The Machine by Joe Posnanski, (William Morrow, 2009), 302 pages
Your first forays into the history of MLB are almost certain to include a reference to the ‘Big Red Machine’. The Cincinnati Reds team of the seventies still captures the imagination over thirty years since they were broken up, whether in comparisons to the currently lacklustre Reds team, the presence of former member Joe Morgan in the ESPN Sunday Night commentary booth or the lingering controversy over Pete Rose’s lifelong ban from the game. In ‘The Machine’, Joe Posnanski tells the story of the 1975 Reds and in doing so reveals just why the Big Red Machine continues to be held in such high regard.
Joe Posnanski’s excellent writing on baseball can be found online at Sports Illustrated.com and in his always entertaining blog, but he excelled himself with his first book, The Soul of Baseball, in which he spent a year with Negro League legend Buck O’Neill. Like most baseball writers, Posnanski is both a student and a fan of the game, but what sets him apart is that his writing voice is that of the fan, with the student (all of the painstaking research and attention to detail) casually lingering in the background, underpinning rather than weighing down the prose. Posnanski’s is an easy and pleasing style of writing to read and there were many times with ‘The Machine’ when I glanced at the clock and thought to myself, ‘I’ll just read on for another ten minutes’ or ‘I’ll just finish this chapter’. Every publisher likes to claim that you will not be able to put their latest release down, but this is one of the rare occasions when that claim is actually true.
One of the hallmarks of any good writer is being able to spot a subject matter worth writing about and there’s no doubt that Posnanski made a great choice with the 1975 Reds.
The Reds won 108 regular season games, finishing a monumental 20 games ahead of the L.A. Dodgers in the National League West, back when the National League consisted of twelve teams split into two divisions of six. Joe Morgan beat teams every which way, earning an MVP award in the process, and did so in an arrogant manner that made opponents hate him (no change there, then). Pete Rose played hard every day: the only way he knew how. Johnny Bench blasted home runs and scared potential base-runners into paralysis, while Tony Perez, known to all as ‘Doggie’, continued to get big hits and drove in 109 runs. They were led by Sparky Anderson, whose mistrust of pitchers earned him the nickname Captain Hook, so quick was he to pull hurlers from games at the first inkling of trouble.
While their performances on the field are rightly highlighted, Posnanski gets to the heart of the team by revealing each member’s personality and how they interacted as a group. Like most sports teams living with the pressure of performing at a high level, the stresses and strains are coped with not through sympathy tales and quiet moments of reflection, but through remorseless jibes and generally ‘taking the proverbial’ out of each other. For example, at one stage in the season, Joe Morgan made the mistake of telling a reporter that he was tired and “was going to rest somewhere”.
“His batting average had plummeted twenty points, his magical season was drifting away, and he was angry and disappointed, and, more than anything, tired.
He walked into the clubhouse toward his locker. There he saw two pillows, a sleeping bag, a cup of coffee, a pair of slippers and two aspirin tablets … Morgan just shouted out loud, for everyone to hear, ‘You guys are crazy! Insane! I love it! Without this, I’d hang myself’”.
Along with the endless ribbing, there was a clear sense of order within the Reds. They all deferred to the club rules on appearance (no facial hair etc) and they all knew where they stood in Sparky’s estimation. There were four superstars, Morgan, Rose, Bench and Perez, and the rest of the team were “turds”. “This was the law of the Machine”, Posnanski writes. “Sparky never hid it. He knew some managers tried to treat everyone equally. Well, Sparky was not one of those men”.
In Sparky’s mind, the superstars were treated as such and if you didn’t like it, it was up to you to play like a superstar to earn the same treatment. That forthright management style is unlikely to go down well with the often precious sportsmen of today. There was a clear logic to Anderson’s approach and there’s no doubt that the four stars kept performing brilliantly; however, the knock against Anderson was that he didn’t allow other players the chance to become stars as well. Ken Griffey (Senior) in particular wasn’t allowed to be the player he knew he could be, not least being stopped from stealing bases because Morgan didn’t like people running while he was trying to hit, and Posnanski does a good job of making you go back and re-evaluate the lesser-known Griffey’s place in the Big Red Machine.
History shows that the Reds were victorious in both 1975 and 1976; however all of them, not least Good Ol’ Sparky, were under the utmost pressure heading into the Fall Classic and that’s partly why it was such an epic series. This Reds team had lost two World Series (in 1970 and 1972) and had missed the playoffs altogether in 1974 after finishing second in the NL West to the Dodgers. Obliterating the competition during the 1975 regular season and making the World Series would all count for nothing if the Big Red Machine failed to win the Big One once again. The Red Sox pushed them all the way and Posnanski brilliantly captures the sheer emotion of the games, but in the end, as Pete Rose said himself, they simply had to win.
The section on the World Series really stands out, but there are many other entertaining moments that are drawn out from the season. From the day Sparky found a ‘lucky spot’ in the dugout to Dave Concepcion’s bid to score the one millionth MLB run, Posnanski strikes a good balance between providing plenty of detail from the long season while not laboriously taking you through every game and every day. He also uses the story of the Reds’ 1975 season to pose a few questions about whether the onset of free agency in the late seventies made the Big Red Machine the last great team of its kind and to look at what has become of Pete Rose’s legacy.
As a baseball fan, indeed even as a sports fan without much interest (yet!) in ‘America’s National Pastime’, you need to know about the Big Red Machine and you will not find a more readable and enjoyable book about them. The combination of a great baseball team (as players and personalities) and a great baseball writer makes ‘The Machine’ an essential purchase, one you will joyfully whizz though on first reading and continue to come back to again and again.
Have you read “The Machine”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.