Cincinnati's great eight

"The best team ever" is what Joe Morgan calls the Big Red Machine of 1976.

Twenty years have passed.

And yet the "Great Eight" -- the starting eight players of the Cincinnati Reds redsof 1976 -- just keep getting better. Time has added only luster to their legacy.

In the first of three daily excerpts from the "Big Red Dynasty," the authors -- Enquirer reporter John Erardi and historian Greg Rhodes -- examine the team's place in history.

By John Erardi & Greg Rhodes
"Big Red Dynasty" © 1997, Road-West Publishing

In the 95 summers since the modern era of baseball began in 1901, 1,358 National and American League teams have marched to the playing fields to compete for recognition as the best in baseball.

Some played on green grass in the shadow of wooden stands, some on plastic turf dwarfed by steel and concrete. Many came in flannels, some in double knits, others in pinstripes. Some brought small mitts and heavy lumber; others, large gloves and skinny-handled bats.

All carried hopes of greatness. But, as the seasons faded, only a handful of those 1,358 teams have earned history's verdict as truly great.

Among those is the 1976 Cincinnati Reds.

They were the first National League team to win back-to-back World Championships since the 1922 New York Giants. In this year's World Series, the Atlanta Braves are attempting to reprise the achievement.

But what made the Reds great -- beyond what the Giants did or the Braves are trying to do -- is the starting eight position players.

The Reds' "Great Eight" were the best ever, as judged by history, the numbers and the accolades.

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"Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion, George Foster, Ken Griffey, Cesar Geronimo," recites former Reds manager Sparky Anderson.

"I was 35 years old when I went into Cincinnati in 1970. When I came out nine years later, the guys had made me a star. Over those nine years, they averaged 96.4 wins. I tell people, 'Just think what I could have done if I had some players!' " In the seven seasons from 1970-76, the Reds won five division titles, four league pennants, and the consecutive World Series. They averaged 98 wins for a winning percentage of .607.

In the peak years of the dynasty, from 1972-1976, the Reds' winning percentage averaged .626 -- or 100 wins a season.

'75 Reds But the Great Eight were together as starters only on the consecutive World Champions of 1975-76. Those Reds' teams played a total of 351 games and won 224 of them, including postseason games. That's a .638 winning percentage.

The Great Eight played only 88 games together as a starting lineup in 1975-76. They went 69-19 -- a .784 winning percentage.

"We didn't think we could get beat," says Joe Morgan, "because we almost never did get beat." Just as quickly, it was over.

Tony Perez got traded.

But those 88 games were enough to stamp the "Great Eights' " signature on baseball forever.

The lore lives on.

"The Big Red Machine teams will never be forgotten," declares Bench. "I don't want them to be forgotten. They'll be remembered because of the professionals they had, the character they had, the skill they had. Those teams were a symbol of what baseball really should be." In 1976, the Reds did what no other team had done since the League Championship Series began in 1969 . . . and what no other team has done since: gone undefeated in the postseason.

After the Reds swept the Phillies and Yankees, Sports Illustrated wondered aloud: "How Good are the Reds?" and compared them to the 1927 Yankees.

In the book, Baseball's Ten Greatest Teams, the esteemed baseball historian Donald Honig says the 1976 Reds were better at four positions (catcher, Riverfrontshortstop, second base and third base) than the 1927 Yankees and probably better at a fifth (left field).

Ultimately, Honig gives the edge to the Yankees as the greatest baseball team of all-time because of their "depth of superb pitching." But the point is made.

The '76 Reds had the greatest starting eight of all-time.

In 1976, seven of the eight Reds starters made the National League All-Star team. The one who didn't -- centerfielder Cesar Geronimo -- hit .307 and won his third straight Gold Glove.

The 1939 Yankees were the only other team to have seven of their eight starters in one All-Star Game -- Bill Dickey, DiMaggio, Gordon, Frank Crosetti, Red Rolfe, George Selkirk and Lou Gehrig.

The 1976 Reds led the major leagues in 10 major offensive and defensive categories -- runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and fielding average. No other team has ever led all these categories in their own league in one season, let alone all of baseball.

How good were the '76 Reds? So good that their manager, Sparky Anderson -- who has never met a superlative he couldn't apply to his players, whether it be in Cincinnati or Detroit -- actually begins his homily about the '76 Reds with some humility before building up his usual head of steam.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that the starting eight of the Big Red Machine is the greatest of all-time," he says. "But if somebody else has a better one, I want to sit and watch it. If they're better than the starting eight in 1976, oh my goodness." Comparing teams of different eras is always difficult. The strategy and equipment have radically changed over the years. But it is possible to compare to what degree teams have dominated the game in their eras.

No team has ever been more dominant than the '76 Reds.

"When I'm out speaking, I try to explain to people how good these guys were," Anderson says. "In 1976, they played 162 games, then swept the playoffs -- that's 165 games . . . then swept the World Series -- that's 169 games. They won 109 games, a .640 winning percentage . . . and the eight guys played together only 57 times!"
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that the starting eight of the Big Red Machine is the greatest of all-time. But if somebody else has a better one, I want to sit and watch it."
Sparky Anderson, Reds manager from 1970-79
Besides leading baseball in the aforementioned 10 offensive and defensive categories, the Big Red Machine led the National League in stolen bases, demonstrating a combination of speed and power that has been matched only by one other franchise: the Dodgers of the early 1950s.

In fact, the '76 Reds had the best position players since the 1955 World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers, who had Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese (all four of them Hall of Famers), plus Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, Junior Gilliam and Sandy Amoros.

The 1953 Dodgers were largely made up of the same cast (except for veteran third baseman Billy Cox being in the lineup instead of young left fielder Amoros) and were much better statistically than the 1955 team. But the 1953 team lost in the World Series.

When the '76 Reds are compared to the '55 (or '53) Dodgers, the Reds win four of the eight positions outright: catcher (Bench over Campanella), third base (Rose over Robinson), second (Morgan over Gilliam) and left field (Foster over Amoros). The Dodgers win shortstop (Reese over Concepcion), centerfield (Snider over Geronimo) and, in a close call, right field (Furillo over Griffey). First base (Perez and Hodges) is a tie. Both will eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame, even if it takes the old-timers' committee to do it.

That would give the Reds four Hall of Famers (assuming that Rose will eventually be re-instated to baseball and then instantly enshrined) and the Dodgers five.

So, the Dodgers win this battle, but not by much: Concepcion was a better fielder and hitter than Reese, but lacked the leadership qualities of Reese that helped put the Louisvillian in Valhalla. For six straight years, Foster was a Hall of Famer; he averaged 130 RBI for three of those years; in 1976, he led a team of sluggers in RBI.

Besides, "Hall of Famers" is only one barometer of starting eight greatness. The others are (see accompanying chart): star power, weak links, MVPs, All-Stars, Gold Glove performers, and longevity of the careers of the individual eight players when totalled together.

The Reds top the Dodgers in every category.

The Big Red Machine featured six perennial All-Stars who were selected five or more times (Bench, Rose, Morgan, Perez, Foster and Concepcion).

The 1953 Dodgers placed six of their eight starters (Campanella, Carl Furillo, Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Gil Hodges) on the squad. The best showing by the Yankees of the 1950s and early 1960s was the second All-Star Game of 1962 when six New York starters were named (Mantle, Maris, Berra, Howard, Bobby Richardson and Tom Tresh).

Granted, Gold Gloves were not awarded before 1957. But there is no way the Dodgers were a better defensive team than the Reds. Up the middle -- regarded as the defensive core of a baseball team -- the Reds won Gold Gloves at all four positions (catcher, shortstop, second base and centerfield) for four straight years (1974-77).

"Balance" in the starting eight -- nobody being regarded as a "hole" in the lineup on offense or defense -- is a factor. The Reds' weak link, Geronimo, is a better "weak link" than the '55 Dodgers' Amoros.

Although the starting eight of the '75-'76 Reds played only 88 games together, when each of the eight's total number of career games are added up, they total 19,230 -- 5,000 more games than any other of the great eights. Even if one were to remove Rose's major-league record of 3,562 career games, the Reds' starting seven played 2,000 more games than any of the other great starting eights.

Even more important is "star power" -- future first-ballot Hall of Famers, or the equivalent thereof. (This is why the 1929-31 Philadelphia Athletics make everybody's Top Ten; they had three great Hall of Famers: Jimmy Foxx, Mickey Cochrane and Al Simmons).

The Reds' star power is better than the Dodgers' because of Bench, Morgan and Rose. They, plus Foster, accounted for six of the eight National League MVPs awarded from 1970-77. The Dodgers had only two players win MVPs (Campanella and Robinson). The Reds are only the third team in history to have in its starting lineup four MVPs (Foster finished second in the MVP voting in 1976, and won in 1977). The other teams with four were the 1939 Yankees (DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey and Joe Gordon) and 1961 Yankees (Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Elston Howard and Yogi Berra.) But Gehrig and Berra were on the downside of their careers by then. The four Reds' MVPs were at -- or very close -- to their prime. In Rose, Bench, and Morgan, the Reds had not just three of the best players in the game, but three of the most flamboyant, confident, and provocative players in all of sport. They relished the media attention; they became icons of baseball in the 1970s.

They were not always loved. The press and fans labeled Rose a hot dog; Morgan was conceited; Bench arrogant and aloof. But there was a heroic quality that endured and finally triumphed.

Rose hitting the winning home run in the face of the Mets fan in game four of the 1973 playoffs in New York; Bench overcoming fears of lung cancer to hit his epic home run in the 1972 playoffs; Morgan's back-to-back MVP awards in 1975 and 1976.

It was the great World Series of 1975 that made the Reds famous in 1976 and beyond, says former Reds star Pete Rose. The World Championship of 1976 merely applied the imprimatur of immortality.

Much has been made about how the 1975 World Series -- the Reds vs. the Boston Red Sox -- changed the face of baseball and captured one generation of fans (young) and recaptured another (middle-aged).

There was Ken Griffey's shot off the Green Monster at Fenway Park to win Game 2; the collision between Reds pinch-runner Ed Armbrister and Bosox catcher Carlton Fisk in the 10th inning at Riverfront Stadium that led to a Reds' victory in Game 3; Boston's clutch 5-4 victory in Game 4 behind pitcher Luis Tiant; Perez's two home runs in Game 5 to break his 0-for-15 slump.

But the buildup for the final two games is what set the stage.

"We were in Boston for Game 6," remembers Rose. "We were rained out three nights in a row. It was just us, the Red Sox and all that mass media. It turned into Super Bowl week."

Authors John Erardi, left, and Greg Rhodes
Part Two
The Big Red Machine had been years in the making. But in one week in May 1975, Reds manager Sparky Anderson made two moves that began the run that led to back-to-back World Championships.
Part Three
Even before Tony Perez's two-out single in the bottom of the ninth inning won Game 2 of the 1976 World Series, Reds general manager Bob Howsam knew Perez -- and "The Great Eight" -- were history.

About the authors:
Enquirer reporter John Erardi and baseball historian Greg Rhodes are the co-authors of two other books, The First Boys of Summer: The 1869-1870 Cincinnati Red Stockings, and Crosley Field: The Illustrated History of a Classic Ballpark. Both books were published by Road West Publishing. Erardi is the author of Pete Rose: 4,192, published by The Enquirer.

For more information about Big Red Dynasty, please send your name and address to Road West Publishing, 1908 Dexter Ave., Cincinnati 45206.

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