The 1972 Cincinnati Reds came into the season looking for a comeback. When the Reds won the National League pennant in 1970, with a core group of talented young players, they appeared poised to dominate for years to come. But a surprise collapse to a sub-.500 finish in 1971 had tempered those hopes. As it turned out, that was just a bump in the road. Spurred on by a big trade, and a general return to form, the Reds won another pennant and did indeed become the generational dynasty envisioned two years earlier.
After the disappointing ’71 season, Cincinnati did anything but stand pat. They swung an eight-player trade with the Houston Astros. While the talent parted with was significant, including first baseman Lee May and second baseman Tommy Helms, the players acquired more than made up for it. Jack Billingham became a key part of the rotation. Cesar Geronimo proved to be a good outfielder. Ed Armbrister was valuable off the bench.
Oh, and one more player came back from Houston—a second baseman named Joe Morgan, who would merely become an all-time great. In 1972, Morgan posted an on-base percentage of .417 and stole 58 bases.
Morgan’s strengths—drawing walks and stealing bases—were, not coincidentally, two things the Reds led the National League in for 1972. And Morgan was joined by holdovers who were building their own Hall of Fame credentials.
Johnny Bench was still just 24-years-old, and the great catcher hit 40 home runs and drove in 125 runs. For the second time in three years, Bench was named National League MVP.
Pete Rose was playing leftfield, and he put together another vintage season, with a .382 on-base percentage. Bobby Tolan played center and his 42 steals were another big part of Cincinnati’s aggressive approach on the base paths. Tony Perez proved a reliable replacement for May at first base, hitting 21 homers and driving in 90 runs. All in all, this group ranked second in the National League for runs scored.
The pitching was pretty good in its own right. Gary Nolan won 15 games with a dazzling 1.99 ERA in just 25 starts. Ross Grimsley, 22-years-old, won 14 games with a 3.05 ERA. Billingham’s 31 starts led the staff and his ERA was 3.18. Steady, if unspectacular work also came from Jim McGlothlin, Wayne Simpson, and young Don Gullett, who split time between the rotation and the bullpen.
Manager Sparky Anderson made much more frequent use of his relievers than was generally the case in this era. Sparky got good work from Tom Hall and Pedro Borbon, who each worked over 100 innings. And Clay Carroll was dynamite in a closer’s role that wasn’t yet as defined as it is today. Carroll saved 37 games with a 2.25 ERA. And the Reds composite staff ERA ranked third in the league.
From 1969 through 1993, each league had just two divisions, an East and a West. With the Central Division still more than two decades away, the Reds were placed in the NL West. This was a division they shared with that division’s current members, the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, and San Diego Padres. The Giants had nipped the Dodgers to win a close race in 1971.
The NL West also included the Houston Astros (who didn’t join the American League in 2013) and Atlanta Braves. As to why the Reds and Braves were in the West, while the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals were in the East, is a historical mystery not yet unraveled.
The season started slowly—for Major League Baseball, which lost roughly two weeks due to a labor dispute—and for Cincinnati, who lost three of four games to the Dodgers and Astros at home and started 2-5. A series win over the defending World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates stabilized the ship, but the Reds did not clear the .500 mark until mid-May.
In today’s game, that wouldn’t be the end of the world. In an era when only the first-place team went to the postseason, it was far from uncommon for a team with high hopes to get stuck in a deep hole early. Fortunately for Cincinnati, no one else in the West had found their form. When Memorial Day arrived, the Reds’ 20-18 record had them within four games of the front-running Astros. The Dodgers were in second. And after their terrific ’71 season, the Giants would be a non-factor this time around.
Cincinnati went to Houston for a four-game series that started on Memorial Day, and it was here that the Reds decisively turned the corner. On Monday night, Tolan’s three hits were the key to taking a 4-3 lead into the ninth, at which point Joe Hague’s three-run blast broke it open. The Reds won 8-3. On Tuesday night, Bench unloaded for a pair of homers, keying a 9-5 win.
The bats were cooking, and they didn’t slow down. On Wednesday night, after spotting the Astros a 3-0 lead, Cincinnati got a grand slam from young George Foster. Bench ripped a three-run blast, and the final score was 12-4. Thursday’s finale was more of the same. Houston took a 3-zip lead. Bench homered. Perez homered. Young Hal McRae hit a pinch-hit grand slam. The final was 10-3. The Reds had scored 39 runs in four games, were even with the Astros in the standings, and hot on the Dodgers’ heels.
Out of this sweep, Cincinnati won 11 of the next 14 and moved into first place by a game and a half. Houston came north for the return trip and splitting the four games at Riverfront mildly stalled the momentum. But the Reds still had a half-game lead when they went to Los Angeles for a two-game set on June 26.
Nolan pitched Monday night’s opener in Dodger Stadium and delivered a masterful complete-game shutout. Perez had three hits, drove in two runs and the Reds won 5-0. Tuesday night was going along similarly smoothly. Gullett was in command and handed a 5-1 lead over to the bullpen after seven. Things got interesting—L.A. scored three times and put the tying run on third. But Carroll came on, nailed down the final five outs and the Reds won 5-4.
From July 11, up until the All-Star break arrived on July 23, the Reds went 10-2. That included taking five of six from the Pirates, who were in the process of taking control of the NL East. Over that stretch, the Reds expanded their lead from a game and a half to a comfortable six-game margin.
The late summer saw Cincinnati put this race to bed. They ripped through August with a record of 21-9, including winning five games in six tries against a good New York Mets team. The Reds won another series with the Dodgers. By Labor Day, Cincy was 80-47 and had an eight-game cushion on Houston.
That lead never shrunk under seven the rest of the way. On September 22, with a little less than two weeks to go on a Friday night, the Reds were back in Houston. A 4-3 win was secured when a groundball to shortstop Darrell Chaney resulted in a force out by Morgan at second base. The celebration could begin.
Cincinnati’s final 95-59 record was the second-best in all of baseball, only a half-game of Pittsburgh’s 96-59 mark. And since homefield advantage in the playoffs was determined on a rotation basis, the difference didn’t matter.
A dramatic October awaited the good people of Cincinnati. That started against Pittsburgh in an epic NLCS showdown. The games were tense and tight. In what was then a best-of-five series, the Reds were the team playing from behind. They lost Game 1. They lost a pivotal Game 3 at home. In the decisive Game 5, they trailed 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth. Then a Bench homer tied it, and a rally, capped by a wild pitch, won it. The Reds were going back to the World Series.
The Fall Classic had more drama and more comebacks. Cincinnati looked dead in the water when they lost three of the first four games to the Oakland A’s, were playing on the road for Game 5, and then fell behind early. But the Reds won that fifth game, came home, and won Game 6 in a rout. The momentum was with them. But they lost a 3-2 heartbreaker in Game 7.
Even so, Cincinnati was back. It took a little more aggravation to take the final step—they dropped a crushing NLCS in 1973 to the Mets and then finished second to the Dodgers in 1974. But in 1975, The Big Red Machine broke through and won the World Series. In 1976, they did it again, sealing their status as a dynasty.