The Big Red Machine was at the peak of their power. Starting in 1970, they were on a run of six division titles, four National League pennants and were fresh off winning the World Series in both 1975 and 1976. The 1977 Cincinnati Reds were still a good team, but they were well off the pace set by the league’s best.
Cincinnati suffered a big loss to their everyday lineup when first baseman Tony Perez was traded. Perez had a well-deserved reputation for clutch hitting. But his replacement, Dan Driessen, still had a good year. Driessen hit .300 and stole 31 bases. And the Reds’ offense continued to be prolific.
Joe Morgan was at second base and while he wasn’t up to the MVP levels he’d reached the prior two years, Morgan still finished with a stat line of .417 on-base percentage/.478 slugging percentage, and he stole 49 bases. Pete Rose was at third base, and Rose churned out another 200-hit season. Dave Concepion, the reliable shortstop, played great defense and stole 29 bases. Johnny Bench was still behind the plate and the great catcher had another vintage year, hitting 31 homers and driving in 109 runs. Ken Griffey Sr. was in right field, and his stat line was a stellar .389/.467.
All of those players were good. But no one was better—at least not in 1977—than George Foster. The leftfielder simply went off the charts. He hit 52 home runs, posted 149 RBIs and scored 124 runs. All of those led the league. Want more? Foster hit .320. He won the National League MVP award, and the Cincinnati offense scored the second-most runs in the NL.
The problem with the three-peat bid came with the pitching staff. Woodie Fryman had been the key piece acquired in the Perez deal, but the 37-year-old pitcher struggled to a 5.38 ERA and only made 12 starts. Jack Billingham’s ERA was on the wrong side of 5.
There were some strengths. Fred Norman, at the age of 34, won 14 games with a 3.38 ERA. Reliever Pedro Borbon saved 18 games and finished with a 3.19 ERA. The Reds desperately needed help for a pitching staff that would finish 10th in what was then a 12-team National League for composite ERA. They would make a bold move to get that help before the season was out. But that’s getting ahead of our story.
Cincinnati stumbled badly to open the season, losing 10 of their first 14 games. In early May, after getting swept three straight in Pittsburgh, the Reds were down to 10-15. On Memorial Day weekend, they were 18-22 and coming to Los Angeles for what had turned into a must-win series.
In the divisional alignment that existed prior to 1994, the NL Central did not exist. Cincinnati was in the NL West. Moreover, only division winners advanced to the playoffs. There was no wild-card fallback.
The Dodgers were Cincy’s traditional rival, and had been the team they mostly beat back during the Big Red Machine’s run. But this year, L.A. was off to a torrid start and had the Reds in a 12 ½ game hole when this holiday weekend series began.
It got worse on Friday night. Pat Zachry took the mound and dug himself a quick 5-0 hole. Foster homered, but it wasn’t enough to avoid a 10-3 shellacking. On Saturday afternoon, things got a little better. In the top of the second, Foster homered, Rose hit a two-run single, and Griffey ripped a two-run blast. Staked to the 5-0 lead, Billingham delivered a 6-3 win. In the Sunday finale, Bench hit a grand slam in the first inning. Griffey hit a two-run jack an inning later. Norman tossed a complete game in the 8-1 win. There was a long way to go, but winning this series was at least a start.
The Reds built on that momentum and won 9 of 13 to lead into a series with the Philadelphia Phillies that started on June 13. The Phils were headed for the NL East title. And three exciting nights of baseball at old Riverfront Stadium ensued.
Driessen won Monday night’s game with a walkoff solo home run that broke a 4-4 tie. On Tuesday, Bench homered, Norman went the distance and Cincy won a tight 3-2 affair.
Wednesday would be the big day. June 15 was the trade deadline in this era and the Reds front office went for it. They packaged up four players, none of whom they would miss, and sent them to the New York Mets. In return, they got back Tom Seaver. The future Hall of Fame pitcher was 33-years-old, but was still pitching well at this stage in his career.
In that night’s finale with the Phillies, the Reds trailed 7-2 in the seventh inning. They rallied for four runs thanks to consecutive two-RBI hits from Foster and Bench. Down to their last out in the ninth, Foster homered to tie it 7-7. In the 10th inning, with two outs, Bob Bailey singled and stole second base. Bailey scored on Rose’s single.
Cincinnati had a stunning 8-7 win. They had swept a good team. They had big-time help on the way for the rotation. And they had the Dodger lead down to a manageable seven games. It was time for the Big Red Machine to make its move.
But the Reds played sluggish baseball, going 10-8 in the games immediately following the Seaver deal. They lost 7 of their last 13 before the break. The good news was that Los Angeles slowed a bit too, so Cincinnati’s 48-41 record still had them within 9 ½ games.
Seaver pitched well for Cincinnati, going 14-3 with a 2.34 ERA in his twenty starts after the trade. But he and Norman were still lonely warriors on the staff. The Reds didn’t win a series between the All-Star break and the end of July and fell 14 games back.
August got off to a good start. On Monday Night Baseball—then one of the sport’s pre-eminent showcases—Foster hit two home runs to lead a win over the contending Chicago Cubs. Cincinnati won that series and it started an August where they went 21-11. But a four-game series with the Dodgers was a missed opportunity, ending in a split. And in any case, the calendar was making the division deficit unmanageable.
Cincinnati was still 10 ½ games back on Labor Day, even after the strong run through August. They were never able to make it a real race. They won four of five over L.A. in September, but it was far too little and way too late. The Reds otherwise meandered through the final month and finished with a final record of 88-74.
By the standards of today, they were fourth-best in the National League and 11th-best in MLB overall. It would have been a playoff season by our own era’s more lenient standards. But it was still a sharp drop off from where they had so recently been.
After another good-but-not-great year in 1978, the Reds moved on. They fired manager Sparky Anderson. Rose and Morgan were not long for Cincinnati. With a new cast, they returned to the top of the NL West in 1979 and had good teams in 1980 and 1981. But 1977 signaled that the glory days of the Big Red Machine were ending.