The 1975 World Series: The Big Red Machine Survives In A Seven-Game Classic

The 1975 World Series was supposed to present a changing-of-the-guard moment for major league baseball. The theory was that the teams with the two best records—the Cincinnati Reds and Oakland A’s—would square off. Oakland had won three consecutive World Series, while the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati had just taken their third pennant since 1970, was looking for their first championship and was on the cusp of back-to-back titles. The Reds held up their end of the bargain and swept the NLCS. But the A’s came up short, with the upstart Boston Red Sox winning the ALCS.

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Fenway Park was where the World Series opened, homefield advantage being determined by a rotation between the leagues. Luis Tiant, the 34-year-old Cuban righthander with a twirling motion that resulted in his back being turned to the hitter was on the mound for Boston. Don Gullett, 24-years-old and his star on the rise, got the ball for Cincinnati.

The Red Sox missed early opportunities. In the bottom of the first, with two on and one out, Dwight Evans was thrown out trying to score from second on an infield single and the rally was effectively killed. Boston loaded the bases with none out in the second and failed to cash in. With the bases loaded and one out in the sixth, Cincinnati centerfielder Cesar Geronimo caught a fly ball out and then threw out Boston counterpart Fred Lynn, the American League MVP at the plate.

It was set to be a woulda-coulda-shoulda game for the Red Sox, but Tiant was unstoppable, twirling his way to a complete game shutout against the most feared lineup in baseball. And in the seventh inning, the Red Sox finally broke the door down.

Five singles and a walk, the first RBI coming from 35-year-old veteran Carl Yastrzemski, resulted in six runs. The game ended 6-0 and Boston had sent a message that this Series would not be a coronation party for the Big Red Machine.

Bill Lee, a crafty lefthander, took the mound for Boston on Sunday and he continued the bafflement of the Big Red Machine. The Red Sox got an early run on a two-out RBI single from Fisk in the first. They missed a chance in the second when Evans was gunned down by Johnny Bench on an attempt to steal third with two on and one out.

While Lee was at the plate (use of the DH also alternated each year, going opposite the rules for homefield advantage), thus perhaps accounting for Evans’ aggression, the on-deck hitter was Cecil Cooper, who had already doubled in his first at-bat. Boston was giving away outs, and though it hadn’t hurt them in Game 1, it would today.

The Reds finally got their first run of the World Series in the fourth, when Joe Morgan walked, took third on a single by Bench and scored on a productive out by Tony Perez. But Boston reclaimed the lead in the sixth, when a rare error by Cincy shortstop Dave Concepion set up a two-out RBI single from Rico Petrocelli.

It was still 2-1 in the ninth, when Bench led off with a double down the rightfield line. Lee was removed, and Dick Drago, who had been lights-out in the ALCS, came on. Perez again quietly did his job at the plate, hitting a grounder to the right side that put the tying run on third with one out. Drago induced George Foster to fly out to short left, but Concepion then redeemed himself.

The speedy Cincy shortstop beat out an infield hit over the mound. Then he stole second, and scored on a double by Ken Griffey. Just like, the Reds had a 3-2 lead, and in spite of being outplayed for two games in Fenway Park, Cincinnati had picked up a road win and was going home for the next three games.

Ironically, these same two cities played in football on this Sunday afternoon, and Boston fans had to feel like they were jinxed. The Bengals and Patriots were tied 10-10 into the third quarter, when a sudden outburst by Cincinnati resulted in a 27-10 win. Sunday, October 12, just hadn’t been Boston’s day.

Tuesday night in Riverfront Stadium, on the banks of the Ohio River, continued the late inning drama. Fisk got the action started in the second with a solo home run. The Red Sox might have added to the lead in the fourth, but again baserunning cost them. With Fisk aboard and one out, Lynn singled, allowing the runner to get to third with less than two outs For some reason, Lynn decided now was a good time to try and take second—he was gunned down, and the inning ended, still a 1-0 game.

Rick Wise, the 18-game winner for the Red Sox, had been continuing with the strong pitching that Boston’s starters were given, but the second time through the lineup didn’t go as well. In the fourth, Perez walked and Bench homered to make it a 2-1 game.

Concepion and Geronimo were the two lightest hitters in the Big Red Machine, there more for defensive brilliance and speed. But they still hit back-to-back home runs off Wise to start the bottom of the fifth. With one out, Pete Rose finally started to put his imprint on this Series, with a triple, and then scored on a sac fly from Joe Morgan.  The Reds seemed in command with a 5-1 lead, and could finally play to their biggest edge on the Red Sox—bullpen depth.

It was now Cincinnati’s turn to beat themselves, at least just a little bit. Two walks and a wild pitch set up a sac fly from Lynn and a gift run for the Red Sox. In the seventh inning, Boston pinch-hit specialist Bernie Carbo—in what for Reds’ fans was an ominous foreshadowing—hit a solo shot with two outs. And finally in the ninth, with a man aboard, Evans homered to tie the game 5-5.

The tenth inning lives on in World Series lore and Boston sports infamy. Geronimo hit a leadoff single. Ed Armbrister came up to bat in the pitcher’s spot. He laid down a bunt, and it wasn’t a good one, dying right in front of home plate. Fisk hopped out to try and make the play at second. Armbrister was in his way, and the throw was airmailed into centerfield. The Red Sox screamed for an interference call. None came. There were runners on second and third and Morgan won the game with a single to center.

After two straight gutwrenching losses, the Red Sox found themselves on the brink, and they turned to the man who had the nickname “El Tiante.” He didn’t dominate like in Game 1, but he temporarily saved the Sox.

It didn’t start well for Boston—Griffey and Bench hit RBI doubles in the first and with a 2-0 lead, the Reds seemed on the verge of blowing this World Series open. Then the Red Sox erupted for five in the fourth.

Fisk and Lynn started it with singles, and an Evans triple tied the game. Burleson doubled, and now the Red Sox were up 3-2. Cincinnati manager Sparky Anderson went to his bullpen. Pedro Borbon had been both effective and a horse all year long, and he’d closed out the NLCS in extra innings. Game 4 of the World Series wasn’t his night. Tiant singled. Perez committed an uncharacteristic error. Burleson and Yastrzemski each hit RBI singles and it was 5-2.

Cincinnati quickly countered with two in their own half of the fourth, as Concepion and Geronimo delivered extra-base RBI hits. But the scoring ended there. Tiant got out of a 1st and 2nd/1-out jam in the fifth by getting Perez and Bench. In the ninth, the Reds loaded the bases with one out, but Tiant got Griffey on a line drive out and then Morgan popped up to end the game.

Tiant had won one game by dominating and other game by battling. A city that 28 years later would manager Grady Little out of town for using staff ace Pedro Martinez beyond 100 pitches in the 2003 ALCS, had cheered on El Tiante as he threw 163 pitches on three days rest. Yup, it was a different time.

It looked the Red Sox might keep the momentum going in Game 5, when Denny Doyle hit a one-out triple and Yastrzemski picked him up with a sac fly. In the bottom of the inning, Rose was thrown out at the plate trying to score on a sac fly.

But now it was the Reds turn to play with at least modest desperation, not wanting to be in a 3-2 series hole going back to Fenway for the final two games. Perez hit a big home run in the fourth inning. In the bottom of the fifth, Gullett, who had won a game with his bat in the NLCS, now helped his cause in the World Series. The pitcher hit a two-out RBI single to break the tie and then Rose doubled him in.

Perez delivered the nail with a three-run blast in the fifth and after three straight games of constant drama, America got a yawner in Game 5, as the Reds coasted home with a 6-2 win.

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The final two games of the 1975 World Series are as memorable as any package of Game 6 & 7 in MLB history, but it took patience to get there. New England was hit with three days of rain. After the fifth game was played on a Thursday, the World Series did not resume until the following Tuesday night. For Boston, that meant the chance to go to Tiant one more time.

Game 6 has taken its place in baseball lore and Lynn electrified the home crowd with a three-run jack in the first inning to stake Tiant to a 3-0 lead. Anderson went to his bullpen early and often. He was on his third pitcher by the time the Red Sox put runners on second and third with one out in the fourth. Jack Billingham got Cooper and Doyle to keep it a 3-0 game.

In the fifth, the Reds broke ending 13 scoreless innings against Tiant at Fenway Park. Armbrister walked and Rose singled. Griffey tripled both runs in. Tiant seemed poised to escape with the lead intact when he got Morgan to pop out, but Bench got a two-out single to tie the score 3-3.

Tiant, even with the extra rest afforded by the weather, was starting to run on fumes and Griffey and Morgan led off the seventh with singles. The competitive pitcher got Bench and Perez and was again poised to escape—but again the damage came with two outs. George Foster doubled in both runs and the Reds were closing in on a championship.

Cincinnati seemed even closer when Geronimo hit a solo home run in the eighth, and Tiant was finally removed. In the bottom of the inning, Lynn singled and Petrocelli walked. Anderson brought on his closer, Rawly Eastwick, who got Evans and Burleson.

The pitcher’s spot was due up and Carbo came out to pinch hit. With his team down to their last four outs, Carbo crushed a pitch to dead center. It was gone, the game was tied, Fenway was alive and Anderson was second-guessing himself for ignoring a gut instinct to make a pitching change.

Boston was ready to win it in the bottom of the ninth when they loaded the bases with no outs and had Lynn at the plate. Yet another baserunning blunder cost them. Lynn hit a short fly to left, and Foster had a cannon for an arm. The words “No, no”, were uttered by the third base coach. Doyle, the runner at third, thought he heard “Go, go”, and was easily gunned down at the plate.

The game went into the 11th. With one out and Rose aboard, Morgan came to the plate. It had not been a good World Series for the NL MVP. When he ripped a ball to deep right, it appeared all that was going to be put behind Morgan. Instead, Evans made an amazing catch going into the seats, kept his presence of mind to quickly get up and double off Rose, who had assumed what every rational person in America would have—that the ball had no chance to be caught.

It was all of this—Carbo’s jack, Doyle’s blunder and Evans’ heroics that set the stage for the play everyone remembers, and it’s Fisk hitting a long fly ball to left and waving his arms to try and command the ball fair. The ball hitting of the foul ball, staying fair, ending the game at 7-6 and sending us to a Game 7.

Perhaps the ultimate measurement of the greatness of Game 6 is this—it’s completely obscured a Game 7 that was tied going into the ninth inning.

Carbo was in the lineup and batting leadoff for Game 7 and he led off the bottom of the first with a double, but was not able to score. With one out in the third, Carbo drew a walk and Doyle singled. Another single from Yastrzemski put the first run of the game on the board. For some reason, Anderson opted to walk Fisk and load the bases with Lynn coming up. I daresay an intentional pass to face the league MVP falls into the category of “unorthodox”. Or “stupid.”

Predictably, the move blew up. Even though Lynn struck out, Gullett walked both Petrocelli and Evans, and the Red Sox had a 3-0 lead. Lee was on the mound and was pitching as well as he had in Game 2, taking that lead into the sixth inning and getting the first two batters out.

Rose then singled and Perez came to the plate. Lee decided to throw his gimmick pitch, the “Leephus”, where he lobbed it into the air softball-style. Apparently, it was supposed to get a power hitter to take a wild hack and pound it into the dirt.

Messing around with a pitch like this might be justifiable if you were struggling for outs. Not when you’ve spent the better part of two games owning a lineup. Lee’s choice of pitches makes Anderson’s intentional walk look like inspired brilliance by comparison. Perez hit a home run over the Green Monster and it was 3-2.

Lee was removed an inning later after a one-out walk to Griffey, another highly debatable decision, given that Boston’s bullpen wasn’t very good. The Red Sox advantage in this Series was that both Tiant and Lee were better than any starter Cincinnati had. Now both were done, and the remainder of Game 7 would be fought on the Reds’ terms. Griffey stole second and Rose singled in the game’s tying run.

The Cincinnati bullpen had been in lockdown mode since early in the game, and the top of the ninth began with a Griffey walk, and Geronimo bunting him to second. A ground ball out moved Griffey to third and Rose was walked. Morgan was at the plate again.

Whatever frustration Morgan had suffered throughout the series, whatever angst Evans had caused him the night before, it all went away on this at-bat against Jim Burton. A nasty breaking pitch was on the outside corner, but Morgan looped it up between Burleson and Lynn in short centerfield. Morgan, in future years as an ESPN commentator, would acknowledge the quality of the pitch. But it scored the run that decided the 1975 World Series, as the Red Sox went quietly in the ninth.

I’ve often wondered why Game 7, a thriller, marked with could’ves and should’ves throughout, has been almost forgotten by history, while Game 6 is the subject of documentaries, and even made its way into popular culture.

Maybe it’s because more actors and writers are from Boston than from Cincinnati. Who knows, if Matt Damon grows up a Reds fan, maybe the scene between him and Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, has Damon appalled that Williams gave up a ticket for Game 7 rather than Game 6.

Rose was named World Series MVP. His .485 on-base percentage was the best of the regular players. It was a good choice, although I’ll admit to some sympathy for Geronimo—his OBP was lower, at .357, but he had two big home runs and the sacrifice bunt that made Morgan’s hit possible.

Had Boston won the Series, the MVP would likely have been Tiant—even with finally getting hit in Game 6, he still had a 3.60 ERA over 25 innings and won two complete games. Evans, with a .393 OBP, .542 slugging percentage, and a game-saving catch in Game 6, would have had his own case.

What Cincinnati had—at long last, after 35 years of waiting—was a World Series trophy. Had they lost this Series, this group of players would have had the “Can’t Win The Big One” tag trailing them around. Instead, they were just getting started on a dynasty.