In Cincinnati Red and Dodger Blue: Baseball's Greatest Forgotten Rivalry, Tom Van Riper provides a fresh look at these two powerhouse teams and the circumstances that made them so pivotal. The following interview with Van Riper was conducted via email.
These were the early days of divisional play, which started with the 1969 expansion. Both teams emerged as powers in the early 1970s, which led to a natural rivalry for supremacy in the N.L. West. The Reds already had Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Johnny Bench and a National League pennant in 1970. But a move from natural grass at Crosley Field to artificial turf at Riverfront Stadium spurred a decision to give up some power in exchange for speed and athleticism. A big trade with the Astros brought in Joe Morgan, whose career took off Cincinnati to the point of him becoming one of the great players of all time, and Cesar Geronimo, a Gold Glove centerfielder with a rocket arm. A contender had become a true powerhouse.
At the same time, the Dodgers became a legitimate co-power thanks largely to the famous 1968 amateur draft, which brought five players who would become regular starters by 1973- Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, Dave Lopes, Joe Ferguson, and Bill Buckner. They also got a few more future major leaguers in the same draft – Geoff Zahn, Bobby Valentine, Doyle Alexander – who subsequently brought pitchers Andy Messersmith and Burt Hooton in trades. With ‘60s veterans Don Sutton and Claude Osteen still around and Tommy John arriving in a trade from the White Sox in ‘72, the Dodgers had an all-time starting rotation to battle the Reds’ all-time lineup. It made for great baseball theater. It didn’t last forever, of course. Cincinnati-L.A. isn’t a natural rivalry bound by tradition and geography. But for a period of time it was baseball’s top show. As far as talent goes, I’ll take Reds-Dodgers in the ‘70s over any version of Yankees-Red Sox, Cubs-Cardinals, or Dodgers-Giants.
As far as I can tell there was no real personal animosity among the players. To talk to them now, you hear nothing but praise and respect. Perhaps the players have just mellowed with time and age, which can change the perspective. But all indications show that Pete Rose was the only player from either side who liked to pop off, which seemed to amuse the Dodgers more than bother them. Both Cey and Garvey told me separately that “everyone got a kick out of Pete.” They respected his work ethic and his competitiveness, not to mention his talent. If there was one person for whom the rivalry was personal it was Reds manager Sparky Anderson, who had played in the Dodger minor league system for six years, making it as high as Triple-A, without ever getting a call up to the big league club. Said Reds pitcher Jack Billingham: “Sparky loved beating the Dodgers.”
Don’t thank the Dodgers and Reds exclusively for pushing baseball’s growth, but thank them a lot.
It’s funny, I had no rooting interest in either team growing up. I was a kid from Long Island who grew up a huge Mets fan and idolized Tom Seaver. One of the worst days of my life was June 15, 1977 – the day he was traded to the Reds. But I think that’s just it – the fact that I didn’t particularly root for the Reds or Dodgers yet still remember them so vividly probably shows how big they were at the time.
Back then, your life as a baseball fan existed on two levels – following your own team day-to-day and periodically tuning in to a national network to watch the All-Star Game, playoffs and World Series. And when you did that, you saw Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Steve Garvey, Joe Morgan, Don Sutton et al, year after year. The Reds or Dodgers played in seven of nine World Series from 1970-78 and at one point combined to start a minimum of five players in the All-Star Game for five straight years. This was still mostly the pre-cable era, when most Americans had eight television channels and not 500. Baseball’s jewel events got huge national ratings compared to what they get today. And these were the guys playing in them every year. The game had other big faces of course--Seaver, Willie Stargell, Reggie Jackson, Carlton Fisk, among others. But a disproportionate number of them played in L.A. or Cincinnati. What I say in the book is: "Don’t thank the Dodgers and Reds exclusively for pushing baseball’s growth, but thank them a lot."
The Big Red Machine is obviously one of the game's storied teams. Yet this rivalry wasn't as one-sided as people may think. Do you think historians overlook the fine LA teams of the 1970s?
A great question, to which I say absolutely yes. Probably for a couple of reasons. First, the Dodger teams of the 1970s don’t stand out all that much from other historically strong Dodger teams – the 1950s Brooklyn clubs of Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider and the 1960s Los Angeles Dodgers of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. The Reds’ history has produced some occasional strong teams, but the Big Red Machine era stands above everything else by a pretty wide margin.
The other part is the “bridesmaid” identity of the 1970s Dodgers. In 10 of 11 years from 1970 to 1980, they either finished second in the N.L. West or lost in the World Series. When you’ve got two powers playing in the same division and no wild card to fall back on, a genuinely great team can miss the postseason altogether. The 1973 Dodgers won 95 games and didn’t make the playoffs; the 1974 Reds won 98 games and didn’t make the playoffs. The Dodgers did win a World Series in 1981, the year I would define as the last of the rivalry era with the Reds, but many of us would place at least a small asterisk on that title since it came during the year of the great strike that wiped out a third of the schedule and spurred a bizarre split season.
While championships build legacies, you can count me among those who believe that the regular season is a stronger indicator of a team’s greatness than a short series. Especially in baseball, where your best hitter can easily slump for a few games or your top pitcher can have a bad outing. Steph Curry is never going to be held to five points in an NBA finals game, but Steve Garvey had his occasional 0-for-4 World Series games. The Dodgers averaged more than 90 wins during the decade and led the N.L. in pitching for six of seven years from 1972 to 1978 (their one miss being 1976, when they finished a close second behind the Mets). Call their combined three World Series losses to the A’s and Yankees a lack of clutch performance if you want to, but I call it a small sample crapshoot. The Reds had their own share of postseason stumbles during the early 1970s before coming on to win back-to-back championships in 1975 and 1976, ensuring their legacy. But even then you saw the effect of the short series. The 1975 Reds were a dominant team that won 108 games, yet they struggled to win a tough seven game World Series against the Red Sox. A break here or there, and that series could have easily gone the other way. Had the Reds come away with just one championship from the ‘70s instead of two, would they have been any less great? I don’t believe so.
They looked a lot more like four happy millionaire buddies than bitter Yankee-Red Sox rivals.
I think the final question there really nails it. Rivalries probably are fan constructs more than anything else. And I do believe that modern players are more union brothers than rivals on the field. That union loyalty over team loyalty may have already been taking shape just as the Dodgers-Reds rivalry was taking off in 1972, the same year that Marvin Miller’s growing clout resulted in a brief strike that won salary arbitration for the players. When I got to cover the 2008 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, I had an up-close view of batting practice right near the cage. There I saw Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter hitting as a group, yucking it up with a lot of laughs and good natured kidding. They looked a lot more like four happy millionaire buddies than bitter Yankee-Red Sox rivals. It’s hard to imagine them arguing the way their fans do.
From what I’ve heard and read over the years, it seems that you may have to go back even farther than the 1970s to find the days of true heated rivalry among players and managers. During the Brooklyn Dodgers-New York Giants battles of the 1940s and ‘50s, players reportedly cursed each other under their breaths. When you had two teams in one city in the same league, playing 22 times a year and battling for a World Series spot that meant a lot of money relative to a player’s regular salary, along with antagonists like Leo Durocher and Sal Maglie to fan the flames, you had a pretty bitter rivalry. I think that more recent players still recognize rivalries and take pride in winning them, but that it isn’t nearly as personal.
Sparky Anderson: Roger Blevins derivative work: [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons