On July 16th, 1970, the Pittsburgh Pirates began play after the All-Star break by opening new Three Rivers Stadium against the rival Reds. Cincinnati’s Tony Perez hit the park’s first home run, and Willie Stargell later homered for the Bucs. The contest was decided on a 9th inning RBI single from Lee May to give the Reds a 3-2 decision.
Exactly one year later, Pirates’ first baseman Bob Robertson became only the second man to hit a ball into the 70-foot high upper deck at Three Rivers Stadium when he connected off the Padres’ Steve Arlin. By then Willie Stargell had already hit three separate homers into the section.
The day after Three Rivers opened, on 7/17/70, the great Roberto Clemente put his 5-tool skill set on full display in a memorable performance against the rival Reds at Three Rivers Stadium. With his Pirates trailing 3-2 in the 6th inning, Clemente, who had already singled earlier in the contest, tripled (#150 of his career) and later scored the tying run. In the 8th he homered off eventual Rookie of the Year Wayne Simpson, who came into the game with a 13-1 record, to break the deadlock. The Reds rallied in the 9th, only to have Clemente nail Tommy Helms at home attempting to score from second base on a single, squashing the Reds’ final threat.
The Reds and Pirates were decade-long rivals, meeting in the 1970 National League playoffs. The Reds swept the Bucs in the 1970 NLCS in three hotly contested games. Their young pitching staff held a hard-hitting Pittsburgh lineup to just three runs and no homers in the series, and clinched the pennant with a go-ahead 8th inning Bob Tolan RBI single.
After Pittsburgh won the 1971 World Championship, the two clubs met again in the 1972 NLCS. The defending champs were ahead by one in the deciding Game 5 before Johnny Bench led off the 9th with a homer to tie the game. Later in the inning the Pirates’ Bob Moose threw a wild pitch, scoring pinch runner George Foster for the deciding run. with the Big Red Machine winning in dramatic fashion in the 9th inning of Game 5.
The two clubs were back at it in 1974, with tensions rising even further in May, when the Pirates’ Dock Ellis intentionally hit the Reds’ Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen in succession, then threw two pitches behind Tony Perez’s head before walking him, and was taken out of the game by Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh while facing the next batter, Johnny Bench.
On July 14th of that year, it finally boiled over. After the Reds’ Jack Billingham hit Pirates’ pitcher Bruce Kison, both teams came onto the field. When Sparky Anderson accidentally stepped on Ed Kirkpatrick’s foot, the Bucs’ catcher shoved the Reds manager, earning him a punch from the Reds’ Andy Kosco.
Cincinnati’s Pedro Borbon allegedly bit Pirate relief pitcher Daryl Patterson, then pulled on his hair and punched him in the eye. Patterson ended up with a shiner, some missing hair, and needed a tetanus shot. Pittsburgh announcer Bob Prince later nicknamed Borbon, who Patterson said ‘fights like a woman’, ‘Count Dracula’.
The Reds claimed Mario Mendoza, who sat out both games, hit Bill Plummer in the back of the head from behind. “You’ve got to be rotten to do that,” said Anderson. Mendoza denied the accusation, saying he was defending himself after Plummer grabbed him by the neck.
Once matters seemingly calmed, the normally jovial Manny Sanguilen of the Pirates had to be tackled after making a run at Kosco.
The Pirates eventually got their revenge over the Big Red Machine in 1979 with an NLCS sweep; league MVP Willie Stargell hit .455 in the Series with two home runs and six RBI.
Many Pittsburgh fans are still fuming about the MVP award Willie didn’t win. That was in 1973, when Stargell led the league with 44 home runs, 43 doubles, 119 RBI, and a .646 slugging percentage. Cincinnati’s Pete Rose took the honor on the strength of 230 hits and a league-leading .338 batting average.
During the decade both teams won six division titles and two World Series, and between them they took six of the National League’s ten 1970s pennants.
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 most recent book, 1970s All-Star Baseball: A History of the Decade’s All-Star Games can be found on Amazon:
His bestselling 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: