The Greatest Ball Game of All Time-Cincinnati Reds at Philadelphia Phillies-August 3, 1969

1969 was an important year for Major League Baseball.  It was the 100th anniversary of the first professional game.  The expansion added four teams to the two leagues, which split into divisions for the first time. Pitching had dominated the game; take note that Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 average. Denny McClain won 31 games for the Tigers on the way to the World Series title. Meanwhile, Bob Gibson of the NL champion Cardinals posted an ERA of 1.12 (!) over 304 innings pitched. He threw 28 complete games and 13 shutouts.  Think about that…citing his WHIP or FIP can’t illustrate how great he was. The game was definitely out of balance.

With that being said the commissioner’s office addressed it by lowering the mound from 15 inches to 10, tightened the strike zone, and started enforcing rules about doctored pitches.  The four new teams brought forty new pitchers to the show and the results were immediate.  

I was a 9-year-old nerd in August of 1969.  I loved numbers and still do. I discovered baseball by accident the summer before.  I knew that Cincinnati was nearby. I loved looking at the weekly stats in the Sunday paper and made heroes of not only the players but of Jim McIntire and Joe Nuxhall.  The Reds were very rarely on TV in those days, but I got lucky one Sunday in August. There were no Jerry Lewis movies on channel 2 that day; Mutual of Omaha’s the Wild Kingdom must have been on hiatus.  Anyway, there I was in front of the tube staring at the grainy visages of Ed Kennedy and Pee Wee Reese as they brought me the game between the Phillies and the Reds.  

The Reds were in third the new NL West.  I wasn’t smart enough to wonder what notion of geography put them there and left St Louis and Chicago in the East.  The Phillies were struggling, so it didn’t surprise anyone when Tony Perez knocked in Pete Rose to put the Reds on top in the first.  Doggie always came through-don’t tell me otherwise. I saw it with my own eyes.

The Phillies came right back with three in the bottom of the first off Camilo Pascual, a former 23 game-winner with nothing left in the tank.  The expansion gave this a guy a chance he probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. After a walk and three doubles, Pascual hit the showers in favor of Jack Fisher.  I cheered when Rose grounded a two-out single to score Johnny Bench in the 2nd.  I just knew that my team wasn’t gonna lose to these bums!

Or were they?  Mike Ryan clobbered a homer to left in the bottom of the inning.  Fisher was making me nervous, though he was an improvement over Pascual.  The Reds chased Billy Champion in the 3rd when Alex Johnson singled to open the third.  Al Raffo didn’t fare any better, Perez singled to right, moving Johnson to third.  Lee May ground out to score Johnson, then Woody Woodward and Chico Ruiz followed with hits.  Perez and Woodward scored to give the Reds the lead! Damned Fat Jack Fisher killed the inning with a flyball.  Hated that guy. Three straight singles tied things up. Fisher finally got the boot, relieved by Clay Carroll.

The Hawk would become the Reds best reliever in the next couple of seasons.  Today’s effort wouldn’t show that. He gave up a bases-loaded triple to light hitting Cookie Rojas and a double to Tony Taylor.  Odd how the middle infielders for both teams rose up during this game. 9-5 Phillies at the end of the 3rd.  I thought hard at that point about going outside to play, but I didn’t know when I would ever get another chance to hog the TV.  Despairing, I resolved to stick it out.

I laughed when the next pitcher took the mound for the Phils.  His name was John Boozer! I knew what that word meant, so he had to be crappy, right?  Rose popped out, but Bobby Tolan, with that bat way up in the air, doubled to right and came home on a bloop by Johnson.  Carroll managed to hold Philly at the bottom of the inning. We weren’t dead yet.

In the fifth, Boozer botched a throw allowing Ruiz to reach.  Carroll singled. Phillies skipper Bob Skinner had had enough of Boozer; he would resign three days later, having tired of the whole situation.  Turk Farrell came in to face Rose, who grounded a hit to right, loading the bases. Johnson drove in Ruiz and Carroll with a single. After Perez doubled to left to score Rose, Farrell left a 3-2 fastball right where Lee May liked it.  It found the seats and the Reds took at 12-9 lead. Reigning Rookie of the Year Johnny Bench got in on the act with a double to left and Woodward drove him in. Lowell Palmer replaced Farrell and gave up another hit to Ruiz. He struck out Carroll, but Rose took him deep.  Tens run in and the Reds led 16-9. I was delirious!!

I snuck some cookies from the kitchen.  By the time I came back, Carroll had retired the Phils in the fifth.  My boys got a couple more off Palmer on a homer by Johnson, and a double by Bench that scored the lumbering Big Bopper.  Skinner was down by 9 at that point, so Palmer was left out on the mound. I remember him glancing into the dugout. I imagined he was pleading for mercy. None was forthcoming.

Carroll tired in the 6th.  After a walk and three singles brought in a run, another washed-up guy trudged out to the hill for the Reds.  Pete Ramos made it into 38 games that season. He averaged 19 losses over four years with the Senators.  He was in his fifteenth season in the majors when the Reds brought him in. He held the lead, barely.  Tony Taylor’s grand slam left it 18-16. My little boy’s head was about to explode.

Ramos gave up a homer to Dick Allen in the 7th, leading Dave Bristol to bring in his hammer, a string bean sinkerballer named Wayne Granger.  Granger led the league in the new category of saves that year. The guy pitched in 144 innings over 90 appearances.  Why don’t more people know about him?  Perez clubbed the first pitch from Bill Wilson in the 8th to make it 19-17,  after which everyone needed a nap.  Granger retired six of seven to notch the save.  I made it through the whole thing without a peep from any of my siblings or my parents.  I still wonder how that happened. This game illustrated the serious upheaval caused by all the changes between the 1968 and 1969 seasons.   The pre-BRM team finished 89-73 that year, third in the West. Had they not lost 6 times to the Braves behind Phil Niekro, they might have made the first division series.  It didn’t matter because they would be there for most of the next decade. Bristol yielded to Sparky Anderson, and the Reds made my teenage years awfully sweet.

Nicholas Frazier

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