A Fitting Team Tribute
When baseball fans remember great teams, there's usually a hook. The 1961 New York Yankees had Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris' epic home run race. The 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, 1969 New York Mets, and the 2004 Boston Red Sox were lovable losers redeemed. The 1998 Yankees just steamrolled everyone, just like their legendary ancestors did from ’20s through the ’50s.
The 1975 Cincinnati Reds were, by comparison, plain. The players adhered to a uniform and appearance code that made them look like red-tinged cops. No pitcher won over 15 games. No player hit over 30 home runs. Those numbers belie the fact that there was no weakness. The team featured uniformly great pitching; superlative defense (five starters on the team won Gold Gloves—baseball's award for fielding excellence—at some point in their careers); and superlative hitting from such legends as Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Johnny Bench. The team's nickname, "The Big Red Machine," says it all.
Joe Posnanski, the acclaimed sports columnist late of The Kansas City Star who recently jumped ship to Sports Illustrated, looks at that legendary team in The Machine.
The pressure was high on the Reds entering the 1975 season. A significant portion of the team's talent had been in place since 1970, the Machine's first World Series appearance. The team lost that one, another in 1972, and was eliminated by a scrappy Mets squad in the 1973 playoffs. The time to achieve a championship was now, and manager Sparky Anderson knew it. "This team has to finish first," he told the press. Oh, and it did, but not before a wobbly 18-19 start, prompting an enraged Anderson to bellow at his underachieving team: "If Cinderella's slippers fit, put them on! If they don't, then get the hell out of the way." The team won an astounding 90 of its last 125 games before dismantling the Pittsburgh Pirates in the playoffs and defeating the then-cursed Red Sox in a classic World Series.
Posnanski smartly doesn't rehash game day minutia, a common problem with many books that revisit a team's season. He examines the make-up of the players and coaches. He details how Anderson scrapped his way from one season of professional baseball to become a managerial mastermind. Morgan's attention to detail was pivotal in him becoming a legendary player (and perhaps a much-reviled broadcaster). Young outfielder Ken Griffey was forced to squelch his base-stealing abilities, which is why he holds the Reds' glory years in disdain. "I sacrificed more than anybody," he tells Posnanski. "I could have been a different player. I could have put up numbers. They played all these mind games with me."
Rose, who was banned from baseball for his infamous gambling escapades, figures prominently in Posnanski's narrative. He was arguably the heart and soul of the team, keeping the clubhouse loose and competitive with his chatter and exhortations. Rose kept an eye out for rookies. He was consumed by baseball, so much so that he would listen to West Coast games in his car after playing one of his own. However, Posnanski offers a shuddering look at what baseball's hit king has become—a self-promoting, lonely misogynist who lives in the past, signing memorabilia four days a week at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
Posnanski unearths some nice personal details and he is a florid, catchy writer (one batter couldn’t hit a pitcher “with a tennis racket and a book of hints”). The book is a fast-moving, entertaining read, but it’s hard to stay interested in a team that has so little conflict compared to the jerks, rogues, and inflated egos that dominate professional sports. It’s like reading a book about pretty sunsets. Try putting down Jeff Pearlman’s The Bad Guys Won! The 1986 Mets were a ticking time-bomb. The players drank and gambled, fought each other, and were good and let people know about it. Buster Olney's The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty recounts how those great Yankee teams of the late 1990s and early ’00s lost their way.
After reading those books, Rose’s competitive streak and Bench's crumbling marriage come across as being positively quaint. The 1975 Reds were boring winners, doing it without any flair or hoopla or drama (save for the World Series, which has been smothered and covered to death). Posnanski tries to goose us by offering readers a glimpse back at what happened in 1975, which comes across as clunky and irrelevant. What do the antics of Evel Knievel have to do with Tony Perez's run production or Anderson's revolutionary use of his bullpen? Posnanski calls the 1975 Reds (and the squad that dominated again in 1976) the best team in baseball history. His book is certainly a fitting tribute, though like the team he profiles, there's not much of a hook.
Books mentioned in this column:
The Machine: A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-Stopping World Series: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds by Joe Posnanski (William Morrow)
The Bad Guys Won! by Jeff Pearlman (Harper Perennial)
The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty: The Game, the Team, and the Cost of Greatness by Buster Olney (Harper Perennial)
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and The (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.