In Cincinnati Red and Dodger Blue: Baseball's Greatest Forgotten Rivalry, author Tom Van Riper provides a fresh look at two powerhouse teams locked in battle for supremacy of 1970s. "For a period of time it was baseball’s top show, says Van Riper. "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."
The following excerpt provides a snapshot of the defining characteristic of each team. For the Reds, it was one of the most formidable lineups ever assembled; for the Dodgers, an underrated pitching staff that ranked among the very best of the decade.
That’s because in four trips to the plate, Morgan walked three times and drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. He was in the middle of nearly every Cincinnati rally, helping to pad Bench’s RBI total. After walking in the first inning, he induced Padre pitcher Mike Corkins into an errant pick-off throw and wound up on third base, from where he’d score on a Bench groundout. Then in the fourth inning, the Padres decided to walk Morgan intentionally with runners on second and third, which set up Bench’s two-run single. In the sixth, he walked in front of Bench’s homer, though he didn’t score that time because Anderson decided to give him the rest of the afternoon off and pinch-run Chaney, who finished out the game at second base.
It was only one game, but it was a game that showed the world what it was like to have three of the greatest everyday players of all time, all in their primes, in one lineup, at the same time. Comb through baseball history and try to find a team that ever had three such players - you won’t. Secretariat may have moved “like a tremendous machine,” as the track announcer at the Belmont Stakes would famously call three weeks later. But he could have just as easily been describing The Big Red Machine.
There was also the big fourth wheel, Tony Perez, who wasn’t quite on the same level as Morgan, Bench or Rose but who was beloved by the locals for his steady, reliable production and his penchant for getting big hits. “Perez was really the glue, the championships stopped when he was traded,” says Mike LoPresti, a veteran reporter from USA Today who back then covered the Reds for a Richmond, Indiana newspaper. Perez naturally benefitted from hitting in the middle of a lineup that was perennially at or near the top the league in on-base percentage. Still, he dutifully drove those runners home year after year. For eleven straight seasons from 1967 to 1977 (the last one coming after leaving Cincinnati), he drove in at least 90 runs. Perez ultimately averaged 22 homers and 96 RBI per year over a 22-year Hall of Fame career.
It was Morgan, more than anyone else, who made the Big Red Machine go.
“You’d go into the clubhouse,” says LoPresti. “There’s Bench at a corner locker holding court. Morgan and Rose lockered next to each other, getting on each other’s case. Rose remembered everything, events would stick in his brain. Morgan, the future T.V. analyst, would be breaking down the game. Perez would just sort of be there, which is how he was in the lineup.”
During his prime, he both walked and hit with a vengeance. Morgan’s on-base percentage easily eclipsed .400 in each of his first six years in Cincinnati, peaking at an almost ridiculous .466 in 1975 when he hit .327 with 132 walks. Morgan’s 47.6 wins above replacement (9.5 per year) from 1972-76 was one of the best five-year runs by a player in MLB history, exactly equal to the best five-year stretches of Ty Cobb from 1909 to 1913 and Mickey Mantle from 1954 to 1958. Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial never had five such years in succession. Neither did Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt or Alex Rodriguez, who admitted to some extra chemical help during part of his career. The only modern star from the steroid era who did a bit better was Barry Bonds, who put up a 51.2 WAR from 2000 to 2004. Otherwise, only Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Honus Wagner and Rogers Hornsby, who all accumulated WAR totals in the high 40s or low 50s during their best five straight years, edge out Morgan among everyday players (Ted Williams also bested Morgan slightly in his five best consecutive seasons, though his run was interrupted by military service).
Morgan ultimately finished his 22-year career with 268 home runs, fifth all-time among second basemen. The only peer from his era to come relatively close was the historically underrated Bobby Grich, who hit 224. Matching the power was the speed: Morgan’s 689 career stolen bases rank No. 11 all time. Just as important, he made them count - Morgan was successful on 81% of his steal attempts.
“Joe was the best I’d ever seen, he could do it all,” says Jack Billingham. “His only weakness was his arm.”
Bench, chosen by the Reds with the 36th pick of the inaugural 1965 draft, hailed from Binger, Oklahoma, a small town located about an hour’s drive southwest from Oklahoma City. He stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 200 pounds, big for his time. And he went on to dominate in short order. First and foremost was the durability he displayed at such a physically demanding position. In his Rookie-of-the-Year season of 1968, the 20-year-old Bench was behind the plate for 154 games. He caught at least 139 games in each of his first four years, until manager Sparky Anderson finally decided to cut back a bit in 1972 by shifting him to a corner outfield or infield spot a bit more often to preserve his knees. Bench led the N.L. in home runs and RBI in 1970 and 1972, capturing the National League MVP Award in both years. A winner of 10 Gold Gloves, he threw out 44% of would-be base stealers during his career, peaking at well over 50% in his best seasons. Bench’s Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown reads: “Redefined standards by which catchers are measured.”
“Pete Rose stood out, he was the catalyst, and the epitome of the professional ballplayer.” --Steve Garvey
In baseball, players tend to get branded easily. Some are seen as team guys who want to win, others as selfish stat hounds looking out for their own numbers. Fans and press in New York in recent years have generally lauded the Yankees’ recently retired shortstop Derek Jeter as a “winner” while partly dismissing Alex Rodriguez as self-centered and stat-hungry. Maybe there’s some truth to these kinds of observations, but it’s generally not that simple. To think that Jeter would have been happy to put up average stats as long as his team won, or that Rodriguez is content to lose a game as long as he bangs out two or three hits, doesn’t make much sense. It’s probably safe to say that most players on any given day want to have a good game and get a win. Rose was never shy about his devotion to both. He wanted to beat you, and he wanted that batting title. He wanted to finish first and get those 200 hits. He didn’t see a conflict in aligning his goals with the team’s, and why would he? When Rose was producing, the Reds were usually winning.
Says Garvey: “Rose and I had this thing where in some years we might both be going for 200 hits. He’d come up to me before the game and say ‘I got two last night, I’m ahead of you,’ things like that. Everyone got a kick out of Pete.” From a team standpoint, Tommy John remembers reading newspaper accounts of Rose’s claims of his club’s superiority over Los Angeles, which usually entailed a prediction of first place in the N.L. West. “I have a sister who lived in Cincinnati,” says John. “She’d sometimes send me clips about the rivalry, something Pete said or something Sparky said. Pete was really the only player over there who would pop off, but of course he could do it. He was one of the greatest players of all time…”
“Alston believed in leaving you in until you couldn’t go anymore... the game was different.” -- Al Downing
John remembers: “I was the seventh inning specialist, the eighth inning specialist and the ninth inning specialist. Your starter was your best pitcher.” With the designated hitter rule taking hold in the American League in 1973, A.L. pitchers had one less reason to come out of games. That would explain why the pitchers with the nine highest innings totals that year - from the 359 thrown by White Sox knuckleballer Wilbur Wood to the 296 by Orioles’ ace Jim Palmer - all came from that league. Still, the National League, with 16 pitchers logging at least 240 innings, had its share of workhorses.
Says Al Downing: “Alston believed in leaving you in until you couldn’t go anymore. Really the whole league was like that, the game was different.”
But even against the backdrop of the era, the Dodgers’ starting pitching was pretty extraordinary. Around the league, 200-plus inning workloads were typically limited to the front line pitchers. Most teams had two or three such starters, and divided the workload at the back end of the rotation among several others. But four of the Dodgers’ five 1973 starters – Don Sutton, Andy Messersmith, Claude Osteen, and Tommy John - topped the 200 inning mark. The only one who didn’t, Downing, finished with 193. Those five regulars, despite the heavy load, stayed healthy and productive all year, combining to start 158 of the team’s 162 games. Never mind the disabled list - the Los Angeles rotation barely missed a turn. The five consummate pros ultimately went on to win a combined 1,061 major league games, toss 195 shutouts, and strike out 10,695 hitters. None of them threw tremendously hard. It was all about focus, preparedness, and inner competitiveness, according to Downing. “We had intense guys in a quiet way, Messersmith was one of the most intense guys I ever saw,” he says.
The Dodgers’ 1973 rotation became the first in 16 years to feature five pitchers throwing at least 193 innings, and just the third since the 1920s. They also did something that none of previous team had done: lead Major League Baseball in earned average at the same time. The Dodgers’ 3.00 staff ERA in 1973 was more than half a run per game lower than MLB average of 3.74 and the National League average of 3.66. Really, what’s quantity without quality? There were in fact two other N.L. clubs - the Giants and Astros - that boasted four 200-inning starters that year. But neither had a fifth starter that came close to Downing’s innings, and neither staff could match the Dodgers’ in performance. Houston finished eighth in the National League with a 3.75 ERA, while San Francisco was ninth at 3.79.
For all the strong L.A. staffs during the 1970s and ‘80s, it’s the 1973 group that, looking back, had an extra special quality to it. That year marked the only full season as rotation mates for John and Messersmith before they were separated by injury and free agency. Sutton, the ace and future Hall of Famer, was 28 and at his peak. And two of baseball’s better left-handed pitchers for much of the previous decade, Osteen and Downing, were enjoying their final season as productive, full time Dodger starters. It was a pretty rare year in baseball history - when five accomplished pitchers whose careers overlapped for a chunk of time between 1957 and 1989 all did their thing together in the same rotation.
Lead image is a composite of two photos: Tommy John (AP Photo); Joe Morgan (Tony Tomsic / USA Today Sports)