ERIC: 1973 was a strange season for Major League Baseball. It shouldn’t have been. 1972 had been a landmark season. The Oakland A’s, embarking on a dynastic run, won their first of three consecutive World Series championships, largely because of the power hitting heroics of a previously unknown catcher named Gene Tenace, who slugged four homers in the short series. The A’s defeated the mighty Cincinnati Reds—the Big Red Machine—in an intriguing series. To reach the Fall Classic, the Reds defeated an excellent Pittsburgh Pirates team (which had won the 1971 World Series over an outstanding Baltimore Orioles team that featured four 20-game winners) that won 96 games in a strike-shortened season.
Everyone expected the Pirates to continue their domination of the National League East in 1973, but tragedy struck. The Buccos’ superstar right fielder Roberto Clemente, who had gotten career hit 3000 in the final game of the 1972 season, was killed in a plane crash that winter while taking relief supplies to earthquake stricken Nicaragua. This humanitarian gesture cost the Pirates their heart and soul, and instead of repeating as division champions, the Pirates won only 80 games and finished third (despite a 44 homer season by future Hall of Famer Willie Stargell).
The 1973 season proved to be a very strange one indeed. The mighty Reds won 99 games, winning the Western Division by 3.5 games over a resurgent Dodgers team. Four of the six teams in Western Division finished above .500 (with the notable exception of the San Diego Padres, who were featured as one of our truly terrible teams in the book version of You Stink!). The Eastern Division, on the other hand, had only one team finish above .500 for the season. The New York Mets, who featured a terrific pitching staff and not much offense (including a washed-up 42 year old Willie Mays, who retired after the end of the season), won the division crown with an 82-79 record, making them the only team in National League history to win a division title with a record only 3 games over .500.
On paper, the match-up with the Big Red Machine appeared to be a terrible mismatch. The Reds won 17 more games during the regular season and had one of the most potent offenses in the history of Major League Baseball. The Mets had little beside outstanding pitching and good defense. The Mets shocked the mighty Reds, winning the National League Championship Series in 5 games, riding the right arm of future Hall of Fame hurler Tom Seaver into the World Series.
The NLCS featured a true You Stink! Moment, which is why we’re discussing it here.
Jon Matlack, a talented lefthanded hurler for the Mets, had throttled the bats of the Big Red Machine in game two of the NLCS, hurling a 5-0 shutout. After that game, Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson, a .236 career hitter with no power, quipped, “He made the Big Red Machine look like me hitting today.” Joe Morgan, the Reds’ future Hall of Fame second baseman took umbrage to Harrelson’s comments, setting the stage for a dramatic third game.
An angry Morgan confronted Harrelson during the pre-game warm-ups, setting the stage for a testy game. Pete Rose, the pugnacious outfielder for the Reds, didn’t like it when Mets’ lefty Jerry Koosman brushed him back. “I don’t know if he was throwing at me, but he’d had good control all day before that,” said Rose after the game. With the Mets up 9-2 and one out in the 5th inning, Rose singled. Morgan, hitting second, bounced a tailor-made double play ball to first baseman John Milner, who fired the ball to Harrelson to get the force out on Rose at second base. Harrelson turned the double play, his return throw beating Morgan to the bag at first base
This, however, was no ordinary 3-6-3 double play. Rose, angered both by Harrelson’s comments and by being brushed back by Koosman, slid hard into second base, his elbows high. When one of those elbows struck Harrelson, the 140 pound shortstop took exception and came up swinging at the tough 200 pound Rose. “He came after me after I threw the ball. I didn’t like what he did and he didn’t like what I did.,” said Harrelson. “If he did it out of spite, I just wanted to tell him, I’m not a punching bag. I thought he got me late.” Not surprisingly, Rose had a different version. Claiming that he slid into second the way he always did. “He called me a name and I grabbed him. He started coming at me, I grabbed him, and we went down. I play hard. I don’t play dirty. I could have leveled him. I don’t feel it’s my obligation to apologize to anybody over this because I think I did the right thing.” Both benches emptied, and a melee ensued.
After the melee, when Rose returned to his position in left field the next inning, a Met fan threw an empty whiskey bottle at him that just missed hitting the leftfielder. Alarmed, Reds manager Sparky Anderson pulled his team off the field, which only made things worse. The Mets fans became so unruly and aggressive that National League president Chub Feeney left his seat, went onto the field, and conferred with the umpires, who decided that some of the New York players should walk out to left field and talk to the fans. Manager Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Tom Seaver, Cleon Jones and Rusty Staub took that long walk. It took manager Yogi Berra—that master of the malapropism—to resolve the problem when he said to fans, “Keep quiet. Let them beat us. We’re ahead, 9-2.” The rowdy fans realized that Yogi was talking about a possible forfeit and they calmed down almost immediately. The game went on.
When Harrelson came to the plate in the seventh inning, the Reds’ future Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench asked him what had happened. Harrelson told Bench that Rose had elbowed him. Harrelson said that he wanted to forge the incident because he wanted to play the next day. Rose, however, was not so forgiving. “I might even slide harder tomorrow, if it’s possible,” declared a defiant Rose.
The Mets went on to win the series 3 games to 2, and then lost to Oakland in the World Series. Willie Mays retired after the World Series, and the incident soon faded from memory. Ironically, Pete Rose and Bud Harrelson ended up as teammates in Philadelphia in 1979, when the Phillies signed Rose to a free agent contract. All was forgotten.
However, the Rose-Bud Incident, as it became known, remains one of the strangest and most unfortunate episodes of post-season history. It also remains one of the greatest pugilistic mismatches of all time, with a 60-pound weight difference between the contenders.