It wasn’t so long ago that I could name the starting lineups, usual batting order and starting pitching rotations of every Major League Baseball team in 1969. I can still do a few—the Baltimore Orioles, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the New York Mets, the Cardinals, the Red Sox and usually the Cincinnati Reds, the nascent Big Red Machine.
Those 1969 Reds are a little tricky, though. They weren’t a great team, despite two future Hall of Famers and a 28-year-old Pete Rose who’d just won his first batting title and was destined to win his second that year. They won 89 games but finished third in the National League’s Western Division. Rose was the Reds’ right fielder that year, but my memory wants to put him at second base, a position he hadn’t played regularly since 1966.
In 1969, Tommy Helms was the team’s primary second baseman. And Helena’s Alex Johnson, who’d win a batting championship with the California Angels in 1970, played left. Woody Woodward—not Dave Concepcion—was the shortstop. (Woodward was backed up by Darrel Chaney and Chico Ruiz.) Not quite Hall of Famer Lee May was at first base, while legend Tony Perez was at third and all-timer Johnny Bench was behind the plate. Bobby Tolan—who would turn out to be a tragic figure, the goat of the 1972 World Series after misplaying two balls in the decisive seventh game—was in center field.
Without delving too deep into the numbers, I’ve always felt the 1969 Reds’ outfield, which never gets mentioned as one of the best in baseball history, has been sorely underrated. They all hit over .300 that year; collectively they averaged .323 with 103 runs scored, 18 home runs and 87 RBIs apiece.
Those RBI figures are more impressive when you realize Rose hit lead-off, Tolan second and No. 3 hitter Johnson played only 139 games. It was one of the best outfields of all time.
But was it? Obviously Johnson, Tolan and Rose weren’t quite Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra (of the 1961 Yankees) or Jim Rice, Freddy Lynn and Dwight Evans of the 1975 Red Sox.
And any number of outfields with Babe Ruth, chief among them the 1927 Yankees, were better. Thinking out loud, the mid-1990s Cleveland Indians outfield of Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez was pretty great; and the 1915 Detroit Tigers had Ty Cobb, Bobby Veach and Sam Crawford—two Hall of Famers and a lifetime .310 hitter (Veach). Bill James once argued that the best outfield of all time, over a stretch of seasons, was the Yankee’s trio of Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller and Tommy Henrich, who were all on the team’s roster from 1939 to 1949 (though they all missed time during the war).
The Reds might not have even had the best outfield in the National League that year. The Pirates had Willie Stargell in left field, Matty Alou in center and Roberto Clemente in right. The Braves had Rico Carty (.342), Felipe Alou and Hank Aaron. The Giants had Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds, with Dave Marshall—who I confess I had to look up—in their outfield. (In September, the Giants called up 20-year-old George Foster.) And some might even argue that the 1969 Mets’ outfield of Cleon Jones (who hit .340 that year), Tommy Agee and (usually) Ron Swoboda—though he only hit .235 during the regular season—came close to matching the Reds.
And, though my heart still calls it close, consider that the 1969 Baltimore Orioles had an outfield of Don Buford, elegant center fielder Paul Blair and the perennially underrated Frank Robinson. That was a better outfield than what the Reds fielded. Especially when you factor in Johnson’s lousy and Rose’s adequate defense. (Rose was an aggressive left fielder, but his arm wasn’t strong enough for right field.)
Still, there’s part of me that rejects what the record books and sabermetricians tell me, because I’m human and most of what I believe is because I want to believe it. I want to believe that Reds outfield was one of the best ever because that idea was, for some reason, rooted in my mind when I was 9 years old. And in that, pre-cable era, I might have only seen that team play three or four times that season, however often they turned up on NBC’s Game of the Week. I mostly followed them through the pages of The Sporting News.
But I did see them in person on July 3, when they beat the Dodgers 4-3 at Chavez Ravine. May hit a home run that landed tantalizingly near us in the left field bleachers, I scrambled after it but lost out to a full-grown man. A real-life hirsute hippie with a beaded headband holding back his flowing ginger locks and a fringed buckskin vest (in July). I can still see the glee in his eyes and feel the same unbalancing mix of envy (that he’d won the ball) and pride (that I’d actually competed with him) I felt then.
Though that would have been the time to hop on the Reds bandwagon and ride it through the ’70s, they were never really my team. I liked the Giants and the Red Sox for reasons I can’t explain but have to do with internal routes of faith and taste. I understand why people hold onto irrational beliefs, and why they invest so much in invented worlds and fantasies.
One person’s Tolkien is another person’s Walking Dead is another person’s pro wrestling. Lots of people have the same sorts of irrational attachments to political figures and ideas that I have to old baseball players like Matty Alou and Tito Fuentes. Baseball was my Fortnite, and could be again. Part of me would be happy to sink into the MLB Network and let the noise roar on without me.
Sometimes I think we care most about what doesn’t matter at all, that all we really need to be happy is to have something to which we can pay attention, rabbit holes into which we can burrow. It’s no wonder our politics has become fascinatingly lively—it’s got to compete with Game of Thrones.
Baseball strikes most people these days as boring as John Foster “Dull, Duller” Dulles. It might as well be black and white and subtitled. Still, it hooks deep and lingers. Johnson, Tolan and Rose: I close my eyes, they are right there.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.