Aside from Murders Row, no other baseball team nickname has been as evocative and, perhaps intimidating, as the Big Red Machine label placed upon Sparky Anderson’s Cincinnati ballclub.
According to most accounts, the Reds were given their colorful nickname by a Cincinnati Enquirer sportswriter named Bob Hertzel. However, the name was introduced in the summer of 1969, before the team was anything but big and not exactly a machine. In fact, before the 1970 season, the Reds had won only one pennant in the previous 29 seasons.
Even though it may have been a bit presumptuous at the time, the organization ran with the Big Red Machine moniker, even going so far as to issue a team Christmas card featuring a caricature of new manager Anderson driving a tractor. “Holiday Greetings from the Big Red Machine”, the card read.
Entering 1970, the Reds were brimming with confidence, and not long after the season began, every other National League team understood why. In April, Anderson’s Reds burst out of the gate with a 16-6 record and never looked back. By the All Star break, they were 10 games up in the standings and coasting to the franchise’s first pennant since 1961. After years of underperforming expectations, Anderson had his ballclub running like a well-oiled machine…a Big Red one in fact.
The Reds lost the 1970 World Series to the Baltimore Orioles, but after missing the playoffs in 1971, bounced back to win four NL West titles, three pennants and two World Series over the next five years. The team’s two championships occurred in 1975 and 1976 (the latter a sweep over the Yankees), making the Big Red Machine the first National League team to repeat since the 1921-1922 New York Giants.
When Joe Torre took over the Yankees in 1996, it was a situation not unlike the one faced by Sparky Anderson when he assumed control of the Reds in 1970. Both teams had suffered through long stretches with limited post season play, and each manager’s hiring was met with considerable skepticism. However, thanks to a home grown core mixed with solid veterans, both teams not only had immediate success, but enjoyed an extended run.
The similarity between Torre’s Yankees and the Big Red Machine was an often-discussed topic at the time, thanks in no small part to the presence of Joe Morgan in ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcast booth. During many a game featuring the Yankees, Morgan would make a comparison between the two teams, but at no point did the debate get more heated than the 1998 World Series, which Morgan was covering for ESPN radio.
Understand that I think this is a great club. I love watching them play because I like the way they play. But I’m not going to stand here and lie to you and say they’re a better team than the one I played on, because they’re not.” – Joe Morgan, quoted by The New York Daily News, October 22, 1998
The crux of Morgan’s argument at the time was the Big Red Machine was better because Torre’s Yankees didn’t have a superstar. Of course, that argument was formulated back in 1998, when players like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, and Andy Pettitte were still in the early stages of their respective careers. So, with more time having passed, and the Yankees in town to play the Reds, what better occasion to once again compare these two dynasties?
In order to make a meaningful comparison between both teams, end points are needed. For the Big Red Machine, the logical choices were 1970 and 1976, so in order to keep a similar seven-year timeframe, the Yankees’ dynasty was defined as having lasted from 1996 to 2002. Although shifting these boundaries would alter the comparison, the seven selected years seem a suitable proxy for both teams, so without a further ado, below is the breakdown.
Tale of the Tape: Big Red Machine versus Torre’s Yankees
Note: Hall of Famer analysis assumes Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are elected to Hall of Fame, and Pete Rose is not ineligible.
In terms of regular season record, the two dynasties are separated by less than four ten thousandths of a percentage point, which is remarkable when you consider over 1,100 games were played during the two timeframes. However, the Yankees made the playoffs in every season of their dynastic run, while the Reds missed out on two occasions. Of course, having the wild card and one fewer team in the division was an advantage for Torre’s Yankees, but needing to win an additional post season round was also a hurdle. Despite the longer, if not tougher, gauntlet, those Yankees’ teams still managed one more pennant and two more World Series than Sparky Anderson’s Reds.
As previously mentioned, Joe Morgan, and many others, gives the Big Red Machine an edge because it had several star players. When you look at the tale of the tape, this advantage is readily apparent in terms of MVPs and plate appearances taken by Hall of Famers (although the latter gap could be narrowed if Tim Raines, Jorge Posada, and/or Bernie Williams are elected). Obviously, the 1996-2002 Yankees can’t compete with the trio of Pete Rose, Bench and Morgan, who account for a bulk of the plate appearances and all of the MVPs, but offense is only one part of the equation.
The Big Red Machine didn’t have poor pitching, but they never really had a star at the position. In fact, only two pitchers, Gary Nolan and Don Gullett, posted a WAR above 10 during the seven-year period being considered. In comparison, Torre’s Yankees had eight pitchers contribute a WAR above that level from 1996 to 2002. In aggregate, Yankees’ pitchers contributed over 100 more wins above replacement than their Big Red Machine counterparts, an advantage even more significant than the one enjoyed by Cincinnati on offense. So, although that era’s Yankees may not be able to compete with the Reds’ trio of hitters, Cincinnati had no one to stand toe-to toe with the likes of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera.
Top-5 WAR: Big Red Machine (1970-76) versus Torre’s Yankees (1996-02)
|Joe Morgan||51||1972||1976||Gary Nolan||16||1970||1976|
|Johnny Bench||42.3||1970||1976||Don Gullett||14.2||1970||1976|
|Pete Rose||39.9||1970||1976||Clay Carroll||8||1970||1975|
|Tony Perez||29.1||1970||1976||Fred Norman||6.6||1973||1976|
|Dave Concepcion||15.9||1970||1976||Rawly Eastwick||4.5||1974||1976|
|Derek Jeter||35.1||1996||2002||Andy Pettitte||27.3||1996||2002|
|Bernie Williams||34.6||1996||2002||Mariano Rivera||24.3||1996||2002|
|Jorge Posada||17.1||1996||2002||David Cone||16.3||1996||2000|
|Paul O’Neill||15||1996||2001||Roger Clemens||15.3||1999||2002|
|Tino Martinez||13.1||1996||2001||O. Hernandez||15||1998||2002|
It might seem like a copout, but when comparing the Big Red Machine and the Joe Torre-led Yankees of the last decade, the most prudent determination seems to be a split decision. Whereas the Reds were more of an offensive powerhouse chockfull of star performers, the Yankees were a well-rounded lineup. On the other hand, the Reds’ pitching staff was mostly composed of solid performers, while the Yankees featured dominant arms, including at least two Hall of Famers and several others considered to be on the borderline.
Although each respective dynasty had a decided edge on one side of the ledger, the Yankees probably had more balance. Combined with their two extra championships, it is upon that basis that an argument for the Bronx Bombers can be made. Meanwhile, the Big Red Machine’s claim to being the better dynasty rests on the strength of having Morgan and Bench, two of the greatest players at their respective positions, in the same lineup.
Both arguments have compelling points, but regardless of one’s preference, the sum of each team’s parts still wind up equaling two extremely comparable dynasties. However, there is one area where the 1996-2002 Yankees simply can’t compete. In terms of nicknames, the Big Red Machine wins hands down.