Remembering the Best Reds Team to Not Win It All

The Big Red Machine was born 50 years ago after Joe Morgan came to Cincinnati in an unpopular trade, but they fell just short in the 1972 World Series.
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The 2022 Reds and the 1972 Reds share some similarities. As the 1972 season began, the Cincinnati Reds hadn’t won a World Series in more than three decades. Two years before, they’d bowed out of the post-season in a Series that saw the Reds dominated by a better team. Cincinnati followed it up with a lackluster season that dampened enthusiasm for the next campaign.

Sounds exactly like the 2022 Reds, right? You may be surprised to learn that the similarities end there.

This year represents the 50th anniversary of one of the most important teams in franchise history. The 1972 club is almost certainly the greatest Reds team not to win the World Series, though they played in two of the most exciting playoff series of all time. More importantly, that team was the genesis of what would become known for eternity as the Big Red Machine.

The roots of the Big Red Machine could be traced back to the Dave Bristol-managed teams of the late 1960s, to be sure, but 1972 is where things really began to click. After a surprise run to the World Series in 1970, the Reds were 16.5 games out of first place by early June of the following season, ultimately finishing under .500. Reds fans, who had seen so little success over the previous three decades, could have been forgiven if they weren’t particularly optimistic at that point.

Then, in November 1971, Reds General Manager Bob Howsam engineered a trade with the Astros that was immensely unpopular in Cincinnati. Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Jimmy Stewart were sent to Houston for five players. May and Helms were stars in the Queen City, and the response to the deal was immediate and histrionic. In The Cincinnati Enquirer, Bob Hertzel wrote, “If the United States had traded Dwight Eisenhower to the Germans during World War II, it wouldn’t have been much different than sending May and Helms to Houston.”

Sounds like a Twitter hot take, no? In retrospect, we know that this was probably the greatest trade in club history, but manager Sparky Anderson knew immediately what had just happened. “Boss,” he told Howsam, “you just won us a pennant with that deal.”

The Reds got a haul from Houston: Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham, Ed Armbrister, and Denis Menke. Much of the Big Red Machine was now in place.

It wasn’t immediately apparent, however. The first players strike in baseball history delayed the 1972 season, causing the cancellation of the first eight games. When the Reds finally started playing, they didn’t seem much different than the lackluster club that occupied Riverfront Stadium the previous year. They lost the opener, 3-1 to the Dodgers, and by May 10 the Reds were five games below .500 and in fourth place.

Sparky decided to call a team meeting, something he rarely did. It must have worked. All of a sudden, things were different. On Tony Perez’s 30th birthday, he drove in every single run in a doubleheader sweep of the Cardinals that capped a four-game series sweep and brought the Reds within a game of .500. Cincinnati proceeded to reel off nine consecutive wins, and the race was on.

On June 25, the Reds took over the lead in the National League’s Western Division for the first time all season in a fashion that had to have been sweet for Howsam (and disappointing to The Enquirer’s Hertzel). Cincinnati defeated their off-season trade partner, Houston, in an extra innings affair at Riverfront. Former Astros Morgan (game-tying home run in the seventh inning) and Menke (RBI double in the 10th) provided the winning margin.

The Reds posted a 74-36 record from May 12 through September 16. By that time, they were in first place by eight full games.

There were plenty of highlights along the way. On June 2, Johnny Bench hit two home runs, including a grand slam in the 17th inning, as the Reds beat the Phillies 6-3 in a game that was tied 1-1 until the 16th. In July, Morgan won the All-Star Game MVP award with a game-winning RBI in the 10th inning. On August 8, the Reds tied a National League record by striking out 22 times but still somehow managed to defeat the Dodgers, in 19 innings no less.

Finally, on September 22, the Reds clinched the division title with a win over (you guessed it) the Houston Astros. Their opponent in the National League Championship Series would be the defending champs, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates’ offense was known as the “Pittsburgh Lumber Company,” led by Willie Stargell (.293/.373/.558, 33 HR), Richie Hebner (.300/.378/.508), and Roberto Clemente (.312/.356/.479). They matched up favorably with the Reds’ vaunted offense.

The best-of-5 series was tied two games apiece, and the stage was set for one of the most dramatic games in franchise history. With the Pirates holding a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning, Pittsburgh manager Bill Virdon brought in Dave Giusti, one of baseball’s elite firemen (1.93 ERA, 22 saves, in 74.2 innings), to pitch.

Johnny Bench led off the ninth for the Reds. With the count 1-2, Giusti threw his best pitch, a palm ball. Bench lined it into the right field seats for a game-tying home run. Perez and Menke followed with singles, and Virdon brought in Bob Moose to pitch. Two outs later, Anderson sent up Hal McRae to pinch-hit with runners on the corners. With the count even at 1-1, Moose uncorked a wild pitch, the ball spiking into the dirt and bouncing 15 feet in the air.

George Foster, pinch-running for Perez, raced home, celebrating even before he reached the plate. Bench ran into the stands to kiss his mother. The Reds were back in the World Series, where they would face the Oakland Athletics.

On the surface, the A’s were everything the Reds were not. They wore garish green and gold uniforms, with white spikes. Owner Charlie O. Finley encouraged his players to wear facial hair, in stark contrast to the Reds, who banned facial hair on players until 1999. The media called it the “Hairs vs. Squares” series.

Before more than 52,000 fans at Riverfront, the Reds dropped Game 1 thanks to an unlikely hero, A’s catcher Gene Tenace. He’d hit .225/.307/.339 during the regular season, with only five home runs, and was just 1 for 17 in the ALCS. But he homered in his first two World Series at bats (the first man ever to do it) and led the A’s to a 3-2 win. They won again the next night to take a 2-0 series lead.

With the series shifting to Oakland, the Reds won Game 3 by a 1-0 margin, Jack Billingham and Clay Carroll combining for a three-hit shutout. The A’s would take a 3-1 series lead the next day, but Cincinnati fought back to win Games 5 and 6. Alas, Oakland won Game 7, 3-2, in front of 56,040 fans at Riverfront. Six of the seven games in the series had been decided by one run, and the series ended with the Reds’ tying run standing on first base.

With their second NL pennant in three years, the Reds announced that they were a dynasty in waiting. They won no fewer than 98 games in the four succeeding seasons, culminating in the back to back championships in 1975 and 1976.

Bench won his second Most Valuable Player award in 1972, hitting .270/.379/.541 with 40 home runs and 125 runs batted in. Morgan more than justified Anderson’s confidence in him, finishing fourth in MVP voting in his first season in Cincinnati by leading the league in runs (122), walks (115), and on-base percentage (.417). Soon, he would be the very best player in baseball.

Fifty years later, we can look back and see that 1972 was the one that got away. But it also was a sign of things to come.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

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