By Mark Kolier
This is a shorter version of a much longer piece written in 2022. The link to that is at the end of this article.
It’s less than 300 miles between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and both the Cincinnati Reds & Pittsburgh Pirates have been around for a very long time. Is there a natural rivalry between the two cities due to proximity? The Reds were originally founded in 1869, joined the American Association in 1881, and moved into the National League in 1890. The Pirates were founded in 1876 and joined the NL in 1890. The Pirates have won five World Series Championships – 1909, 1925, 1960, 1971, and 1979 – and nine NL Pennants. The Reds have won (you guessed it) five World Series championships – 1919, 1940, 1975, 1976, 1990 – and nine NL Pennants. A rivalry? Yes, you could say that. A bitter rivalry? The decade of the 1970’s proved that to be true.
The 1970s was a great decade for America’s Pastime. The advent of divisional play in 1969 creating two divisions in each league in turn created the League Championship playoffs, and young emerging baseball fans like me lapped it up. Although the NFL under then-commissioner Pete Rozelle was ascending to become the nation’s most popular sport, in the 1970s baseball still reigned supreme in the U.S.
During the decade, five teams were winners of the 10 World Series titles: the Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland A’s, Cincinnati Reds, and New York Yankees. Four of the five teams won multiple World Series titles, and three of the teams won at least two in a row (the A’s won three straight 1972-74).
There were some great rivalries. The Orioles and the A’s met three times in the LCS playoffs in the 1970s – 1971, 1973, and 1974 – with the O’s winning in 1971 and the A’s in 1973 and 1974. The A’s followed with World Series titles both times after vanquishing their rival, but the Orioles went down to the Pirates in the ‘71 Series. The Orioles were a dominant team and had five AL East titles in the decade while finishing second three times. The A’s won five straight division titles but faded for the rest of the decade after 1975, while the Orioles reached the World Series again in 1979 losing to … the Pirates. More on that later. As a playoff rivalry, the Reds and Pirates outdid their AL counterparts, meeting four times in the postseason during the 1970s.
To put things into context about how good it was in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the 1970s, most recently, the Pirates were a Wild Card team from 2013-15. They have not reached the NLCS since 1992. The Reds were also a Wild Card team (of course losing to the Pirates) in 2013 and reached the Wild Card series in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The Reds have not been in the NLCS since 1995. Over the past 27-plus years, there’s not a great deal to crow about for either team. It was very different in the 1970s.
Baseball fans like me who were around for the emergence of MLB divisional play can recall many of the players who played for the Pirates and Reds. And it goes beyond the easy future Hall of Famers like Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell of the Bucs, as well as Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Tom Seaver, and of course the man with the most hits in baseball history, non-HOFer Pete Rose of the Reds.
Pirates like Dave Parker, Al Oliver, and Manny Sanguillen were truly excellent ballplayers, and both Parker and Oliver later received serious Hall of Fame consideration. Beyond the four mentioned HOFers that played for the Reds during the decade were terrific MLB players like Lee May, Dave Concepcion, Dan Driessen, and Ken Griffey Sr. Pirates Richie Hebner, Rennie Stennett, John Candelaria, Kent Tekulve, and even future HOFer Rich Gossage all played significant parts in the team’s success. It was by all accounts an amazing and memorable decade for both teams.
The Reds of the 1970s finished first or second in the NL West every season except for 1971. Not quite as amazing as the Atlanta Braves’ 14 out of 15 NL East division championships between 1991 and 2005 (they finished second in the shortened 1994 season), but still a very impressive run. The Pirates of the 1970s were also a consistent winner, finishing first or second in the division each year except for 1973 when they finished third, but only 2 1/2 games out of first place.
Both teams were constructed similarly. Feared hitters up and down the lineup. Smart players both in the field and on the bases. Both featured pitching staffs that were good but not great. It all made for a dynamic, new, and interesting intra-divisional rivalry.
For the decade, the Reds and Pirates played 133 regular-season games against each other with the Reds winning 74 and the Pirates 59. In those games, both teams scored and allowed 4.3 runs per game. In the postseason the Reds also had the upper hand winning nine of 14 games and three out of four playoff series played between the two teams. Their overall records for the decade were terrific, with the Reds winning 953 games while averaging 95 wins per year and the Pirates winning 916 games averaging 91 wins per year.
And then it was over for more than 10 years for both the Pirates and Reds, at least as far as the playoffs go. The Reds had a surprising run to win the World Series in 1990, defeating the Pirates (of course) in the NLCS that season, the first of three straight NLCS appearances for the Bucs. But the Pirates have not returned to the NLCS in 30 years, and the Reds added a NLCS appearance in 1995 but lost to the Braves and have not returned since. That makes a combined 57 years between the two franchises without making it to the League Championship much less the World Series – a very long drought for two of the most venerated franchises in MLB history.
Of note in looking at the rosters of both the Pirates and Reds of the 1970s was the impact and significance of players of color on both rosters – and not just players, but bona fide MLB stars. It had been less than 25 years since Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier. While many teams featured a few African American and Latino players, the Pirates often started seven or eight players of color and the Reds five or six. This was far from the norm at the time, and fans like me both noticed and thought it was great and long overdue!
Today, both teams play in the same division, the NL Central, and face each other 13 times per season. It’s a far cry from when they were members of different divisions as it was from 1969-1993, and their NLCS clashes during the 1970s remain some of the best and most exciting postseason battles in baseball history.
If you would like to read the year-by-year summary of the Reds and Pirates in the 1970s, that can be found here:
About the Author: Mark Kolier along with his son Gordon co-hosts a baseball podcast called ‘Almost Cooperstown’. He also has written baseball-related articles that can be accessed on Medium.com and now Substack.com.