June 25, 1972: Denis Menke doubles down the left field line with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning to score Tony Perez with the winning run and give the Cincinnati Reds a 5-4 win over the Houston Astros. The Reds move into first place with the win, ahead of the Astros, and never relinquish first place the rest of the season.
The Reds go on to win the National League pennant, but eventually lose to the Oakland Athletics, four games to three, in the 1972 World Series. Six of the seven World Series games are decided by one run, with only Game 6 being a blowout (an 8-1 Reds victory). Despite losing, the Reds outscore the Athletics in the Series, 21-16, with the Reds averaging three runs per game, and the A’s averaging 2.3.
This was the first season after possibly the most important trade in Reds’ history. The 1970 Reds had been a power hitting juggernaut; a team built for power to play in Crosley Field, a home run hitter’s paradise. However, the Reds moved into Riverfront Stadium midway through 1970 and the Reds found their offensive production dropping. The Reds went from averaging 5.1 runs per game in the first half of 1970 while playing in Crosley Field to a less than league average 3.6 runs per game in 1971 in Riverfront Stadium. Opponents scoring also dropped, but not at the same rate. Opponents averaged 4.0 runs per game against the Reds in the first half of 1970, and had dropped to 3.59 in 1971.
The Reds retooled and they retooled for speed and defense, skills better suited to the artificial turf of Riverfront Stadium. They wanted Houston’s Joe Morgan for his blend of on base skills, power, and speed. According to the book “Making the Big Red Machine: Bob Howsam and the Cincinnati Reds of the 1970’s” by Daryl Raymond Smith, Joe Morgan was on Howsam’s big board of players he wanted and Reds manager Sparky Anderson kept dropping hints about a player he sure would like to have on his team. The Astros needed a first baseman and had been scouting both Lee May and Tony Perez. Howsam also has said that Cesar Geronimo was a key to the deal due to his long stride and ability to cover lots of ground in centerfield. The Reds weren’t happy with Perez’s defense at third base (25, 32, and 35 errors, respectively, from 1968-70), but knew he was a natural first baseman. Both Perez and May were fan and clubhouse favorites. May was one year older than Perez. Perez had a bigger 1970 (.317/40/129, .990 OPS); May had probably been the Reds’ best player in 1971 (.279/39/98, .874 OPS led the Reds).
The deal (as reviewed here) essenetially began as Morgan for May and as the months dragged on eventually more players would be added to the deal. Finally on November 29, 1971, it was announced that the Reds were trading May, second baseman Tommy Helms, and super sub Jimmy Stewart for Morgan, starting pitcher Jack Billingham, shortstop Denis Menke (to play third base), and young outfielders Geronimo and Ed Armbrister.
Cincinnati fans and media were appalled. “Redleg Journal” (by Greg Rhodes and John Snyder) quote Reds beat writer Bob Hertzel as publishing “If the United States had traded Dwight Eisenhower to the Germans during World War II, it wouldn’t have been much different than sending May and Helms to Houston.” The Astros had been an improving team. Even Howsam is said to have told some insiders that the Reds just gave the Astros the 1972 pennant, but he felt it was a better long term deal for the Reds. One writer is said to have asked if the Reds trade announcement had included an error and meant to say Cesar “Cedeno” (the Astros young star) and not “Geronimo.” (editor’s note–I though the same thing at the time, at age 10).
The Reds and Astros played early in 1972, a two-game series in Cincinnati, the third and fourth games of the season. The Astros won both, 8-4 and 7-5. Tommy Helms hit a rare home run to give the Astros the lead early in the game, and then Helms and Stewart later scored the Astros final runs in the first game. In the second game, Billingham started for the Reds and gave up six runs in 2+ innings in getting saddled with the loss, on his way to an 0-5, 6.75 ERA start with the Reds. May went 1-8 with five strikeouts in the two games. For the Reds, Morgan went 2-8 (2 steals) and Menke 1-7, and Geronimo, 0-4. Advantage: Astros.
The Reds season did not start well. By April 25, the Reds were in last place in the Western Division, and on May 10, the Reds are 8-13, in fourth place, and 4.5 games behind the division leading Astros. In fact, from July 27, 1970, through May 10, 1972, the Reds have posted a 119-124 record. Then things changed; the Reds started winning.
The Reds visited Houston at the end of the May for a four game series. The Reds outscored the home team, 39-15, and swept the Astros, knocking Houston out of first place. The Dodgers assumed first, but the Reds and Astros were now tied for second place, 1.5 games out of first place. The Reds finally grabbed first place for the first time in 1972 on June 9, but the Astros were close behind.
When the Astros visited the Reds in late June, the Reds held a one-half game. The Astros took first place after winning the first game, 9-5, on the strength of a six-run third inning off Reds starter Wayne Simpson. The Reds regained the lead by winning the second game, 7-1, as Ross Grimsley went the distance. The Astros won the third game, 4-1, over Billingham again with May homering and Helms collecting two hits. The Astros had regained the Western Division lead by one-half game. It was their last day in first place for the 1972 season.
It took extra innings, but the Reds won the fourth game, 5-4 in ten, with the winning hit coming off the bat of Menke. With one out in the tenth, Perez singled to right field. Geronimo struck out, but Menke doubled down the left field line to score Perez all the way from first to give the Reds the victory. Menke had homered earlier in the game to get the Reds on the board, and Morgan had slugged a two-run home run in the seventh inning to tie the game. Helms had given the Astros the lead with another rare home run, a three-run blast in the fourth. In the last three games of the series, Menke had gone 6-13 with a home run and Morgan had gone 3-10 with three walks and a home run. Meanwhile, May had went 2-12 with a homer and Helms was 3-10 with a homer. The Reds had regained first place and did not relinquish the lead the rest of the season. The Reds won the season and, later, two World Series.