The great baseball town of Cincinnati had seen their team knock on the door repeatedly in the first part of the 1970s. The Big Red Machine came together and won division titles in 1970, 1972 and 1973. They won pennants in the first two of those years. But a particularly aggravating loss in the ’73 NLCS, followed by finishing second to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the old NL West, had given Cincinnati the “can’t win the big one” tag. The city’s first World Series title since 1940 was still missing. The 1975 Cincinnati Reds rectified the omission with an extraordinary regular season and then winning one of the greatest Fall Classics ever played.
Future Hall of Famers dotted the Cincinnati lineup—Joe Morgan at second base, Tony Perez at first base and Johnny Bench at catcher. And third baseman Pete Rose did, of course, have a Hall of Fame career as baseball’s all-time career hits leader, but is barred from Cooperstown for gambling on baseball.
Morgan had an MVP year in 1975, posting a stat line of .466 on-base percentage/.508 slugging percentage and stealing 67 bases. Bench hit 28 home runs and had 110 RBIs, while Perez had 20/109. Rose’s OBP was .406.
Nor was the Cincinnati lineup top-heavy. Ken Griffey played rightfield and had a .391 OBP and great speed on the basepaths. George Foster, who would eventually win consecutive NL MVP awards in 1977-78 was coming into his own and hit 23 home runs in 1975. Cesar Geronimo in centerfield and Dave Concepion at shortstop weren’t big offensive threats, but each could run and each was a superior defender at a position where that was the most important quality.
The Big Red Machine wasn’t known for its pitching, and lacked a clear ace, but they had good staff balance. Gary Nolan won 15 games with 3.16 ERA. Jack Billingham won 15 more at 4.11. Don Gullett, the 24-year-old who was seen to have a bright future and he went 15-4 with a 2.42 ERA.
It was depth though, that ultimately characterized the Cincy pitching staff in 1975. In an era when starting pitchers routinely piled up season-long workloads of 250-plus innings, the Reds’ numbers look more like our age today, with Nolan topping the staff at 210 and Billingham being the only other arm to clear 200.
The bullpen made up for it. Pedro Borbon took on a big workload, threw 125 innings and posted a 2.95 ERA. Clay Carroll and Will McEnaney were similarly effective and Rawly Eastwick saved 22 games, a fairly high total in an era when the complete game was still expected from starters.
Cincinnati’s pitchers collectively finished third in the National League in ERA. That was more than enough for an offense that dominated the league. The Reds not only led the NL in runs scored, but the margin between them and #2 was greater than the margin of the offenses ranking 2 thru 9.
The Dodgers came to Riverfront Stadium to start the season. The fans at Monday afternoon’s opener got their money’s worth–14 innings of baseball. Gullett pitched into the 10th. The Reds bullpen matched up with L.A. reliever Mike Marshall, who had won the Cy Young Award and kept it a 1-1 game for five innings while Marshall pitched. He was out by the 14th when Cincinnati started a soft rally.
Concepion beat out an infield hit, then took second on a passed ball. After a walk to Geronimo, a sacrifice bunt set up the Reds with runners on second and third and one out. An infield ground ball resulted in Concepcion being cut down at the plate. With two outs, another infield hit, this one from Foster, brought in Geronimo with the winning run.
After a day off, more walkoff drama awaited on Wednesday. Cincinnati trailed 3-0 after five, but Carroll and Borbon held the line out of the bullpen. It was 3-2 by the bottom of the ninth. That’s when Griffey led off with a triple, Darrell Chaney tied with a base hit, and after a sac bunt, Concepion won it with an RBI single.
Had enough excitement? Not so fast. The Reds dug themselves an early 5-0 hole on Thursday night. In the bottom of the fourth, Foster led off with a home run. That triggered a five-run rally to tie it. At 6-6 in the bottom of the eighth, two hit batsman set up Perez for a two-out RBI double and a 7-6 win.
As dramatic and satisfying as it was to sweep your nemesis to start the season, it still didn’t take long for Cincinnati to give it back. They went west and lost six of seven–that includes dropping four straight to the Dodgers, two of them in walkoff fashion. A 4-6 trip to the East Coast in early May had the Reds 5 ½ back. They didn’t get over .500 for good until May 21. On Memorial Day, Cincinnati was 24-20, and 3 ½ games behind Los Angeles.
It bears reminding younger readers that prior to 1994, there were no wild-card berths in baseball. You had to win your division to reach the postseason. In this era prior to the creation of the NL Central, there was only an East and West in each league–winning the division meant a ticket straight into the League Championship Series.
The early part of summer was when this edition of the Big Red Machine became what they are remembered for. They swept Montreal out of the holiday weekend, and swept Chicago in the early part of June, to nudge into first place. After dropping a couple games at home to Pittsburgh, the Reds held a narrow half-game lead on June 11.
They did not lose a series between then and the All-Star break. Over that stretch, Cincinnati went a torrid 27-5. While L.A. did not play particularly well, the Dodgers still had to feel like someone had clocked them with a haymaker. The Reds’ record at the break was a stunning 61-29 and their NL West lead was a massive 12 ½ games.
The margin was still 12 ½ on July 25. The Reds and Dodgers had 11 head-to-head games remaining and seven of them would take place over these next two weekends. Cincinnati simply needed to hold serve to effectively put this race to bed.
A Friday doubleheader at Riverfront started the sequence. Los Angeles took the opener 4-3 and had Cincy in a 3-1 hole in the seventh inning of the nightcap. In the bottom of that inning, Marv Rettenmund singled. Bill Plummer walked. Griffey’s base hit cut the lead to 3-2. Then Rose showed some rare power–a three-run blast to right. Cincinnati won 6-3.
Rose kept rolling on Saturday afternoon with a four-hit day to key a 5-3 win behind Billingham. The Reds lost the Sunday finale in another 5-3 decision, but splitting this four-game set was more than enough.
The following weekend in Los Angeles, the Cincy bullpen coughed up a 3-0 lead on Friday night and Borbon ultimately lost in extra innings, 5-3. But on Saturday night, the Carrolls (second-year starter Tom, along with Clay–no relation) took over. They combined on a shutout. Foster’s solo blast was the only run in a 1-0 win. On Sunday, it was Pat Darcy and Eastwick combining on a gem while Concepcion homered. The final was 3-1.
It was early August, and the race was all but over. By Labor Day, Cincinnati was 90-45, and the lead had ballooned to 18 ½ games. They finished the year 108-54. It was enough to clear the field in the NL West by twenty games, and it was ten games better than anyone else in baseball.
October glory was finally ahead for Cincinnati. They continued their dominance of the National League with a three-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS (League Championship Series play was best-of-five from 1969-84).
Then the World Series against the Boston Red Sox would be one of the most memorable ever played. It went the full seven games, five of which were nail-biters. That includes an epic Game 6 in which the Reds got close enough to taste the title before it was temporarily denied them. And it includes Cincinnati ultimately winning the Series in the ninth inning of the decisive game.