Thursday, September 2, 2010

Canon Book Review: The Machine

Yesterday, I finished reading the book The Machine: A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-Stopping World Series: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds by Joe Posnanski. Posnanski's an excellent writer, in fact he's one of the few writers that I make a point to read on a regular basis. Plus, any book about baseball, particularly about baseball in the 1970s, will pique my interest, so I figured I would give this one a shot. The Machine is about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, a.k.a. The Big Red Machine, one of the most remembered and best teams in the history of baseball. The team was full of superstars such as Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Johnny Bench, and was managed by Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson. The '75 Reds won 108 games in the regular season, swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS, and won one of the most thrilling World Series of all-time in seven games against the Boston Red Sox. A few notes about this book:

- The book is about the team as a whole, but the story is primarily driven by the team's four superstars (Rose, Bench, Morgan, and Tony Perez) and manager Sparky Anderson. The divide is made clear in a story from spring training of that year, where Sparky made it clear that the four superstars were going to be treated differently from the rest, and that everyone else on the team were 'turds'. I'm 99 percent sure that if a manager called his players turds in today's game, there would more than a few complaints and trade demands and other problems, but such was the game back then.

- Sparky Anderson, to me, was the most interesting man in the book. On one hand, he was a gruff fire-breathing manager who demanded respect from his players and made damn sure that everyone knew he was in charge. On the other hand, there were a few times where he would appease the large egos of his superstars (for example, asking Pete Rose if he would like to play third base instead of demanding he do so). On one hand, he wasn't afraid to go against the grain on the baseball diamond, such as relying on his bullpen more than any other manager in his time would do. On the other hand, he was such an old-fashioned man that he refused to speak to his son for over a year due to his long hair. On one hand, Sparky was a confident man who would make public statements such as "This is the best team in baseball", but on the other hand, he spent every moment until the end worrying about his job, to the point where he would be kept up at night with ulcers. Sparky seemed to me to be a man of many contradictions, and a man who is rather hard to place in one simple category, if that makes any sense. Which, I suppose, is what made him so fascinating to read about.

- One of the themes throughout the book is that the team would constantly needle each other about all sorts of things. For example, Joe Morgan would rag on Pete Rose and Tony Perez if they happened to be in a slump, and when Joe Morgan made a comment about needing a rest, he found a pillow and a sleeping bag in front of his locker. Anderson would try to get them to stop all the jokes, but on the rare occasions they did, it seemed as if they played worse. So the needling, led primarily by Perez, would continue. Most of it was good-natured, although a couple of players didn't always find it so funny.

- Of the four superstars, Perez comes across as the best person of the bunch, as he seemed like a friendly guy with a sense of humor and was so respected that to a man, every person on the team cited Perez as the leader of the clubhouse. Pete Rose has had a rather star-crossed life, as you may know, but in this book he seems like a decent enough person who was driven by one thing and one thing only, to play baseball each and every day as hard as possible. Pete was, and is, a little too full of himself, but the game would be better off if more players played the way Pete did. Joe Morgan comes off as quite an arrogant person, as those people that watch him commentate on ESPN may have figured, but then again, it's hard to be humble when you're the best player in the game.

- To me, Johnny Bench came across in this book as an arrogant jerk who for whatever reason, seemed to resent the fact that Rose was more beloved in Cincinnati than he was. Bench seemed like the type of person you meet who just can't wait to tell you how awesome he is. He seemed to be addicted to fame, yet would never sign autographs for fans. He and Rose seemed to have a strong rivalry to the point where when Joe Morgan got to Cincinnati, he was warned that he could only be friends with Johnny or Pete, not with both (btw, Morgan chose Pete). Some of hie teammates, like Ken Griffey, did not seem to have a high opinion of Mr. Bench as well.

- Speaking of Griffey, one of the most fascinating things to come from this book was that Griffey felt as if he was cheated out of stardom by the Reds due to a variety of factors. Griffey was told by Anderson not to steal because the player hitting behind him, Morgan, did not like players running when he was trying to hit. According to Griffey, he could have stolen 70-80 bases if allowed to run. I find it a little dubious, since Griffey never stole more than 34 bases in a season, but that's what he believes. Griffey was also frustrated by the numerous occasions where he would get a big hit to win a game for the Reds, including the game-winning hit in game 2 of the World Series, only to see one of the bigger names like Bench get all the glory. He might have something there.

- Throughout the book, Posnanski dedicates a few lines here and there to other events taking place in 1975 (i.e. the end of the Vietnam War, Bruce Springsteen producing and releasing Born to Run). While these tidbits are interesting, they really didn't seem to fit in with the rest of book, and I felt as if he just included them just to pad out the book some instead of linking those events to what was happening with the Reds at the time.

Overall, there are a couple of minor issues, like the one I just mentioned and the feeling that Posanski didn't devote enough space to other members of the machine such as George Foster. But overall, this is a rather entertaining read that kept my interest from beginning to end, and really captured what the Big Red Machine was all about. I would give it a 7.7 out of 10. Well, thanks for reading, and if you have any thoughts about this post or other previous posts, or ideas for future posts, than share them either by leaving a comment or by sending me an e-mail at

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