left field, 383 to centerfield, and 366 to right field. Home runs increased dramatically.
The Reds had led the National League in road home runs in the years 1935-37 before shortening the distances. The Reds hit 50 homers at home in 1938 after having hit just 51 in the three previous seasons combined. Ival Goodman became the first Red to hit 30 home runs in a season in 1938. The previous record was set by Hall of Famer Harry Heilman with 19 in 1930. Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi also hit 19 in 1938 when Goodman hit his 30. Hank Sauer finally broke Goodman’s team record in 1948 when he slammed 35.
Crosley Field’s best known for it’s role as a home run haven in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Sluggers like Ted Kluszewski (record 49 homers in 1954), Gus Bell, Wally Post, Jim Greengrass, Ed Bailey, George Crowe, and, the best of them all, Frank Robinson. 1960’s sluggers who more than enjoyed themselves in Crosley included Vada Pinson, Gordy Coleman, Deron Johnson, Lee May, Tony Perez, Pete Rose, and Johnny Bench.
Crosley did become a power hitter’s paradise and the 1970 Reds were built with power in mind. Through June 24, the last game played at Crosley, the Reds were 49-21 (.700 percentage), averaging 5.1 runs per game and allowing 4.0 runs per game. After their move, the Reds went 53-39 (.576), averaging 4.54 runs per game and allowing 4.36 runs per game. At the 70 game mark, Perez was on a pace to bat .357 with 60 homers and 176 rbi; and Bench was on track to hit .312 with 58 homers and 150 rbi. Rookie sensation Wayne Simpson was on pace to finish the season 23-2 with a 2.39 ERA and Jim Merritt was on a pace to finish the season 28-14 with a 3.48 ERA.
Obviously, those things didn’t happen. They all had tremendous years, but all fell back to earth as the season progressed due to the law of averages, injuries, and the new ballpark dimensions and dynamics. Perez finished at .317 with 40 homers, 129 rbi; Bench’s 1st MVP season finished at .293 wiht 45 homers, 148 rbi; Simpson finished 14-3 with a 3.02 ERA; and Merritt finished 20-12 with a 4.08 ERA. Simpson and Merritt also suffered the debilitating injuries that pretty much cost them effectiveness for the remainder of their careers.
The 1970 Reds team lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the 1970 World Series, 4 games to 1, but Reds’ GM Bob Howsam and manager Sparky Anderson would learn what it would take to make the Reds the dynasty they were of the 1970’s. The 1970 Reds were built for Crosley Field; but the 1972-79 Reds were built for Riverfront Stadium.
In the meantime, Bench and May gave Crosley Field the appropriate send off, by winning its final game the power way, with back-to-back home runs on June 24, 1970.