By their lofty standards, the 1974 Los Angeles Dodgers were in a rut. To be sure, it was a rut most franchises would have loved to be in. The Dodgers had fought in close pennant races in 1971 and 1973. They had generally played winning baseball since a 1959-65 stretch that saw them win three World Series titles. But since 1969, when the leagues split into divisions for the first time, Los Angeles had yet to win the NL West. For the Dodgers, that was a drought. In 1974, they quenched their thirst, won the division, and gave their great veteran manager Walter Alston a return trip to the World Series.
After 95 wins in 1973 hadn’t been enough to overtake Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, the L.A. front office went to work. They traded outfielder Willie Davis to the Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) in exchange for reliever Mike Marshall. All Marshall did was pitch in 106 games, log 208 innings, save 21 games, win 15 more, post a 2.42 ERA and win the Cy Young Award.
The Dodgers also went to work on their everyday lineup. They dealt starting pitcher Claude Osteen to the Houston Astros for centerfielder Jimmy Wynn. How did that work out? Wynn finished with a .387 on-base percentage/.497 slugging percentage, hit 32 homers and drove in 108 runs. He finished fifth in the MVP voting.
In the meantime, Los Angeles had an infield in place that would define this franchise for the rest of this decade and into the next one. Steve Garvey played first base, and he won the MVP award in 1974, thanks primarily to a .312 batting average and 111 RBIs. Davey Lopes was at second base, and he finished with a .350 OBP and stole 59 bases. Third baseman Ron Cey’s OBP was .349, and shortstop Bill Russell wasn’t far behind at .336.
Manning the corner outfield spots were Bill Buckner and Willie Crawford. Buckner’s OBP was .351 while Crawford’s was .376. Steve Yeager and Joe Ferguson were a productive tandem behind the plate. The Dodgers had baserunners galore, with Wynn and Garvey driving them in. And they led the National League in runs scored.
The pitching was equally stellar, ranking first among NL staffs in composite ERA. Andy Messersmith was a 20-game winner, finished with a 2.59 ERA and was the Cy Young runner-up behind Marshall. Don Sutton, a future Hall of Famer, made 40 starts, finished 19-9 and posted a 3.23 ERA. Doug Rau’s 35 starts got him 13 wins and a 3.72 ERA. Al Downing was a reliable spot starter, while Charlie Hough and Geoff Zahn were both effective out of the bullpen in front of Marshall.
L.A. pitching might have been even better had Tommy John’s season not been cut short. John had made 22 starts and was sitting on a 13-3 record with a 2.59 ERA. Then he injured his elbow and had to undergo the surgery that would become called “Tommy John surgery.” The Dodgers had to try and outlast the Reds without him.
Los Angeles and Cincinnati were both in the NL West for two reasons. For one, the Central Division that the Reds now occupy didn’t exist until 1994. There was simply an East and West from 1969 through 1993. Then there’s the fact that Major League Baseball flunked geography. They put the Reds and the Atlanta Braves in the West, along with the Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres, and Houston Astros (a National League team prior to 2013). Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs were in the East.
That strange alignment had kept Los Angeles out of the postseason in 1973. Only division winners could advance to the playoffs and the Reds and Dodgers were the top two teams in the National League overall. The same dynamic would be at play in 1974, only more dramatic.
After a nice 7-3 start, Los Angeles went to Cincinnati for a two-game set. In the Tuesday night opener, the Dodgers trailed 3-1 in the ninth. Wynn homered to cut the lead in half. Cey and Crawford both singled and set Garvey up to tie the game on an RBI groundout. Then, in the 11th inning, a two-out, two-run double from Russell gave L.A. a 5-3 win.
On Wednesday night, Rau was pitching well and holding a 2-1 lead after six. Then the Dodger bats erupted. They dropped a four-spot in each of the final three innings. Garvey homered twice, as did Wynn. Buckner had three hits. The final was 14-1.
An early statement made, Los Angeles roared out to a 28-11 record by May 20 when Cincinnati made the return trip west for a three-game series. On Monday night, Wynn ripped a three-run jack to key a 5-3 win. Tuesday’s game was tied 2-2 after seven innings. Marshall and Reds closer Pedro Borbon went one-on-one. Marshall prevailed, when Ferguson drove in the winning run with a ninth-inning sac fly. The following night, Marshall pitched 3 2/3 innings of relief, Garvey hit both a two-run double, and a two-run single and the Dodgers completed the sweep with a 6-3 win.
By Memorial Day, L.A. was soaring at 33-13, and their lead over Cincinnati sat at eight games. The Dodgers kept rolling right into June. They swept the eventual NL East champion Pittsburgh Pirates three straight.
Then came the first stumble of the season. Eight losses in twelve games, capped off by losing three straight on the return trip to Pittsburgh. With Cincinnati starting to rev up, the NL West lead was cut to five games. Los Angeles responded in dramatic fashion—five wins in six games against San Francisco and Atlanta and every one of them a walkoff.
Momentum restored, the Dodgers paid another visit to Cincinnati and won two of three, again keyed by Marshall outdueling Borbon in a battle of closers. The lead ballooned to 10 ½ games before another stumble—six losses in nine games leading into the All-Star break. The Dodger record was 63-34—astoundingly good—but only 5 ½ games ahead of the Reds.
The late summer seemed to indicate some danger. From the All-Star break up to Labor Day, the Dodgers went 20-15. Not bad, but they also started losing to the league’s good teams. They were swept twice by the Pirates and finally lost a series to the Reds. The L.A. lead was at 3 ½ games and there were still two head-to-head series with Cincinnati left. No one could rest easy with the best two teams in all of baseball battling it out.
Losing two of three at home to San Franciso heightened the tension, as the first series with the Reds loomed. Sutton took the ball in Friday night’s opener at old Riverfront Stadium and delivered a clutch 3-1 win. That was the key to taking two of three. Los Angeles promptly won four straight and maintained a 3 ½ game margin when the Reds came west for the final head-to-head matchup of the season on September 13.
When L.A.’s bats were quiet on Friday and Saturday, both losses, the drama was building. The margin stood at a narrow 1 ½ games going into the Sunday finale. And for five innings, the bats continued to stay quiet. Sutton was keeping his team in the game as the Dodgers trailed 1-0. Would anyone step up?
Garvey did. His RBI double tied the game and Ferguson drove in the go-ahead run later in the sixth. One inning later Wynn unloaded with a grand slam. Sutton completed a six-hitter. The 7-1 win pushed the lead back to 2 ½ games and gave Los Angeles some room to breathe.
There were still 2 ½ weeks to go and the Dodgers had middling week coming out of this series, splitting six games with the Astros and Padres. But the Reds had a disastrous week, staying on the West Coast and losing five of six. It was the decisive week, as L.A. now had a 4 ½ game lead.
The Reds wouldn’t go quietly, but the Dodgers doggedly maintained a lead. By the time there were three games left, Los Angeles had the magic number down to one. They needed to win just one of three games at Houston, or hope Cincinnati lost one of their two games in Atlanta.
On Monday, the Dodgers lost 4-1 while the Reds were idle, so the champagne stayed on ice. But on Tuesday, the entire lineup got in on the act. Eleven different players got hits. At some point in the game, it’s likely the players were informed that the Reds had fallen behind early and were on their way to a defeat in Atlanta. But it wouldn’t matter. The Dodgers closed out an 8-5 win and—for the first time—were champions of the NL West.
Los Angeles finished the season 102-60. Cincinnati would end up 98-64. No one else in the major leagues won more than 91 games. The Dodgers had beaten a great team in an old-school pennant race.
Now, it was on to the postseason and a date with Pittsburgh in the National League Championship Series. Sutton and Messersmith were lights-out in winning Games 1 & 2 on the road in what was then a best-of-five series. After coming back home and losing Game 3, the combination of the bats and Sutton did the job in the fourth game—a 12-1 rout that brought the National League pennant back to Los Angeles.
It was going to be an all-California World Series, SoCal vs. NoCal, as the Dodgers met up with the Oakland A’s. Oakland’s 90-win season looked pedestrian behind what Los Angeles had done, but these A’s were also the two-time defending World Series champions. They were battle-tested. Perhaps that was the difference in a tense, taut Series where four of the games were settled by a 3-2 score. The A’s won three of those games, plus a 5-2 decision and captured their third straight championship.
The Dodgers had still broken through and given Alston, who had been with the club back in Brooklyn, his final appearance in the Fall Classic. The next two seasons saw Los Angeles revert to form—of playing good, sound baseball, but being stuck behind Cincinnati, who went on to win two straight World Series crowns. But the Dodgers’ time was coming. In 1977, with a rookie manger named Tommy Lasorda, they got back on top of the NL West and started another great era of Dodger baseball.