If They Don’t Win It’s A Shame

A family of four wends their way a couple of hours north to Cincinnati for a treat: the two young children, a boy and a girl, are going to their first Major League Baseball game. The parents—the father, in particular—are longtime Reds fans and are engaging in the time-honored tradition of passing ardor on to the next generation. Their seats are down the right field line; they’ve got a decent view of the towering scoreboard in left-center. Things don’t go well for the home nine that evening, who are facing decent opposition. On the bright side, one of the Reds’ stars goes deep—a moment that just might have turned him into the girl’s (she’s just four years old) favorite player.

I do remember bits and pieces of my sole visit to Crosley Field, the Reds’ home from 1912 to 1970: it was 1) a lopsided loss 2) to the Cubs in which 3) Johnny Bench, Amy’s fave, hit a HR. However, several years ago I realized I didn’t know the date of the game—my father hadn’t kept the ticket stubs (which doesn’t sound entirely like him). I hit up retrosheet.org, a site whose goal is to collect box scores and record play-by-play info for as many MLB games as possible, for some detective work. I was certain the game had to have occurred either in 1969 or 1970. The Reds’ move to Riverfront Stadium on June 30, 1970, restricted options further. Just one home game against the Cubbies fit all the criteria: a 12-5 loss on Monday, 5/18/70, fifty years ago today. I was about to wrap up kindergarten—before the month was over I’d take my star turn as the Tin Woodman in our epic production of The Wizard of Oz. My first cousin Liz, sixteen years older than I, would get married in less than three weeks. 

The timing makes sense to a good degree, as I can imagine Dad wanting to have his children experience a game in the park where he’d had so many enjoyable times across the years before it closed. The Reds were off to a fantastic start, 27-10, after sweeping a double-header against the Braves on Sunday; under the leadership of their new manager, the 36-year-old George “Sparky” Anderson, they were rapidly becoming The Big Red Machine. 

The Cubs were doing okay as well going into this tilt, tied for first with the team that had broken their hearts the previous season, the Mets. Who wouldn’t want to see these teams do battle?

I won’t do a blow-by-blow recap (here’s the boxscore/play-by-play), but I am including pix of some of the key players from my collection of 1971 Topps cards. The Cubs started Bill Hands, while the Reds countered with off-season acquisition Ray Washburn. There’s no 71 Washburn card, but I’ve got a George Culver, whom the Reds traded to St. Louis for Washburn (the Cards dealt Culver to the Astros mid-season).

That Washburn-for-Culver swap was a challenge trade of sorts: two pitchers who’d done pretty well two seasons earlier (they’d both thrown no-hitters in 1968) but had slipped a bit during the following campaign. Washburn turned out to be a disaster for the Reds. They kept him the whole season, but his ERA wound up just a shade under 7. The May 18 game was one of just three starts he received during the season, perhaps necessitated by the previous day’s twinbill. He got yanked in the second inning, after six runs crossed the plate for the Cubbies (just two earned).

These guys knocked in eight of the game’s seventeen runs. (The under-appreciated Ron Santo had four RBI.)

I also have the NL RBI leaders card, featuring the same three players (Perez and Williams switching places). While Amy rooted for Bench, early on I locked onto Perez as my favorite.

Two other stars for the Cubs that evening were 2B Glenn Beckert (4-6, 2R, 1RBI) and CF Jim Hickman (2-3, 2BB, 3R).

For the era, it was a long game, 3:08—I kinda doubt we stayed for the whole thing. Official attendance was a little more than a third of capacity, 10774.

I’ve come to realize that my memory is far from 100% reliable, so it’s possible that I’ve made some sort of error in recall, and this wasn’t the game I attended. But there’s an additional piece of evidence from Retrosheet that makes me believe this really was it. At the bottom of each page that recaps a day’s results and end-of-day standings, Retrosheet includes (if there are any), the names of any players who made either their first or final MLB appearance on that date. Here’s what I saw when I looked at 5/18/70:

I do not have any recollection of witnessing Belinsky enter the game in relief of Washburn with two outs in the bottom of the second inning. It turned out to be a pretty pedestrian performance: ten outs, four hits, two walks, three runs, all earned. He batted once, getting a hit.

But that alliterative name stirs something deep inside. It possesses a familiarity it wouldn’t have unless I’d heard it announced over the PA that night, embedding itself into a six-year-old’s subconscious, to be liberated only upon seeing it again in association with that game.

Even if I had recalled his appearance, I wouldn’t have known anything about the backstory that had led him to that moment. There’s a thorough and interesting article about Belinsky at SABR worth the time for students of the history of the game. The overarching theme is of a man who couldn’t be bothered to cultivate his talent, focusing instead on nightlife and seemingly bedding as many women as possible. A few stretches of brilliance punctuated the exasperation he incurred for GMs in Baltimore (in whose system he developed), Los Angeles (Angels—his celebrity exploded after tossing a no-no in his fourth career MLB start, in early May 1962), and Philadelphia. Very early in the morning of the day my wife was born, there was an incident that led to a lawsuit (eventually dismissed) brought by a woman who claimed Belinsky had assaulted her. He got into a scrum with a reporter. Alcohol and drugs took over his life. A passable late-season stretch of pitching for the Pirates in 1969 somehow convinced the Reds to trade for Belinsky during Spring Training in 1970 (it’s perhaps telling that Dennis Ribant, the journeyman pitcher the Reds gave up, never appeared again in the majors). May 18 was only Belinsky’s third appearance in 38 games; while he hadn’t been bad, I wouldn’t be shocked if off-the-field behavior made it easier to send him back down to AAA. He didn’t last the season in the Reds’ system. A few years later, Belinsky managed a largely successful trip through rehab and became a born-again Christian. All the abuse to which he’d subjected himself, along with some other health issues, took their toll, though—he died of a heart attack in late 2001, a couple of weeks shy of his 65th birthday.

There was no 1971 Belinsky Topps, but I do have cards of a couple of folks with some tie to him. Dean Chance was a good friend during Belinsky’s years with the Angels, both on and off the field. Chance won the 1964 AL Cy Young Award, but was also at the end of his career by the early 70s.

Rudy May was part of the return the Angels got when they traded Belinsky to the Phillies after the 64 season.

Despite the dreary outcome, the four pitchers the Reds used that night all had notable baseball accomplishments. Washburn and Belinsky had their no-hitters, Tony Cloninger had slugged two grand slams in one game, and Clay Carroll later held the NL single-season record for saves. Throw in all the eventual Hall-of-Famers on the field, and I realize now how lucky I was to be there.

Going to see the Reds during the best stretch in their history became a big part of my youth, especially after we moved to Walton, just twenty miles south of Riverfront Stadium. While I wish I had been just a little older so that I could have absorbed the ambience and fully appreciated the opportunity to be at Crosley Field, I’m grateful that I recall anything at all about it.

(Washburn also has a nice profile at SABR; he’s still with us, and will turn 82 on May 31.)

One thought on “If They Don’t Win It’s A Shame”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.