Any child of the '70's remembers the "Big Red Machine." They dominated the sport for over half a decade. In 1976, there was a representative from Cincinnati at every infield station in the All-Star Game: Tony Perez at first, Joe Morgan at second, Dave Concepcion at short, Pete Rose at third and Johnny Bench behind the plate. While these guys sucked up most of the attention (deservedly so) there were smaller parts of the "machine" that went virtually unnoticed. Those bios ended up getting omitted from the final version of my book. So here they are--components of Cincinnati's "Little Red Machine."
NUMBER OF PENNANTS: 3
NUMBER OF CHAMPIONSHIPS: 2
BEST RECORD: 108-54/ 1975
HALL OF FAMERS: Sparky Anderson (MGR), Tony Perez (1B), Joe Morgan (2B), Johnny Bench (C)
A New Jersey native, Eastwick was the most successful ballplayer to hail from Haddonfield High School. Selected in the third round of the ‘69 amateur draft, he was groomed as a reliever. He spent portions of seven seasons on the farm before becoming a regular in Cincinnati.
During the ‘74 slate, the right-hander earned a September call-up. He appeared in 8 games and showed a lot of promise with a 2.04 ERA. Though he didn’t make the club out of spring training in ‘75, he received another summons to Cincinnati in late-May. He assembled a stellar rookie campaign, making fifty-eight appearances—forty as a closer. He converted 22 save opportunities, leading the league in that category. Notoriously impatient with starting pitchers, Sparky Anderson leaned heavily on Eastwick during the postseason. The hard-throwing rookie entered seven October games in ‘75, emerging with 3 wins and a save. He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting.
In ‘76, Eastwick was Anderson’s go-to guy. He made seventy-one appearances and put up the best numbers of his career with 11 wins, 26 saves (tops in the NL) and a 2.09 ERA. He received both MVP and Cy Young consideration though he didn’t come close to winning either award. He did, however, win the Rolaids Relief Award in addition to being named Reliever of the Year by the Sporting News. Eastwick’s self assurance on the mound alarmed teammate Joe Morgan at times. “To be honest, I thought he was too confident, too cocky,” Morgan told reporters. “…But he was right and I was wrong. That’s the way he is, always in control.” Eastwick got hammered in the ‘76 NLCS against the Phillies, but picked up a win in the deciding game. Anderson decided not to use him in the World Series as the Reds coasted to a sweep of the Yankees.
In 1977, Eastwick got into a contract dispute and ended up getting shipped to the Cardinals midway through the season. He angrily referred to the management team in Cincinnati as “a bunch of backstabbers.” That December, the Yankees offered him a lucrative five-year deal. It’s difficult to say what executives in the Bronx were thinking when they already had Sparky Lyle and Goose Gossage on their roster. There was little work to be had for Eastwick and he ended up getting traded again in June of ‘78 to the Phillies. He made one ineffective postseason appearance against the Dodgers in the NLCS that year. He finished his career with the Cubs in 1981.
After Griffey’s retirement in 1991, he became more famous for his association with the power-hitting, slick-fielding centerfielder of the same name. Griffey Sr. was a terrific player in his own right, though he lacked the extraordinary home run power of his son. The elder Griffey was born in Donora, Pennsylvania and attended the same high school that had issued a degree to Stan Musial. A left-handed hitter, Griffey was solidly built and blessed with exceptional speed. Selected in a late round of the ‘69 amateur draft, he entered the Reds’ farm system, hitting no lower than .318 as a minor leaguer between 1971 and 1974. The Reds promoted him briefly in ‘73 and he accrued a robust .384 average in twenty-five games. Unfortunately, the outfield slots were already occupied and George Foster was waiting in the wings.
With the departure of Bobby Tolan in ‘74, Sparky Anderson penciled Griffey into eighty-eight games. He slumped in early-May and was sent back down to the minors to find his swing. Returning in July, he gradually increased his batting average by nearly a hundred points.
Griffey enjoyed his most productive stretch in the majors from 1975 through 1980, hitting no lower than .288 while stealing 20 or more bags on three occasions. He was named to three All-Star teams and finished among the top ten in triples four times. During the ‘76 campaign, he was a runner-up for the NL batting crown with a .336 average (second to Bill Madlock of the Cubs). Griffey continued his torrid hitting in the NLCS that year, raking Philadelphia pitching at a .385 pace. He would appear in five postseason series with the Reds altogether, scoring 11 runs and collecting the same number of RBIs.
By the end of the ‘81 slate, Griffey was thirty-one years old and no longer fit into the Reds’ plans for the future. His career was far from over, however, as he enjoyed several fine seasons with the Yankees and Braves before returning to Cincinnati in August of ‘88. In 1990, he left the Reds again to join his son in Seattle. They occupied the same dugout for portions of two seasons and became the first father/son tandem to take the field together. In nineteen seasons, Griffey Sr. rapped out more than 2,000 hits and fashioned a highly competent .296 average.
When his playing days were over, Griffey coached for the Mariners, Rockies and Reds. He was reunited with his son again in 2000. Griffey has donated a substantial amount of time to the U.S. State Department’s “Sports United” program, which fosters positive life skills such as leadership, diplomacy and academic achievement in foreign youth. Since 2002, the program has reached out to participants in more than one hundred and forty countries. Griffey managed the Reds Class-A affiliate Bakersfield Blaze from 2011-13. Notable players from the team’s past include Pedro Martinez and Mike Piazza.
In a 2014 interview, Griffey aimed a good-natured jab at his son. Asked if Junior was a better player, the elder Griffey joked: “You always want what’s best for your child, so if he’s better than me, that’s fine. Just remember, he’s got all the home runs, I’ve got all the rings.”
A California native, Nolan had aspirations of becoming a major league pitcher at an early age. In his senior year of high school, he attracted droves of scouts to every game with his blazing fastball (which would later be clocked in the ninety-five mph range). The Reds picked him up in the first round of the ’66 Amateur draft, offering him a hefty signing bonus of $40,000.
By ‘67, Nolan was pitching for the Reds. The National League had a strong rookie crop that year and, if not for Tom Seaver’s sensational debut, Nolan would have had a legitimate shot at Rookie of the Year honors. He finished the year at 14-8 with a 2.58 ERA and 206 strikeouts. Arm trouble derailed his progress in ‘68 and ‘69, but he came back strong in 1970, helping the Reds to a pennant with an 18-7 record. He fared poorly in two World Series starts against the Orioles, coughing up 8 runs in 9.1 innings of work.
The Reds had an off-year in ‘71 and Nolan’s won/loss record suffered because of it. He went 12-15 despite posting a commendable 3.16 ERA. The club bounced back the following year and Nolan posted the lowest earned run average of his career at 1.99. He had accrued 13 wins by mid-July and was named to the NL All-Star team, but couldn’t play due to severe neck and shoulder pain. He barely pitched at all in the second half, finishing the season with the highest winning percentage in the league at .750.
Nolan encountered serious arm difficulties in ‘73 and ‘74, appearing in just two games. During the latter season, a calcium spur was removed from his shoulder by renowned sports surgeon Frank Jobe. Before then, many of Nolan’s teammates didn’t believe there was anything wrong with him. According to Nolan, Sparky Anderson kept telling him it was normal for pitchers to experience pain on the mound. Embittered by the experience, Nolan sold his home in Cincinnati and moved back to Oroville, California, where he had grown up.
Jobe’s surgery corrected the problem—for awhile at least. Nolan got back in shape and was a major contributor to the Reds’ championship runs of ‘75/’76. He won 15 games both years and registered a cumulative ERA of 3.32. Sparky Anderson used him cautiously in the postseason during those two campaigns, never letting him pitch beyond the seventh inning. His lone victory came in the ‘76 finale, when he yielded just 2 runs in 6.2 innings of work. After the game, he told reporters: “I didn’t set the world on fire out there but I got them out. Some day, when I’m telling my grandson about tonight, I might stretch things a bit.”
Nolan’s career ended abruptly when his arm woes returned in ‘77. He was traded to the Angels, but made just five appearances before landing back on the disabled list. He signed with the Brewers in ‘78, but never appeared in a single game with the team. Nolan moved to Las Vegas and worked for a major resort. He harbored a grudge against his former club for years, refusing to wear his World Series rings and declining participation in his ‘83 induction into the Reds Hall of Fame. He eventually reconciled with the organization. As of this writing, he was living in Oroville and working as a high school coach. A sign on an Oroville highway identifies the city as his home.
When the Astros sent Cesar Geronimo to the Reds before the 1972 campaign, they had no idea what they were losing. Geronimo had served mainly as a pinch-runner and late inning defensive replacement over portions of three seasons. But the fleet-footed, smooth-fielding outfielder would become an important member of two championship squads.
Geronimo was born in the Dominican Republic and didn’t start playing baseball until the age of seventeen. The Yankees signed him to a contract after a scout saw him play with his father’s softball team. The Astros ended up plucking him out of the New York farm system. They were taking a major gamble at the time since reports indicated that Geronimo’s swing left much to be desired.
When Geronimo arrived in Cincinnati, he worked closely with hitting coach Ted Kluszewski (one of the premier sluggers of the 1950s) and improved his mechanics. Aside from an injury plagued season in ‘73, Geronimo hit .266 or better every year from ‘72-‘76. He reached the height of his career offensively in ‘76, when he assembled a .307 average, stole 22 bases and collected 37 extra-base hits. In fifteen seasons, he ended up with a lifetime batting mark of .258.
Though Geronimo was little more than a competent hitter, his defense was exceptional. He had a strong, accurate arm that was often compared to Roberto Clemente. The Reds even tried converting him to a pitcher at one point. Sparky Anderson referred to Geronimo’s defensive work as “ungodly.” The wide-ranging outfielder captured four straight Gold Gloves from 1974-‘77.
A reliable World Series performer, 5 of his 14 hits in the Fall Classic went for extra bases. He homered twice in the 1975 Series against the Red Sox. His eighth inning clout in Game 6 gave the Reds a 6-3 lead that they would ultimately fail to hang onto. After the sweep of the Yankees in ‘76, he told reporters: “My dream as a boy was to play alongside Mickey Mantle. The Yankees as a team were my heroes, but at this minute, I would not want to change uniforms.” Geronimo scored 7 runs and collected the same number of RBIs in a total of eighteen World Series games.
The Dominican native stuck around longer than several other members of the “Big Red Machine,” finishing the 1980 campaign with Cincinnati. He was traded to Kansas City after that and retired as a member of the Royals. Interestingly, Geronimo was the three-thousandth strikeout victim of both Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan. He later worked as a Latin American scout for the Cleveland Indians. He was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 2008.
An interesting claim to fame, Billingham was a distant cousin of deadball pitching great Christy Mathewson. Though he never attained the lofty credentials of his famous relative, he was a vital component of the “Big Red Machine.”
The right-hander was born in Orlando, Florida and came up through the Dodger organization. There weren’t many pitching slots available in L.A. during the ‘60s and Billingham toiled for seven seasons on the farm before earning a full-time roster spot in ’68. He made fifty appearances, almost exclusively in relief, gathering 3 wins and 8 saves with a 2.14 ERA. The Expos chose him in the expansion draft then dished him to the Astros. He spent three seasons in Houston, compiling a sub-.500 record due primarily to poor run support.
Before the ‘72 slate, Billingham was included in the blockbuster deal that brought Cesar Geronimo and Joe Morgan to Cincinnati. It was the turning point of Billingham’s career. “I didn’t know how good I could be,” he later said. “For years, players like Roberto Clemente and Joe Rudi told me there was no way I could be a .500 pitcher with the stuff I have. Then, when I came [to Cincinnati], coach Shepard started driving confidence into my head.” Billingham emerged as the most durable pitcher on the club. Between 1972 and 1975, he started more games than any other staff member. He led the team in victories three times in that span (tying for the lead in ’75). He would finish with double digit win totals every year from 1970-1979.
Billingham enjoyed his finest season in 1973, when he led the NL with 7 shutouts, 40 starts and 293.1 innings of work. His 16 complete games were third in the league. The fact that he put up those kind of numbers while playing for the fickle Sparky Anderson, nicknamed “Captain Hook” for his intolerance of starting pitchers, is especially impressive.
Known for his elusive sinker, Billingham was virtually unhittable in World Series play. In three Fall Classics, he allowed just 1 earned run in more than twenty-five innings of work. His finest start came in Game 3 of the ‘72 World Series versus Oakland. He stymied the A’s powerful attack for eight innings, striking out 7 while allowing just 3 hits. The Reds squeaked out a narrow 1-0 victory and Billingham was the pitcher of record.
By the end of the ‘77 campaign, the Reds figured Billingham had reached his peak and traded him to the Tigers. The thirty-five year-old hurler still had a little something left as he compiled a 25-15 record during his two full seasons in Detroit. His downfall came in 1980, when he compiled a cumbersome 10.23 ERA. He was finished in the majors after that.
Billingham established a small place in baseball history when he surrendered Hank Aaron’s 714th home run in April of ‘74. Before the event, Billingham told the Associated Press: “It will be just another home run if he gets it off of me. It’s not something that’s going to haunt me the rest of my life.” Nevertheless, when his name surfaces nowadays, it is often in association with Aaron’s milestone achievement.
After his playing days were over, Billingham spent fifteen seasons as a minor league pitching coach in the Astros organization. He retired in 2002.
Third Base/ First Base
Driessen arrived in the majors at the wrong time. He wasn’t quite gifted enough defensively to excel at third base and was stuck behind Tony Perez at first. When Perez was traded after the ‘76 slate, Driessen was unfairly blamed for the loss and many fans turned against him. Given a chance to prove himself, the team tumbled into the second division despite his best efforts.
Driessen was signed by the Reds as an amateur free agent in ‘69. He made his Cincinnati debut in June of 1973. Though he had been groomed as a first baseman in the minors, Sparky Anderson used him to fill a hole at third. He played in 102 games and performed well, hitting .301 and fielding his position competently. He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. Sparky Anderson felt he deserved more, commenting: “There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s the best rookie in the league.”
In 1974, Driessen was a full-timer again at third. He put up similar offensive numbers with a .281 batting mark, 36 extra-base hits and 56 RBIs. But his defense slipped as he finished fourth among NL third basemen in errors. By ‘75, Anderson didn’t know what to do with his budding star. Pete Rose was shifted to third base and Perez wasn’t going anywhere, so Driessen ended up splitting time at three different positions. In eighty-eight games, he performed well at the plate, duplicating his .281 average from the year before. In the World Series against the Red Sox, he was used twice as a late-inning replacement. He failed to hit safely in two at-bats.
Driessen continued his utility role in ‘76, though Anderson kept him away from third base altogether. After putting up a mediocre .247 regular season batting average, he was chosen as the National League’s first designated hitter in the World Series. He picked the right time to get hot, fashioning a .357 average and a .438 on-base percentage with 4 runs scored. His solo homer off of Dock Ellis in the fourth inning of Game 3 put the Reds up, 4-1. He was 3-for-3 in the game with a walk.
Things changed dramatically for Driessen after the trade of Perez. He had been used as a utility player for two straight seasons and admitted that it was “super difficult just keeping [his] head together.” With Perez out of the picture, the first base job was his to lose. Between ‘77 and ‘85, he placed among the top five in fielding percentage six times while leading the league on three occasions. He finished with double digit home run totals during seven seasons, peaking at 18 long balls in 1979. He also demonstrated a keen batting eye, leading the league in walks during the 1980 campaign. Unfortunately, the team slowly crumbled around him and he gained little favor with fans. “You’d get a smart person in the stands now and then who would holler out some negativity,” Driessen later recalled. “The main thing was to try to ignore them and, you know, you can’t please everyone all of the time.”
Traded to Montreal in ’84, he would make three more stops before falling from the major league ranks in 1987. He played in the Mexican League during the ‘89 campaign then moved on to the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association. He was elected to the Reds Hall of Fame in 2012.
A native of the Dominican Republic, Borbon was originally a member of the Cardinals organization. He spent three years in their minor league system as a reliever, accruing a 19-10 record with an ERA in the low-two’s. The Cards failed to promote him, however, and the Angels picked him up in the ‘65 rule 5 draft. Borbon’s first major league season was rocky as he averaged more than 6 runs per nine innings. Traded to the Reds before the 1970 campaign, he continued to struggle, spending a significant amount of time in the minors.
By ‘72, he had worked out his problems, becoming one of Sparky Anderson’s favorite picks out of the bullpen. From ‘72-‘77, the spirited right-hander appeared in no fewer than sixty-two games. His ERA never exceeded 3.35 in that span. Sharing closing duties with several other hurlers, he gathered 52 wins and 70 saves, placing among the top five in games played every year.
Borbon was a swaggering macho type—an enthusiast of the brutal “sport” of cockfighting. He reportedly enjoyed showing off the power and accuracy of his arm by throwing to home plate from the center field warning track. Borbon was involved in more than one ugly brawl during his career. During the ‘73 NLCS, he threw a sucker punch at Mets’ hurler Buzz Capra. During a bench-clearing donnybrook against the Pirates in July of ’74, he pinned pitcher Daryl Patterson to the ground, pulling a clump of Patterson’s hair out and biting him. Patterson received a precautionary tetanus shot after the melee. During a player strike in ‘95, the manly Borbon—forty-eight years-old and overweight—offered his services to Reds manager Davey Johnson. “I’m like a horse,” he boasted. “You have to shoot me.” Johnson allegedly retorted: “We wouldn’t waste the bullets.”
Borbon met with mixed success in the postseason. He was a stellar performer in the NLCS, posting an economical 1.26 ERA in ten appearances. The World Series was not always an ideal setting for him. In six outings against Oakland in ’72, he was credited with 2 holds and a loss. The defeat was costly as it came in Game 7. In Game 6 of the ‘75 Fall Classic, he pitched 2 effective innings then ran into trouble in the bottom of the eighth. Pulled from the game with nobody out and two runners aboard, Rawly Eastwick did him no favors, giving up a game-tying homer to Bernie Carbo. Borbon made one scoreless appearance versus the Yankees in the ‘76 opener, finishing his career with a 3.86 World Series ERA.
Traded to the Giants in June of 1980, Borbon became the subject of an urban legend. According to popular myth, he was so angry about being let go, he placed a voodoo curse on the Reds that remained until the last member of the front office left. Borbon retired with the Cardinals at age thirty-three in 1980. He was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 2010. He died of cancer in 2012. He still holds the club record with 531 appearances.