To Cincinnati Reds fans, 1976 was more than the Bicentennial of the United States.

It was perfect.

We had the Great Eight, Let’s introduce the greatest starting lineup in modern baseball history:

Pete Rose 3B

Ken Griffey RF

Joe Morgan 2B

Tony Perez 1B

Johnny Bench C

George Foster LF

Dave Concepcion SS

Cesar Geronimo CF

6 of the 8 batted .300 that season. The two that didn’t are Hall of Famers — Perez and Bench.

The Reds had power and speed (210 stolen bases). A great bullpen. Good starting pitching. A hitting coach named Ted Kluszewski. A Hall of Fame Manager named Sparky Anderson. The largest attendance in the history of the Reds franchise for a single season– 2,629,708.

And note this stat — when The Great Eight started a game that season, the record of the Cincinnati Reds was 69-19, a .784 winning percentage. Figure in their post season and it’s 76-19. Cincinnati led all of baseball in these ten categories: runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, batting average, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and fielding average.

Their record that season was 102-60. They won the NL West by a comfortable 10 games. They were defending champions.

There was just one question. The Philadelphia Phillies were a rising power in the National League, with young stars like Greg Luzinski and Mike Schmidt. They had veterans such as Dave Cash, Garry Maddox and an ex-Reds player named Bobby Tolan. They had an ace pitcher in Steve Carlton. And, in 1976, they beat the Reds 8 times out of 12 during the regular season and easily won the NL East by 9 games.

They were the new kids on the block. They had something to prove. So did the Cincinnati Reds.

Top 5 Movies of 1976 (according to me)

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Midway

The Shootist

Taxi Driver

The Enforcer

Best Sports Movie of 1976

Rocky

Top 5 Albums of 1976 (according to me again)

Frampton Comes Alive! (Peter Frampton)

Hotel California (The Eagles)

The Royal Scam (Steely Dan)

Blue Moves (Elton John)

Wings at the Speed of Sound (Paul McCartney)

Reds Manager

Sparky Anderson

Going into the Season

The Defending Champions returned the Great Eight but Reds GM Bob Howsam tweaked the pitching staff and bench. New reserve players included Bob Bailey and Mike Lum and two new pitchers to make the staff were Pat Zachry and Santo Alcala. Zachry was a tall righthanded lanky Texas who looked like Lincoln without the beard. Longtime reliever Clay Carroll was traded to the White Sox and third base coach Alex Grammas was hired as manager of the Milwaukee Brewers.

On Cruise Control

Cincinnati won on Opening Day by an 11-5 score over the Astros. The Reds had four stolen bases, Perez had four RBI’s and Gary Nolan got the start and the win. Nolan led the staff with 238 innings pitched that year and seven Reds hurlers had double figures in wins. Their longest losing streak of the year was four games.

How powerful was the Reds lineup? Consider this about Cesar Geronimo, the centerfielder who was an 8th place hitter. In 1976, Geronimo batted .307, had 24 doubles, 11 triples, an on-base percentage of .382, a slugging percentage of .414, won a Gold Glove and was 25th in the voting for MVP. Those are the stats of an 8th place hitter, folks.

Jack Billingham (12-10) was the winning pitcher when Cincinnati won it’s 100th game of the year, a 4-3 victory over San Diego.

Perfection

The playoff series opened in Philadelphia. Phillies Manager gave the Reds an early gift. Because Steve Carlton had a “personal” catcher in Tim McCarver, Ozark started the lefthanded hitting McCarver against southpaw ace Don Gullett instead of starting catcher Bob Boone. Advantage Gullett. Predictably, McCarver went 0 for 3 with a strikeout and the Reds hit Carlton hard anyway, winning 6-3. Zachry started Game 2 and the Reds swept the Phillies at home by a 6-2 score. Pedro Borbon pitched four innings in relief, scattering four hits and not allowing a run.

That set up Game 3 at Riverfront Stadium and Jim Kaat handled the Reds pretty good, allowing just one hit in 6 innings of work. Both bullpens were shaky and Philadelphia took a 6-4 lead into the bottom of the 9th inning. Foster led off with a home run. Bench followed with another shot to tie the game. Concepcion walked and eventually scored on a Baltimore chopper hit by Griffey and misplayed by Tolan at first base. The Reds were 3-0 in post season. They waited for the winner of the Kansas City-New York series in the American League.

The Yankees won the Series in dramatic fashion with a Chris Chambliss home run in Game 5. But in Game 1 of the World Series, it was all Gullett. Morgan homered and Gullett was Gullett. The Reds prevailed by a 6-1 score, the Yankees claiming a “hangover” from their exciting pennant winning game being the blame. The only blemish was Gullett twisting his ankle in the 8th inning; he would be finished for the rest of the Series.

Game 2 was the closest game, thanks to Catfish Hunter, the Yankees starter. The Reds hit Catfish hard in the 2nd inning scoring three runs but t the score was 3-3 entering the bottom of the 9th. Hunter was still in, despite 140-plus pitches. That’s a testimony to the toughness of Hunter, a Hall of Famer. But Griffey beat out an infield hit, advanced to second base on a bad throw and the Yankees Billy Martin walked Morgan intentionally to bring up Perez. Bad mistake.

Catfish and the Big Doggie had a history, dating back to 1967 when Perez hit a game winning homer off Hunter in the All-Star Game. This time, Perez smacked the first pitch from Catfish— his 154th of the game– into leftfield for a basehit. Griffey scored easily. The Reds, based on scout Ray Shore’s observations, were ordered to run all the time on the Yankee outfielders. Cincinnati took a 2-0 series lead and went to Yankee Stadium.

Game 3 was Pat Zachry’s start. More interesting was the Reds shutdown of New York leadoff hitter Mickey Rivers, a speedy lefthanded hitter. Rose challenged him every game to bunt by playing far down the line towards home plate, virtually right in Rivers’ face. In Game 3, Rivers bunted and reached first on an error by Zachry. But a minute later, Zachry picked him off first base. Rivers batted .163 in the Series. The Yankees stranded 11 runners against Zachry alone and the Reds prevailed by a 6-2 score. Designated Hitter Dan Driessen walked, doubled and homered for the Reds. Driessen batted .357 in the Series and was a better DH than what the Yankees had to offer. Think about i t– Elliot Maddox a designated hitter? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Cincinnati went for a sweep the next night, a revenge of sort for both the 1939 and 1961 World Series in which the Yanks beat the Redlegs. Late in the game, Rivers slapped a line drive right at Rose, playing in aggressively once again. Rose caught it, then waved at Rivers.

In his seventh World Series start, Gary Nolan picked up his first win in a 7-2 victory. It was a sweet night indeed. Nolan got the win and Johnny Bench slammed a pair of home runs and was named MVP of the Series.

And then came one of my favorite Sparky Anderson quotes.

New York catcher Thurman Munson had a fine World Series, batting .529 but still lost out to Bench, in many ways. Asked about Munson’s performance, Anderson said, “Please, don’t compare any catcher to Johnny Bench. It would be embarrassing.”

And there it was – 7-0. 7 post season games and 7 wins.

No other team has ever done that since the League playoffs were added in 1969. The closest were the Detroit Tigers of 1984 (managed by Sparky Anderson) who were 7-1 and the Chicago White Sox (11-1) of 2005.

Summary

Every now and again, a team wins the World Series and the “greatness” comparisons come up. The greatest team of the decade. The greatest team of the last 20 years. True, it’s a different game now than it was in 1976. Free agency changed it. Baseball has evolved to a degree and there are some advanced statistics — some I agree with, others I do not.

But the hard fact of the matter is, the 1976 Cincinnati Reds were the best team I have ever seen. Position by position, not another team can match it. They kept coming after you. They could beat you with a home run, a stolen base. They had underrated pitching, a bullpen by committee, were incredibly strong up the middle defensively, had a player like Tony Perez, a leader like Pete Rose, a slugger like George Foster and were managed by a wise man called Sparky.

And in 1976, they even had one of the best designated hitters around and didn’t even know it.

The Reds were perfect. They were the Big Red Machine.

18 Responses

  1. sultanofswaff

    Great article, great stat I never knew about the team record when the great 8 started together. I wonder what the ’27 Yankee’s record was under similar circumstances. Thanks for pointing out how great Geronimo was as well. I had no idea.

    • ohiojimw

      In the field, Geronimo could close down the gaps. He is one of the few guys I’ve seen who could be frozen or even fooled by that hard line drive right at him and a remarkable amount of the time not just recover to make the catch to seemingly do it with ease. He had a great arm for both distance and accuracy. The folklore was that he had started as pitcher and been converted. I have no idea if that is true or not….

  2. ohiojimw

    Sometimes I’m not sure I really like remembering because I don’t feel that old until I do the math of how long ago it was or see the guys on TV at a special event. 🙂

  3. ohiojimw

    When he accepted the WS trophy in the locker room following the sweep, Bob Howsam predicted that due to the effects of free agency which were about to be felt, that never again would a team as good as the 1977-76 BRM come to be,

    In terms of the financial realities, it is hard to disagree with Mr Howsam. However, in my more cynical moments, I wonder what guys like he and Sparky would have done in the face of the poor fundamental play we see so often today; and, whether perhaps we just have cultivated a tolerance for mediocrity over the backbone it takes to demand excellence. .

    • ohiojimw

      Obviously that should be the 1975-76 not 1977-76 BRM. Fingers not going where they are supposed to on the keyboard are a definite sign it really was that long ago.

  4. doctor

    What great memories for a 12 year old kid back then. Just last night went and showed my father-in-law my 2 commemorative Hudepohl beer cans of those championship teams. If Howsam could ony found some starting pitching, 1977 could have been a 3-peat.

      • C-bus Chris 14

        I was 13 years old during the 1976 season. Great memories. The best team in baseball history IMHO. The Big Red Machine really fueled my love for baseball. An impossible standard for any post free agent era team to live up to.

        Now that we’ve taken out the garbage and removed Selig from office, lets get Pete Rose in Cooperstown where he belongs FOR HIS PLAY ON THE FIELD AS A PLAYER.

  5. pinson343

    Correction: the Reds were 5-7 against the Phils in 1976, not 4-8. I remember that so well (and confirmed it) because they lost 6 of their first 8 games to the Phillies and that had Reds fans worried about the postseason. Then the Reds won 3 of 4 in a series against them late in the season. A win over the Phillies in the NLCS was viewed as anything but automatic.

  6. pinson343

    The Reds had finished 20 games ahead of the Dodgers in 1975 and their winning the NL West in 1976 was never in question at any point in the season, except for in the minds of some Dodger fans.

    Why did the Reds drop from 108 wins in 1975 to “only” 102 wins in 1976 ? The main difference IMO is that their only LHed reliever, Will McEnany, slumped in 1976, resulting in some late blown leads.

  7. pinson343

    I’ll never forget Game 3 of the NLCS. It was an afternoon game and I came home to see the Phils tack on a run and go ahead 6-4 in the top of the 9th. I wasn’t worried at all. If the Reds lost they’d win the next game, and I still couldn’t quite grasp that they were on the verge of losing a game.

    The home runs by Foster and Bench were electrifying and at the same time felt inevitable. And once the score was tied at 6 with none out, you knew it wouldn’t go to extra innings.

    Sparky was asked afterward if the Reds had some sort of destiny or karma going for them. His reply: “I think we have some very good ballplayers.”

    • zblakey

      It certainly was a special time to be a Reds fan. Aging, a lot of memories have faded but not of those two World Series wins (`75 and `76). In a way they made up for the lost opportunities in `72 and `73. For me the `73 regular season is still very special – the Reds came back from such a deficit to the Dodgers. I was in high school at the time and a good friend was a big Dodger fan. During late August and early September I would greet him almost every morning at school to say “yes the Reds gained another game on you guys last night”. Unfortunately the post season was not as happy a time, but as I mentioned above, `75 and `76 came along to make up for that, plus some!

      • pinson343

        The ’73 NLCS was a real bummer. I was in NY at the time, and saw Game 4, which Pete Rose (who had 5 hits ?) won with an extra inning HR in a game where the Mets fans were throwing things at him when he was in LF.

        The Mets had home field advantage even though they won only 82 games in the regular season. And the Reds, in a short series, had to face a consistent diet (except 1 game) of Seaver, Koosman, Matlack and Tug McGraw.

      • pinson343

        Even Joe Morgan was stymied by all those tough lefties (plus Seaver) and admitted it.

      • pinson343

        The ’73 Reds-Dodgers is a forgotten classic, at least on the East Coast. In NY I still hear that the ’73 Reds weren’t much better than the ’73 Mets. Mike Francesa said how the Reds “barely” won 90 games that season. They won 99 games.

  8. Erin

    I have a 1976 Hudepohl beer can (empty) that has a scoring error on the back for Game 4 (it says Reds 7 Yankees 3)…does anyone know if all those commemorative cans had that error? Anyone on this site interested in the can?

  9. Carl Sayre

    The WS was about 4 months before I left for basic training so I was trying hard to project a manly image. I couldn’t pull it off jumping around and screaming like a 9 year old. A great time to be a Redlegs fan.