The phone rang tonight just as the Reds were about to start a game. I answered it and an authoritative voice said, “Bristol here.”

It was Dave Bristol calling me. I can only imagine how a young Tony Perez or Johnny Bench would have responded to that voice during the 1967 season at their early age. Dave Bristol was the manager of the Cincinnati Reds from 1966-1969.

Dave Bristol was hired as the manager of the Reds after Don Heffner was fired during the All Star break of the 1966 season. That season was an unmitigated disaster. Frank Robinson had been traded the previous December in one of the worst transactions in Reds history. Cincinnati had a record of 39-47. Attendance was down at Crosley Field.

Several of the Reds players had been on minor league teams managed by Bristol. He was highly successful. He was a fighter. He was a winner.

And Dave Bristol was all of 33 years old. He was the youngest manager in baseball at that time and the fourth youngest in history. “It was the highlight of my baseball career,” said Bristol, from his home in Andrews, North Carolina. “I didn’t feel intimidated at all. You don’t like to see someone lose their job but I was happy for me. I had managed a lot of the Reds players in the minors and Hutch (Reds manager Fred Hutchinson) had brought me to spring training with the team. I was only in my 20s but Hutch had me coach third base, lead the team in calisthenics and he was a good man.”

Don Heffner had been hired by Reds Owner Bill DeWitt to manage the Reds before the Robinson for Milt Pappas, Dick Simpson and Jack Baldschun disaster. Heffner’s hiring didn’t exactly work out. Heffner moved Pete Rose to third base from second base, Rose uncharacteristically balked and the Reds had a 37-46 record in July.

“[Reds Assistant GM] Phil Seghi called me after the 1966 All Star Game and told me to fly back to Cincinnati the next day because I was the new manager of the Reds. I hated to see that Heffner lost his job, I really did. But I went back to Cincinnati and did what I always did and that was work my tail off.”

The Reds went from a guy they called “Old Shakey” (Heffner) to a guy they called “007.” They knew that Dave Bristol was a no-nonsense guy, one who would be in the middle of any fight on the field. They didn’t care he was “just” 33 years old. In eight seasons in the minor leagues, Bristol’s teams had won five League championships.

Bristol started Reds ace Jim Maloney in the first game after the break and Cincinnati won 9-2. Vada Pinson rapped out four hits while Rose and Art Shamsky each homered. The Reds never got back in the pennant race but were 39-38 under their new skipper. Maloney finished 16-8 but Sammy Ellis slumped badly, finishing with a 12-19 record and Pappas was a mediocre 12-11. Cincinnati finished in 7th place.

It looked like Bristol and the Reds turned it around in 1967. Cincinnati started out of the gate fast and after 19-year old Gary Nolan tossed a shutout against the Pirates, the Reds were 39-21. Every move Bristol made seemed to work. Rose went to leftfield and Bristol inserted young Cuban Tony Perez at third base. Perez not only made the All-Star team, he won it with a home run against Catfish Hunter. Converted outfielder Mel Queen became a pitcher and won 14 games. “The first batter he faced in the big leagues was Hank Aaron,” laughed Bristol.

“Pete wasn’t ready for that,” said Bristol of Rose’s move to third base in 1966. “I’ll say this, Pete played a hell of a first base but we had Perez and Lee May there. So when I moved Pete to leftfield in 1967 he accepted it because he knew it would make the team better. That move worked out for us. Just like he did in 1975 when he moved to third base and allowed George Foster to hit all those home runs while playing left field. That was Pete Rose.”

Nolan was a special pitcher that year. “One game against the Giants, Nolan struck out Willie Mays for the fourth time late in the game. Yeah, Gary struck out Mays four times. Willie McCovey came up and I suppose a lot of managers would have pulled Gary. But I left him in. McCovey hit a homer and broke his bat in the process. He was so strong.”

St. Louis eventually caught the Reds and won going away. Cincinnati cooled off, finishing 87-75 in fourth place. ‘”We just didn’t have enough pitching,” said Bristol “and the Cardinals had a great team that won the Series that year. They were our big rival back then. We had some battles with that team.”

Bristol had the opportunity to manage some of the best Reds players of that era while with the Reds, including Perez, Rose, May, Pinson, Maloney and Johnny Bench. When the Reds brought in a moody outfielder named Alex Johnson from St. Louis, they knew about Johnson’s penchant for not liking the media and being a loner. The joke was that when Johnson said the word “mother” he had exhausted half of his vocabulary. Instead, Johnson had two very productive seasons for the Reds.

“I just left Alex alone,” said Bristol. “He had good abilities. He could run, throw, hit. Oh, I would substitute defensively for him sometimes late in games but I just let him play. I wasn’t surprised at all when he won the batting title in the American League after the Reds traded him.”

The Reds kept posting winning records for Bristol — 83-79 in 1968 (4th place) and 89-73 in 1969 — but never got over the top. And if one game provided a snapshot of the Dave Bristol Era Reds, it happened on August 3, 1969 at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia.

Desperate for pitching, the Reds had picked up Camilo Pascuel from the Twins. His best days on the mound were essentially over. The Phillies knocked him out in the second inning and the Reds trailed 4-2. “He asked me why I took him out,” said Bristol, “and I said double, walk, double, walk, double, double. That’s why.”

Cincinnati scored 10 runs in the 4th inning and led 16-9 into the 5th. Bench had five hits that game. Rose, Johnson and May each knocked in four runs. In the bottom of the 7th, the Reds lead had narrowed to 19-17. Bristol brought in his closer (they weren’t called closers back then) in Wayne Granger. “He used to tell me, ‘Get me up and throwing, take a slow walk to the mound and I’ll be ready to come in and pitch’,” laughed Bristol. “If I needed five outs, I’d go to him. If I needed him more than an inning, I’d go to him.”

That night, he got nine outs from Granger. The skinny sidearming right-hander — “he wouldn’t get wet if he ran through a car wash,” quipped Rose — scattered three hits and didn’t allow a run. “Rose saved us when he made a diving catch in rightfield to end the game,” said Bristol.

It was a typical Big Red Machine 19-17 win. “And we were in first place after that game,” said Bristol.

“Every single guy on the teams I managed with the Reds gave it their best effort. Granger did. George Culver would do anything for the team. Tony Perez, if a game went on long enough he would find a way to win it. We battled every day. We just didn’t have enough pitching.”

So what would Dave Bristol do if he had an Aroldis Chapman on the staff? Dave Bristol laughed. “Having a guy like Chapman in the bullpen would have given the guys a lift. He’s fine right where he is. Having him there, knowing if you get the lead he would take care of it is good.”

“75 times in 1969, I had to take out the starting pitcher in the 5th inning or sooner,” said Bristol. That’s nearly half of the games with a 10-man pitching staff. Nolan and Maloney fought through injuries. Tony Cloninger chewed up innings but lost 17 games and wasn’t effective. Still, the Reds stayed in the race.

“We were still mathematically in it with a week to go, especially with the last two games against Atlanta,” said Bristol. But the Braves got hot at the right time, winning 10 of their last 11 games. They won the NL West by three games over the Giants and four against the Reds. General Manager Bob Howsam fired Dave Bristol shortly after the season ended.

“The fans will tell you when it’s time to go and they never said that to me,” Dave said. “Reds fans were always great to me. Jim Maloney won the first game I ever managed in the big leagues and he won the last one I managed for the Reds too.”

Bristol went on to manage the Milwaukee Brewers, Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants. All of those teams struggled. He managed the Brewers their first year in Milwaukee. The team was bankrupt, had just relocated from Seattle to Milwaukee six days before the season started, their schedule was brutal because of the travel to the West Coast and most importantly, the team lacked talent. “Managing the Brewers was a lot different than managing the Cincinnati Reds. It wasn’t even close. It was quite a culture shock going to Milwaukee from Cincinnati.”

Bristol’s tenure with the Braves was just as tough. Owner Ted Turner was a showman, the team was rebuilding and they suffered a 16-game losing streak in 1977. “We’re not gonna go there,” laughed Bristol.

The now 82-year old Bristol watched the recent All-Star game played in Cincinnati. “I got a kick seeing Bench, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays together. I managed Bench and managed against the other three. It couldn’t have been scripted any better.”

“And the Reds Hall of Fame, they have done a hell of a job there. It’s wonderful. But I will say this — Ed Bailey should be in the Reds Hall of Fame. There’s no doubt in my mind he should be.”

Bristol said the toughest job about managing is cutting players in spring training. “The hardest thing I ever had to do was tell Willie McCovey his career was over. I had to say the same thing to Joe Nuxhall in 1967 when we cut him. That was really, really tough. Some managers have their coaches cut the guys, to tell them they were cut. I felt it was my responsibility to do it.”

Asked about how he managed a baseball team, Bristol said, “In baseball fun is spelled w-i-n. That’s why you play this game.” Bristol came back to the Reds as a coach twice, once for Pete Rose in 1989 and Tony Perez in 1993.

To this day, Dave Bristol remembers when Howsam fired him. The Reds GM was quoted in the Cincinnati Post as saying, “I felt the Reds should have stayed in the race a little longer than they did.”

That sounded a little hollow. The only team with a worse ERA (4.11) than the ’69 Reds were the expansion San Diego Padres.  Howsam never gave Bristol a reason for the firing. “In 1967, Bob Howsam gave me a two-year contract. We got along very good. But he couldn’t tell me why he fired me. I’ll go to my grave wondering why I was fired by the Reds.”

Dave Bristol doesn’t begrudge the success Sparky Anderson achieved with the Big Red Machine. Not at all. He said as much during our chat. Still, he has to wonder what would have happened if fate hadn’t moved it’s huge hand — what if Maloney or Nolan had been healthy? What if Cloninger had been better?

The three years Bristol managed the Reds were probably the most exciting of his career. He logged a lot of miles to the mound changing pitchers but it was the start of ultimately what would be one of the greatest teams ever — the Big Red Machine.

2 Responses

  1. Greg Gajus

    Great article John, and glad to hear that Dave is still with us. In 1967, he had the pitching but not the offense (Perez, Rose, and Pinson were the only regulars with a above average OPS+), in 1968/69 they had the offense but not the pitching. Would have been interesting to see what Bristol would have done in 1970 when the pitching rebounded thanks both to improved performance by the holdovers and new blood like Simpson, Gullett, and McGlothlin.