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Post Season Archives
 

November 1, 1976

Ah, how great it is

Great enough to be in superselect company, this Cincinnati team. Led by .533 batter Johnny Bench, it crushed the Yanks

by Ron Fimrite


The Reds had won the 1976 World Series only minutes earlier, vanquishing New York in the chill of an October evening as if the Yankees were no more of a challenge to their supremacy than a sandlot team from the Bronx. Sparky Anderson, the affable Cincinnati manager, smiled triumphantly before television lights that made a crown of his silver hair and stars of his damp eyes.

It was time for Anderson to explain how he had come to be such a genius. But he is a skilled practitioner of false modesty who forever downplays his contributions to his team's achievements. The Yankees did not win a game in this Series, so Sparky's strategy certainly did not get in the way; still he preferred to emphasize his occasional mistakes, to apologize for his abysmal ignorance, to construct an image of himself as the father, proud yet confused, of a gifted child. His function, as he saw it during the media confrontations that abounded at the Series was to act as press agent for his team. After the Reds had won the third Series game by a score of 6-2, he had ventured the opinion that the Big Red Machine "might be one of the great teams of all time." Now, following the fourth win, in which the Reds buried the Yanks 7-2 with four runs in the ninth inning, he was asked if he suspected that his ambitious claim was justified.

"I wanted a chance for this club to be rated," he told the newsmen. "Now it's up to you to do that."

 Pete Rose

1976:
Cincinnati's Pete Rose took flight in the

photograph by
Heinz Kluetmeier


Actually, the rating game was already being played. It began as a rainy-day diversion when the fourth game had been postponed. Everyone from Joe DiMaggio to Joe Garagiola had been asked to compare the Reds with memorable teams of the past. Invariably, the experts backed away from the question, fearful of being dismissed as fogeys or denounced as traitors to their own generations. It was impossible, they usually protested, to compare teams of different eras.

That's true—to a point. A team should be measured by what it accomplishes in its own time. The 1976 Reds will never play the 1927 Yankees, but they sure knocked the starch out of the 1976 Yankees. Cincinnati swept New York by winning Games 3 and 4 in the House That Ruth Built—and others remodeled—and in the process the Reds embarrassed the Yanks with their daring on the bases, exposed the arms of the New York outfielders as being no more fibrous than strands of pasta and used their belittled pitching staff to limit the Yankees to an average of two runs a game.

New York Catcher Thurman Munson, whose .529 Series average was the best ever for a player on a losing team, fought the good fight, but he was upstaged by his glamorous Cincinnati counterpart, Johnny Bench, who batted .533 and drove home five runs with two homers in the climactic fourth game. Munson was further undone when Anderson extolled the incomparable virtues of his own catcher while Munson stood silently by in the press interview room under the stands. "Don't embarrass anyone by comparing him with Johnny Bench," Anderson advised the newsmen. Munson, who felt he had been unfavorably compared, was deeply embarrassed nonetheless. And so were his teammates. Confronted then with the only Yankees available to them, the Reds had turned the Series into the First Battle of Bull Run.

And that only served to heighten speculation about just how good the Reds are. Now that the A's, world champions of 1972, '73, and '74, have been destroyed by their creator, the Reds are the glamour team of baseball. And because they have the same eight players in their lineup almost every day, it is all the easier to liken them to some of the famous combinations of history.

Not that anyone is prepared to compare the Reds' motley pitching staff with such stately rotations as Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson of the 1971 Orioles or Mike Garcia, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Bob Feller of the 1954 Indians. But the Reds' pitchers, whoever they are, won their Series; the Orioles and the Indians fell flat on their reputations in theirs. That says something for Anderson's share-the-labor philosophy, which holds that the complete game is no criterion for success. His starts hold off the opposition for as long as seems reasonable, then are succeeded by the rabble out there in the bullpen. Reds pitchers completed only 33 of 162 games this season, while the '54 Indians finished 77 of 154 and the '71 Orioles lasted through 71 of 158. Nonetheless, the Reds won 102 regular-season contests and, for their most extraordinary accomplishment, seven straight postseason games—three in the playoffs and four in the Series.

After a season like that, conglomerate pitching may become the wave of the future. Indeed, if Anderson is to be commended for managerial brilliance, it should be for his manipulation of his staff. A Reds starter, unless he is a healthy Don Gullett (and there are none of those), will not grow famous under Anderson's stewardship, but he will get rich in October. Captain Hook is not all bad.

So even pitching staffs can be compared. The old Indians might serve up a Lemon; the new Reds will toss a Billingham-Borbon-Eastwick salad. Baseball lends itself to such comparisons because it is not so much a game of inches as of decimal points. The numbers, the inevitable "stats," reveal certain truths. It is true that the conditions in which batting averages, slugging percentages and homer and RBI totals are accumulated will not always be comparable. Not everyone plays the game on grass anymore, and the stadiums are less idiosyncratic in conformation. Styles change. There have been long-ball and dead-ball eras, periods when base stealing was considered an essential offensive weapon and when it was thought suicidal. In one of those rainy-day interviews last week DiMaggio quoted Connie Mack (now there is a parlay for you) as saying that the game changes every 15 years. The prospect of someone beating out 37 infield hits, as the Reds' Ken Griffey did this year while playing most of his games on artificial surfaces, was unthinkable when DiMaggio and his fellow Bronx Bombers were reaching base through the simple expedient of hitting the ball against or over the fence.

It is also conceded that the modern player is bigger, faster and better conditioned than his predecessors. Logically, this should also make him better, but more than any other sport, baseball is a game of technique. A player must still swing a rounded bat at a round ball that is hurtling toward him on an erratic course. It is not easy to hit the damn thing, and extra size, speed and conditioning do not necessarily make for a better batter. While 210-pound Danny Fortmann could no longer play guard in the National Football League, as he did 40 years ago, someone of Joe Morgan's modest proportions can still win a Most Valuable Player Award in baseball.

So why not blunder willy-nilly into the time warp and venture a few comparisons? For purposes of violent argument, let us suppose that the 10 best Series-winning teams since 1920 have been the 1927 Yankees with their Murderer's Row; the 1929 Philadelphia Athletics of Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane and Lefty Grove; the 1932 Yankees of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Lefty Gomez and a cast of thousands; the 1936 Yanks of Gehrig, Bill Dickey and the kid, DiMaggio; the 1941 DiMaggio-led Bronx Bombers; the 1942 Cardinals of Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter; the 1955 Dodgers of Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, et al; the 1961 Yankees of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle; the 1970 Orioles of the Robinsons, Frank and Brooks, and all those pitchers; and the you-pick-'em 1972, '73, '74 A's of you-know-who. All were world champions and all, save the Cardinals, who won 106 games and still only finished two ahead of the Dodgers, won pennants by comfortable margins. The Orioles and A's, of course, won their divisions, then the playoffs to achieve their pennants.

Some will cavil over the '55 Dodgers, contending that they were not the best of the Brooklyn teams of the early '50s. Remember, however, that this was the only Dodger club of that era to win the World Series. The Yankees won a record five Series in succession from 1949 through 1953 under Casey Stengel, but they were seen as if through a kaleidoscope, a succession of changing, short-lived images. It may be argued in the defense of these various Stengelian confections that many different players passed through Charlie Finley's swinging door in the A's recent world championship seasons, and so they did. But the body of the team—Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, Sal Bando, Gene Tenace, Bert Campaneris and the fine pitchers—remained intact. Stengel was a genius. His teams lacked the identity the others have.

All of the Top 10 shared the requisite attributes of greatness—good pitching, defense, team speed and hitting. They had strength up the middle at catcher, shortstop, second base and center field. Consider the Yankee team of 1936: Catcher Dickey, Shortstop Frank Crosetti, Second Baseman Tony Lazzeri, Centerfielder DiMaggio. Possibly more impressive were the 1941 Yanks of Dickey, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Gordon and DiMaggio. That is strength up the middle.

Along with the obvious criteria, these teams possessed more subtle virtues. They could intimidate their opponents. Recall the legend of the poor Pirates of 1927, watching in chilled disbelief as the lethal denizens of Murderers' Row powered batting practice pitches to the far reaches of Forbes Field. It is said the Pirates never regained their composure after this unsettling spectacle. They lost to the Yanks in four straight.

Few teams have been more intimidating than the Cardinals in the summer of '42. They won 43 of their last 51 games to overtake the Dodgers, then devastated the Yankees four games to one. The Series may have shifted to the Cards in the sixth and seventh innings of the third game when Centerfielder Terry Moore, Leftfielder Musial and Rightfielder Slaughter robbed New York of two homers and a double with a succession of circus catches. This amazing defensive display seemed to demoralize the Yankees, causing them to believe that everything they hit would somehow be caught.

Snuffing out an opponent's firepower with such play is one measure of greatness; taking advantage of his mistakes is another. The Yankees set the precedent for this in the fourth game of the 1941 Series. With two out in the ninth inning, two strikes on New York's Tommy Henrich and the Dodgers leading 4-3, Pitcher Hugh Casey broke off a wicked curveball (possibly a spitter) that Henrich swung at and missed for the third strike which, apparently, ended the game. But the ball bounced away from Catcher Mickey Owen, and a reprieved Henrich raced safely to first. It was a fatal blunder. DiMaggio singled, Charlie Keller doubled. Dickey walked and Gordon doubled. The Bombers had four quick runs, the game and a 3-1 lead in the Series.

The surfacing of unsung heroes at critical moments is another characteristic of the exceptional team. Tenace had played in but 82 games and hit only five homers for the A's in 1972, but glory was thrust upon him when a leg injury scratched Jackson from the Series. Tenace responded with four homers and nine RBIs, propelling the A's past a then not-quite-as-big Red Machine.

Some teams, however are so awesome that guile seems merely an affectation. The Yankees of the '30s and the '40s had an air of superiority about them. In a somewhat less dignified way, so did the Dodgers of the '50s. But surely no team has dominated a season the way the Yankees of 1927 did. They set records for everything from home runs to the consumption of bootleg gin. They won 110 games, lost only 44, had a cumulative batting average of .307 and outscored their opponents by almost 400 runs. Ruth hit his 60 homers and Gehrig had 47. Ruth led the league in runs (158), walks (138), strikeouts (89) and slugging percentage (an astonishing .772). Gehrig led in runs batted in (175), total bases (447) and doubles (52). Centerfielder Earle Combs led in hits (231). Ruth and Gehrig were first and second in slugging, walks and homers; Gehrig and Ruth first and second in total bases and RBIs; Combs and Gehrig first and second in hits; and Ruth, Gehrig and Combs first, second and third in runs. Waite Hoyt led the league's pitchers with a 22-7 record and a 2.64 ERA.

The outfield of Bob Meusel, Combs and Ruth is still considered one of the finest defensively, and the infield of Gehrig on first, Lazzeri on second, Mark Koenig at short and Joe Dugan on third was first rate. The team had only average catching, but the pitching staff led by Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Urban Shocker, George Pipgras, Dutch Ruether and Wilcy Moore was excellent.

The '27 Yankees have been acclaimed for many years as baseball's finest team, but there is a diminishing number of those who can testify through personal experience to its greatness. Memories grow cloudy; soon only the stats, the loyal numbers, will remain. All things are relative, though and this team played nearly a half-century ago, before night games, artificial turf, network television and the arctic World Series.

So where do the modern Reds stand in such august company? They are, in baseball language, competitive. They are as strong up the middle as most of the Top 10. Bench regained his faltering reputation in the Series and is once again being trumpeted as the greatest catcher, the superior, some claim, of Cochrane, Dickey, Campanella and Yogi Berra. Dave Concepcion and Morgan compare with any short-second combination, and Cesar Geronimo, with his extraordinary throwing arm and outstanding range, is the quintessential artificial turf center-fielder. And though he is no DiMaggio, Mantle or Snider at the plate, he did hit better than .300 this year.

The Reds intimidate with both power and speed. Their 210 stolen bases far surpass those of any of the Top 10, though the running game was not that fashionable in the '30s, '40s and '50s. The Reds stole seven bases in the four Series games and consistently took the extra base on Yankee outfielders. In the second game Geronimo tagged up and scored on a shallow fly ball to center, arriving well ahead of Mickey Rivers' two-bounce toss. In the same game Griffey, who has created a whole new statistical category with his infield hits, forced Yankee Shortstop Fred Stanley into a bad throw on one of his typical AstroTurf hoppers. The error cost the Yankees the only game they had a real chance to win. The Reds' team speed is such that opposing infields are compelled to be wary of the stolen base. This leaves them vulnerable elsewhere, because as broadcaster Tony Kubek, the shortstop of the '61 Yankees, has observed, "With the Reds, the first baseman on the other team always has to hold the man on first. And the shortstop and second baseman have to cheat toward second in case of a steal. That opens up room for hits to get through, something the Reds take advantage of."

The Red's panache, much of it the property of Third Baseman Pete Rose, is always in evidence. In the two games on the Yankee Stadium grass infield, Rose took the bunt away from the speedy but befuddled Rivers by playing in very close. In the final inning of the Series, Rivers, who must have longed to decapitate his antagonist with a line drive, finally hit one at Rose's head. Rose snatched it, then held his glove up, as if to say, "Better luck next time, sucker."

The Reds take consistent advantage of opponents' mistakes, as Stanley ruefully learned, and they stifle rallies with their alertness, as Yankee Graig Nettles discovered when Bench picked him off second base after a failed bunt attempt by Willie Randolph in the fourth inning of the final game. Rivers did manage to steal a base in Game 4—the first off Bench and the Reds in 27 consecutive post-season games dating back to 1972—but he was thrown out on his only other attempted swipe, was picked off first by Pitcher Pat Zachry in Game 3 and, in his worst base-running gaffe, killed a brewing Yankee rally in the same game when he was doubled off second on a liner to First Baseman Tony Perez.

The Reds also have their unsung heroes. Witness Dan Driessen in the unlikely role of designated hitter, a position the National League does not recognize except when Commissioner Bowie Kuhn obliges it to use the DH in the World Series. Driessen hit .357 against the Yankees and belted a homer in Game 3. And Will McEnaney, who endured a miserable season (2-6, 4.87 ERA), threw 4 2/3 scoreless innings in relief and pitched, as he did a year ago, the final out.

People are not as easily awed today, but the Big Red Machine does leave an impression. The Reds had the best batting average in the majors (.280) and scored the most runs (857). They led their league in doubles (271), home runs (141) and steals. Five of the eight regulars—Griffey, Rose, Morgan, Geronimo and George Foster—were .300-plus hitters. The '29 A's had six, the '27 Yankees five. The Reds have now won two straight Series, the first National League team to do so since the 1921-22 Giants.

Awesome, maybe. Praiseworthy, certainly. And during this last impressive week, praise came forth, sometimes grudgingly, from the old players who watched the Reds start yet another new era. "I'd compare the Reds favorably with any club I've seen," said Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, now a Mets broadcaster. "The '61 Yankees don't really count. I'm not taking anything away from them, but that was an expansion year. The Reds have such balance. AstroTurf has changed the game, and they know how to play it well. They go from first to third, and if they draw the throw, they have a man on second. They're a great club.... They don't have the same power of the teams of the '50s, but they make up for it. Every man on the field is a pro."

"Concepcion has a lot more power and a better arm than I did," said the old Scooter, Rizzuto, a Yankee broadcaster. "I don't think I could play on AstroTurf so well, so deep in the hole."

"We had pitching and power," said Elston Howard, catcher on the '61 Yankees and coach on the '76 team. "They have speed. I don't think they compare to the guys we had. We had three catchers who hit over 20 home runs."

"You really can't compare eras, but this is one of the best teams I've seen," said Monte Irvin, the Giant star of the '50s who now works in the commissioner's office. "They can beat you so many ways—speed, hitting defense. They've got a great catcher, and their pitching can't be too bad if they won 102 games. They've got a lot of guys who can pitch four or five innings and get the job done. What more do you want?"

There is one observer who is uniquely qualified to comment on changing eras. "The Reds are refined around the edges," said Waite Hoyt of the '27 Yankees, now 77 and a retired Cincinnati broadcaster. "But there was a craftsmanship, an artistic approach combined with discipline on our team." Hoyt was a Yankee. He has seen much of the Reds. Can he, of all people, compare two teams a half-century apart? There was no hesitation. "It is my firm belief that the 1927 Yankees are the best team ever."

You could look it up.


 

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