Sunday: One Good Book

I’m starting something new on the blog today. Each Sunday morning, I’ll review one book. It won’t always be a sports book, though probably more often than not in these first weeks, it will be. And you won’t likely see too many bad reviews here. I won’t share books unless I think they’re worth your time.

If you have suggestions, or even feel strongly about a sports book and would like to have input of your own, I’d be happy to share this Sunday morning space from time to time. At the very least, if you have lists of favorite books, or a tale of a book that made a difference, feel free to email them to me at ecrawford@courier-journal.com. Now, on with the first review . . .

THE MACHINE: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds
By Joe Posnanski, Harper Collins, due out Sept. 15, 2009, 320 pages

You can’t judge a book by its cover, the old saying goes. But you can, sometimes, judge a book by its writer. Or its subject.

And for people like me who grew up idolizing the Big Red Machine, this book by one of America’s best sportswriters about one of the best teams in the history of baseball should be a best seller.

But we don’t have to go on faith. Sports Illustrated, Posnanski’s new employer after years of award-winning work for the Kansas City Star, published an excerpt of the book this week.

You can read the excerpt here.

But here’s an excerpt of that excerpt. Posnanski is talking about the lineup that manager Sparky Anderson filled out on his card on July 4, 1975, and if you’re a Reds fan you can probably name it off with a little memory exertion: 3B-Pete Rose, RF-Ken Griffey, 2B-Joe Morgan, C-Johnny Bench, 1B-Tony Perez, LF-George Foster, SS-Davey Concepcion, CF-Cesar Geronimo.

The Reds almost never lost when Sparky Anderson entered that lineup. They would, in fact, go 57-25 the rest of the season to win the division title by 20 games. The lineup had all the elements. Rose gave it will, Griffey gave it speed, Morgan gave it a little bit of everything. Bench provided power, Perez big hits, Foster home runs, Concepcion great plays at shortstop, Geronimo defensive grace in centerfield.

There had never been a lineup quite like it. Yes, the famed 1927 New York Yankees had four Hall of Famers in their Murderers’ Row — including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig — and averaged more than six runs per game. The Boys of Summer Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s had Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella and were a beautiful blend of power and speed. But the lineup Sparky Anderson put on the field on July 4, 1975, had something more. The Reds had power and speed too. More, though, there were three African-Americans in the lineup, three Latin Americans and two white Americans — and Bench had Native American blood. They were the Great American Ballclub.

“We had black players on our team?” Johnny Bench would ask many years later, facetiously. “We had Latin American players on our team? I never noticed that. I promise you, none of us ever noticed that. We made fun of each other. We made fun of the way players talked. We made fun of the way players looked. But when it came down to it, we were Cincinnati Reds.”

He paused here for emphasis.

“We were,” he said, “the Big Red Machine.”

TAMPA, February 28, 1975

The players would each remember Sparky Anderson’s spring training speech a little bit differently in later years, but everyone recalled his main point. He announced that the Machine was made up of two kinds of players. First, there were the superstars. To be more specific, Sparky said, there were four superstars — Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez. Those four made their own rules. Those four had no curfew. Those four had special privileges. If Johnny wanted to go golfing every so often during spring training, he could go. If Pete wanted to blow off some steam at the dog track, well, Sparky might give him a few extra bucks. If Joe needed to come in late so he could attend college classes, that was all right by Sparky. If Tony needed a little rest, then Sparky would fluff the pillow. Those four were royalty.

“The rest of you,” Sparky said, “are turds.”

My family moved to the Cincinnati area when I was very young. My dad had taken a job as a newsman for WCKY Radio in Cincinnati and we lived in Florence for a time, and Fort Mitchell. To see how different times were then, my parents have told me several times that Reds players Bobby Tolan, Clay Carroll and Pat Corrales lived in the same neighborhood.

One night after a Reds game, none other that Pete Rose stopped beside my dad outside of the stadium and asked him if he needed a ride.

In those days, my dad said he would be asked from time to time to send post game sound bytes from Rose or Bench to CBS for its network radio sportscasts. When Bench found out that my dad got $25 for those snippets, he proposed that my dad split the take and give $12.50 to whichever player the network used. Different times.

I have no memory of those days. As a baby, I fell asleep in my mother’s arms during night games at Crosley Field.

But I remember a baseball signed by the Reds from one of those pre-Big Red Machine years. I handled it and played with it enough to ruin the thing, eventually, one of those unforgivable childhood sins that parents manage to forgive anyway, like parents do.

The most prized piece of clothing from my childhood was a replica Reds jersey, when such things weren’t so easy to come by. It was a home white jersey, polyester with the wishbone “C,” the V-neck pullover. I’d have still been wearing it in high school if it had still fit. We also had gone to jersey day at Riverfront Stadium and I’d gotten a gray road jersey with Johnny Bench’s name and number. My brother and sister got smaller ones, with Davey Concepcion’s name.

All of this is to say that for many of us who grew up around here, this team epitomized baseball, and likely always will. Three Hall of Famers in its regular lineup and a fourth, Rose, who should be.

Posnanski opens the doors on this team and is players. And what we find behind the doors doesn’t disappoint.

On Johnny Bench, he writes: “When Ted (Johnny’s father) could not drive him to Fort Cobb, Johnny and his brothers and friends played baseball gams using Milnot milk cans as balls and broken bats sliced in half. And when brothers and friends were not around, Katy, Johnny’s mother, would watch in wonder as her son stood out in the driveway and, for hours at a time, threw chunks of gravel in the air and hit them with a chipped baseball bat.”

On Pete Rose:

He ate up old stories. Waite Hoyt was a hard-drinking former Yankees pitcher who’d known the Babe and Ty Cobb and all the rest of those old baseball greats. He had also been a radio announcer for the Reds in the 1960s, and Pete would talk to him for hours. Pete would ask him to repeat the same stories again and again. Later, Callah
an would hear Pete tell those stories, word for word, facial expression for facial expression. It was eerie. Several years later, when Rose was chasing Cobb’s record for most hits, New York Times sportswriter Dave Anderson asked Rose how much he really knew about Cobb. Rose, being Rose, indelicately answered, “I know everything about Ty Cobb except the size of his c—.”

Of course, The New York Times — the Gray Lady — could not report it quite that way. So the quote was delicately repackaged like so: “I know everything about Ty Cobb except the size of his hat.” Rose was furious. He knew damn well that Cobb’s hat size was 7 5/8.

And so it goes.

I probably won’t preview another book in this space. But sometimes you know a home run as soon as it leaves the bat.

This is one of those times.

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20 thoughts on “Sunday: One Good Book

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