1975 Reds: The postseason
This article originally appeared in SABR's "The Great Eight: The 1975 Cincinnati Reds" (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), edited by Mark Armour.
The 1975 NL West regular-season race, which was supposed to be a tight struggle between two great teams, turned out to be no race at all. Sitting with a 20-20 record on May 20, the Reds won seven in a row and never really let up. They took over first place on June 8, and five weeks later, at the All-Star break, they led by 12½ games. Their final margin, 20 games over the Los Angeles Dodgers, was the largest in baseball history. While there was little question that the Reds were baseball’s best team, there was still the matter of winning two postseason series. The Reds lost the 1972 World Series and the 1973 NLCS to teams considered their inferior by most observers, and neither Sparky Anderson nor his veteran stars were satisfied with what they had thus far accomplished.
In the best-of-five NLCS, the Reds faced the Pittsburgh Pirates, winners of their fifth NL East title in six years. Although Pittsburgh did not have the top-flight stars that the Reds had, their offense featured a well-balanced group, including right fielder Dave Parker (25 home runs, .308 average), first baseman Willie Stargell (22, .295), center fielder Al Oliver (18, .280), left fielder Richie Zisk (20, .290), and catcher Manny Sanguillen (.328). Their three scheduled playoff starters—Jerry Reuss (18-11, 2.54), Jim Rooker (13-11, 2.97), and 21-year-old rookie John Candelaria (8-6, 2.76)—matched up well with the Reds group. In the regular season, the clubs had split 12 games.
The clubs finished their seasons on Sunday, September 28, and opened their series in Cincinnati six days later, on Saturday, October 4, with Don Gullett matching up against Reuss. The Pittsburgh left-hander had won three of his four starts versus the Reds in 1975, along with a 2.40 ERA in those games. The Pirates got on the board first with two in the top of the second, but the lead was temporary. Down 2-1 in the bottom of the third, Joe Morgan led off with a walk and then stole second and third bases on consecutive pitches—he had earlier walked and stolen second in the first, but had been left stranded. This time, Reuss crumbled. He walked Johnny Bench, gave up a run-scoring single to Tony Perez, and, two outs later, a two-run double to Ken Griffey. Just like that, Reuss was out of the game and the Pirates never got back in it. To cap a four-run inning in the bottom of the fifth Gullett hit a two-run home run off Larry Demery, the first round-tripper of Gullett’s professional career. The Reds’ ace went the distance and prevailed, 8-3.
On Sunday the Reds again ran roughshod on Sanguillen, stealing seven bases in their easy 6-1 win. The Reds did not steal bases merely to move their baserunners along, they also did so to break down the psyche of the opposing pitcher. In the sixth inning Griffey led off with a single off reliever Kent Tekulve and quickly stole second base (his second swipe of the day) before Cesar Geronimo walked. After pinch-hitter Ed Armbrister missed a bunt, Sanguillen threw down to second, easily trapping Griffey off the base. Griffey raced instead for third, sliding in safely. After a change of pitchers, Griffey trotted home when Ken Brett balked attempting to pick Geronimo off first base. Perez’s first-inning home run, which had given the Reds a 2-0 lead, was forgotten after all the dramatic baserunning.
After an offday, the series resumed on Tuesday 300 miles to the Northeast), where the Pirates could win the pennant by capturing three straight games at Three Rivers Stadium. For most of the evening, the story was the pitching of the 6' 7" Candelaria, who through seven innings had surrendered just one hit, a second-inning home run by Concepcion, had struck out 12, and led 2-1. In the top of seventh he fanned Griffey and Geronimo, giving him 14 K’s, before he finally ran out of gas. After pinch-hitter Merv Rettenmund walked, Pete Rose homered to give the Reds the lead, Morgan doubled, and Candelaria was done. The Pirates did not go quietly, as they rallied to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth on a bases-loaded walk.
In the top of the tenth, the Reds won the game the way they had won the first two games—with their legs. Griffey reached on a bunt single, moved to second on a balk, to third on a groundball, and home on a fly ball. The Reds added an insurance run on another Morgan double after Rose had singled, and Pedro Borbon finished off the 5-3 win. The Reds had won their third pennant in six seasons.
That same day, the Boston Red Sox completed their ALCS sweep of the Oakland A’s, winners of the previous three World Series. The AL champs had been led by the dynamic rookie duo of Fred Lynn (21 home runs, .331) and Jim Rice (22 home runs, .309), along with catcher Carlton Fisk (.331, after missing the first half of the season with a broken arm during spring training). Unfortunately for the Red Sox, Rice suffered a broken hand when he was hit by a late-season pitch, and he missed the entire postseason. The Red Sox pitching staff was led by veteran Luis Tiant (18-14), who struggled most of the season before a strong September and a brilliant victory Game One of the ALCS. Bill Lee (17 wins) and Rick Wise (19) were their other big winners.
The Series began on October 11, a rainy Saturday afternoon at Boston’s Fenway Park. Going in to the Series, there had been much talk about the Reds’ running game and how it would affect Fisk and the Boston pitchers. “I guess if they steal 12 times on me,” lamented Fisk, “no matter whether it’s my fault or the pitchers or to the credit of great baserunners like Morgan and Concepcion, I’ll be the goat.”1 After Tiant retired the first ten Reds batters, Morgan singled to center field. Tiant threw over to first base three times before first-base umpire Nick Colosi called a balk, delighting Morgan and the Reds, who had spent the past few days claiming that Tiant’s move to first was illegal. That Colosi was a National League umpire, unfamiliar with Tiant, further enraged the pitcher and his manager, Darrell Johnson.
Morgan’s gamemanship was all too familiar to NL observers, who now sat back and waited for the inevitable onslaught. Instead, Tiant retired Bench and Perez to get out of the jam, and the game remained scoreless into the bottom of the seventh inning. Tiant led off with a single to start a six-run rally, and then retired the final six Reds batters. Far from being ruffled by the balk, Tiant pitched a masterful five-hit shutout. For a Reds club that had been beaten by great pitching in the 1972 World Series and the 1973 NLCS, this was an eerie beginning. “You open the door and they score runs,” lamented Bench in admiration.2
On Sunday the Reds were nearly shut down again, this time by Bill Lee. Through eight innings the Red Sox had scratched out a 2-1 lead and Lee had a four-hitter going. Bench led off the ninth inning with a double, and Lee was replaced by Dick Drago. After a groundball, a short fly ball out, a run-scoring infield single by Dave Concepcion, a stolen base, and a Griffey double, the Reds had a 3-2 lead, and Rawly Eastwick held it in the bottom of the ninth. Conceding that his team had its ugly moments, Sparky Anderson nonetheless declared, “Over the course of a year, you won’t see a better baseball team than the Cincinnati Reds.”3 The series was tied, and headed to Cincinnati.
After an off day, the Series resumed on Tuesday, October 14, when Rick Wise faced off against Gary Nolan. The Red Sox struck first on Fisk’s second-inning home run, but the Reds countered with a two-out two-run shot by Bench in the fourth and solo blasts from Concepcion and Geronimo to start the fifth. A triple by Rose chased Wise, and Rose soon scored on a fly ball, making the score 5-1 Cincinnati after five innings, a lead generally sufficient for Anderson’s great bullpen. But after Boston scratched out a run (without a hit) off Pat Darcy in the sixth, former Red Bernie Carbo launched a pinch-hit home run off Clay Carroll in the seventh, making the score 5-3.
Remarkably, in the top of the ninth Dwight Evans hit a dramatic two-run home run off Rawly Eastwick to make the score 5-5, where it remained into the bottom of the tenth. After Geronimo led off with a single, pinch-hitter Ed Armbrister had the most controversial plate appearance of the Series. When he tried to sacrifice, his bunt hit the artificial surface right in front of the plate and bounced straight up. Fisk reached out to field it but collided with Armbrister, who had been moving from the right-hand batter’s box toward first base but suddenly stopped in his tracks. After the collision Fisk managed to field the ball and then shoved Armbrister away with his glove hand, but his throw to second sailed into center field. The Reds now had runners on second and third with no one out. Fisk and the Red Sox claimed interference, but American League umpire Larry Barnett disagreed. After an intentional walk and a strikeout, Morgan singled to center off Roger Moret to end the game. “It’s a damn shame to lose a ballgame like that,” said Fisk later.4
For Game Four, Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson elected to bring back Tiant on three days’ rest, while Anderson went with Fred Norman. The Reds struck first, with long run-scoring doubles by Griffey and Bench in the first. The Red Sox chased Norman with five runs in the fourth, keyed by a game-tying triple to deep right by Evans. The Reds came right back with two in the bottom of the inning, and a triple by Geronimo made the score 5-4. Tiant had allowed six hits and four runs before getting out of the fourth, and he seemed completely spent. “When he walked Rose in the fifth inning,” said Fisk, his catcher, “his first two pitches were fastballs and I motioned to Johnson that he had nothing.”5 Remarkably, the proud Tiant forged on, and completed the game without allowing another run, despite several more baserunners and hard-hit balls. On the evening, the Reds had nine hits, four for extra bases, and walked four times. When Joe Morgan popped out with two on and two out in the ninth, Tiant had his 5-4 victory, on a staggering 163 pitches.
Heading into Game Five, the Reds had to feel fortunate to be even in the Series—with a couple of breaks the Red Sox might have won all four games. The Reds now put together their best game of the Series, with the strong pitching of Gullett and two home runs by Perez enough for a 6-2 victory. Perez had been 0-for-15 for the Series. “I have played this game too long to get down on myself,” he said later.6 Still, the Red Sox did not make it easy—Gullett was just one out away from a 6-1 two-hitter when he allowed two singles and a Fred Lynn double. With the tying run in the on-deck circle, Eastwick came on to strike out Rico Petrocelli, to put the Reds up three games to two.
After a travel day, Game Six was scheduled for Saturday the 18th at Fenway Park, but heavy rains postponed events for three days. What baseball fans eventually got, on Tuesday the 21st, was a game for the ages. Lynn put the Red Sox up with a three-run home run off Nolan in the first, forcing the Reds, once again, to try to break through against Tiant who was going for his third victory. This time they finally did, tying things with three runs in the fifth, keyed by Griffey’s two-run triple. After taking the lead on Foster’s two-run double in the seventh, they chased the valiant Tiant on Geronimo’s leadoff home run in the eighth. Heading into the bottom of the frame, the Reds had a 6-3 lead, six outs from winning the Series.
A single and a walk brought Anderson out to replace Borbon, but Eastwick struck out Evans and retired Rick Burleson. That brought up pinch-hitter Bernie Carbo, who had homered in Game Three in the same role. Anderson considered bringing in McEnaney to face the left-handed-swinging Carbo, but ultimately chose to stick with Eastwick. Remarkably, after looking very bad on a couple of two-strike foul balls, Carbo came through again, crushing a booming drive to the bleachers in straightaway center field, launching himself soaring around the bases and tying the score of this amazing game, six runs apiece.
After the Reds went down meekly against Drago in the top of the ninth, the Red Sox looked as though they would end things in the bottom half, loading the bases with none out. Facing McEnaney, Lynn flied out down the line in short left, and Foster gunned down Denny Doyle at home plate. Third-base coach Don Zimmer had tried to hold Doyle at third, but the runner misunderstood the instruction and was an easy out. A groundball ended the threat. In the tenth Drago retired the Reds again, while Darcy, the eighth Reds pitcher of the game, did the same with the Red Sox.
When Rose led off the top of the 11th, he turned to Fisk, squatting behind the plate, and raved, “This is some kind of game, isn’t it?”7 Drago hit Rose with a pitch, but Fisk fielded Griffey’s bunt and gunned Rose down at second—a play that he had not been able to make in the tenth inning of Game Three. With one out now, Morgan crushed a towering line drive to deep right field, a shot remarkably hauled down by a leaping Evans near the three and-a-half foot wall. Evans turned and threw the ball back towards first base, doubling Griffey off the bag. The game continued.
Darcy baffled the Red Sox again in the 11th, making it six batters in row. Wise relieved Drago in the 12th and allowed two singles but no more, striking out Geronimo to end the threat. Darcy, who had looked sharp in his two innings, came back out for the 12th. The first batter was Fisk, the great Red Sox leader. After taking the first pitch for a ball, the catcher then hit one of history’s most famous home runs down the left-field line where it struck the foul pole, finally winning this epic, historic battle. It was after midnight in Boston, more than four hours since the game had begun.
After all of that, the teams still had to go back out and play the seventh game, Gullett vs. Lee. This contest, under ordinary circumstances, would be remembered for its own remarkable moments, but it was not able to live up to the previous game. But really, how could it? The Red Sox struck first, getting three runs in the third on two singles and three walks. Lee made this lead stand up until the top of the sixth, when Perez hit a two-out two-run home run way over Fenway Park’s left-field screen to bring the Reds to within a run. A Rose single off Moret tied the score in the seventh, and this great Series remained knotted, appropriately, and headed to the ninth.
Rookie Jim Burton came on to pitch the top half for the Red Sox. After walking Griffey on a 3-2 pitch, Burton induced a sacrifice bunt and a groundball, moving Griffey to third with two outs. Burton pitched carefully to Rose, issuing another full count walk, which brought Morgan, baseball’s best player, to the plate. Burton got ahead 1-and-2, then threw a tailing fastball low and away that Morgan blooped into shallow center field for the 4-3 lead. “A couple of years ago I would have struck out on that pitch,” Morgan admitted after the game.8 In the bottom the ninth inning, McEnaney came on to retire two pinch-hitters before getting Carl Yastrzemski to fly out to Geronimo in left-center field. The Reds had won their first world championship in 35 years.
The 1975 Cincinnati Reds had demolished the NL West, and won the NLCS in a breeze. The Red Sox, comparatively young and inexperienced, gave them all they could handle, and joined with the Reds to give us all an epic seven games. “We’re the best team in baseball,” Anderson repeated after the seventh game in Boston. “But not by much.”9 But though both teams produced memorable moments, the Reds ultimately accomplished what they needed to accomplish. A case could be made that they had been the best team in the game for the past four years, but history is not always kind to teams that do not finish the job. This time, they finished it.
MARK ARMOUR is the founder and director of SABR's Baseball Biography Project, and the author or editor of five books on baseball, including "Joe Cronin—A Life in Baseball" (University of Nebraska Press, 2010). He lives in Oregon's Willamette Valley with Jane, Maya, and Drew.
1 Peter Gammons, “Fisk Clutch Bat Bosox’ Key Weapon,” The Sporting News, October 26, 1975, 18.
2 Ron Fimrite, “Reaching Out For The Series,” Sports Illustrated, October 20, 1975, 14.
3 Fimrite, “Reaching Out For The Series,” 17.
4 Ron Fimrite, “Stormy Days For The Series,” Sports Illustrated, October 27, 1975, 22.
5 Fimrite, “Stormy Days For The Series,” 22.
6 Fimrite, “Stormy Days For The Series,” 23.
7 Ron Fimrite, “Everything Came Up Reds,” Sports Illustrated, November 3, 1975, 27.
8 Hal McCoy, The Relentless Reds (Louisville, Kentucky: PressCo, Inc, 1976), 136.
9 Fimrite, “Everything Came Up Reds,” 22.