By Kevin Burton
“How good are the Reds” was the question Sports illustrated famously asked on the cover of its 1976 World Series wrap-up edition.
Two more questions: how vital was Tony Perez to that team and how misguided was the trade that sent him to Montreal?
It’s Perez’s birthday today. He is 79. So here’s some love for the Hall of Famer who never got the full complement of love and respect due him from the Cincinnati organization.
The Reds had just won their second straight World Series in 1976, finally fulfilling their potential after three near misses in the early 70s. Sports illustrated compared them to the greatest teams ever assembled.
After all these years, I think they are the best national league team ever.
The team was loaded with stars and near-stars. By the time the spotlight had shone on Johnny Bench, Peter Rose and Joe Morgan, there never was enough left for Perez.
Yet Perez was that one guy in the locker room who with his presence and leadership kept the Big Red Machine running smoothly.
Bench would say Perez was “the best clutch hitter I ever saw.” Where would the Reds have been without his sixth-inning homer off Bill Lee in game seven of the 75 series to bring life to the Reds and cut Boston’s lead to 3-2?
“Tony’s the last of the four guys you might think of in terms of popularity or fame. But Tony Perez was the guy that the opposition feared the most,” said Phillies Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt. “Nobody really wanted to face Tony Perez with the game on the line.”
But Perez would turn 35 early in the 1977 season. With the offensive production they were getting from reserve Dan Driessen, Cincinnati thought it could trade its team leader.
“What if we can’t win without Tony,” Morgan said at the time.
In fact, the Reds did stop winning. They eked out one more division title in the 70s, but did not return to the World Series.
A story on MLB.com gives some reasoning behind the trade and speculates on what would have happened had the stunning trade never taken place.
“For over a decade, Tony Perez had been one of baseball’s most consistent run producers, driving in 90 or more runs in each of the previous 10 seasons,” reads the story.
Perez was also “one of the most popular players to ever wear a Reds uniform, having been dubbed ‘The Mayor of Riverfront.’ The deal was prompted by the Reds need for pitching as well as the play of 26-year-old Dan Driessen.
“Driessen had been productive in part-time duty and hit .357 in the 1976 World Series. The Reds felt that he was ready.”
“Reds general manager Bob Howsam was an ardent opponent of free agency. Reds left hander Don Gullett was eligible and the Reds did not intend to bring him back. The loss of Gullett and the aging of starters Jack Billingham and Fred Norman left Howsam concerned about the club’s pitching for 1977.”
“In Montreal, 36-year-old Woodie Fryman had managed to win 13 games for an Expos team that won only 55 in 1976. Dale Murray was a 26-year-old right-hander who had saved thirteen games. Seeing a solid starter in Fryman and a talented relief pitcher in Murray, Howsam traded Perez for the two of them.
Without Perez, “the Reds finished a distant second, 10 games behind the Dodgers in the Western Division in 1977.”
“Based on pure production, the Reds were a better offensive team with Driessen at first base. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story about the Perez trade.”
“Nearly every key member of the Big Red Machine (along with many fans) blames the Perez trade for ending the dynasty. Perez carried with him leadership skills that were not fully appreciated until after he departed. While it is all but impossible to quantify any intangibles, the players remain convinced that if Tony Perez had not been traded, the Big Red Machine would have rolled to at least one more championship.
“Even Howsam later admitted that, while he had ‘good practical reasons’ for making the trade, he would not make the deal if he had it to do over again.