1974 Cincinnati Reds: When Excellence Wasn’t Enough

The Big Red Machine had emerged as the dominant team in the National League in the early part of the 1970s. They won pennants in 1970 and 1972. They reached the NLCS in 1973. But they hadn’t yet won the whole thing. The 1974 Cincinnati Reds season only served to add to the frustration. They were one of the elite teams in baseball, but a slow start and a more unforgiving postseason format than exists today, kept them out of the playoffs.

Cincinnati made a couple of moves in the offseason to try and take that final step. They dealt outfielder Bobby Tolan, a big part of their success, but who was starting to decline and standing in the way of some rising stars. The trade with San Diego netted the Reds a quality starting pitcher in Clay Kirby, who would make 35 starts, go 12-9 and post a 3.28 ERA in 1974.

That trade worked out better than the one that sent a good young starter in Ross Grimsley to Baltimore in exchange for outfielder Merv Rettenmund. Grimsley continued to pitch well for an Oriole team that won a division title. Rettenumnd had a respectable .337 on-base percentage but was a part-time player.

Overall, with one good addition and one unfortunate subtraction, Cincinnati pitching was still an asset. Don Gullet was the staff ace, winning 17 games with a 3.04 ERA. Jack Billingham racked up 19 victories and his ERA was 3.94. Fred Norman only made 26 starts, but his 3.14 ERA was still good enough to win 13 games. Roger Nelson and 21-year-old Tom Carroll were effective in spot-starting duty.

Sparky Anderson’s bullpen was built around the duo of Pedro Borbon and Clay Carroll. Borbon logged 139 innings, saved 14 games, won ten more and posted a 3.24 ERA. Carroll worked 100 innings with a dazzling ERA of 2.15, with 12 wins and six saves. All in all, the Reds’ pitching staff ranked third in the National League for ERA.

The bats were what the Big Red Machine was renowned for, and their name players had vintage seasons. The great catcher, Johnny Bench, hit 33 homers and drove in 129 runs. Tony Perez played first base and popped 28 home runs with 101 RBIs. Joe Morgan was at second base and his OBP soared to .427. He hit 22 homers and mixed in 58 stolen bases. And Pete Rose was in leftfield, racking up an OBP of .385, and hitting 45 doubles.

Cincinnati’s core four of Bench, Perez, Morgan, and Rose fueled the offense, but there were no easy outs. Three players—Dan Driessen at third base, shortstop Dave Concepion and centerfielder Cesar Geronimo all batted .281 and had good OBPs. Ken Griffey Sr. had a .331 OBP. George Foster joined Rettenmund in providing depth and finished with a .343 OBP. The Reds’ attack scored the second-most runs in the National League.

The divisional structure prior to 1994 had each league split into just an East and a West. Moreover, Cincinnati was placed in the West (while Chicago and St. Louis were in the East). This was more than just geographically incoherent. It had impacted the pennant race in 1973, when the Reds, along with the Los Angeles Dodgers were clearly the best two teams in the National League. And the same dynamic would exist in 1974. In an era when only the division champ could go to the playoffs, the bar was being set high in the NL West.

Cincinnati played five games with Los Angeles in the early part of the season and lost all five, giving up 33 runs in the process. The Reds played reasonably well against everyone else and were 23-19 on Memorial Day. But the Dodgers were blazing and with a record of 33-13, held an eight-game lead.

Cincy won four straight series out of the holiday weekend but failed to make a dent in the eight-game deficit. They played consistently throughout the month of June, losing a pair of series against the Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals), but winning everywhere else. It only narrowed the deficit to 7 ½ games.

When the Reds got another shot at the Dodgers in a four-game home series, they lost three times. This time the bats failed, scoring just 11 runs—six of those in the single game they won. With a record of 49-37, Cincinnati was ten games off the pace.

A trip to Pittsburgh, the traditional early 1970s power of the NL East, and en route to another division title, saw things pick back up. The Reds won four out of five. They swept three straight against a Cardinal team that would contend to the final day of the season. Cincinnati rolled into the All-Star break with a record of 58-40. The lead was down to 5 ½ games. The Reds and Dodgers were easily the best two teams in all of baseball.

Even though Cincinnati went 8-4 coming out of the break, that still cost them a game in the standings. They were 6 ½ back when they went to Los Angeles on August 5.  

Monday’s opener didn’t go well. Gullett pitched six good innings and was in a 2-2 tie but got beaten by a grand slam in the seventh, ultimately losing 6-3. On Tuesday night, Carroll hung in with Dodger great Don Sutton and the game was tied 3-3, going to extra innings. The Reds had to make a move. The time for wasting head-to-head opportunities was past.

Facing L.A. reliever Mike Marshall, who would win the Cy Young Award, Cincinnati got a leadoff single from Rose and a home run from Bench. An insurance run sealed a badly needed 6-3 win. Bench did it again the next night, with an early two-run homer that staked Billingham to a 2-0 lead. Billingham made that stand up the rest of the way with a six-hit shutout.

The Reds came out of the series and went 13-8 into Labor Day. But the Dodgers were starting to cool down, and now simply playing good baseball was enough to cut into the lead. Cincinnati was 81-53, 3 ½ games out, as the stretch drive beckoned.

But another head-to-head opportunity would be missed. Los Angeles came to old Riverfront Stadium for a three-game series and grabbed two wins. On September 13, when the Reds went back to Dodger Stadium, the deficit was still 3 ½ games. Cincinnati absolutely had to win this series and could really use a sweep.

Billingham went on Friday night and took a 3-2 lead into the eighth. Concepion opened it up with a three-run blast and the Reds won 6-3. On Saturday, Gullett worked into the eighth, backed up by home runs from Perez and Morgan. The Reds won 4-2. The deficit was down to 1 ½ games as we went into the Sunday finale.

For five innings, behind Fred Norman, Cincinnati led 1-0. But Norman gave up a couple runs in the sixth. And when Borbon came on in relief, he didn’t have it. The Reds ultimately lost 7-1. At 2 ½ games out, and 2 ½ weeks to go, they were still alive. But it would be a difficult road to travel.

And the following week, still on the West Coast, would be a killer blow. Cincinnati lost five of seven games against the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants. They were now 4 ½ games out. The Reds tried to rally, sweeping six games at home with the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros and staying alive as the season reached its final three games. But they would need everything to go right—the Reds needed the Dodgers to lose three straight against Houston, while Cincy had to sweep its season-ending two-game set in Atlanta.

Hope was kept alive on Monday when Los Angeles lost while Cincinnati was idle. But Tuesday, the penultimate day of the season, was when hope was extinguished. The Reds fell behind the Braves early and lost 7-1. And in either case, the Dodgers won in Houston. The NL West race was over.

Cincinnati’s final record was 98-64. Not only was this the second-best record in baseball, but they cleared everyone except Los Angeles by seven full games. It was an exceptional year, as good as any the Reds had enjoyed to this point. But in the era before wild-cards, it wasn’t enough.

From the perspective of history, the good news is that Cincinnati’s ultimate vindication was not far off. The Big Red Machine kicked it into an even higher gear in 1975, winning 108 games. This time, they finished the job and won the World Series. In 1976, they won 102 games and captured a repeat title.