At home at fenway

Keeping on eye on Dustin, Papi, Youk & a few good books

Big Red Machine : Back to 1975 with an A+ book

Posted by athomeatfenway on January 24, 2010

16 degree surface temperatures and school delays signify the long wait until some little kid from Somerville will shout Play Ball at the Fenway opener.

I have sunk into a winter of reading in my warm New England home.  It has been a good one so far, coming off Sweet Spot, the official history of Louisville Slugger, and Michael Sokolove’s book about Darryl Strawberry and his Crenshaw H.S. team mates.

I wasn’t expecting to be transported back to my parents’ living room  in front of their 19” Magnavox color TV in 1975, watching Pete Rose whip around the bases with the gait of a muscle bound cowboy, smirking as he crossed home plate.

In the early 70’s, there were arguably more talented players than Pete Rose, but none were tougher, more clutch, or bigger winners.

Joe Posnanski, in his new book, recreates a player & team so compellingly it almost makes me re-think Pete Rose and the Hall of Fame.

The Machine.  A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping World Series:  The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds.    By Joe Posnanski.  Published by William Moorow, 2009.  302 p.

Baseball books that chronicle a season interspersed with quips are a tried & true form.

Some are a grind.  Not so with The Machine.

Being an AL fan for life, I’ve missed many of the back stories of NL players.  It was gratifying to learn how Gary Nolan came up.

GARY NOLAN REBORN

The timeline is set at March 13, 1975.  The Reds and Twins will meet in a Tampa exhibition.  Gary Nolan, a 26 years old veteran of 7 seasons, cannot understand why he has butterflies.  He was always so good at pitching that he has never been nervous doing it.

It has been almost two years since he has pitched.

Nolan, who would start iconic Game 6 in the 1975 World Series, grew up as a legend in Oroville, CA.  He contracted Baseball fever at age 10 by listening to Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons broadcast the exploits of Willie Mays, Hank Sauer and Orlando Cepeda, just 150 miles down the road in San Francisco.

“Tell it bye-bye, baby !”, was how Hodges peppered his HR calls.

Nolan had a dazzling fastball that brought 70 scouts to his H.S. games.  He dominated them in Sioux Falls in ’66, and at the age of 19, he made his major league debut for the Reds against the Houston Astros. He K’d his first batter, Sonny Jackson, who only K’d in 8% of his career AB’s.   He then struck out the 5x gold glove outfielder, veteran Jim Landis.

Later that season, Gary struck out Willie Mays four times in a game.  Nobody had ever done that before.  But here was this 19-year-old kid with a live fastball K’ing his personal hero like he owned him.  As Nolan ran off the field, Mays whistled to him and said, “Son, I was overmatched.”.

Nolan struck out 206 batters that season.  No 19 year old had whiffed that many since Bob Feller.  Gary went 14-8 with a 2.58 ERA.  He finished 3rd for ROY behind Seaver and Dick Hughes.  He posted fair numbers in ’68 and ’69, and then was untouchable in 1970.  As his rookie Manager, Dave Bristol said in ‘67, “He aint got no ceiling.”.

By 1972, he was still pitching great, but his arm throbbed constantly.  And it all came to a crashing halt.

In 1973, he could pitch just 10.1 innings.  In 1974, he did not play in the Majors, and but for 6 IP’s with AAA Indianapolis he did not pitch that year.

By 1975, he was a 26-year-old long shot, trying to impress a crowd of cynics and win back a position in the Red rotation.

He was no longer 19, commanding, and bullet proof.

+++++++++++++++++

Posnanski recounts briefly and colorfully how Nolan became a different kind of pitcher in 1975, when he won the Hutch Award for honor, courage and dedication as he posted a 15-9 W-L record with a 3.16 ERA

Posnanski gives us a brilliant back story on almost every Red.

What makes this book great is that the author has a way of defining the characters that is succinct, insightful and entertaining.

A Baseball season has 182 days in it.  That’s a loooong and sloooow season.   Some  season histories are painfully slow.  Like Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan’s dreadful, “Faithful”, about the 2004 Red Sox

Clearly, “The Machine” is one of the best season chronicles of the decade.

I’m putting Posnanski, with much hope, along side archetypal story tellers Leigh Montville and Tom Adelman.

+++++++++++++++++

The Reds 1975 odyssey got off to a rocky start but reached magnificent heights.  Just a .500 club after 24 games, Sparky Anderson shook up the team by giving his starting 3rd bagger, John Vukovich a demotion and riskily placing Rose at the hot corner.

Then Joe Morgan shook up the team on a day when a hung-over Bench said he could not play.  Morgan, who had 50 stitches in his leg, declared he was ready to play and screamed at Bench and the team for being soft.  Their bats soon came alive.  Morgan had an MVP season.  They became a .600 team.

Within weeks, Sparky Anderson became an instant genius when his favorite starter, Don Gullet, went down.   Sparky ceased to allow any of his starters to pitch a complete game.  The Reds staff registered 22 complete games all year.  (The 1975 Red Sox staff recorded 62.)  Captain Hook worked his bullpen like a magician. He ran relievers in and out of games at a rate that Joe Torre would mirror 25 years later.

Anderson’s decision angered his starters, but it paid off.  The Reds hitting exploded.  The pitchers held down the rest of the league.   The Reds finished with a record of 108 – 54.  They won their Division by 20 games.  They won 90 of their last 125 games, an absurd 72%.

Posnanski makes us recall how certain we were in 1975 that the Big Red Machine was u-n-s-t-o-p-p-a-b-l-e.

CLUBHOUSE NUGGETS

Sparky explained when the season began that there were 4 Superstars on the team and everyone else was a TURD.  Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Doggie (Tony Perez) were the stars.  Ken Griffey, Dave Concepcion, Cesar Geronimo and George Foster were TURDS.  So was anyone else on team.

And it was indeed the 4 stars that set the tone on the team with a daily, never ending ball busting.

Here’s the clubhouse exchange after the Ali-Wepner fight, in which the black Superman failed to quickly put away the white guy.  The fight went 15 rounds and Wepner actually knocked down the far superior Ali once before the Champ got a late knock out.

Morgan and Rose argued.

“He got knocked out !”, said Morgan.

“Did anybody think this guy could last until there were 19 seconds left ?”, Rose yelled back.  “Everybody thought he would get knocked out in the first round….Hell, the white guy even knocked Ali down.”

“Would you two shut up ?”, Bench yelled across the clubhouse.

“It was a slip.”, said Morgan.

“Yeah, like you slipped when you swung at that pitch in the dirt yesterday,” Perez shouted.

“You do know that Ali let the bum hang around, “Morgan said, “You are smart enough to realize that, right ?”

Rose smiled, “All I know,” he said, “is that the white guy went 15 rounds with the champ.  We’re athletes too, Joe !  We’re athletes too!”.

THE ALL TIME HIT KING

Whether or not you are ready to forgive Pete Rose, this book will remind you of what is at stake in your decision.

Rose was/is a singular character with singular drive who loved & loves the game.

“Some players needed to win.  But Pete really had no choice.  He had to hit .300 or fell like less of a man.  He had to get 200 hits every year or he felt time slipping away.  He had to win because his old man, Harry Rose, told him so.

“People often asked Pete if he regretted smashing into Fosse — hell, it was just an All Star Game.  It didn’t count in the standings.  Pete’s response was telling.  He did not even understand the question.  They were playing baseball.  His was the winning run.  Fosse was blocking the plate.  Pete had no choice.

Posnanski shares how Rose currently spends his days signing autographs as card shows, a lonely man burdened with the knowledge that he made himself an All Time Great and an All Time Loser.

And that is what is at the heart of your decision to accept Pete Rose or block him from the complete and legitimate community of Baseball.  No one can deny that he played with fury and has 4,256 Hits.  And no one can pretend that he broke the one rule that all know results in excommunication.

It is all so terribly sad.

++++++++

Whatever else you do this winter, make time for this book.  Among many strengths, it covers the 1975 World Series with a wonderful summary.  Be brief.  Be bright.  Be gone.

You can read more of Joe Posnanski at:  http://joeposnanski.com/

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