As this latest match up of the Dodgers vs the Reds comes to an end today, I felt it only right to take a look back at the history of two teams that have been facing off against each other since the late 1800’s.
A Quick Set Up
Over the century-plus of the World Series era, the postseason format leading up to the Fall Classic has undergone drastic changes. From 1903 to 1968, it was simple: whoever finished first in the AL or NL represented their respective league in the World Series. From 1969 to 1993, the leagues were split into western and eastern divisions, thus creating the League Championship Series. Since 1995, a central division was added, along with the Wild Card spot for the best record amongst second-place teams. To expand the crapshoot, a second Wild Card spot was added in 2012.
Being a fan entirely in the Wild Card era, I am of the opinion that it’s the ideal format. The more postseason baseball to enjoy, the better, and things are more interesting with more teams gunning for the ultimate prize. One downside of the Wild Card divisional realignment, however, is that it ended some truly memorable intra-divisional rivalries.
The Tigers and the Blue Jays, the Twins and the Athletics, and the Mets and the Cardinals are prime examples of match-ups that, while nondescript now, made for some potent battles to make the postseason in bygone years. They were even more intense than most divisional races today, as there was no Wild Card spot to fall back on for the team that came up short.
Arguably the best of these now defunct rivalries was the one shared by the Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds as they constantly battled for NL West supremacy in the 1970s, with a few more installments in the ‘80s. Right down to their contrasting colors, the teams were perfect opposites. The Reds were quintessential Midwestern baseball, clean-shaven (thanks to a rule forbidding facial hair) and required to wear plain black cleats.
The Dodgers, on the other hand, defined West Coast decadence. Both teams’ rosters were shaped by many of the decade’s superstars like Pete Rose, Steve Garvey, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Ron Cey, and Johnny Bench. They were led by Hall of Fame managers, with Sparky Anderson manning the dugout in the Queen City and Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda leading the Boys in Blue.
This rivalry was so intense that it even eclipsed the Dodgers’ eternal feud with the San Francisco Giants. Anderson believed just as much, saying in 1975, “I don’t think there’s a rivalry like ours in either league. The Giants are supposed to be the Dodgers’ natural rivals, but I don’t think the feeling is there anymore. It’s not there the way it is with us and the Dodgers.”
Except for 1971, when the Giants took the division, literally every other year of the decade from 1970 to 1979 saw the Reds or Dodgers capture the NL West flag. In seven of those years, they represented the NL in the World Series, with the Big Red Machine winning back-to-back championships in 1975 and ‘76.
1973 in particular was a paramount year for the rivalry. On June 23, the Dodgers started the Garvey/Lopes/Russell/Cey infield for the first time in the second game of a home doubleheader against the Reds. “The Infield,” as they would come to be known, proceeded to power L.A. to 95 wins. In most seasons, that would be enough to win the division.
But the Reds, dominant as ever, were somehow better. In an extra-inning battle at Dodger Stadium on September 21, detailed extensively by Tom Van Riper in his book Cincinnati Red and Dodger Blue: Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Rivalry, Cincinnati tied the game in the ninth on a solo shot from George Foster and won it on a three-run homer by Tony Perez in the tenth. It proved the difference in the divisional race, forcing the Dodgers to wait until the following year to finally win the division and pennant.
The Rivalry Continues in the ’80s
Even when the ‘70s came to an end, the battles for divisional supremacy didn’t end with it. 1981 provided the most controversial chapter of this battle. Due to a player’s strike in the middle of the season, the playoffs were thus done in a “split-season” format. This meant that the division winner of the first half played the division winner of the second half, and although the Reds had the best cumulative record in the NL West of both halves, they still didn’t qualify. Instead, Cincinnati could only watch from home as the Dodgers brought home the World Series trophy.
In their championship 1988 season, Los Angeles were the victims of Tom Browning’s perfect game at Riverfront Stadium. Two years later in 1990, the Reds-Dodgers feud produced its most intense moments. In a late June battle at Riverfront Stadium, Mike Scioscia blocked Eric Davis at home plate to prevent a tying run, allowing the game to go into extras for a Dodgers victory. While replays showed it was the correct call, the Reds felt they had been robbed, and sought revenge.
They would get it two nights later, on a nationally televised Sunday game no less. The Reds were leading 10-4 in the bottom of the seventh, with relief pitcher Norm Charlton on first. Joe Oliver laced a double, and Charlton, blowing past 3B coach Sam Perlozzo, plowed through Scioscia at home plate. Since Charlton was one of the crucial “Nasty Boys” relievers, and the Reds had a huge lead, the move was as tactically unnecessary as it was foolish. Yet not only was Charlton unharmed, but his risky move proved one of the defining moments in Cincinnati’s wire-to-wire championship season.
End of the Rivalry
The Davis-Charlton-Scioscia incidents proved the apogee of the rivalry. With the advent of the Wild Card just a few years later, the Reds were shifted to the newly created NL Central. Granted, it allowed the two teams to finally meet in the postseason in the 1995 NLDS, which the Reds swept in just three games.
Even with the frustration of losing to them almost every time last year, and the mixed emotions of watching Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp go to Cincy, the Reds and Dodgers playing each now carries little weight. If anything, it’s the Reds’ division neighbors the St. Louis Cardinals who feel more like a rival in recent years. But that doesn’t make Cincinnati any less significant in the bigger picture of Dodgers history. The two teams made for a lion’s share of MLB royalty over the span of two decades.
Who knows…maybe if the Reds come out of rebuilding soon enough, we could see a playoff game with Puig, Kemp, Wood, and Farmer facing off against the team they played in the World Series for. One can hope…
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