The great baseball town of Cincinnati had waited a long time for a winner. The Reds had not won the World Series since 1940. They ended two decades of mostly losing baseball with a pennant in 1961. But despite fielding mostly winning teams the rest of the 1960s, they had not returned to the Fall Classic. The franchise wanted more and they tapped a unknown minor league manager named Sparky Anderson to head up a roster that was burgeoning with young talent. It was the right combination. The 1970 Cincinnati Reds won the National League pennant and opened what would be a decade of excellence.
This is a core group of players who would become known as “The Big Red Machine”, renowned more for their bats than for their pitching. And the regular lineup was awfully good in 1970, ranking third in the National League for runs scored. But the pitching was even better, with the second-best staff ERA in the 12-team NL.
Gary Nolan was the ace, winning 18 games with a 3.27 ERA. Jim McGlothlin and Wayne Simpson won 14 games apiece with an ERA in the 3s. And lefty Jim Merritt was the biggest beneficiary of the bats—a 20-game winner in 1970 even with an ERA of 4.08. Tony Cloninger’s 3.83 ERA came in a mix of both starting and relieving.
Anderson would become renowned for his adroit use of the bullpen in an era of baseball that was quite different from our own. Starters were expected to go the distance. But Sparky, who would eventually be nicknamed “Captain Hook” for his propensity to use the pen, got the most out of his relievers.
Wayne Granger saved 35 games and finished with an ERA of 2.66. Clay Clarroll worked over 100 innings, saved 16 more and posted a 2.59 ERA. Don Gullett, a 19-year-old rookie, who would soon become a top starter, broke in with 77 innings of relief work and a 2.43 ERA.
The everyday lineup was led by one of the great catchers of all-time. Johnny Bench was entering his prime and he had his best season in 1970. Bench’s 45 home runs and 148 RBIs led the league and he won the MVP award.
Cincinnnati’s corner infields were prolific in their own right. Lee May played first base and hit 34 homers with 94 RBI. Tony Perez would eventually shift to first base later in the decade, but for now he was playing third base. And racking up a 40 HR/129 RBI campaign in the process.
A power trio of Bench, May and Perez makes for a scary lineup on its own, but there was more. Bernie Carbo, the 22-year-old outfielder, hit 21 homers and finished with a dazzling .454 on-base percentage.
You still needed someone to set the table for all those who could clean it up. Bobby Tolan, the speedy centerfielder finished with a stat line of .384 OBP/.475 slugging percentage and stole 57 bases. And you may have heard of the leftfielder, a 29-year-old named Pete Rose, who’s final stat line read .385/.470.
Yes, the Reds were loaded. Now they needed to get to the postseason. It’s a task that Major League Baseball had just made easier. Through 1968, the American and National Leagues had simply sent their best regular season team directly to the World Series. When expansion came in 1969 and enlarged each league to 12 teams each, the decision was made to split them into East and West divisions. The League Championship Series was born.
The Central Division that today’s Cincinnati teams play was still nearly a quarter-century from existence. Although that doesn’t explain why MLB decided to place the Reds, and the Atlanta Braves in the NL West, while the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals went East. Cincinnati and Atlanta joined a division with the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres and Houston Astros.
It was the Braves who captured the first iteration of the NL West in 1969. The Dodgers were a perennial contender. And the April schedule gave the Reds a steady diet of these two key rivals.
After beating the Montreal Expos on Opening Day, Cincinnati promptly went west for a three-game series in L.A. Nolan threw a two-hitter on Tuesday night and beat the Dodgers 4-0. McGlothlin pitched well on Wednesday night, working into the eighth inning. Tolan provided him with the needed offensive spark. The centerfielder went 2-for-4, scored twice and drove in two runs. The Reds won 5-2.
Thursday night’s finale was a pitcher’s duel with Simpson going toe-to-toe with future Hall of Famer Don Sutton. Bench finally broke up a scoreless tie with a seventh-inning home run. Bench was later part of an insurance rally in the ninth, capped when shortstop Dave Concepion hit a two-out/two-run double to secure the 3-0 win and series sweep.
The Dodgers made a return trip to old Crosley Field for two games in mid-April. It was Merritt’s turn to showcase some stellar pitching, working into the ninth inning and winning 3-zip behind two hits from second baseman Tommy Helms and a big two-RBI single from Tolan. The following night, the Reds’ offense decided it had enough of playing around with close games. May unloaded for four hits, including a grand slam in a 12-0 rout. Cincinnati had gone 5-for-5 in its early games with L.A.
A trip to Atlanta was soon after, on April 20. Bench and Perez each homered in Monday night’s opener, as did a young fourth outfielder named Hal McRae. Merritt went the distance for the 6-2 win. Cincy pitching finally showed some cracks the next night, giving up eight runs. No problem. Rose had three hits, Perez had four hits and homered. Bench homered. Carbo homered twice. The Reds won 13-8.
By the time Memorial Day arrived, Cincinnati was positively sizzling at 31-12, up 6 ½ games on Los Angeles and a clean seven on Atlanta.
June was a time of great excitement for the entire city. Not only were the Reds riding high, they were opening a new stadium. Crosley Field traced its origins back to 1912, the same year Fenway Park opened in Boston. In the summer of 1970, Crosley would give way to Riverfront Stadium.
The Reds won the final game played at Crosley, on June 24. They beat the Giants 5-4, thanks to back-to-back eighth inning home runs from Bench and May, off a future Hall of Fame pitcher in Juan Marichal. It was part of a lot of winning Cincinnati did in June, a month they went 20-8.
One of the losses came in Riverfront’s debut and it came against Atlanta, 8-2 on June 30. The Reds responded by scoring nine runs the next night and winning in a rout. Merritt won the series rubber match 2-1. Overall, the Reds won four of the seven early summer games they played against the Braves and Dodgers. And by the All-Star break, their NL West lead was up to nine games on L.A., with Atlanta well into the rearview mirror at 16 games back.
Taking three of four from the Braves right out of the break was a surefire way to put a foot on the necks on the defending division champs. Cincinnati was up and down in the month of August, but still split four games and extended their lead to a hefty 13 games over the Dodgers by Labor Day.
September was a time to cruise home and get ready for the playoffs. The only downside was that the Reds didn’t get to experience an on-field celebration—the NL West was clinched with two weeks to go when the Dodgers lost while Cincinnati was on an off-day. But that’s about the only thing that didn’t go right for the Reds in the 1970 National League season. They finished the year 102-60, 14 ½ games clear of the field in the NL West and easily the best record in the senior circuit as a whole.
Cincinnati met Pittsburgh in the National League Championship Series. Little did anyone know, it was the start of a postseason rivalry. The Reds and Pirates would meet in the NLCS four times in the 1970s. Each game of this series was riveting. And each time Cincinnati found a way to win. They swept their way to the NL pennant.
It was time for a showdown in the World Series. The Baltimore Orioles were the only team who had won more games than the Reds during the season. The Orioles had also swept their way through the LCS round. Alas, this was where the Cincinnati run came to an end.
The Reds lost the first three games and the Series as a whole in five games. What that doesn’t tell you is how often Cincinnati took early, multi-run leads in games. Nor does it tell you that Baltimore third baseman Brooks Robinson put one of the great displays of championship performance in any sport, both offensively and defensively.
Even with the loss in the Fall Classic, the Reds had announced their arrival to the world. Even though they took a brief step back in 1971, the coming decade would be the best in franchise history. They won the NL West six times and the pennant four times. In 1975, they broke through and won it all, and in 1976 staked their claim to dynastic status. It was a run that began in this 1970 season.