By Jay Neill
The history of professional baseball is a biography of the men who have played the game. On rare occasions teams emerge that are undeniably great. This year marks the 35th anniversary of the first of back-to-back World Championships by the 1975 and 1976 Cincinnati Reds, and there is no denying their greatness.
As time passes, the players receive more respect for their accomplishments and more requests for their signatures. Known simply as “The Big Red Machine,” Cincinnati built a dynasty in the 1970s, averaging 100 wins per season from 1972-1976. There are several teams that vie for the title of the best baseball team ever, including the 1927 New York Yankees with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig , but the ’75 and ’76 Reds are the top National League team of the modern era. Perhaps the greatest team in baseball history. The 1921-1922 New York Giants were the last National League team to win consecutive World Series, and no N.L. team has won it since.
The Reds’ 1976 starting line-up of Johnny Bench, Tony Pérez, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Dave Concepción, George Foster, César Gerónimo and Ken Griffey dominated the league, winning 102 games and losing only 60 on their way to a post season sweep ending in victory over the Yankees. The line-up become known as the “Great Eight,” and they have all been inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame, except for Pete Rose, who was ineligible due to his game betting scandal. Chris Eckes, the operations manager and chief curator of the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, says they receive “Consistent requests for signed items,” Pete Rose number one.
While most associate Cincinnati’s championship teams with these players, the Great Eight only started together 88 times over the two seasons, winning 69 games and losing just 19 for an incredible .784 winning percentage.
How did they win so many games, even when the starting lineup wasn’t together? They had a great bench of role players they could count on on the field, like Dan Driessen, Bill Plummer and Ed Armbrister. And stellar pitchers like of Don Gullett, Will McEnaney, Rawly Eastwick and 1976 co-Rookie of the Year, Pat Zachry.
The Reds made very few roster moves in ’75 and ’76, so the signatures of every player are obtainable and relatively affordable. There are only 37 players, 5 coaches and HOF manager Sparky Anderson to collect. All are still living except for pitcher Clay Kirby (d. 1991), infielder John Vukovich (d. 2007) and coach Ted Kluszewski (d.1988). While every team member was an important part of the Reds’ success, the Great Eight are the core of Big Red Machine autographs.
Johnny Bench: Catcher, HOF 1989
The Great Eight won six of the 10 National League MVP awards handed out in the 1970s, and Johnny Bench was the first, winning in 1970 and ’72. Widely considered the greatest baseball catcher ever, Bench won the N.L. Rookie of the Year Award in 1968 and 14 All-Star selections and 10 Gold Glove Awards over his career. During spring training 1969, legendary slugger Ted Williams signed a baseball for Bench with the inscription, “To Johnny Bench, a sure Hall of Famer.” Twenty years later his prediction came true.
Johnny’s signing habits have always been hard to figure out. He’s a willing signer in person but not always congenial, and I long ago gave up mailing him after 20 years of trying. Johnny always signs nicely, and at a show several years ago he told me why. He was taught early on that if you’re going to sign an autograph, take your time and make it legible, because people want to be able to read it. He said he shares that philosophy with current players, but today’s generation mustn’t be listening. Bench signs at shows on a regular basis and through his Web site, www.JohnnyBench.com, where you can have your own items signed starting at $60. His book Catch Every Ball came out in 2008 and he still does occasional book signings. J.B. wasn’t the Reds’ only catcher for the World Championship teams. He had more than capable backups in Bill Plummer and Don Werner. They’re both still in baseball and they sign free by mail.
Tony Pérez: First Base, HOF 2000
When the 1976 World Series ended, so did the Great Eights and a remarkable era in baseball. Sparky Anderson said of Tony Pérez, “He’s the best clutch hitter I’ve ever seen,” but Reds’ GM Bob Howsam traded Pérez to Montreal prior to the 1977 season. Howsam (d. 2008) underestimated Tony’s impact and the Big Red Machine started deteriorating once he was gone. I wrote Howsam several times asking about his thoughts on the trade, but he never answered the question. Pérez played 23 seasons in the majors, finishing his playing career back in Cincinnati from 1984-86. He then coached on Pete Rose’s staff, and for 44 games in 1993, he was the Reds’ manager. “Doggie” seemed destined to never get the respect he deserved, even after 7 All Star selections and 2,732 hits; but in 2000 he was inducted into the Baseball HOF with Sparky Anderson and Reds announcer Marty Brenneman.
The 67 year old Cuban native is now a special assistant for the Florida Marlins and very fan friendly in person. While I had several successes by mailing Tony when he joined the Marlins, he doesn’t often sign by mail these days. But Pérez, Dave Concepción and César Gerónimo are all represented by CEI Sports, who offers their autographs on their Web site at www.CEISports.com.
Joe Morgan: Second Base, HOF 1990
What was the best trade in Reds history? Sending Lee May, Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart to the Houston Astros before the 1972 season for future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, Jack Billingham, César Gerónimo, Ed Armbrister and Denis Menke. All but Menke played important roles in Reds World Championships. “Little Joe” had nine of his 10 All-Star honors in the’70s and he was the first second baseman in history to win back to back MVP honors in ’75 and ’76.
Morgan left the Reds after the 1979 season, but reunited with Pete Rose and Tony Pérez in 1983 with the Phillies. They almost recaptured the magic they had in Cincinnati—they lost the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles in 5 games. In the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James names Morgan the best second baseman in history.
After finishing his playing career in 1984 Joe became a successful broadcaster, and will likely be enshrined in Cooperstown for that too. He’s a two-time Sports Emmy Award winner now and a color analyst for ESPN. With his busy broadcasting travel schedule and occasional signing appearances, autograph collectors all over the U.S. have the chance to meet Mr. Morgan.
Joe signs for free by mail, but only the 3×5 index card he provides, so don’t send anything. It’s a more than fair signing policy and a great way to add a Hall of Famer to your collection for two stamps. Joe’s new car dealership, Joe Morgan Honda, will open by fall just north of Cincinnati in Monroe, Ohio. In April he rejoined the Reds as a Special Advisor, so he should remain a very generous signer for years to come.
Pete Rose: Third Base
Few players in the history of baseball have had the impact on the sport that Pete Rose has. Born and raised in Cincinnati, he’s one of the city’s most beloved personalities. His passion and commitment on the field earned him the nickname “Charlie Hustle” by Yankee HOFer Whitey Ford. He had a long and remarkable career, starting with N.L. Rookie of the Year honors in 1963 and finishing in 1986 with a career total of 4,256 hits baseball’s all-time Hit King. He squeezed in 17 All-Star games and holds more records and honors than any other player in MLB history.
Rose said more than once that “I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball”— I believe him. Many focus on his acceptance of a lifetime ban from baseball in 1989 for gambling, but I remember him for his accomplishments on the field. Pete has kept his sense of humor through it all, saying “I’m just like everybody else. I have two arms, two legs and four-thousand hits.” Pete may also hold the record as baseball’s top autograph signer. He didn’t invent signing for money, but he sure perfected it. His signature is consistently good and he puts a lot of thought into perfect placement. I asked him to sign a poster with his facsimile signature on it from 20 years ago and he took great pride in showing me how he could replicate the short circular signature almost perfectly. In January Pete signed six times free for my boys and me at an auto show he was appearing at, so keep an eye out for his promotional appearances. And for years Rose has been signing weekly at the Caesar’s Palace Forum Shops in Las Vegas. But don’t even bother trying to get him by mail.
Dave Concepción: Shortstop
From his first game in ’70 to his last game in ’88, Dave Concepción was one of baseball’s premier shortstops, playing his entire career for the Reds. Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium opened shortly after his debut, and he used the infield’s artificial turf to invent and perfect the one hop throw to first. In a 1976 clubhouse prank, Concepción climbed into a clothes dryer and rookie teammate Pat Zachry pushed the start button, sending the shortstop spinning. When a dizzy Concepcion emerged from the dryer the hair on his legs was burned.
The team had great chemistry, but Davey’s accomplishments were often overshadowed by Rose, Morgan and Pérez. He and Morgan were one of the finest all-around double play combos in history. Besides winning five Gold Glove Awards for his fielding, Concepción was an All-Star selection nine times from 1973-82, including ’75 and ’76. In 1982 he joined fellow Great Eighters Pérez (1967), Morgan (1972), Foster (1976) and Griffey (1980) as All-Star Game MVP award winners with his two-run homer in Montreal. Dave was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Reds retired his lucky No. 13 in 2007.
My first Reds autograph was from Davey. My ballpoint pen didn’t work, so my card is perfectly engraved with his signature but no ink. I still have it.
Concepción has resided in his native Venezuela since he hung up his spikes, so don’t expect through the mail success with him. He makes few signing appearances in the U.S. and demand for his signature growing. He has a long, tight and complete signature with a long tail coming off of the “C” in Concepción. At his last signing he charged $30 for flats and $50 for premium items.
George Foster: Left Field
George Foster was the most intimidating player I have ever seen. The greatest power hitter of the late ’70s, he had big sideburns and a glare that shot right through you. It wasn’t until I met him for the first time in 1990 that I realized how nice he was. After meeting him a few times I got up the nerve to tell him how intimidating he was to me as a child. He laughed and said in his high-pitched voice that he tried to deliver that persona on purpose so pitchers would be afraid of him.
Apparently it worked. In 1977 he hit a league leading 52 home runs with 149 RBIs on his way to winning the N.L. MVP Award. From 1971-81 he lent a helping bat to the dominance of the Big Red Machine after being acquired from the Giants in exchange for Frank Duffy and Vern Geishert. He only had 40 home runs in his first six major league seasons, but by 1975 he found his swing and went on to have 10 seasons with 20 or more home runs each. In 1976 he earned his first of five All-Star selections, and in 1981 he won the Silver Slugger Award. George’s time in Cincy came to an end in 1982, when he joined N.L. rivals New York Mets as a free agent. He signed a five year $10 million contract, making him the first player in baseball to make $2 million a year.
Foster donates much of his time and earnings to supporting youth charities. I last saw George in April at a department store free signing and he still looks like he could play. Foster also signs for free at Redsfest, held every December. Foster signed baseballs are often available at the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum and your purchase will help support the institution.
César Gerónimo: Center Field
César Gerónimo, “The Chief,” was the best defensive center field in the National League during the Big Red Machine era. He won the Gold Glove Award every year from ’74 to ’77, but he was the least known of the Great Eight. He joined the Reds as part of the 1972 Joe Morgan trade, and played for Cincinnati until he was traded to the Royals in 1980 for the often forgotten German Barranca. The Chief was a left hander signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Yankees, who hoped to make a pitcher out of the hard thrower.
Pitching didn’t work out, but centerfield did. César holds the distinction of being the 3,000th strike-out victim of both Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan, later joking that “I was just in the right place at the right time.” Gerónimo was the last member of the Big Red Machine’s starting lineup to be inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 2008. He was often overlooked by collectors during his playing days in favor of bigger names in the Reds lineup and now many collectors search hard for Gerónimo autographs.
César lives in the Dominican Republic and doesn’t make many U.S. appearances. He has a great elaborate signature with short looping stokes. If there is one living member of the Big Red Machine that is under-collected and will have increasing future, it’s César Gerónimo.
Ken Griffey: Right Field
Before Ken Griffey Sr. became the father of future Hall of Fame son Junior, he was simply Ken Griffey. A fast young man out of Donora, Penn., he debuted for the Reds in August of 1973. He had a break-out year in 1975 batting .305, and in ’76 he hit .336, losing the batting title to Bill Madlock the last day of the season. Many baseball purists were disappointed with Griffey’s decision to sit out the last day of the season in hope of securing the batting title. The maneuver backfired—Madlock went 4 for 4 and when Griffey heard the news he entered the game only to go 0 for 2, securing a second place finish.He became a three time All-Star but was traded to the Yankees after the 1981 season. He returned to Cincinnati in 1998 and stayed until he was released in August 1990. The Reds went on to win the World Series over Oakland and Griffey went to Seattle to finish his career playing in the outfield with his son Ken Griffey Jr. On September 14, 1990 they became the only father-son combo to hit back to back home runs in major league history. Junior watched from the on deck circle as his Dad homered and crossed home plate exclaiming, “That’s how you do it son!” Junior reciprocated with a homer of his own and couldn’t wait to get to the dugout to fire back, “That’s how you do it Dad!”
After serving many seasons with the Reds in different capacities, the elder Griffey joined Cincinnati’s Single-A affiliate Dayton Dragons as the hitting coach in 2010. Now living in Winter Garden, Fla., Griffey is a willing but cautious in person signer, but I’ve never had success with him by mail. If you’re looking for Big Red Machine outfielders who sign through the mail try Merv Rettenmund and Terry Crowley.
Not to be Forgotten
The Reds were more than eight great players, they were a great team. Shortstop Darrel Chaney, one of my favorites, wrote me a compassionate letter once reminding me of that. Pitchers get overlooked the most. Cincinnati had great offense and defense, but pitching wins championships. Clay Carroll, Don Gullett, Jack Billingham and Gary Nolan are all excellent pitchers and all four are members of the Reds Hall of Fame. They’re some of the nicest players I’ve met, and they all sign through the mail. A truly complete Big Red Machine collection will even include the likes of equipment manager Bernie Stowe, bat boy Mark Stowe and trainer Larry Starr, all who sign for free.
Team Signed Items
The largest Big Red Machine reunion took place in 1996. Almost every player, coach and even the manager appeared at the Cincinnati Convention Center. The most difficult of the living players to obtain, Manny Sarmiento, didn’t attend. He’s needed to complete nearly every team signed display, but he lives in his native Venezuela where legal issues reportedly prevent him from traveling to the U.S.
The reunion placed quality team signed items in the market and demand continues to grow for the signatures. A Super Ticket for a signature of everyone in attendance cost $249 in 1996. The same ticket would be well over $1,000 today. A team signed poster from the 1976 team runs almost $1,500 now and a team signed bat is worth around $2,000. It’s sad to think about, but when one of the Great Eight passes away, demand and prices will skyrocket. Many prices are down with the economy right now, making it the ideal time to buy quality pieces. But be careful—Pete Rose and the HOFers forger favorites.
While the 1975 and 1976 Reds place in history may be debatable, their collectability is not. Retrospect will shine a bright light on the team and their signatures. Autographs are a way that fans to link to the past. We can touch what they touched and see how they expressed themselves through their writing.
The hitters and pitchers were great, but the Sharpie is now the vehicle of the Big Red Signing Machine.