In The Nick Of Time
On July 14, the biggest stars in today’s game will take the field at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park to play in the 86th MLB All-Star Game.
It’s a chance for Cincinnati, the original home of professional baseball, to celebrate its proud history with the sport. And July 14 will mark another important baseball milestone for the Queen City: The 45th anniversary of the 1970 MLB All-Star Game at the Reds’ former park, Riverfront Stadium.
Looking back, the 1970 Midsummer Classic had just about everything fans could want: future Hall of Fame players, unprecedented attention, a Commander in Chief, and a legendary ending. But for all its splendor, that memorable game almost didn’t happen – at least not in Cincinnati.
After 58 years at Crosley Field, the Reds were supposed to begin the 1970 season at state-of-the-art Riverfront. However, a host of problems including political stalemates, stadium redesigns and worker strikes significantly delayed construction. In the spring of 1970, the city of Cincinnati was still rushing to complete the stadium, and the Reds were forced to open their season once again at Crosley.
Meanwhile, the location of that year’s All-Star Game hung in the balance. Major League Baseball designated the Atlanta Braves as the alternate host for the exhibition in case the Reds could not come through. On June 1, just 44 days before the game, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn finally announced that the Midsummer Classic “definitely will be played in Cincinnati.”
The Reds moved in to their new home on June 30, when the Braves’ Hank Aaron christened Riverfront with its first home run. Then, they prepared to host baseball’s biggest exhibition just two weeks later.
A Jewel in the Queen City’s Crown
Though it took longer than expected to complete, Riverfront was hailed by the press as a sort of new-age stadium when it opened. It was the first stadium to have approximately 99 percent of its playing surface composed of Astroturf -- only home plate, the pitcher’s mound and sliding pits around first, second and third base were made of dirt. Though turf fields would later be criticized by both players and fans, the initial reviews were positive.
“This (the turf) has made our defense,” Reds manager Sparky Anderson told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “The players know they’ll get good hops and they can move better on it. I think in 10 years you won’t have any dirt infields left in the big leagues.”
Indeed, the new stadium was seen as a symbol of a new era for Cincinnati’s downtown.
“It is a monument to a new spirit in the Queen City,” wrote Jim Schottelkotte, sports editor for the Cincinnati Enquirer, “a spirit that might admit obstacles but didn’t let obstacles overcome it, a spirit that did enlist the best Cincinnatians had to offer and a spirit that did and is getting things done.”
New Stadium, New Stars
Riverfront Stadium was not the only new addition for Reds fans to marvel at. Their team possessed a 10-game lead at the All-Star break and was stocked with young talented players who were forming “The Big Red Machine.” National League starters Johnny Bench and Tony Perez were making their third and fourth All-Star Game appearances, respectively, while pitchers Jim Merritt and Wayne Simpson, and outfielder Pete Rose rounded out Cincinnati’s five selections.
As the stars assembled, the pre-game ceremonies included one of the most famous men in America. Flanked by Kuhn and the First Lady, President Richard Nixon delivered the first pitch from the presidential box to Detroit Tigers catcher Bill Freehan and became just the second sitting U.S. President to attend the All-Star Game after Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937.
Though Nixon’s pitching mechanics were a bit unusual, each league’s starting moundsman was in true form. Tom Seaver of the New York Mets and Jim Palmer of the Baltimore Orioles, two of the game’s bright young stars, each posted three shutout innings, and relievers Sam McDowell and Merritt followed suit. The game remained scoreless until the top of the sixth, when Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski singled in Cleveland’s Ray Fosse to give the American League a 1-0 lead.
A Crushing Blow
The AL carried a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth, but the National League refused to go quietly. San Francisco’s Dick Dietz led off with a solo home run off Oakland’s Catfish Hunter. Three more singles followed, capped by a sacrifice fly from Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente to send the game into extra innings.
The National League’s rally recalled the junior’s circuit’s recent frustrations. The NL had won seven straight All-Star Games prior to 1970, prompting New York Times columnist Arthur Daley to write the senior circuit had, “exerted such dominance in recent decades that only the older viewers of the All-Star series can remember that the Americans once held the same sort of superiority.”
The 50,000-plus at Riverfront enjoyed free baseball in the late hours of July 14, as the score remained tied at 4 until the bottom of the 12th. Then, with two outs, Rose reached on a single. The Dodgers’ Billy Grabarkewitz singled to move Rose to second base, setting up one of the Midsummer Classic’s most famous plays. Chicago’s Jim Hickman singled up the middle, and Rose rounded third. The throw from center field was on time and to the right of home plate, positioning the catcher, Fosse, up the third base line. Rose, sprinting at full speed, had a choice: Slide under Fosse, or try to jar the ball loose from his mitt.
“If I would have slid I would have been out,” Rose told reporters after the game. “The only thing I could do was run over him. That’s the only way I know how to play. I play to win.”
Rose’s collision with Fosse did knock the ball loose, and the NL did win the game. But the play remains controversial 45 years later. Fosse suffered a separated shoulder, and his career was arguably not the same afterward. The play would be referenced frequently when Major League Baseball adopted new rules to protect the catcher on plays at home plate in 2014.
But back in 1970, the pain of yet another AL loss might have stung just as much as the pain in Fosse’s shoulder.
“So close,” said American League manager Earl Weaver. It’s one thing if you get killed, 14-3, but to come so close. When am I going to do something right for the American League?”
Weaver would do plenty right for his Orioles during the second half of 1970, leading the O’s to 108 wins and a runaway AL pennant. Then, Weaver got his revenge in the World Series, winning both games against the Reds at Riverfront en route to a 4-1 victory for Baltimore in the Fall Classic.
Meanwhile, the 1970 All-Star Game, whose location was in flux for much of the season, was a resounding success for baseball. The game scored a 28.5 Nielsen rating on NBC, setting a new record. As it turned out, the rush to complete Riverfront Stadium by July paid off.
“Is it all worth it?” asked Schottelkotte. “From initial reactions the first few weeks, the answer is a resounding yes.”
Matt Kelly is the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum