The Bunt That Changed Baseball History
A Lost Art
The bunt has become a lost art in Major League Baseball. There was a time when it was an essential skill for all players and a necessary weapon in any manager's arsenal. Even the great Mickey Mantle would occasionally lay down a drag bunt to get on base. Today, it’s rarely used in the American League because of the designated hitter rule and even in the National League, where pitchers still bat, you might see it once a game if lucky. The rise of saber-metrics has led to constant pitching changes, so they never get a chance at the plate. During the 1975 World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox, considered one of the greatest of all time, the most controversial play was a bunt. In fact, it may have changed history.
Clash of Titans
Coming into 1975, both the Cincinnati Reds and Boston Red Sox were considered to be contenders. However, the Reds were loaded with talent. Many were veterans of their previous two World Series in 1970 and '72. They had won the Division three times the past six seasons. Their dominance earned them the nickname, The Big Red Machine. After winning 108 games, they swept the Pirates in the National League Championship Series. With several showings as the runner up, both players and fans were confident. The overall feeling was that their time had finally come.
The Reds had four future Hall of Famers: catcher Johnny Bench, second baseman Joe Morgan, Tony Perez at first base and manager Sparky Anderson. Morgan was the 1975 NL MVP. The legendary Pete Rose, who had been with the organization since 1963, anchored the team at 3rd base. Rose was not only the most popular Red in Cincinnati, he was one of the most popular players in the country. Known as “Pistol Pete,” and "Charlie Hustle," he was old school before the term was popular. His head first slides and all out style earned him admiration from friend and foe alike. Ultimately, it was this go for broke attitude that would lead to his banishment from the game.
The Red Sox were also a mix of young guns and old timers, lead by a long time veteran and fan favorite, Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz and third baseman Rico Petrocelli were the only players left from their last World Series appearance in 1967. Their last World Series victory had been in 1918, and that drought led many fans to give up hope. Being in the same league and then division as the New York Yankees, did not help. But the Yankees were still rebuilding after a lot of lean years. They had not won the American League Pennant since 1964. The Baltimore Orioles and later the Oakland A’s had dominated the American League for ten years.
During the 1974 season, the Sox had an epic collapse in August, blowing a 9 game lead as the Orioles overtook them to win the Division. Injuries to key players stole any chance they had at regaining the lead.
1975 would be different. With the help of the Rookie of the Year and AL MVP Fred Lynn, Left Fielder Jim Rice and their hardnosed catcher, Carlton Fisk, they went on to win 95 games. They beat the vaunted A’s in the American League Championship Series with a three-game sweep.
The World Series began at Boston’s Fenway Park. They split the first two games. The Red Sox blew out the Reds 6-0 in the opener and the Reds came back to squeak out a 3-2 victory the next night. Both were day games, something unheard of today. The last World Series game to be played entirely in daylight was in 1984.
Game 3 - The Play
October 14, 1975 was an unusually warm day, reaching nearly 80 degrees. By game time at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, temperatures still hovered around 60 with the sticky, humid air lingering well into the night. The field’s artificial turf did not help cool things down. Compared to Fenway, Riverfront was cavernous and new, having opened in 1970. Former National League President Warren Giles threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Curt Gowdy, and Tony Kubek worked the NBC TV broadcast booth. Gowdy had been the Red Sox regular play by play man from 1951 to 1965.
Game 3 became an epic struggle. The teams accounted for 17 hits, including 6 home runs. The Red Sox committed 2 errors (both by Fisk). Seven pitchers made appearances. After a nail biting 9th inning in which the Red Sox tied the game, they went into extra innings. The Sox failed to score in the top half of the tenth, and Reds centerfielder Cesar Geronimo led off the bottom half of the 10th inning off with a base hit. Then up stepped pinch hitter Ed Armbrister, a native of the Bahamas, who within just a few minutes would become the most famous Bahamian in the United States.
Wanting to get Geronimo in scoring position, Anderson called for a sacrifice bunt. Sox relief pitcher Jim Willoboughy threw a fastball on the first pitch as Armbrister squared around. He made contact and the ball bounced high. Hesitating for just a split second, he finally started to run out of the batter’s box. But then he appeared to freeze. After two steps, he bumped into Fisk. The ever aggressive Fisk didn’t hesitate, charging after the ball even while Armbrister seemed to stand still. Fisk began pushing Armbrister out of the way, finally grabbing the ball and hurriedly making a throw to second base. The ball sailed high and into center. Geronimo, who had wisely kept running, made it to third. The speedy Armbrister ended up at second base. The whole play took seven seconds.
Fisk immediately turned around and began screaming at umpire Larry Barnett. “It was interference!” Fisk hollered. Manager Darrell Johnson then ran out to argue Fisk’s case and protect his All Star catcher from being thrown out of the game. Johnson began getting as incensed as Fisk. The 47 year old skipper glared at Barnett. Gruff by nature, he did not mince words. The Red Sox infield was apoplectic. Reds fans became restless; the crowd stirred. Hisses and boos accompanied the arguments. Every time Johnson turned back around to say something to Barnett, they got louder. Fisk was at his wits end, his face a deepening red. After what seemed like an eternity, play resumed. Color analyst Kubek, the former Yankee shortstop, believed it was interference; no doubt about it.
Did Armbrister interfere with Fisk?
The Reds had runners on second and third with no outs. Now the top of the order came up.
After walking Rose, the Sox changed pitchers again, bringing in left-handed journeyman Roger Moret, a native of Puerto Rico, whose full name was Rogelio Moret. He managed to strike out pinch hitter Merv Rettenmund but MVP Joe Morgan came up next, hitting a fly ball to center which drove in Geronimo. Game over.
After the game both Fisk and Johnson were asked about it. They stuck to their belief that it was obvious interference. Fisk was still angry. "Of course he interfered with me," Fisk told reporters. "You all saw it. He stood right under the ball."
Barnett gave his interpretation of the rule after the game. He said interference can only be called if a batter intentionally gets in the way of a fielder. "Each man has an equal right to run and field, respectively, within the baselines," he calmly explained.
Armbrister was equally adamant but still a little tongue in cheek about it. "The ball bounced high and I just stood there for a moment watching it," Armbrister said. "Then Fisk came up from behind me and bumped me as he took the ball." However, he later modfied his story to make him look better. "As I broke for first base, he hit me in the back and reached over my head for the ball before I could continue on to first base." He added, "I stood there because he hit me in the back and I couldn't move."
Within a few days, it became a matter of life and death for Larry Barnett. He received a letter from a disgruntled fan threatening his family. It was one of many letters both he and the Commissioner would receive about the incident. The FBI was called in for Game 6 at Fenway and they took up seats just behind third base. Thankfully, the threats came to nothing and a resounding chorus of boos was all he received from the Red Sox faithful.
The Series Goes On
The Sox came back the next night and won a close game in which the teams combined for 20 hits. Cuban native Luis Tiant, the Red Sox starter, used his classic wind up delivery to even the Series at 2-2. It was a rare complete game. He threw over a 160 pitches that night.
The Reds won Game 5 and went back to Boston for the deciding game. More history was made on their return to Boston. Game 6 turned into one of the greatest ever played, a 12-inning struggle that ended with Carlton Fisk’s dramatic home run off the foul pole and his determined urging. Game 7 was a nail biter too. But the Reds gutted it out for the Big Red Machine’s first World Series Championship. Pete Rose was named MVP but others made a name for themselves as well. Cesar Geronimo had seven hits with two homers and a triple.
The Reds came back again in ’76, winning the World Series in a four game sweep of the Yankees. The Red Sox would have to wait 29 more years for another World Series ring. They have since won two more.
It’s hard to point to one incident in a very long series and claim it cost a team the championship. But baseball is a game of inches; its history peppered with small incidents that meant the difference between victory and defeat in the postseason. Bill Buckner's famous error in Game 6 of the 1986 is a great example. That error cost them the game. What if he could have bent down another inch? But would he have beaten Mookie Wilson to the bag? Probably not.
We don’t know what would have happened in the 11th inning if Armbrister is called out and the Sox get a double play during the next at bat. Red Sox hitters were getting hot. They already hit three homers that night. Both teams had already used their aces. A warm night, hot bats and tired pitching might have made for an interesting 12th inning. The curse of the Bambino could have been stopped sooner and their 57 year drought ended.
Millions Were Watching
Major League Baseball was still America’s pastime in the 1970s. Ratings for the Series were phenomenal: an average rating of 28.7 with a 52 share. In other words, more than half the TVs in the country were tuned into the Series. 35.9 million people watched. You can still watch the original broadcast of all seven games and I highly recommend it. Bad suits, long hair and lots of smoking.
Four of the broadcasters would go on to receive the Ford Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame: Curt Gowdy, Joe Garagiola, Tony Kubek, and Marty Brennaman.
Riverfront Stadium was torn down in 2002 but Fenway still stands, now 105 years old.
The protagonists in this drama went on to continued success:
- Ed Armbrister retired in 1977 and returned to the Bahamas, where he has had a successful career in both government and business.
- Carlton Fisk went on to a Hall of Fame career, moving to the White Sox in the 1980s. In his nearly 24 seasons, he was an 11 time All Star, a gold glove winner, hit 376 home runs along with 2,356 hits. He was one of the few MLBers to play in four decades, having started his career in 1969 and ending it in 1993.
- Larry Barnett, the home plate umpire, still maintains it was the right call, to the consternation of many in Boston. He continued in the American League for 30 years, retiring in 1999.
- Darrell Johnson – Johnson was fired during the 1976 season and went on manage the expansion Seattle Mariners for three seasons and finished his managerial career after one season with the Texas Rangers. He passed away in 2004.
- Jim Willoughby – Played two more seasons for the Sox before signing with the White Sox for his last season in the majors. After that he played in the Caribbean for a couple of seasons. While in Venezuela, he went into a diabetic coma, but survived. The diabetes had gone undiagnosed for years. Subsequently, he went to California and became a successful builder.
The Armbrister bunt controversy ranks as one of the most famous plays in World Series history. Although it will always rank behind Don Larson’s perfect game, Bill Buckner’s error and Kirk Gibson’s 1988 walk off homer, it cannot be denied its place. It made a little known outfielder from the Bahamas famous and broke Boston’s heart.
- Adelman, Tom. The Long Ball: The Summer of '75—Spaceman, Catfish, Charlie Hustle, and the Greatest World Series Ever Played. 2003 Boston: Little, Brown.
- Frost, Mark. Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston, and the 1975 World Series: The Triumph of America's Pastime. 2009. New York: Hyperion
Newspaper and Magazine Articles:
- Canales, Nick. "The Forgotten Game: Game 7 of '75 World Series leaves many wondering 'what if?' The Sporting News, October 14, 2015.
- Chass, Murray. "Umpire Gets Death Threat." New York Times, October 21, 1975. New York Times Archives.
- Verducci, Tom. "Game Changer: How Carlton Fisk's Home Run Altered Baseball and TV." Sports Illustrated, October 21, 2015.
- "Top Ten Blown Calls in Baseball History." RealClearSports.com, May 15, 2013.
- Boston Globe
- Cincinnati Enquirer
- Doug Wilson's Baseball Blog (great site for old BB buffs)