On the final day of the 1968 season, the Cincinnati Reds shutout the San Francisco Giants by a 3-0 score in front of a crowd of 27,464 at Crosley Field. On that day, Reds pitcher Jim Maloney gave a vintage Jim Maloney performance: 9 innings pitched (something not a single Reds pitcher in 2018 could accomplish) two hits (singles by Bobby Bonds and Dave Marshall), no runs, four walks and nine strikeouts. Maloney had a no-hitter until the 6th when Bonds got his hit. With the win, Maloney improved to 16-10 with an ERA of 3.61.

But the Reds finished with an 83-79 record, far behind the NL pennant winning St. Louis Cardinals. The 27,464 fans who left Crosley that day also witnessed the last game ever by two Reds players wearing the Cincinnati uniform who were icons during the 1960s– Vada Pinson and Leo Cardenas.

Pinson had anchored centerfield for the Reds for a decade. He was one of the best centerfielders in the history of the Reds. He could run, was a solid hitter and was steady. Want the three best centerfielders in Reds history? Vada Pinson, Eric Davis and Cesar Geronimo.

Cardenas started playing for Cincinnati in 1961 but emerged in 1965 as one of the best shortstops in the National League. He was the first Reds shortstop to hit 20 home runs. He was steady in the field. Cardenas set the tone for two of the best in the Reds history to follow him– Dave Concepcion and Barry Larkin. Both were 29-years old after Jim Maloney tossed his two-hit shutout. And Vada Pinson and Leo Cardenas are now justifiably in the Reds Hall of Fame.

On October 11, Reds General Manager traded Pinson to the St. Louis Cardinals for relief pitcher Wayne Granger and outfielder Bobby Tolan. And five weeks later, Howsam shipped Cardenas to the Minnesota Twins for left-handed starter Jim Merritt.

Vada Pinson and Leo Cardenas were also the last two roster players from the beloved 1961 “Ragamuffin” Reds that won the National League pennant. So in a sense, en era was over. The trade sparked no outrage in the Rhineland. The pitching-starved Reds were desperate for a starter and Merritt seemed to fit the bill. Cardenas also had a sub-par ’68 season offensively, hitting just .235 with 7 home runs and 41 RBI.

Granger would bolster the Reds bullpen and had a rubber-arm. Tolan was a young, talented player that had worked his way into Manager Red Schoendienst’s doghouse. But Howsam, who came to the Reds from St. Louis, had a high regard for Tolan.

And so it was that a new era began– The Big Red Machine era. Reds skipper Dave Bristol heard that phrase during the ’68 season at Dodger Stadium from a sportswriter and he loved it. It spread like wildfire in 1969 when the Reds lineup bludgeoned opposing pitching.

Howsam’s trades had mixed results: Merritt won 17 games for the Reds in 1969 and 20 in 1970 but injuries finished him quickly; he was booed at Riverfront Stadium in 1971 en-route to a 1-11 Homer Bailey-like record, partly because of his pitching and partly because he was the Reds player representative to the MLB Players Union in turbulent labor times.

Bobby Tolan had three beautiful seasons for the Reds: 1969, 1970 and 1972; he missed all of 1971 with a torn Achilles tendon, injured during a Reds charity basketball game in Frankfort, Kentucky. But after he misjudged a fly ball in Game 7 of the 1972 World Series against Oakland, things fell apart. He slumped horribly in 1973 and clashed with Sparky Anderson before he was suspended and then traded to San Diego. Granger, a submarine throwing right-hander, had two solid years for the Reds in 1969 and 1970 as their closer. He recorded the last out at Crosley Field on June 30, 1970 before the Reds moved to Riverfront Stadium.

’68 was over. Not just for the Reds but a weary,war-torn America. The year started with a seized US warship by North Korea, the Tet Offensive, assassinations, protests, riots and a Presidential election that propelled Richard Nixon into the Oval Office. But it ended with some hope.

Apollo 8 lifted off from Cape Kennedy in late December and captivated the nation by flying to and around the moon and providing some amazing photographs of our own world that had never been seen before. Who could conceive on an “Earth Rise”?

Three American astronauts had paved the way for what later would be the historic moon landing in July 1969.

The Year of the Pitcher was over. The pitching mound would be raised. 31-game winner Denny McLain would be traded to Washington in 1970. He become a spot starter for the Atlanta Braves in 1972. Don Drysdale, who set the consecutive scoreless inning streak that season (58 2/3 innings) would win 5 games in 1969 and then retire from arm problems. Mean, nasty Bob Gibson would still be mean and nasty but never came close to posting his ridiculous 1.12 earned run average from 1968.

Dave Bristol, who managed the Reds in 1968, would be fired after the 1969 season. But 50 years later, Dave Bristol would be inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame.

Sirhan Sirhan, who killed Bobby Kennedy, is still in a prison in California. The Ambassador Hotel where Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles was torn down and a school was built on that site. Juan Romero, the bus boy at that hotel whose photo was taken cradling Kennedy’s head is his lap after the shots were fired, visited his grave at Arlington in 2001. Romero blamed himself for what happened that night because he stopped Kennedy to talk to him. At the grave, he prayed for forgiveness and wept.

The Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, is now a civil rights museum. The site in Indianapolis where Kennedy announced from the back of a flat-bed truck to a largely African-American crowd that King had been shot and killed has a statue honoring him. It’s in a poverty-prone area of the city. But there were no riots in Indianapolis after Kennedy spoke that fateful night.

A few of the ’68 Reds have passed away, including fan favorite Lee May, affectionately known as the “Big Bopper.” So has Alex Johnson and Tony Cloninger.

Johnny Bench went from Rookie of the Year to the Hall of Fame and the greatest of all catchers– period. Tony Perez became one of the most beloved Reds of all time and is in the Hall of Fame. Pete Rose won two more batting titles, is the Hit King (4,256) and is not in the Hall of Fame.

But the new era– that of the Big Red Machine– was underway. Howsam’s meticulous planning and trades were just starting. No one in Cincinnati knew who George Lee Anderson was. No one knew that Pete Rose would be a third baseman. And no one knew that the most spectacular period in Cincinnati Reds history would culminate in consecutive World Series championships in 1975 and 1976.

Photo of Crosley Field provided by Blake Bolinger. The licensing for the photo can be found here.

13 Responses

  1. gusnwally

    Turbulent year no doubt. I was stationed in the Phillipines. N Koreans jump the Pueblo. 2 days later I am in Taegu Korea.Followed the Reds in the Stars and Stripes every day. Sure missed Vada Pinson. What a great player. And super classy guy.Even considering the crap he had to put up with.

  2. Dan

    North Vietnam rather than North Korea
    Lowered mound in 1969 rather than raised.
    Otherwise- great article!

    • Ken

      The author is correct. The Pueblo was seized by North Korea. Maybe you’re thinking of the Tonkin Gulf ‘incident’, which was Vietnam related.

    • Rick Ring

      I believe the author is referring to the “Pueblo Incident” that occurred in January 1968 when North Korea attacked and captured the USS Pueblo.

  3. james zimmerman

    Good read John! I do believe that as a result of 1968’s “Year of the Pitcher”, the pitching mound was lowered – not raised. Thanks again for a wonderful piece of lore.

  4. Scott C

    Good article John. Some great teams but with some great players. I agree with you about the three greatest centerfielders and Cardenas was always one of my favorite Reds player. I believe James is right they lowered the mound to end the year of the pitcher not raised it..

    • Bill J

      Remember the outfield of Greengrass, Bell and Post?

  5. Matthew

    I know that we as fans would love to see a resurgence of the Big Red Machine very soon, but I think that it would be a disservice to the men that were are part of that well-oiled team to reuse the name. If the Reds can start winning and winning a lot, I say we coin a new term to describe our boys in red.

    How about… “The Red Hot Machine”?

  6. TR

    For me Crosley and Great American have a lot in common since both were and are on the intimate side. If the Reds had wanted a more expansive outfield they would have built the new park, to replace Crosley, at Broadway Commons where the Casino is now.

  7. Rod

    What a great read! As a 7th grader in’68, I fell in love with the Reds – and grabbed an autograph from Bill McCool during a rain delay once. Thanks for rewinding to a memorable era of my youth!

  8. Creigh Deeds

    Love the memories. Loved that team

  9. Mason Red

    This article brings back memories. My family would make the 2 hour drive to Crosley a couple times a year. There was just something about that old ballpark. The sights,sounds and the smell of hot dogs and popcorn. On the way home we would pick up a bucket of KFC in Newport and eat it at a roadside park of sorts on US 27. I also went to a Reds charity basketball game in the early 70s and all kids received a toy. Good memories.