Whether you celebrate the Reds from a starting date of 1869 (first full professional team), 1882 (first year in the American Association), or 1890 (first year in the National League), you have to be somewhat amazed by the longevity of the Cincinnati team. A 2019 version of a uniform from the past is great, but knowing what was happening when those uniforms debuted is history, and knowing your history is a big part of being a baseball fan, so we’ll try to cover the key events of the year.
1976 – Home
Plastic grass, no ads on the walls, black shoes and polyester double knits with elastic stretch pants—a big part of my youth. In the 1970’s, many teams had bright colors with neon jerseys and interchangeable looks, almost all as horrible as a Ralph Furley outfit. The Reds played it simple, clean, classic and conservative, and it worked.
Team’s Record that Season
102-60 – 1st place, NL West
On Friday, May 28, 1976, the first place Los Angeles Dodgers came to town two games in front of the Reds. Sunday, they left town after dropping three of the four games the teams played. The Reds would tightly hold first place for the rest of the season, leading the league in Batting Average, On Base Percentage, Slugging, HR’s and Steals, scoring 161 more runs than the league average (857/696).
2,629,708 (1st of 12)
1976 was a year of great growth in attendance around the game. Nowhere was this more evident than in Cincinnati where the Reds led both leagues in home attendance with 2,629,708, over 1.8 million fans went to see them on the road. Prior to the Howsam era the Reds only topped one million four times and the now they were the only team aside from the Dodgers to have back to back seasons with two million plus fans go through the turnstiles. Alas, this season is still the Reds’ highest attendance, the only team in baseball to hit their attendance peak in the 70’s. The nearest team is the 1990 Oakland A’s who haven’t topped their 2.9 million tickets sold since the last time they went to the World Series. The 2,629,708 the Reds drew is the 3rd lowest franchise record in MLB, only Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh have lower totals. Aside from a great roster, the 1970’s Reds had a superb marketing department with an impressive outreach that encompassed large swaths of the surrounding states. This increased presence, plus the success of the team, makes this the golden era of Reds baseball.
“Me carrying a briefcase is like a hotdog wearing earrings.”
~ Sparky Anderson
Sparky Anderson is a HOF manager, a baseball character, and gallons of ink has been spilled to cover the many aspects of his managerial career. Every Red and Tiger fan over a certain age has a favorite Sparky moment. He was without a doubt a baseball treasure—that is, unless you’re talking about his one year in MLB.
In 1958, the Phillies were in a rebuilding phase, as they always seemed to be in those days. They finished an astonishing 64 games behind the Braves that season, and the Cardinals finished 44 games back, firing Fred Hutchinson as manager in September. The Cardinals, in their search for a new skipper, turned to the Phillies to inquire about a former player of theirs who was manning 2nd base, Solly Hemus. The Phillies, having nothing to lose, dealt Hemus to the Cardinals for Gene Freese, who they planned to play at 3rd base. The deal left them with an issue in the middle of the diamond at second. To solve that problem, they turned to the fully stocked Dodger system and asked about a middle infielder they had playing in Montreal, George ‘Sparky” Anderson. The price was 30-year-old Rip Repulski, a solid ballplayer but certainly not a star or impact player. As Spring Training started the local paper wrote, Anderson has been described as an “Eddie Stanky type” player, but the rookie disagrees. “I am,” he says forthrightly, “an Anderson type.”
He was right. He was unique, uniquely bad—horrible is probably a better description.
In-between the Dead Ball era and the 1960’s, baseball didn’t see players last a whole season with an OPS in the low .500’s, but 1959 was one of those seasons. Despite the OPS, Anderson still made The Sporting News “All Rookie Team”. This only seems plausible when you realize that Anderson was the only rookie second baseman to have more than 24 At Bats in the National League. It would be Sparky’s only season in MLB. He would play-out his career in Toronto and get into managing, where he was nothing but a success.
Sparky’s season ranks as the 127th lowest OPS in NL history, right between Kid Gleason (1898) and Billy Sunday (1888). Now that’s ALL of history, if you go to 1900-Now it’s #24, go from 1920-Now and it’s #10.
“Every 24 hours the world turns over on someone who was sitting on top of it.”
~ Sparky Anderson
The Great Eight
When the 1976 season started, the Reds were the World Champions. Their starting eight was a phenomenal group, a mixture of speed, power vets and youngsters. They didn’t play every game together—only 88 games together during the 1975 and 1976 seasons, compiling a 69-19 record.
Nonetheless, the team had other players, many who contributed from the pitching side. In this day and age, it’s odd to think that a MLB team would only use a total of 13 pitchers in a season, the sum total the 1976 Reds used. The story really was the offense. The top three hitters scored 100+ runs, each of The Great Eight had an OPS+ over 100, four above 140.
The Great Eight’s lifetime numbers up to the 1976 season:
- Pete Rose 8221 ab – .310/.379/.432/.810
- Tony Perez 5799 ab – .285/.348/.484/.831
- Joe Morgan 5406 ab – .278/.396/.430/.826
- Johnny Bench 5406 ab – .271/.342/.487/.829
- Dave Concepcion 2399 ab – .256/.309/.344/.653
- Cesar Geronimo 1681 ab – .255/.319/.365/.683
- George Foster 1420 ab – .263/.320/.435/.755
- Ken Griffey 776 ab – .298/.378/.409/.786
Best Red Batter
Joe Morgan 1.020
“Joe, I want you to understand something. For as long as you are on this team, until you prove that you are not up to it, I am never going to give you the signal to steal. In fact, I will never give you a sign of any kind. It will be up to you and you alone to determine when and when not to go, when to bunt or not bunt, when to take a pitch or not, you will be the one to put on a hit and run. I am turning all that over to you. I will expect you to make the right decisions and I will never question your judgement unless you come to me and tell me you can’t handle the pressure.”
~ Sparky Anderson to Joe Morgan, 1972
Joe Morgan hit a respectable .263/.375/.396/.771. for the Astros over a span of 9 seasons. He battled with his manager Harry Walker (brother of Dixie), much of it race-related. The trade to the Reds was not something he took well. He felt unappreciated—angry at the overt racism he had to endure from Walker and then sent away from the only town he knew as a MLB player. He did find solace in the fact that he was heading to Cincinnati and felt they were a good club.
Joe Morgan, Houston 1963-1971
- 3920 PA’s
- 195 Steals
- 255 EBH
- 585 BB
Joe Morgan, Cincinnati 1972-1977
- 3902 PA’s
- 359 Steals
- 323 EBH
- 709 BB
Best National League Hitter
“Whenever I did have a conversation with a scout—which wasn’t often—the same phrase kept coming up again and again. I was a ‘good little player’, they said. I knew what that meant. I had no future.”
~ Joe Morgan
Bill Wight, a scout for the Houston 45’s, saw Morgan play during his first year of college, “You’re a really good player,” he told Morgan, sans the common qualifier. Sometimes it just takes one guy and one chance.
Bill James picked Morgan as the best 2nd baseman in MLB history in his Historical Abstract, declaring him “the best percentage player” ever, also sans qualifier.
Despite these two examples, Joe Morgan was “a little player”.
In the history of MLB there have been 2394 players who compiled 2000 PA’s in their career and only 242 of them were 5’8” or shorter, roughly ten percent. Morgan has the most plate appearances of those with 11,329. Most of the players on this list played in the 19th century and the numbers have decreased in the past 60 years. Since 1950, 1373 players have come to the plate 2000 times and in that span only 38 of them were 5’8″ or shorter, a miniscule 2.7%.
In many ways, it’s a big man’s game.
“There’s another type of player who only plays according to the situation of the game. That was Joe Morgan. He could have stolen one hundred bases but there were not enough game situations for him to do that. When the game was out of reach, when it was nine to one, ten to one, he was showered and gone. For him to stay in there he couldn’t put in the same effort, he was a winning type of player. Pete on the other hand, he’d say, ‘OK, it’s ten to one, now we are facing the weak pitchers. Let’s get some more hits.’”
~ Merv Rettenmund
Best Red Pitcher
Following the 1975 season, GM Bob Howsam traded pitchers Clay Carroll and Clay Kirby to free-up salary. It seemed prudent considering that the World Champion Reds were likely to have more than a few players looking for a bump in their take-home pay. The Front Office hoped that the pitchers in AAA would be ready to make that step forward and fill-in the spots fairly well at a much lower cost to the team. The 1976 Reds didn’t have a world class starting staff. They would finish with a league average ERA and six pitchers who would start over 20 games, two of them were the rookies Howsam hoped would step up, Santo Alcala and Pat Zachry. Zachry pitched the second most innings on the team. He led the Reds in K’s with 143 and had the best ERA of all the starters at 2.74. A lot of this success came from how stingy Zachry was in giving up the longball. In 204 innings, Zachry only allowed 8 HR’s. In 239 innings, Gray Nolan allowed 28. Aside from making 28 starts, Zachry also appeared in 10 games in relief. The Reds routinely used their starters in relief, a practice considered Neolithic in today’s game.
Zachry’s performance garnered him a share of the National League Rookie of The Year Award. The other recipient, reliever Butch Metzger of the Padres, would be out of the game in two years. Zachry, on the other hand, would pitch nine more years in the game and would be used by the Reds as a chip to steal… er, obtain Tom Seaver from the Mets in 1977. Zachry and Scott Williamson are the only Reds pitchers to be named ROY. Zachary is also the first ex-Red I can recall who immediately grew facial hair as soon as he left town.
Best NL Pitcher
“I pitched a great game one night with St. Louis against the Big Red Machine—Monday Night Game of the Week. The next day he calls me over before our game. I’m 23 years old and I’m wondering what does Pete Rose want to talk to me about? He says ‘John, I just want to tell you last night you threw one hell of a ballgame. Your fastball was in on my hands all night. But I’ll tell you something, next time I’m gonna get you good, you S.O.B.’ More than anyone, he helped show me how to be a professional and still show respect to the other team and the other players and still be the man and the player you need to be.”
~ John Denny
The game mentioned above was on Monday, August 30th, 1976. The Cardinals were 13 games under .500 and in 5th place in the NL East. Their best pitcher was 23-year-old John Denny, a certified Red-Ass whose hair-trigger temper was known around the league already, mostly because he had gotten into a fight with his own catcher, Ted Simmons, in the dugout tunnel during a game. Most Reds fans remember Denny as a pitcher on the 1986 Reds, his last season in the league. By then, Denny had settled down a little, found God, gotten married and was finally succumbing to years of arm ailments. He had also won the Cy Young Award with the Phillies in 1983. In 1976, arm troubles limited him to 206 innings, and yet he was the most productive pitcher in the league, leading the league in ERA with a 2.34. During this era Denny was a fastball pitcher with a hard curve and a change-up. As he aged, the curve would get softer and become his main pitch. In 1976, 27 NL pitchers topped 200 innings pitched, and of that group only five pitchers had less than 4 K’s per game. Denny was one of those five, averaging only 3.22 K’s every nine innings. You don’t see this anymore in a game where “strikeouts don’t matter” and increasing one’s “Launch Angle” is the universal approach. The last NL pitcher to top 200 IP and have a K-rate that low was John Lannan of the Nationals in 2009.
Making their MLB Debut
- Andre Dawson
- Willie Wilson
- Garry Templeton
- Rick Sutcliffe
- Bruce Sutter
Making their MLB Exit
- Hank Aaron
- Bill Freehan
- Frank Robinson
- Wayne Granger
- Billy Williams
The 1980 census has the city dropping to 32nd in the country with 385,457. Meanwhile, communities within driving distance of Cincinnati are growing at a rapid rate. Swaths of farmland are being transformed into mazes of cul-de-sacs and shopping centers. Cincinnati, like most of America, is in the peak suburban-living era.
Team Media Sources
Following Al Michaels’ departure after the 1973 season, the Reds hired Marty Brennamen, who would team with Joe Nuxhall for the next 23 years. By 1978, the Reds had 125 stations in their vast network. This success could not have occurred without the dominance of the Reds on the field and their marketing department on the street. On the TV side, Bill Brown was behind the microphone. Both radio (Strohs) and television (Pabst) broadcasts were sponsored by breweries from other cities, which would have seemed impossible in the earlier part of the century. In Dayton, Hal McCoy began his career at the Dayton Daily News. His voice would be loud and prevalent in the local press over the next several decades and he would be the first non-Cincinnati newsperson elected to the Cincinnati Journalists Hall of Fame.
With success comes the opportunity to make more money and in the 1970’s we see a tsunami of players writing diaries of their season—some bawdy, some dry. The Reds counted among them the following titles:
- From Behind the Plate – Johnny Bench
- Catching and Power Hitting – Johnny Bench /John Sammis
- Charlie Hustle – Rose/Hertzel
- Pete Rose’s Winning Baseball – Pete Rose
A quick rundown of the brilliant year in film: Network, All the President’s Men, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Shootist, Silver Streak, Rocky, Taxi Driver and The Omen, just to name a few. The best of the lot? In my humble opinion, The Bad News Bears, a film many feel is a classic. In today’s world it seems an impossibility—tipsy coaches driving with open beers, kids drinking, smoking, cussing and disparaging others’ race and creed, both verbally and physically. It is a time capsule of what the world was then and should be stored in a crystal case in The Library of Congress to be revisited at least once a year.
Six Things about The Bad News Bears:
- Kelly Leak, the baddest kid in the neighborhood, would play Rorschach in the Watchman movie.
- The script, penned by Bill Lancaster (son of actor Burt Lancaster), was the winner of a Writers Guild of America award.
- The musical score’s theme was composed as an adaptation of Bizet’s opera, Carmen.
- Tatum O’Neal was paid $350,000, plus a percentage of the profits, later estimated to be $1.9 million.
- Buttermaker was seen at various times in the film drinking Budweiser, Miller High Life, Schlitz “Kingers”, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Lucky Lager and Coors.
- The burrito that Tanner Boyle was eating at the ball field’s snack bar was the first burrito I ever saw in my life. It was, and is, an important milestone for me.
- The Apple Computer Company was established by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in April.
- NASA’s Viking 1 Lander soft-landed on Mars in July.
- Matsushita introduces the VHS home video cassette recorder to compete with Sony’s Betamax system released in 1975.
- Cillian Murphy, Irish actor
- Kevin Garnett, American basketball player
- Alicia Silverstone, American actress
- Peyton Manning, American football player
- Howlin’ Wolf, American blues singer (b. 1910)
- Howard Hughes, American aviation pioneer (b. 1905)
- Dalton Trumbo, American screenwriter and novelist (b. 1905)
- Agatha Christie, English detective fiction writer (b. 1890)
1976 is one of my favorite seasons. It was a blast on many levels. These are a few things that stand-out:
Meanwhile in Detroit:
Mark Fidrych and Ron LeFlore. You can’t think of 1976 without touching on The Bird—21-year-old Fidrych took the league by storm, talking to the ball and completing 24 games with an ERA of 2.34. Meanwhile Ron LeFlore, a former felon in his 3rd-year in major league ball, was the leadoff hitter for the American League in the All-Star Game. Both were great stories for a team that had lost 107 games in the first year of Al Kaline’s retirement. The city of Detroit rode the Bird craze hard. Before the internet age, becoming something as big as The Bird was something special.
Here come the agents:
Jerry Kapstein was a major player representative as the free agent era started, a man that Reds GM Bob Howsam loathed. How much did he loathe him? Enough to trade two of his clients after the 1976 season, when he unloaded Tony Perez and Rawley Eastwick. An influential man in a changing time, Kapstein caused a lot of owners to mumble under their breath, including this nugget uttered by Charlie O’ Finely “Kapstein kept me in the dark continuously, he never came to visit me once.”
Go dance on your own dugout, Charlie.
Reds Pass on Free Agents:
The Free Agency era is ushered in. Marvin Miller wields a mighty bat and the players finally achieve the freedom they’ve pursued. Spring Training is delayed as the owners lock the players out for 17 days. On March 19th, 1976, fans heave a collective sigh of relief as a settlement is reached and all 24 teams open camp. Throughout the season, 24 players without contracts would play with an eye on hitting the marketplace after the season.
That autumn, fresh off the 1976 title, the free agent draft started. Rather than pick players, as did most of the other teams in the game, the Reds decide to address their picks with a single statement and stance that would hamstring the team in the early eighties as they faced a rebuild.
“In fairness to the players who have won the World Championship for us two years in a row and considering how our organization is structured. We do not think it would be right for the Cincinnati organization to get into the bidding contests that must come out of this draft.”
~ Bob Howsam