On this Thanksgiving weekend, I began to reflect on what I am thankful for. Obviously most importantly this includes my family, friends, health, ect. But what am I thankful for as a baseball fan? Particularly, what am I most thankful for as a 1970s Baseball fan? Let me count the ways:
– Seeing Johnny Bench play. The game’s best catcher when I was first introduced to baseball is, to date, the sports’ greatest ever at his position. One reader once commented that if they were holding an all-time draft, Bench could be his first pick. Tough to argue against this. Sure there are going to be Ruth supporters, maybe Willie Mays, Honus Wagner, Joe DiMaggio, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron perhaps. But Bench has to be in the conversation. Great defensive backstop. Rifle arm. 8 ’70 Gold Glove Awards, 10 in all. And oh yea, that bat. Decade leader with 1,013 ’70s RBI, 3rd with 290 home runs. All while playing the most crucial defensive position on the field. Was any player in the decade better than the 1970 MVP Johnny Bench, who hit .293, slugged .587 on 45 homers and a franchise record 148 RBI? How about the 1972 MVP Bench, who nailed 56% of would-be base stealers and had 40 homers, 125 RBI, and 100 walks? He had a growth removed from his lung after the 1972 season, then came back in ’73 with 25 homers and 104 RBI, followed by a league leading 129 ribbies in ’74, and 110 in ’75. After a down regular season in ’76, Bench hit .333 in the NLCS and .533 in the Fall Classic to take World Series MVP honors as the Reds rolled to their second straight World Championship.
– Reggie Jackson, Mr October. A sensational player by any measure, Jackson was a clutch player for the ages, capturing the 1973 and 1977 World Series MVPs, and 5 World Championships total. Overall he hit .305 with 14 home runs in 53 post-season games, including a torrid .360 and 9 longballs in 24 Fall Classic contests. The 1970s A’s were a .586 ballclub with Reggie, .423 without him. The Yanks went .596 with Jackson and .537 from 1970-76 before he arrived. Who could forget his 540 foot blast off Doc Ellis in the 1971 All-Star Game, or 3 homers in 3 consecutive swings in the 1977 World Series? Controversial and egotistical? Undoubtedly. But in every sense of the word, Jackson was a winner with a great flair for the dramatic.
– Third base as an artform. No decade had a better collection of third sackers than the 70s. Philadelphia’s Mike Schmidt and the Royals’ George Brett could each lay claim to being the best ever at the position. They were drafted back to back in the second round of the 1971 draft, and by 1975 both were major league stars and eventual Hall of Famers – Brett hit .310 in the decade with a batting title and 73 triples, while Schmidt socked 235 homers, leading the league 3 times and winning 4 Gold Gloves. They both won MVPs in a memorable 1980 that saw their clubs finally win long-awaited pennants. The Indians and Yankees’ Graig Nettles led his position in the decade with 252 home runs and 831 RBI, and in 1978, like Brooks Robinson (16 career gold Gloves, 6 in the ’70s) had done for Baltimore in 1970, he took over a World Series from the hot corner with his glove. Other standouts included 6-time All-Star Ron Cey of the Dodgers; 3-time selection Sal Bando, Oakland’s captain; Joe Torre, who won the 1971 MVP in St Louis; and Bill Madlock, who won back-to-back batting titles for the Chicago Cubs.
– Great starting pitchers, especially Tom Seaver of the Mets and his American League counterpart, Baltimore’s Jim Palmer, who had 12 20 win seasons and 5 Cy Young Awards between them in the decade. These two, along with fellow Hall of Fame aces Catfish Hunter, Steve Carlton, Ferguson Jenkins, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Bert Blyleven, and Gaylord Perry all logged more than 30 shutouts in the 1970s and will go down as the last generation of durable starters before complete games went the way of the woolly mammoth.
– Defensive stalwarts. In addition to the wizardry of the above mentioned Bench, Robinson, Nettles, and Schmidt, we were treated to slick fielding masters like Roberto Clemente in his final seasons, plus fellow outfielders Paul Blair, Joe Rudi, Garry Maddox, and rocket armed Dave Parker and Dwight Evans. We got to see Wes Parker, his heir apparent Steve Garvey, and Boomer Scott pick it at first; Frank White, Joe Morgan, Larry Bowa, Dave Concepcion, and Blade Belanger work the middle infield; while Thurman Munson, and Jim Sundberg were rocks behind the dish.
– Charlie Hustle. After the 1979 season Baseball magazine picked Rose, the 1973 NL MVP and batting champ, as their Player of the Decade. Pete led all ’70 players in games, at-bats, hits, runs, and
doubles, and finished in the Top 5 in batting average and OB%. But his impact went beyond numbers. Long before he tainted his personal reputation and got himself banned from the sport for gambling, Rose the baseball player taught a generation of youngsters the meaning of playing the game the right way, with intensity and passion. Like his teammate Bench, The Big Red Machine leadoff man was an incredible clutch performer, nearly winning the 1973 NLCS single-handedly with two late-inning homers in Cincinnati’s only wins, and capturing 1975 World Series MVP honors. For his career Rose had 86 hits in 67 post-season games.
-Dominant Pitching Single Seasons. Nothing inspires more electricity in a ballpark than a pitcher tirelessly mowing down the opposition. The Yankees’ Ron Guidry in 1978 (25-3, 1.74 ERA), Oakland’s Vida Blue in 1971 (24-8, 1.82 ERA, 301 Ks), and the Phils’ newly acquired Lefty Carlton in 1972 (27-10, 1.97 ERA, 310Ks) made major league hitters look like T-ballers.
– Dynasties. Before free-agency became widespread, there were few Cinderella stories in the 1970s. Long standing groups like the Baltimore Orioles (318 wins from’69-’71, 5 ’70s AL East titles, 3 pennants), Oakland A’s (’72-’74 three-time World Champs and 5 straight ’71-’75 AL West titles), Cincinnati Reds (’75, ’76 Champs, 4 pennants, 6 time NL West titles) and New York Yankees (three straight pennants in ’76-’78 and back-to-back Champs ’77,’78), along with the Pittsburgh Pirates (916 decade wins, 2 World Championships, 6 NL East titles), and LA Dodgers (910 wins, 3 pennants) crushed everything in their way and were awesome to behold.
– Rugged relief artists. Rollie Fingers (52 innings in 27 post-season games, including 6 outings of 3+ innings), Mike Marshall (topped 100 innings 6 times; 15 wins, 21 saves in 1974 Cy Young season), Sparky Lyle (1977 Cy Young Award, with 26 saves and 13 wins), John Hiller (17 relief wins in 1974) , Tug McGraw, and later Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage could all nail down a ballgame at any time.
– Many more highlights than can be mentioned in one post. Think Hank Aaron, Lou Brock, Yaz, Carew, Dick Allen, Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych, Oscar Gamble’s ‘fro, Carlton Fisk, Bucky F— -Dent, and Pops Stargell to name only a few.
Was this a great baseball decade or what? Happy Thanksgiving!
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His website is http://www.1970sBaseball.com and his book, 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: