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:
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."
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."
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
That was the Johnny Bench everyone in Binger knew, the cocky kid who signed autographs at the gas station and believed without a doubt that he would play major league baseball, and then he would be a major league star, and then he would marry the prettiest girl in the world. It had to happen that way. Cincinnati drafted Johnny in the second round in 1965 and offered him a measly six grand and some school tuition, a pretty insulting offer. But Reds scout Tony Robello knew just how to make the deal happen. He said, "John, if you make it, you will have more money than you could ever want." Johnny signed the contract. He knew that he would make it.
He played the next year for the Class A Peninsula Grays in Newport News, Va., and he was something to see. He hit long home runs -- 10 of them over the HIT A HOMER HERE, WIN A FREE SUIT sign -- and he showed off his gun of an arm, and he told people, "Forget Babe Ruth. Remember Johnny Bench." At the end of the year, in one of the quirkier moments in minor league history, Peninsula retired Johnny Bench's uniform number. Johnny took it all in stride. Retire his jersey? Why not? He smiled and waved to the crowd and then took his 10 free suits and went up to Triple A Buffalo. He played less than a year there and hit 23 more home runs. Then the Reds called him up to the big leagues. On Johnny's first day, he announced to the catchers on the team that he had not come to be anyone's backup; he had come to be baseball's biggest star, and they might as well know that up front. They hated him immediately.
Hated him... but what could they say? Johnny may have been an arrogant jerk off the field, but on it he was Mozart. He didn't just play baseball better than any of them; he revolutionized baseball. Catchers through the years had caught pitches with both hands, using the right hand to secure the baseball in the glove. The Chicago Cubs' Randy Hundley, who'd made it to the big leagues a few years before Johnny, was the first major league catcher to catch one-handed. But Johnny Bench made one-handed catching an art form. He had huge hands -- he could hold seven baseballs in one of them -- and he would scoop pitches out of the dirt like a shortstop picking up a ground ball. He could get the ball from his glove to his throwing hand so fast, it seemed like a card trick. And when he had a bat in his hand, he hit long home runs to leftfield.
Baseball stardom, however, was not enough. As his fame and numbers grew, Johnny sang in nightclubs. He went to Vietnam with Bob Hope. He hosted his own television show. He became friends with stars, like the singer Bobby Goldsboro, who hit it big in 1968, during Bench's rookie year, with a song called
That's when Johnny Bench felt a sharp and biting pain deep inside his left shoulder. He groaned. Then he got up -- nobody, not even the people who hated Johnny Bench, ever questioned his toughness. He stayed in the game. He waited for the pain to go away. Only it did not go away. And what Johnny Bench did not know that day in Cincinnati is that the pain would subside a little, but it would not go away. He would play the rest of the 1975 season in agony.
You were born at the wrong time, Pete," Tom Callahan told Pete Rose. Callahan understood that feeling of being from a generation not quite your own. Callahan wrote a sports column for
"You know who loves you, Pete?" Joe Morgan would say all the time. "Women who are in their 80s. Those are your fans. Because you play like the ballplayers they used to watch when they were young."
Of course, lots of guys played baseball like the old-time players. But Pete, he
He ate up old stories. Waite Hoyt was a hard-drinking former Yankees pitcher who'd known the Babe and Ty Cobb and all the rest of those old baseball greats. He had also been a radio announcer for the Reds in the 1960s, and Pete would talk to him for hours. Pete would ask him to repeat the same stories again and again. Later, Callahan would hear Pete tell those stories, word for word, facial expression for facial expression. It was eerie. Several years later, when Rose was chasing Cobb's record for most hits,
On this third day of May in 1975, before the Reds' game against the Atlanta Braves, Sparky considered calling general manager Bob Howsam to tell him that he would play Rose at third base, taking him out of leftfield, where he had played for the previous three years. He decided against the call. For one thing, he was the manager of the team. He had to be allowed to run the team the way he knew how. As the old line goes, it's always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Second, he was desperate. Sparky tried to hide this from everyone, but his close friend Jeff Ruby could see it in Anderson's face. Sparky had convinced himself that if he did not do something, something drastic, this team would keep losing, and he would get canned. "They'll fire me in a heartbeat,
Sparky watched Pete take some ground balls that day. He looked O.K. He wasn't smooth, he wasn't agile and, of course, he had that weak arm. But Sparky had to believe that Pete would work hard enough; he would not embarrass himself over there.
"What's news, Sparky?" That was Chief Bender, the Reds' director of the minor leagues. Chief was a good baseball man; he'd been in the game for 25 years. There had been a good pitcher known as Chief Bender in the early part of the century, and Chief was often confused with him. He didn't seem to mind. He never tired of baseball. He went to a game every day -- major league game, minor league game, it didn't matter. He had to be around it.
"I'm playing Rose at third," Sparky said.
Chief's face reddened. He looked hard at Sparky, as if he were trying to determine if he had just heard an inscrutable joke.
"Well," Chief began slowly, "Bob's in Arizona."
"Chief, I'm gonna tell you something," Sparky said, and there was a bit of snap in his voice now. "It doesn't matter where Bob is. You know we haven't won [a World Series] yet, and we're starting off slow this year. I look at it this way: It's me or nothing right now. I'm gonna play him at third base."
Chief gave Sparky that hard look again. Then he sort of shrugged and walked off. It was Sparky's funeral.
Ralph Garr was Atlanta's leadoff batter that night. He was fast, and in 1974 he had slapped and run his way to a .353 batting average, the best in the National League. Garr had a unique talent for hitting baseballs precisely where he wanted to hit them. He saw Pete Rose at third base, and he smiled.
Up in the radio booth, Reds announcer Marty Brennaman watched closely. Sparky had told Marty that Rose would play third base, but Marty did not believe him. Now Rose was out there. Marty watched as Garr cracked a ground ball to third. Rose took a step to his left, kind of lost his footing, grabbed the ball, stumbled slightly again, steadied himself, threw the ball across the diamond. "He got him," Marty told his radio listeners. "How about that Pete Rose?"
Early the next day at his second home, in Arizona, Bob Howsam picked up his morning newspaper and saw what he thought was a misprint. The box score showed a 6-1 Reds win. It also showed Pete Rose playing third base. He called up Chief Bender.
"I see Rose at third," he said. "That's a mistake, isn't it?"
"No, Bob," Chief said. "Sparky put him at third base."
"Oh, my God," Howsam said.
Joe Morgan had that feeling. He was about to change a game again. Lots of people around baseball despised Joe Morgan. They thought him arrogant. And, hey, not everybody on the Reds loved Joe either. Ken Griffey and George Foster, for instance, thought him distant. He spent much of his time off the field alone in his room, listening to jazz, reading the adventure comic books that allowed him to escape. "George and I kept waiting for him to take us under his wing," Griffey would say years later. "But it never happened."
Still, they could not help but admire the way he played baseball. Joe had no weaknesses. If Pete had learned ferocity from his father, then Joe had learned completeness from his own. Leonard Morgan had played semipro baseball, and he told his son that the secret to success was the ability to do everything well. They would go to minor league baseball games in Oakland, Leonard and Joe and his sister Linda, and the father would express his disdain for those players who hit home runs but did not seem to care about their defense or those who could run fast but did not seem to take pride in their hitting. "Be everything," Leonard would say.
He really could do everything. Joe could beat teams in more ways than anyone else. Take 1974. Joe had a .427 on-base percentage, which led the league. While Joe had never batted .300 -- which was what the fans and reporters mostly cared about -- he had reached base more than 40% of the time in each of his three seasons with Cincinnati. He drew 120 walks in 1974, second most in the league. He stole 58 bases, third in the league. He hit 22 home runs. He won the Gold Glove for his defense at second base. And his mind? "Smartest player I ever coached," Sparky gushed endlessly to reporters.
On this day in 1975 the Reds trailed Chicago 1-0, seventh inning, first game of a doubleheader, and Cubs pitcher Rick Reuschel had allowed just one hit, a little ground ball up the middle by Geronimo. Reuschel was overpowering the Machine. Morgan worked Reuschel for a walk.
Then the game began. He danced off the bag, shifting his weight from his left leg to his right, then right leg back to his left, and he inched a little bit closer to second base, and he had that smile, the Joe Morgan smile, the one that said, "Oh, yeah, I'm about to steal second base, and there's nothing you can do about it." That smile was yet another reason people didn't like Joe.
But he was right. There was nothing anyone could do to keep him from stealing. On the bases Joe Morgan was an artist at work. Reuschel threw over to first base to chase him back to the bag. Morgan looked at Reuschel, and his smile grew larger -- now it said, "You poor man. You think throwing over to first base will stop me? You cannot stop me. I have spent hours studying you, hours looking over your every physical quirk, how your left leg twitches, how your shoulder slumps, how your back leans. I have studied you, and I know when you will pitch. You cannot fool me. I'm already at second base. It's futile for you to throw over here." Reuschel threw over to the bag again, and Morgan dived back in.
"This guy knows he can't pick me off, right?" Joe said to Cubs first baseman Andre Thornton, and he dusted himself off. But Reuschel did not seem to know that at all. In fact, Morgan noticed that something in Reuschel's face had changed. He wore a look of weary apprehension, as if waiting for something to happen, a balloon to pop, a gunshot to go off. He started to throw over to first base again, only this time the umpire raised his arm.
"Balk!" the umpire said as he pointed at Reuschel.
Morgan jogged easily to second base. He had done what he wanted to do. He had broken something in Reuschel. Pitchers, Joe believed, are fragile creatures. When they felt good, powerful, invincible, they pitched easily and you couldn't do much against them. But when you got underneath that somehow, when you made pitchers nervous even for a second, you had them. Reuschel looked back at Joe, and then he threw a fat fastball to Johnny Bench. And Johnny turned on it, crushed it, hit it just to the right of the leftfield foul pole. That was a home run. The Reds won again. They won the second game of the doubleheader too. And when the day ended, Cincinnati was all alone in first
This had been a World Series for the ages. Each of the first six games had had something to mesmerize the nation -- a hero, a goat, a moment of controversy, a dramatic and unexpected turn. The tension had peaked the night before, in Game 6. The improbable kept happening. Brilliant catches. Perfect throws. Far-fetched home runs. Comebacks. The Red Sox loaded the bases in the ninth, nobody out, winning run on third, and Boston phenom Fred Lynn lifted a shallow fly to left. Don Zimmer, the Red Sox' third base coach, screamed, "No! No! No!" Denny Doyle, the runner at third, heard, "Go! Go! Go!" George Foster's throw beat him to the plate, and Bench slapped Doyle with the ball. In the 11th inning Morgan crushed a fly ball to rightfield, a home run for sure, but the ball died in the thick Boston air, and the Red Sox' Dwight Evans ran back, leaped, desperately stabbed his glove upward. The ball hit it and stuck there. Exhaustion. Nobody could see straight. Rose saw. He babbled like a child hours past his bedtime.
"Isn't this great?" he kept asking teammates, opponents, umpires, anyone. "Isn't this great? This is the best game I've ever played in. Isn't this great? People will remember this game forever. Isn't this great?"
Boston won the game in the 12th inning. Carlton Fisk cracked a home run that bounced off the leftfield foul pole. He elbowed his way around the bases through the frenzied and drunken crowd. They rang church bells in small New England towns. But Rose still felt good. He knew the Reds would damn well win the seventh and final game. They were too good to lose it.
"That was their World Series victory," he told teammates before Game 7. "Now it's time to get ours."
They all nodded, pumped their fists, smiled. But did they see it the way that Pete did? Well . . . no, apparently they did not. By the sixth inning of the game they could not lose, the Reds were losing by three runs. They were playing dead. They hadn't scored a run. They were about to blow the World Series.
"How could we come all this way to play like a bunch of losers?" Rose shouted. There were two outs in the inning. There should have been three. Pete had kept the inning going. He was on first base, and Bench hit a routine ground ball -- a double play, for sure. Only Rose would not allow a double play, he could not allow it. He barreled into second base with all the fury and violence he had been raised to unfurl. His beloved father, Big Pete, a savage semipro football player well into his 40s, had taught Little Pete one lesson about fighting: Hit first. Pete raced in with everything he had; he was ready to knock Denny Doyle into leftfield. Doyle was able to jump out of the way, but his throw soared too high to finish off the double play. Pete was out, but the inning was still alive.
"We're not going to lose this game," Rose shouted in the dugout. "No way. You hear me? We are not losing tonight. You know what people are going to say about us? We're nothing. They'll say we're losers."
Pete walked up and down the bench and looked hard at each player's face.
"We're not f------ losers," he shouted.
Tony Perez was standing at home plate, ready to hit. They called him the Big Dog, or Doggie for short. Doggie had grown up in Cuba, before Castro's men came rushing down from the mountains. He had been raised to spend his life lugging bags of sugar at the refinery near his home. That's what his father did, that's what his brothers did, and when he turned 14, that's what he did too. He would never forget the way his body felt at the end of those days. And he would always tell his mother that he wanted something more, he wanted to play baseball in the United States under the bright lights. She told him to grow up and stop dreaming about nonsense.
"You will work in the factory just like everyone else in this family," she told him. He signed with the Reds for two dollars and 50 cents, the price of a visa. While he played ball in America, Cuba fell to Castro. Doggie had not seen his mother in more than a decade.
What made Doggie different was hard to explain... It was a kind of peace. He never made anything too complicated. See the ball, hit the ball. That's what he said. He knew when to joke with a teammate, and he knew when to lay down the law. He knew how to break tension, serving as a sort of peacemaker between Bench and Rose. Inside the clubhouse everyone looked to Doggie. He seemed to have the answers.
"What you so worried about, Skip?" Doggie had said to Sparky just a moment before he went to hit. His manager looked lost. He had jolted awake in the middle of the night, sweating, an unremembered dream still haunting him. He had awakened another dozen times with the uneasy feeling that the Reds had already lost this game. "What do you mean, Doggie?" Anderson said. "We're losing 3-0."
"Ah," Perez said, "don't worry. I hit a home run."
"Throw me that slow one," Perez muttered to himself. Earlier in the game, Lee had thrown his slow curve, a lollipop of a pitch that peaked at about 10 feet off the ground and then dropped gently into the strike zone. Batters wait for fastballs -- it is in their nature -- and slow pitches shock the nervous system. Doggie was mesmerized, and he could not unleash his swing. "Throw it again," he muttered now.
Pete turned from his yelling to watch Tony Perez hit. Lee began his windup, and then he unleashed it one more time, his slow curveball, and Perez saw it, his eyes widened, and he did something funny in his swing. He jerked, like a car trying to jump into second gear.
Up in the Fenway Park press box the dean of Cincinnati sportswriters, Si Burick, watched the pitch come in. Burick had been writing for the
He whispered, "Home run."
I promised myself I wasn't going to do this," Joe Morgan said. And then he started to cry. Joe stepped away from the lectern, and he stood silently for a few moments, then he began again. "I shouldn't be crying," he said. "This is not supposed to be a sad occasion."
There were many types of people in the retirement home. There were baseball people, family members and a few old friends. Bob Howsam, the man behind the Machine, had died. Joe was right: No one wanted this to be a sad day. Howsam lived to be 89 years old. He had done everything he wanted in his life. He had run a baseball team, owned a football team (the Denver Broncos); he'd built a stadium (the one in Denver that became known as Mile High); he'd raised a family. Buck O'Neil, the great Negro leagues player, always said that funerals were for people who died too young. Everyone else deserves a celebration.
Joe had stayed around the game. He played until 1984, when he was 41 years old. Then he became a famous baseball announcer. And he believed something had been lost, something we will never get back.
"I remember standing with Bob Howsam after we won the World Series in 1976," Joe was saying, "and we were kings of the world."
There was no drama for the Reds in 1976, no story line. Nothing like '75, when Doggie had hit Bill Lee's Game 7 slow curve over everything to pull the Reds close and Pete had tied it with a single an inning later and Joe had put Cincinnati ahead with a ninth-inning single and Geronimo had caught the final pop-up and reliever Will McEnaney had jumped into Johnny Bench's arms, their team world champs at last. Joe won the '75 National League Most Valuable Player award, and Pete was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, and Sparky spent the off-season talking to clubs and groups. Doggie returned to his adopted homeland of Puerto Rico as a hero.
No, 1976 was at once the same and different. The Reds toyed with the Dodgers for the first two months and then, in early June, moved into first place for good. They led the National League in every offensive category -- they scored the most runs; got the most hits; cracked the most doubles, triples, home runs; stole the most bases. It was a rout. They swept the Philadelphia Phillies in the playoffs, clinching the final game with a three-run rally in the ninth. Foster homered. Bench homered. And Griffey, who always found a quiet way to be the hero, drove in the game-winning run.
The Reds then swept the Yankees in the World Series. Nobody even seemed willing to argue the point anymore: The Big Red Machine, the team that Bob Howsam built, was as good a team as had ever been put together. And it might have been a little bit better than any other.
Joe said he was standing with Howsam in the hotel after Cincinnati had put away the Yankees, and he saw tears building in the old man's eyes. "Then he turned to me, and he said, 'Joe, this is it. There will never be another team like this. Ever again.' "