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
Best Sports Movie of 1976
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)
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.
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 “hangoverÃ¢â‚¬Â 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.
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.