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The Narrative Of The 1975 MLB Season

The Cincinnati Reds came into the 1975 baseball season having been one of baseball’s best teams for the previous five years. They had won the NL West three times in that span and the pennant twice. One thing they hadn’t done was win the World Series, and it was an omission that seemed to grow increasingly more significant as the great core talent of The Big Red Machine got older. In 1975, the Reds finished the job when they won one of the great Fall Classics of all time.

A great lineup included legends in catcher Johnny Bench and third baseman Pete Rose, who each finished in the top five of the final MVP voting. George Foster was an emerging star in left field and Tony Perez was a reliable clutch hitter at first base. But in 1975, no player in baseball was better than second baseman Joe Morgan, who easily captured the MVP award.

Before Cincinnati could think about October, they had to get back on top of an NL West that the Los Angeles Dodgers had won in 1974. The Dodgers were led by first baseman Steve Garvey. Andy Messersmith, a starting pitcher was in a nasty struggle with the front office that eventually led to an arbitrator’s decision which ushered in the era of free agency. But it didn’t stop Messersmith from having a good year in ’75.

By the regular season’s first turn at Memorial Day, the Dodgers held a 3 ½ game lead over the Reds. The Giants, getting good years from shortstop Chris Speier and starting pitcher John Montefusco were four back. And the San Diego Padres, with Cy Young runner-up Randy Jones anchoring the rotation, were five games off the pace.

Cincinnati obliterated them all and did it in an astonishingly short period of time. An early summer blitzkrieg vaulted the Reds not only into first place, but by a 12 ½ game margin at the All-Star break. The NL West race was blown wide open and the margin only got wider. Cincinnati won 108 games and clinched the division with several weeks to spare.

The Pittsburgh Pirates were the power of the NL East, with four division crowns in the last five years, including in 1974. The lineup was led by Willie Stargell and a rising star in rightfielder Dave Parker.

The Pirates, like the Reds, took a little time to get started. They were a game and a half out of first place in Memorial Day, in a packed four-team race. The Chicago Cubs had the early lead. The New York Mets, with a rotation anchored by Tom Seaver and two National League pennants over the previous six seasons, were in the hunt. And there was a new force rising in Philadelphia. The Phillies had been dormant for several years, but with an emerging star of their own in third baseman Mike Schmidt, Philly was in the mix 

The Pirates, again like the Reds, made a decisive move in the early part of summer. Pittsburgh’s surge wasn’t as dramatic as Cincy’s, but by the All-Star break the Bucs had a comfortable 6 ½ game margin. The Cubs and Mets faded, with the Phillies now the team in the rearview mirror.

Pittsburgh was unable to put the race to bed in August. Philadelphia was getting a big year from power-hitting leftfielder Greg Luzinski, who would end up as the runner-up to Morgan for NL MVP. The St. Louis Cardinals, with one of the game’s better relievers in Al Hrabosky, made a move of their own. On Labor Day, the Cards and Phillies were within four games of the lead.

Philadelphia was the rising force in this division, but their time wasn’t yet here. The experience of Pittsburgh paid off in September, as they managed to keep both challengers at arm’s length and bring home another NL East crown.

The Oakland A’s were the dynasty, not just in the AL West which they had won four straight times, but in all of baseball. Oakland had won the last three World Series titles. They were dealing with a significant loss in 1975 though. Catfish Hunter, the ace of an excellent rotation, had a dispute with the front office and in legal maneuverings, his contract was voided. Catfish went on to sign with the Yankees.

But Oakland’s cupboard was still plenty full. Reliable talent, from Sal Bando at third to Bert Campaneris at short to Billy North in centerfield to Joe Rudi in leftfield, was in the lineup. And that lineup still had the great Reggie Jackson in rightfield. The pitching staff still had Vida Blue and Ken Holtzman and the bullpen continued to be anchored by the great Rollie Fingers. Rollie, along with Reggie, each finished top-5 in the American League MVP vote.

Kansas City was the young team knocking on the door, with George Brett coming into his own at third base and first baseman John Mayberry finishing second in the MVP tally. The Royals were right on Oakland’s heels at the Memorial Day turn, just a game off the pace.

The AL West had other challengers. Rod Carew, one of the great contact hitters of all time, led the Minnesota Twins lineup. Texas, the division’s runner-up a year ago, was led by shortstop Toby Harrah. The California Angels had a reliable lefty in Frank Tanana to stabilize their rotation. All of these teams were within three games of the lead.

None of these teams, however, were the Oakland A’s. The championship players of Oakland took over the race in the early summer, held an 8 ½ game lead by the All-Star break and comfortably held off the field from there. They would get a chance for a fourth straight pennant and World Series crown in October.

So far, the 1975 baseball season is following very familiar storylines. In each of the three divisions discussed, the traditional power took control of the race in June and rolled into October. If form would have held, that would point to the Baltimore Orioles, with five AL East titles over the previous six years, as the team taking control. But the AL East in 1975 would be different.

The Orioles were still good, to be sure, with staff ace Jim Palmer winning the Cy Young Award. The Yankees had high expectations, with the addition of Hunter to a team that contended to the final weekend of the 1974 season. New York’s lineup was anchored by one of the game’s best catchers, Thurman Munson.

But the team that emerged was the Boston Red Sox. A consistent contender since their pennant run in 1967, the Red Sox had not made it back to October since that magical season. In 1975, they added two electrifying rookies to the lineup. Jim Rice began a Hall of Fame career in leftfield and he finished third in the MVP voting as a rookie.

The greatest rookie season of all time, at least as measured by MVP votes, belonged to centerfielder Fred Lynn. With a mix of power, grace and spectacular defense, Lynn became the first—and thus far only—rookie to win the MVP award.

Boston had a four-game lead on New York at the All-Star break. The surprising Milwaukee Brewers were within 4 ½ and Baltimore seemed to be having a down year. The Yanks and Brewers both faded. The Orioles made a move and got into second place by Labor Day, within six games. The race got as close as 4 ½ games, but Boston held off the division’s reigning power and became the new AL East champ.

To say the Reds swept the Pirates in an LCS round that was then best-of-five understates how thoroughly Cincinnati dominated, especially the first two games at home. The Reds won Games 1 & 2 by a combined score of 14-4. Over the course of the series, five players batted over .300, led shortstop Dave Concepion who hit .455. Cincinnati ran wild, stealing 11 bases.

Game 3 in Pittsburgh was a good one, with the Pirates briefly avoiding elimination when a bases-loaded walk with two outs in the ninth tied the game 3-3. But the Reds promptly grabbed two runs in the top of the 10th and put away the National League pennant.

If you’re writing a novel from the perspective of the Reds, you would certainly make them face the reigning dynasty from Oakland as the way of getting their championship breakthrough. But the real world requires that you simply play the best team left. And in the ALCS, the Red Sox did their own dismantling of the A’s.

Defensive mistakes from Oakland in Game 1 opened the door for Boston to pull away late and win 7-1. The Red Sox were getting good hitting from shortstop Rick Burleson, catcher Carlton Fisk, first baseman Cecil Cooper and the legendary Carl Yastrzemski in left. Even with Rice missing the postseason due to a broken hand, Boston could still produce.

And in a surprising development, Red Sox reliever Dick Drago did more than pitch well—he outpitched Fingers over the next two games. That was the difference in Games 2 & 3 and Boston closed out a sweep.

To this point, the 1975 baseball season hadn’t produced much drama. No hot pennant races. A couple of sweeps in the LCS round. No showdown among any of this decade’s established powers to look forward to in the World Series. Little did anyone know, the Reds and Red Sox were about to play a Fall Classic that has since become the subject of books, documentaries and been intertwined into popular culture.

Cincinnati was a solid favorite, but Boston ace Luis Tiant baffled the Reds in Game 1 at Fenway, spinning and twirling his way to a 6-0 win. Red Sox lefty Bill Lee had Cincinnati on the ropes, holding a 2-1 lead into the ninth. But the Reds, playing with desperation, punched across two runs and got a 3-2 road win.

Game 3 was an extra inning classic, replete with a controversial umpire’s call that to this day sticks in the craw of Red Sox fans of a certain age. Cincinnati won 6-5 and it seemed the favorite was getting control of the series.

Tiant went back to the mound for Game 4. What he did was a display of guts and a vivid demonstration of how much baseball has changed over the ensuing decades. Tiant wasn’t sharp, but he threw 163 pitches and held off the Reds in a 5-4 win. Even though Cincinnati got an easy win in Game 5, the Red Sox were taking the Series back to Fenway Park.

Three days of rain added to the drama and allowed Tiant to take the mound in Game 6. But the gutsy ace finally started to run out of gas about halfway through. Cincinnati took a 6-3 lead into the eighth inning.

Boston put two runners on. Pinch-hitter Bernie Carbo stunned everyone with a three-run homer to dead center. Tie game. In the ninth inning, the Red Sox had the bases loaded with no one out and couldn’t score. In the eleventh inning, Morgan ripped a drive to right that should have scored a run, but Dwight Evans made a spectacular catch. One of the greatest games in baseball history went to the 12th inning. Finally, Fisk won it with one of baseball’s iconic home runs—a long fly ball that bounced off the left field foul pole, with the TV cameras showing Fisk “waving the ball fair”.

The two teams still had to come back and play a game the next night and Game 7 was a classic in its own right. The Red Sox took a 3-0 lead. Lee held that lead into the sixth inning when Perez hit a two-run homer. The Reds tied it in the seventh. Game 7 of the World Series was tied 3-3 going into the ninth inning.

With two outs in the top of the ninth, Cincinnati had a runner on third base. Morgan was at the plate. A nasty breaking ball went to the outside corner. Morgan got the bat on it and looped a single into center. It was a soft hit, but it was enough. The Reds had the lead, they got three more outs and finally, at long last, they were World Series champions.