Go anywhere in Cincinnati, and chances are you can find someone around to drum up a conversation with about the Big Red Machine. The iconic Reds teams of the 1970s still loom large in Cincinnati, and names like Bench, Morgan, and Rose are still household names some 45 years since their original run.
Despite over a decade of dominance in the NL West where they only finished below 2nd place twice in 11 years, the Big Red Machine era Reds only have two World Series trophies to show for their success. Coming off of three straight winning seasons to close out the 1960’s, the 1970 Reds marked the beginning of the Big Red Machine, and they’re the team we’re going to talk about today.
The 1970 Reds marked a new era of baseball in Cincinnati, with a bevy of young stars eager to make their mark in the big leagues. There were a few holdovers from the moderate success of the late ‘60s; first baseman Lee May and second baseman Tommy Helms were entering their 6th and 7th seasons with the team, respectively, and right fielder Pete Rose and third baseman Tony Perez were bona fide perennial All-Stars. They had spent some time acquiring pitching, too, trading for Tony Cloninger halfway through 1968, sending Leo Cardenas to Minnesota for Jim Merritt that offseason, and trading Alex Johnson and Chico Ruiz to the Angels for Jim McGlothlin (and a rookie reliever named Pedro Borbon). This was the foundation of a rock-solid lineup and rotation, but it was the Reds’ young talent that would make 1970 a season to remember.
Johnny Bench was reaching stardom in 1970, as he had made the All-Star team the two years prior, his first in his age 20 season. Bench hit another level in 1970, though, adding tons of power to his arsenal and becoming a major offensive threat. He hit .293/.345/.587 that season, with an astonishing 45 home runs and 148 RBI. He was the league leader in WAR for position players, and won MVP that year with 22 of the 24 first place votes.
Another young player reaching his prime was on the pitching side. After a fantastic rookie season, where he finished 3rd in the Rookie of the Year voting, Gary Nolan had spent his next two seasons battling injury issues before really making his mark in 1970. Nolan went 18-7 as a 22-year-old with a 3.27 ERA and 181 strikeouts, good for a top 10 finish in WAR, strikeouts, and ERA.
The Reds also had a pair of rookies that helped them compete in 1970. Left fielder Bernie Carbo may have been more famous for playing elsewhere, but he made his first waves as a 22-year-old rookie in 1970. He hit .310/.454/.551 en route to a 2nd place finish in Rookie of the Year voting. Even more impressive was 21-year-old Wayne Simpson, who went 14-3 in 26 starts with a 3.02 ERA. He finished 5th in Rookie of the Year voting that year before injuries derailed a promising career later down the line.
I could go on and on about this team. We can’t forget about the bullpen, where Wayne Granger led the league in saves. Clay Carroll, the guy he took over for, wasn’t a slouch either, and 1970 saw the debut of a fresh-faced pitcher named Don Gullett. It also marked the rookie season of a shortstop you may have heard of… Dave Concepcion. All in all, this young talent resulted the only team in Reds history where the average age of the pitchers and the average age of the catchers were younger than 26.
The 1970 Reds went 102-60, finishing 14 1/2 games above their rival Dodgers in the NL West. They swept the Pirates in the NLCS, and asserted themselves as the clear best team in the National League. Unfortunately for them, they ran into the buzzsaw that was the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles boasted both Brooks and Frank Robinson and three 20+ game winners on the mound, and won 108 regular season games that year. They made short work of the Reds in the series, winning the first two games in Cincinnati by one run each before winning 2 of 3 in Baltimore.
The 1970 Reds brought excitement back to Cincinnati baseball for the first time in almost a decade. Attendance soared 80% that year over the previous one due to the winning baseball and young stars that the Reds had on display. I can confidently say that it’s clear that the 1970 Reds were the second best team in baseball that year, and it’s possible that they might be the best Reds team to not win a championship.