Welcome to the Machine
This article appears in the August 30, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Excerpted from The Machine: A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping World Series -- The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, by Joe Posnanski. On sale in hardcover on Sept. 15, 2009, from William Morrow.
CINCINNATI, July 4, 1975
Sparky Anderson would say later that it was no brainstorm. He did not have a brilliant dream or a Eureka moment while lying around at the pool. He had just tried so many lineup combinations, it was inevitable that he'd come across the right one. And so, on Independence Day, 1975, he unveiled what would become the most famous lineup in history:
1. Pete Rose, 3B
Sparky did not think much about it that day. Nobody did. Seemed like everyone was talking about the upcoming Battle of the Sexes match race between the filly Ruffian, who had won every one of her 10 races going away, and the colt Foolish Pleasure, the Kentucky Derby winner. President Ford went to Fort McHenry and said that the nation's third century should be an era of individual freedom. Johnny Bench's old friend Bob Hope became only the third American (after presidents Hoover and Truman) to receive the Philadelphia Freedom Medal. The Reds beat the San Diego Padres 7-6, and every player in the Cincinnati order got a hit. The new lineup went largely unnoticed.
But this was historic: The Reds almost never lost when Sparky Anderson entered that lineup. They would, in fact, go 57-25 the rest of the season to win the division title by 20 games. The lineup had all the elements. Rose gave it will, Griffey gave it speed, Morgan gave it a little bit of everything. Bench provided power, Perez big hits, Foster home runs, Concepcion great plays at shortstop, Geronimo defensive grace in centerfield.
There had never been a lineup quite like it. Yes, the famed 1927 New York Yankees had four Hall of Famers in their Murderers' Row -- including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig -- and averaged more than six runs per game. The Boys of Summer Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s had Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella and were a beautiful blend of power and speed. But the lineup Sparky Anderson put on the field on July 4, 1975, had something more. The Reds had power and speed too. More, though, there were three African-Americans in the lineup, three Latin Americans and two white Americans -- and Bench had Native American blood. They were the Great American Ballclub.
"We had black players on our team?" Johnny Bench would ask many years later, facetiously. "We had Latin American players on our team? I never noticed that. I promise you, none of us ever noticed that. We made fun of each other. We made fun of the way players talked. We made fun of the way players looked. But when it came down to it, we were Cincinnati Reds."
He paused here for emphasis.
"We were," he said, "the Big Red Machine."
TAMPA, February 28, 1975
The players would each remember Sparky Anderson's spring training speech a little bit differently in later years, but everyone recalled his main point. He announced that the Machine was made up of two kinds of players. First, there were the superstars. To be more specific, Sparky said, there were four superstars -- Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez. Those four made their own rules. Those four had no curfew. Those four had special privileges. If Johnny wanted to go golfing every so often during spring training, he could go. If Pete wanted to blow off some steam at the dog track, well, Sparky might give him a few extra bucks. If Joe needed to come in late so he could attend college classes, that was all right by Sparky. If Tony needed a little rest, then Sparky would fluff the pillow. Those four were royalty.
"The rest of you," Sparky said, "are turds."
CINCINNATI, APRIL 22, 1975
Johnny Bench first alerted the world to his baseball destiny in the second grade, when the teacher asked the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Johnny never could figure out why every other boy in the class offered what seemed to him mundane ambitions -- lawyer, dentist, farmer. There was something about growing up in a small town, something comforting and confining all at once, something that Johnny Bench would spend his life celebrating and, more, running away from. Johnny announced that he intended to play baseball for a living. And every year Johnny would remind every teacher and every student in his class in Binger, Okla., that his goal had not changed.
Ted Bench started a youth baseball team -- the Binger Bobcats -- and he made youngest son Johnny his catcher, for a practical reason: That was the easiest route to the big leagues. There were never enough good catchers in this world. Johnny loved the position. He was good at it. He would block balls thrown in the dirt and catch pop-ups behind home plate, and when he made practice throws to second base, eyes would bulge. "That boy of yours is gonna play in the big leagues," people would say to Ted.
"Yes, he is," Ted said.
None of it was easy, of course. The Benches were just getting by -- Ted had only enough money to keep the Binger Bobcats going for a couple of years. When he ran out of sponsorship funds, he drove Johnny 20 miles to Fort Cobb to play. When Ted could not drive him to Fort Cobb, Johnny and his brothers and friends played baseball games using Milnot milk cans as balls and broken bats sliced in half. And when brothers and friends were not around, Katy, Johnny's mother, would watch in wonder as her son stood out in the driveway and, for hours at a time, threw chunks of gravel in the air and hit them with a chipped baseball bat.
Ted and Johnny talked so much about his playing in the big leagues that soon it became almost commonplace, like planning a family vacation. Johnny never doubted that he would play in the majors. When he was in school -- Johnny would always remember this -- he got a C in penmanship. It devastated him. For one thing, Johnny Bench did not get C's in anything -- he had to be a success in everything or he felt like a failure. But more, much more, he could not afford C-level penmanship. Johnny intended to sign a lot of autographs in his life.
So here's what he did: Johnny went down to Ford McKinney's Texaco station there in Binger, and he practiced signing autographs. Over and over again, Johnny would sign his name -- rounding out the top of the J, making sure the h and two n's were precisely the same height and width, adding an extra swirl in his B. He signed his name again and again and then, when he had the letters just right, he started handing out his autographs to people around town. "Keep this," he said. "I'm going to be famous." He liked doing that so much that he did it again the next week. And then again. After a while, McKinney had a cigar box full of Johnny Bench signatures. Years later he would say he still had them around somewhere.
MLB Truth & Rumors