As a rookie Reds manager in 1970, Sparky Anderson’s Cincinnati Reds were 70-30 after their first hundred games.
After a hundred games, no one was saying “Sparky Who?’ anymore. They knew. To be sure, Sparky had a talented team. But he still made some bold decisions after spring training that had a direct impact on that team.
He took a 19-year old rookie pitcher north to Cincinnati who had just one minor league season under his belt. That pitcher’s name was Don Gullett.
He took a pitcher who was 7-14 in Triple A Indianapolis the year before north to Cincinnati. And that pitcher, Wayne Simpson, was 14-1 and enroute to the Rookie of the Year award in 1970 when his arm blew out.
And he platooned a pair of rookies in leftfield (Bernie Carbo and Hal McRae) that turned a question mark position into a plus for the Reds.
Combine those four players with Bench, Rose, May, Perez and Tolan and you had some magic brewing. Sparky Anderson knew exactly what he was doing. And the Reds made a shambles out of the National League in 1970. No team was even close.
Sparky’s first season resulted in a National League pennant for the Cincinnati Reds. Other Reds managers haven’t been that fortunate. In the modern history of the Reds, three of them have even been fired before their first season was complete.
Two were in over their head, so to speak. The third was fired by a General Manager with a short fuse and ambitious goals.
Here are their stories:
Don Heffner (1966)
After General Manager Bill DeWitt fired Dick Sisler after the 1965 season, he made two disastrous moves. He traded Frank Robinson to Baltimore and that one didn’t exactly work out, did it?. Then, he hired Don Heffner as the new Reds manager.
Heffner and DeWitt had a history together. As is true today, “crony-ism” leads to many hires, both good and bad. The hiring of Heffner was no different. He was a career minor league manager who had worked his way up to the major leagues as a coach. He managed the Reds Triple A team in San Diego for three years and had a lot of success. In 1965, he was the third base coach for the New York Mets. Then, DeWitt hired him.
There were signs in spring training that Heffner had neither the confidence of the players nor the baseball acumen needed. Reds players snickered when, during a spring training game, Heffner pinch-hit lefthanded hitting Mel Queen against a lefthanded pitcher. They joked about Heffner being indecisive and nervous. “Ol’ Shakey,” said Reds rightfielder Art Shamsky. “That’s what we called him at San Diego.”
The ’66 Reds got off to a slow start. Cincinnati didn’t get over the .500 mark until they were 36-35 and then the Reds sank into a dismal 11-game losing streak. They snapped it the day before the All-Star Game when Milt Pappas threw a complete game victory and improved to 8-6 on the season. Heffner sank into a depression and seldom left his hotel room on the road. DeWitt fired Heffner during the All-Star break and hired third base coach Dave Bristol as the new manager. “He’s not the same guy I knew years before,” said a perplexed DeWitt.
Vern Rapp (1984)
Rapp had a lot in common with Heffner. He was a successful Triple A manager. He had connections with the Reds General Manager (Bob Howsam). But unlike Heffner, Rapp had a previous managerial experience with the St. Louis Cardinals that was both short and disastrous. Rapp was hired in 1977 by the Cardinals but the players revolted at his authoritative, disciplined ways. He was fired shortly into the 1978 season when the Cards had a 5-11 record.
Rapp went on to coach for the Montreal Expos and announced his retirement after the 1983 season. The Sports Huddle, a radio sports show out of Boston did a satirical tribute to Rapp that coincided with the retirement of Red Sox legend Carl Yasztremski. As part of the show, Cardinal broadcaster Mike Shannon called in and spoke glowingly of Rapp. When Rapp was contacted by phone, he became choked up and thought the radio station was honoring him. Sheldon Bender of the Reds front office was also called and admitted the Reds didn’t know Rapp was leaving the Expos. Bender told Howsam. Howsam then contacted Rapp and wanted him in a consultation role to determine if the Reds should fire then-Manager Russ Nixon. That led to the ultimate selection of Vern Rapp on October 5, 1983. It was a whirlwind romance between Howsam and Rapp.
Rapp’s 1984 Reds started slow, much like Heffner’s ’66 team. With a 23-22 record, things started to unravel. An 8-19 record in July plunged the Reds into last place in the NL West, where they had finished the previous two seasons. Howsam fired Rapp and hired Pete Rose as the Reds player-manager.
Ironically, I saw both Vern Rapp’s first and last games as a Reds Manager. Opening Day of 1984 and a game in St. Louis in August.
Tony Perez (1993)
This was the most bizarre of the three. Perez, a beloved figure in Cincinnati, was hired for the 1993 season by General Manager Jim Bowden and was a personal favorite of Reds CEO Marge Schott. But Schott was suspended for the 1993 season by MLB over controversial remarks she made, so Bowden basically ran the Reds. Known for his ego and aggressiveness in trades, Bowden’s Reds had the highest payroll in baseball that year– $42.8 million.
Cincinnati started off the season slow and were under .500 with a 20-24 record. They had just finished a West Coast road trip when Bowden woke up Perez with a phone call and told him he was fired. Bowden also dismissed third base coach Dave Bristol and, pitching coach Larry Rothschild. First Base coach Ron Oester resigned in protest. Consultant Dave Johnson was hired as the manager. Johnson’s Reds had a 53-65 record for the remainder of the year.
Reds fans reactions were swift and furious. Perez was stunned and fought back tears at a press conference. “I don’t think it’s fair,” said Perez. “Was I cheated? I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s fair. I think I did a good job.”
Bowden’s hack job was the fifth quickest firing of a manager in baseball history— 44 games.
Johnson, who had been out of baseball as a manager and a coach for three years, ultimately helped make the Reds a solid team. They were leading the NL West in 1994 when a baseball strike eliminated the rest of the season and the Reds won the division in 1995 before losing the pennant to the Braves. Johnson, in my book, was one of the more underrated managers for the Reds. Unfortunately, he took the job after a Reds favorite was canned after an unbelievably short tenure as manager and Johnson and Schott had a bad relationship.
For David Bell, the jury is still out. It’s going to take some time for him to make adjustments, get used to his staff, find out which players he wants to keep and/or jettison and exactly how everyone fits in.
The good? He’s already jettisoned some players and made personnel adjustments. The bad? Shockingly, the Reds pitching is stupendous– and they are still under the .500 mark.
But fear not, Mr. Bell— Jim Bowden isn’t the GM.