On Friday night, I watched two teams I’ve paid only sporadic attention to over the last 30 years – the Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates – play some solid baseball.
The Reds beat the San Francisco Giants 5-1 behind the superb pitching, hitting, and fielding of starter Mike Leake. And the Pirates walloped the St. Louis Cardinals 14-5. Meanwhile, the New York Mets and R.A. Dickey were embarrassing the Los Angeles Dodgers by shutting them out – par for the course lately for the Dodgers – and scoring 9 runs in the process. The Reds, Pirates, and Mets are playing well this year. In the National League, at least for the moment, it looks a bit like 1969 to 1979 all over again.
From 1969 through 1979, those three teams won 13 Division Championships, eight National League Pennants, and five World Championships. No other National League team won the World Series, and the only other team to win a league pennant was the Dodgers. The 1969 season ended with the “Miracle Mets” shocking the Baltimore Orioles in the Series. The 1979 season ended with the “We Are Family” Pirates also beating the Orioles. In between, the Pirates won the 1971 World Series, the Mets appeared in the 1973 World Series, and Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” appeared in four World Series – 1970, 1972, 1975 & 1976 – winning in ’75 and ‘76.
Since 1979, the baseball gods have not been overly kind to these three teams. For 32 years, from 1980 through 2011, those same three teams racked up a total of two World Championships and three National League Pennants, a huge drop off from their dominance of the 1970s. For the sake of their fans, and for the sake of baseball fans in general, it’s good to see them doing well. I hope they stay on this path. These are important franchises steeped in the traditions of the game. Looking back at the ballparks they’ve played in, and at the men who have played for these teams, evokes the game’s rich history.
During my lifetime, each team has called three different ballparks home. Like geological layers, those venues reveal much of the sport’s evolution. The Pirates played in Forbes Field until 1970. Their park, the first steel and concrete big league stadium, was the site of baseball’s most famous home run, the only seventh game, ninth inning walk-off homer in 107 World Series. Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 smash over Yogi Berra’s head and over Forbes Field’s ivy-covered left field wall defeated the mighty New York Yankees and made the Pirates champions.
The Reds played at Crosley Field, another ancient classic, until the middle of the 1970 season. In 1935, Crosley Field hosted the first MLB game played under the lights. The league was trying to increase attendance during the Great Depression, and night baseball seemed sure to draw them in. The league has never looked back. Crosley Field was also the site of the first of two consecutive no- hitters by Reds lefty Johnny Vander Meer. Vander Meer’s 1938 feat stands unequaled.
The Mets, an expansion team in 1962, played at the old Polo Grounds for their first two years. So much is wrapped up in that ballpark that it’s hard to know where to begin. Bobby Thompson’s 9th inning home run in 1951, known as “The Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff,” sent the Giants to the World Series and the Dodgers packing. Willie Mays’ remarkable catch in the 1954 World Series, deep in the Polo Grounds’ deepest of centerfields, has probably been replayed more than any other play in baseball’s history.
And each field had its own funky attributes: the slight incline known as “The Terrace” in left field at Crosley; Forbes Field’s enormous, pitcher-friendly dimensions; and the large cutout in straightaway centerfield in the Polo Grounds with a distance from home plate of 505 feet. These ballparks evolved as baseball came into its own in the modern era.
The stadiums these teams played in after leaving their classic, but fading digs, were typical for their era, too: Shea, Riverfront, and Three Rivers were large, round, multi-use cavernous coliseums. Mercifully, they have each since been replaced by stadiums featuring versions of a sort of back to the future architecture that combines the best attributes of old-fashioned ballparks with the modern touches fans have come to expect from big league sports.
Besides calling three of baseball’s most notable venues home, these franchises have been blessed with some of the greatest names in the game. The Mets’ first manager was Casey Stengel. Stengel was available in ’62 most likely due to his failure to use Whitey Ford in the 7th game of the 1960 series against Pittsburgh. His run as the innovative manager of the dominant Yankees in the 1950s was remarkable. Beyond that, Stengel, who was born in the 19th century, represented a wide connection to much of the game’s history. He started playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1912; he managed the Oakland Oaks of the old Pacific Coast League to a championship in 1948; and he managed the Mets until August of 1965. There is little that the Mets’ first manager did not do in baseball. Throw in names that make Mets fans choke up, names like Gil Hodges, Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, and Bud Harrelson, and you’ve got a team as talented as it was beloved.
While Reds fans can probably tell you about Joe Nuxhall and Ted Kluszewski, you only have to go back to the Cincinnati teams of the 1970s to talk about some of the game’s all-time stars: Johnny Bench, George Foster, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, and their manager Sparky Anderson are rightly regarded as the core of one of the greatest collection of ballplayers the game has ever known.
Beyond the 1970s, the names of Pittsburgh standouts grace nearly every era of big league baseball: Honus Wagner, Paul and Lloyd Waner, Ralph Kiner (who was one of the Mets’ first broadcasters), Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargell. It’s hard to look at that list, to listen to their names, to contemplate their achievements, and not feel compassion for what Pittsburgh fans have been through lately.
Baseball has changed a good deal since the 1970s. Establishing a dominant team becomes harder each year. Expansion, the effects of free agency and arbitration, and a constantly expanding playoff system make extended dominance by a handful of franchises increasingly unlikely. Fans will argue about whether the results are good or bad. And whether the Reds, Pirates, and Mets become collectively dominant as they once were is a long-shot. In the meantime, it’s nice to see these storied franchises living up to some of their past glory.