by Keith Aksel
Baseball fans know that the Cincinnati Reds matter historically. The Queen City’s sluggers became the first all-professional club in baseball history, and some of the most important players in the game have donned the wishbone “C.” Arguably the best catcher (Johnny Bench) and hitter (Pete Rose) in the baseball history spent the bulk of their careers in Cincinnati, while modern stars like Joey Votto and Johnny Cueto all got their starts on the banks of the Ohio River.
Even with its status as one of baseball’s most cherished institutions, a strange historical cloud hangs over the Reds clubhouse. That cloud is what we historians call “selective memory,” or the tendency for people to recall events differently from how they actually took place. Sometimes little details surrounding events subsume the larger memory of those moments, and cloud the ways people remember them. For instance, fans that watch a sporting event in bad weather may recall the conditions of the field, but only vaguely remember the outcome of the game itself.
I argue that selective memory has affected the Cincinnati Reds disproportionately compared to other baseball clubs. This trend has obscured how general fans understand important events in Reds (and general baseball) history. In two of the Reds’ five World Series championship seasons, the teams Cincinnati beat seem to have dominated popular memory of those seasons. Because of selective memory, in both instances the title-winning Reds became almost a side note to events surrounding the losing team.
The first example is from 1919, when the National League champion Reds faced the American League champion Chicago White Sox. The Reds had yet to win the World Series in their long history, while Chicago just captured the 1917 Series over the New York Giants. Both teams possessed future Hall of Famers and great position players, and with the shadow of World War I in Europe gone, Americans were ready to focus on sports at home again.
In seven games (back then the Series was best-of- nine), Cincinnati triumphed over Chicago for their first world title, only to be overshadowed by the Series’ fallout. The White Sox were found to have thrown the 1919 World Series on purpose. In what became known as the “Black Sox” scandal, some team members were in bed with high-rolling gamblers looking to make a buck off of a heavily-favored Chicago loss. If the White Sox lost, those who bet on their misfortune would not only clean up, but could hand over big payments to the players themselves. In an era before the lowest-paid MLB player made $500,000 per year like today, outside cash like this was a significant lure for players who did not make big money on the field. For years the investigation into the rigged Series dragged on, bringing the White Sox into the center of the conversation of baseball in America. In the end a number of Chicago players were banned from the sport for life, leaving a stain on the White Sox that some say they never fully cleaned off.
All the while, the Cincinnati team that actually won the title became almost an afterthought. For the general fan, the year 1919 is not remembered for Cincinnati’s star power or dominant regular season play (they separated themselves from the second-place Giants by nine games), but for a scandal that has nothing to do with Cincinnati at all. Rather, Chicago and its “Black Sox” stole the show, and the memory of the Reds’ first World Series championship along with it.
In 1975, selective memory reappeared in Redsland. This time, the World Series pitted Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine against the up-and-coming Boston Red Sox. The Reds dominated the NL regular season, and were primed to redeem themselves after a still-stinging defeat at the hands of the Oakland Athletics in the 1972 World Series. On both sides, the stars came out in force that October. Along with Bench and Rose, the Reds featured Joe Morgan, Ken Griffey, and George Foster, all big sluggers who finished the year batting at or above .300. Boston was full of big-time talent as well, including Carlton Fisk and Carl Yastrzemski. For his part, Yastrzemski alone bagged nine hits during the seven-game Series.
This Fall Classic was a back and forth affair out of the gate. After five games, the Reds led the Series 3-2. But Game Six in Boston truly emerges as a pivot point for how Americans at large remember this Series. By the end of the ninth inning, Boston and Cincinnati had battled to a 6-6 stalemate, pushing the game into extra innings. In the bottom of the still-deadlocked twelfth, Boston’s Carlton Fisk came to the plate after midnight Eastern time, hoping to tie the Series with one swing. Facing Cincinnati right-hander Pat Darcy, Fisk made contact off of Darcy’s second pitch, sending it floating down the left field line, straight for the foul pole. Attempting to will the ball the stay fair, Fisk waved his arms toward the inside of the pole while watching it sail to the stands. The ball did indeed stay fair, and the Red Sox tied the Series with Fisk’s solo shot.
Fisk’s Game Six home run has become the stuff of legends. The hit has been replayed millions of times on YouTube, and ranks as one of the most iconic moments in Red Sox and MLB history. There have been books written about that 1975 Red Sox team, particularly surrounding their performance at the 1975 World Series. Even today, journalists still fawn over the Fisk homer, claiming, among other things, that the moment “altered baseball,” thanks to the way the television cameras captured the hit from multiple angles in pioneering fashion for the TV broadcast industry. Baseball journalist Peter Gammons once stated that the 1975 Series was the one that was “meant to be stolen” from the Reds. It is almost as if the public at large remembers 1975 as a Red Sox victory.
All of this elides the truth. While the Red Sox seemed to dominate the headlines and public memory of the 1975 Series with that Game Six magic, the Cincinnati Reds, not the Boston Red Sox, would go on to win Game Seven and take the Series. Cincinnati’s triumph would prove to be the beginning of a two-year run in which largely the same set of dominant players would win the World Series again in 1976, sweeping the New York Yankees.
Even so, the deciding Game Seven in 1975 barely registers with many still under the assumption that the moment that mattered in 1975 was Game Six. A recent Sporting News article proposed that Game Seven (you know, the one that actually decided the Series outcome) is the “forgotten” matchup of the Series, reinforcing the strange notion that just like in 1919, the title-winning Reds have somehow become a side note in their own triumph.
Check out this video of the end of Game Seven.
In any case, the Reds in both 1919 and 1975 dealt with challenges to their moment in the sun to the teams they defeated on the way. Why this happens is a matter for debate. One explanation could be that the fan bases in Boston and Chicago are located in bigger markets. For the 1919 Series, the magnitude of the Black Sox violations are historically significant even now, which helps explain why the on-field winners have been marginalized to some extent. There is also an element of historical laziness at play in 1919. It is far easier to remember a single moment of corruption in 1910s baseball than to actually remember the teams that won and lost. At least until someone redeems their image, the White Sox will likely dominate fan memories of 1919 simply because their level of corruption stands out beyond anything we’ve seen in the game.
Selective memory of the 1975 Series is probably due to other factors entirely. If the media indeed possesses an East Coast bias, it would help explain why Boston came out of 1975 as a historical winner. Not only that, but the Red Sox were in the middle of a decades-long title drought in 1975. Desperate to hold on to any moment of small triumph, it could be that Boston fans treated Game Six like a championship because it seemed at the time the closest thing to actually winning it all.
In any case, selective memory is dangerous for fans because it privileges myths (that the 1919 White Sox could only beat themselves, and that Boston’s Game Six glory mattered more than the Series itself) over reality. Selective memory has the power to cloud how we recall certain seasons playing out. Do the 1919 White Sox or the 1975 Red Sox deserve the spotlight more than Cincinnati? If we are to face this issue of selective historical memory, we have to acknowledge the cases in which cloudy memories play on our understandings of sports. As I’ve shown here, there’s no better place to start than Cincinnati, Ohio.