The 1973 Cincinnati Reds were looking to take that final step. In both 1970 and 1972 they had reached the World Series, only to come up short—by a single run in ’72. In 1973, the Reds won a hot race to return to the postseason, before again just missing out on October glory.
This era of Cincinnati baseball is remembered as the time of the great Big Red Machine, and that machine’s components were all humming in 1973. Pete Rose had the best season of his should-be Hall of Fame career. Rose, playing left field, won the NL MVP award with a league-leading .338 batting average and a .401 on-base percentage.
Second baseman Joe Morgan had a stat line of .406 OBP/.493 slugging percentage, and he stole 67 bases to key the best running game in the National League. Johnny Bench slipped a bit from his MVP form the prior year, but the Hall of Fame catcher still hit 25 homers, drove in 104 runs, and won a Gold Glove behind the plate. Tony Perez popped 27 home runs and racked up 101 RBIs at first base.
Other contributors included third baseman Denis Menke. Despite batting a meager .191, Menke epitomized patience at the plate and still had a solid .368 OBP. Dave Concepion was a steady glove and respectable bat at shortstop. Dan Driessen, at the age of 21, got playing time in both the outfield and at first base and hit .301. Driessen’s production off the bench compensated for off-years from outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Bobby Tolan. The Reds offense ended up second in the 12-team National League for runs scored.
The pitching was pretty good too, and the staff was led by workhorse Jack Billingham. Making 40 starts, Billingham won 19 games and posted 3.04 ERA. The 23-year-old Ross Grimsley went to the post 36 times and finished with a 3.23 ERA. Don Gullett went 18-8 over his 30 starts with a 3.51 ERA.
These three starters formed the core. Manager Sparky Anderson was known as “Captain Hook” for what was then a pretty liberal use of the bullpen. Sparky built his relief corps around a terrific year from Pedro Borbon, who posted a 2.16 ERA, along with respectable work from Clay Carroll and Tom Hall. The Cincinnati staff finished fourth in the league for composite ERA.
The Reds jumped out to a fast start and were 15-8 by the first weekend of May. But that was followed by a sluggish 12-game stretch where Cincinnati went 5-7 and lost a home series to the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers. When the race hit its first turn on Memorial Day weekend, the Reds were 25-19 and in fourth place. The San Francisco Giants were setting the pace, with the Dodgers and Houston Astros also in hot pursuit.
Here’s a good spot to remind younger readers that prior to 1994 the leagues were split into just two divisions, an East and a West. Cincinnati and Atlanta were in the NL West, along with the Giants, Dodgers, Padres, and Astros (a National League team until 2013). As to why the Reds and Braves were in the West, while the Cubs and Cardinals in the East is another question entirely.
It also has to be pointed out that only first-place teams qualified for the postseason, going directly into the NLCS. So, even though the Reds were only 2 ½ back in a packed NL West race, pennant-race intensity had to come early.
Intensity didn’t bring about better play, at least not right away. Cincinnati lost nine of fourteen games in early June, including five of six to mediocre St. Louis. They slipped 5 ½ back. The Pittsburgh Pirates were also mediocre this season, but the Pirates had also won three straight NL East titles. Beating Pittsburgh three of four seemed to get Cincy back on track…until the Pirates returned the favor.
Cincinnati didn’t sit on their hands. They made a June trade to acquire starting pitcher Fred Norman. In his 24 starts as a Red, Norman won 12 games, finished with a 3.31 ERA and gave needed depth to the rotation. The Reds played better baseball going into the All-Star break, winning 15 of 20.
But the Dodgers were scorching hot—a 63-37 record at the break, comfortably the best in baseball. Even though Cincinnati’s 57-42 mark was the second-best in the entire major leagues, they were still 5 ½ off the pace. Whether you loved it or hated it, this was baseball prior to 1993—two great teams preparing for a winner-take-all duel over the second half of the season.
The Reds turned up the heat in the later part of summer, ripping off 17 wins in 23 games out of the break, highlighted by scoring 22 runs in a three-game sweep of the Cardinals, followed by a series win on the road in Pittsburgh. By the time Labor Day arrived, Cincinnati had closed the margin on Los Angeles to a single game. They were still the two best teams in baseball and there were five head-to-head games in September.
But as often happens in a long pennant race, the biggest moments came just before the actual showdowns. In the week after Labor Day, the Reds and Dodgers both had games against the lower echelon of the NL West. Cincinnati went 5-2. Los Angeles went 1-6. By the time the Dodgers arrived at Riverfront Stadium for a two-game series on September 11 the Reds had a three-game lead.
Cincinnati had the wind at their backs when the series opened on Tuesday night. In a 3-3 game in the eighth, Driessen got things started with a double. An intentional walk to Bench was followed by another walk. With the bases loaded and one out, pinch-hitter Ed Armbrister blooped a double that scored two runs and a subsequent error scored another. The Reds won 6-3.
Billingham was the hero on Wednesday night. He went the distance on the mound, and he hit a bases-loaded double with his bat. Cincinnati won 7-3.
The margin extended to five games, the Reds were in position to go for the kill shot and they won five of their next seven. But the Dodgers re-heated back up and nudged the lead down to 4 ½ games when the two teams met for the last time in Los Angeles on the penultimate weekend.
One win would keep Cincinnati in firm control going into the final week, winning the series would be a death blow and a clean sweep would formally clinch it.
The Friday night opener went extra innings tied 1-1, as Billingham dueled with L.A. starter Claude Osteen. Perez delivered the goods in the top of the 10th, with a three-run blast that won it 4-1.
Cincinnati rolled that momentum over into a Saturday afternoon game, jumping Dodger pitcher Don Sutton for seven runs in the first inning, thanks to three doubles and a triple by Gullett. But Gullett was a little less effective with his arm and had to leave the game by the fifth inning. The lead was narrowed to 11-9 by the bottom of the ninth, L.A. put two runners aboard and had three shots with the winning run at the plate.
Captain Hook used all three of his key relievers. Borbon got Steve Garvey. Hall retired Willie Davis. And Carroll put down Bill Russell. The win was preserved. Even though a chance to officially the ice the race was missed on Sunday with a 6-4 loss, the Reds were coming home and needed just one win to put this to bed.
And they wasted no time, doing it in front of the home fans on Monday night against San Diego. Perez homered. Starting pitcher Dick Baney tossed seven shutout innings. And when Borbon got Dave Hilton to ground out to backup infielder Darrell Chaney at short, Cincinnati was again the champions of the NL West.
The Reds were heavy favorites in the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets. The excellence of the two heavyweights in the NL West meant that the NL East had been marked by mediocrity—a terrifically exciting race to be sure, but one that the Mets took with an 82-79 record. It seemed like Cincinnati had a clean path to get back to the World Series where they were guaranteed a revenge match—either the Baltimore Orioles, who had beaten them in 1970, or the Oakland A’s, who had won it all in 1972.
But the Reds would not get that chance. Other than Rose, none of the hitters really produced. Billingham had a couple of pedestrian starts. A round that was then best-of-five went the distance, but Cincinnati lost. This was the biggest upset to date in playoff round that had only been instituted in 1969 and remains one of the bigger postseason upsets in history.
The disappointment rolled on into 1974. The Reds were still good, but in ’74, the Dodgers were better and won the NL West. But vindication was not long in coming. The Big Red Machine finally won it all in 1975, and then did it again in 1976.