The 1971 Cincinnati Reds came into the season with high hopes. A core group of young players had won a breakthrough pennant in 1970. From the perspective of history we know that this core group would do great things throughout the coming decade. But 1971 proved to be a year where nothing really clicked. The Reds did go wire-to-wire—but it was under .500 the entire way.
We know this cast of talent today as The Big Red Machine and many of them had off-years. Johnny Bench was a microcosm of the team. Coming off an MVP year in 1970, Bench still hit 27 home runs, but his overall stat line was a meager .299 on-base percentage/.423 slugging percentage. Tony Perez was similar at third base, hitting 25 homers, but the stat line a fairly pedestrian .323/.438.
There were non-productive offensive seasons from Tommy Helms at second base, Dave Concepion at short and Bernie Carbo in leftfield. Pete Rose played right field and hit .304—although for the man who would eventually become the sport’s all-time hit leader, even that was off the normal pace.
The one man who didn’t struggle in 1971 was Lee May. The Reds’ first baseman ripped 39 home runs, drove in 98 runs and finished with a stat line of .332/.508. But May’s production wasn’t enough to keep the Cincinnati lineup from slipping to ninth in the 12-team National League for runs scored.
The starting rotation was respectable. Don Gullett was the best of the group, winning 16 games and posting a 2.65 ERA. Gary Nolan and Jim McGlothlin had ERAs in the low 3s. Ross Grimsley won ten games with 3.57 ERA. Clay Carroll was a good and versatile reliever, saving 15 games, winning 10 more, working over 90 innings and finishing with an ERA of 2.50.
But while all of those were good to decent seasons, none was a standout and the depth—save for Wayne Granger’s 3.33 ERA in relief—was lacking. Cincinnati’s staff ERA ended up seventh in the National League.
The Reds dropped the first four games in the season in an overall 4-8 start. They lost three of four at home to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who would contend to the final day. Cincinnati dropped two of three at home to San Francisco, the team who ultimately won the NL West. When the Reds made their return trip to the West Coast, they lost seven of nine against the Dodgers, Giants and the lowly San Diego Padres.
Baseball’s alignment in 1971 had just two divisions of six teams apiece in each league. Cincinnati, by some convoluted thinking was in the NL West, as were the Atlanta Braves (meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals were in the NL East—good luck trying to make sense of that if you’re teaching geography to grade-school age baseball fans). The rest of the NL West included the Dodgers, Giants, Padres and the Houston Astros.
Furthermore, only the first-place finisher could go to the postseason. So when Cincinnati was 20-28 by Memorial Day, while San Francisco was soaring at 36-14, the Reds were in serious trouble.
Cincinnati stabilized the ship a bit in June, going 16-15 (doubleheaders were more common in 1971, accounting for 31 games in a 30-day month). But the Reds gave back the progress by losing seven straight going into the All-Star break, including three straight at the eventual World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates.
The record was 41-51. They were in fifth place and staring at a 15-game deficit. The only good thing that happened during the first half of the season was that the Reds swung a trade with the Giants, sending Frank Duffy and Vern Geishart to San Francisco in exchange for an outfielder named George Foster. The trade didn’t make immediate impact, but would eventually come to be seen for the mammoth steal that it was.
Cincinnati still had pride and they demonstrated it in when the leading NL West contenders came to Riverfront Stadium for a stretch of games that began on July 15. San Francisco, still comfortably in the division lead rolled into town for a three-game set.
Gullett started Thursday night’s opener, worked into the eighth inning and the pitcher’s duel was still tied 1-1 in the ninth. Perez won the ballgame with a two-out walkoff blast in the bottom of the ninth. When the Reds dropped a tough 4-3 decision on Friday night and then trailed 2-0 going into the ninth inning on Saturday, it looked like this would be just another tough series loss in a season full of them.
Then pinch-hitter Jimmy Stewart singled. Rose singled. Ty Cline put down a bunt intended to move the tying runs into scoring position. Instead, Cline beat it out and the bases were loaded. With nobody out, May worked a walk to cut the lead to 2-1. Perez delivered his second walkoff hit of the series, a two-run single that won it.
After splitting two games with the Padres on Sunday and Monday, the Dodgers came in on Tuesday night. Cincinnati broke open a 1-1 tie in the seventh with a five-run outburst, keyed by a three-run double from Helms. That momentum rolled right into Wednesday when the Reds scored six runs in the first three innings. That included a two-run single from Nolan, who went on to a complete-game 6-2 win. Even though the Reds dropped the finale and were nowhere near getting back in the race, the homestand proved to be spark for the rest of the season.
Cincinnati went on to go 19-10 through the month of August, including taking three of four at home from the Pirates. The Reds got oh-so-close to the .500 mark at 66-67 on August 27 before losing a couple games. Going into the final weekend, Cincinnati was 79-80, but they dropped the final three games. The final record was 79-83.
San Francisco and Los Angeles went to the wire and Cincinnati was there to play spoiler in September. They won four of five against the Giants in September and took three of five from the Dodgers. It wasn’t enough to matter in 1971. But it sent a message that the Reds were on the way back. By 1972, they were back in the World Series. They broke through and won the World Series in both 1975 and 1976. And they never had another losing season until 1982. 1971, particularly it’s first half, was just a strange aberration.