Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Bobby Tolan Basketball Injury Revisited: Literary Foreshadowing and Managers Know Best

Two innocent articles appeared on the pages of the Sporting News in November of 1970 which would be related to events that would have a profound effect on the Cincinnati Reds franchise. The articles appeared November 21 and November 28 and were both written by the Cincinnati Post's Earl Lawson, who also moonlighted as the Sporting News' columnist for the Reds. The first article was entitled "Sparky Turns Off Ignition On Big Red Cage Machine." The next weeks' headline was "Basketball Touchy Subject to N.L. Champ Reds," and is accompanied by a picture of Pete Rose in a warmup suit toweling himself off, presumably after playing basketball. At first glance, they appear to be the usual postseason space-filler--something to eat up copy between the World Series and the hot-stove league. A reader who knows the rest of the story, however, is struck by a sense of irony and foreshadowing, as well as--if the reader is a Reds fan--foreboding.

In the old days--before year-round select travel programs for kids in every sport starting at 6 years old--the best athletes played every sport. So it should not be surprising how many great baseball players were also stand-out basketball stars.

Johnny Bench was an All-State high school basketball player in Oklahoma and led his team to the state semifinals in 1965. Brooks Robinson made All-State and was mentioned in a national publication for his efforts for Little Rock Central High School in 1954 and 1955. Frank Robinson, in Oakland, led his team to the state championship, although he had a bit of help from a talented teammate named Bill Russell. Future Red Sox teammates Carl Yastrzemski (in Long Island) and Rico Petrocelli (in Brooklyn) regularly dropped 30 or more points a game on opponents.

Carlton Fisk led his high school team to an undefeated New Hampshire state championship in 1963 as a sophomore and, in his final high school game, in the semifinals in 1965 he set a still-standing state record for most field goals (18) in a state tournament game while scoring 40 points and pulling down 36 rebounds. Jim Palmer led the state of Arizona in scoring as a senior in the early 1960s and was recruited by UCLA's John Wooden. Had he not pursued baseball, he could have won three NCAA championships.

Although no high school star himself, Pete Rose regularly played basketball throughout the off-season in his early years with the Reds. Being a hometown Cincinnati guy, he stayed in the area in the winter and used his contacts to get on a bunch of teams. Some years he was on as many as four different amateur teams, regularly playing in AAU leagues and tournaments throughout the Cincinnati area.

Rose, of course, was the point guard who told everyone what to do; good at driving and dishing. He was also not above a little elbow-throwing or butt-pinching under the basket if needed. Soon after Johnny Bench joined the Reds at the end of the 1967 season, Rose recruited him for several of his teams. Bench, who had been able to palm a basketball with his massive paws since junior high and could dunk in high school, still had a deft jump shot. And if the wide-shouldered, cat-quick Bench wanted a rebound, no one else had a chance.

After the 1968 baseball season the Reds front office decided it would be safer for them to sponsor a basketball team and play exhibitions rather than have some of their best stars risk injury in rough and tumble amateur games. General manager Bob Howsam not only gave his approval for the official Reds basketball team, but paid for snazzy new uniforms and warmups. They played local teams for charity all around the area, as well as in Kentucky and Indiana; playing collections of teachers, firemen, policemen, local celebrities and the like. Sometimes the gate was split, allowing the players to pick up some extra cash--not an unimportant enticement in those reserve clause days.

But often these were no laid-back affairs. Once on the floor, with the natural competitive juices flowing, the games sometimes became hard fought, with neither team conceding anything. It would obviously be a great feather in the cap of any team to be able to later brag that they had once defeated the mighty Big Red Machine--even if it wasn't in their natural game of baseball.

 After the 1969 season, the Reds basketball team played a schedule of more than 30 games. In addition to Bench and Rose, Lee May, Jim Maloney and infielder Jimmy Stewart were regulars, along with a couple of Rose's local friends for fillers. Jim McGlothlin and Bobby Tolan were picked up for 1970. Although his numbers were overshadowed by the teams' slugging stars, everyone in baseball recognized that centerfielder Tolan was obviously a budding star. He was coming off two terrific seasons. In 1970 he had hit .316 with 16 home runs, 80 RBIs and swiped 57 bases. At 25, he figured to only get better. More importantly, along with the slower Rose and the shortstop de jour, Tolan provided the only semblance of speed in the Reds lineup.

Manager Sparky Anderson had seen the basketball team play only once in the previous winter. "Unfortuntely, it was the roughest game we played all season," Rose told Lawson. "I even got into a brawl. We played a small school and the guys on the other team got mad."

In November of 1970, fresh off a great season in which the Reds dominated the National League but came up short in the World Series, Sparky Anderson, fearing injury to a key player, wanted to rule out the formation of a "Reds" basketball team. He had no trouble convincing his boss Bob Howsam to back the decision.

Rose was quoted as saying, "Some guys can keep in shape by exercising and running around a gym track. I have to do something that's competitive. You do that and you're always thinking about winning. And that's a spirit a guy should develop."

"We realize players must keep active during the off-season to remain in shape," Howsam's assistant Sheldon Bender countered. "But basketball presents too much of a risk." As an alternative to basketball, the Reds purchased a new universal weight machine for their clubhouse and set up an organized conditioning program for the first time. Perhaps indicative of the prevailing opinions of weight training for baseball at the time, when backup shortstop Darrell Chaney asked one of the coaches if lifting weights would improve his batting average, the coach replied, "No, but you'll look better sitting on the bench."

While the players reluctantly agreed to Anderson's edict, they did convince him to allow them to play four or five games which had already been set up with numerous advanced tickets purchased. And in general, a good time was had by all, such as the game in Connorsville, Indiana November 14, 1970 when a crowd of 3,500, paying $1.50 each, crammed into the high school gym to watch. The players signed autographs during half time and tossed 72 autographed baseballs into the crowd. Rose termed it "Great public relations for the Reds."

Another game that had been heavily pre-sold was in Frankfort, Kentucky in January. During that game, Bobby Tolan stopped suddenly to retrieve a loose ball. Although no one was within five feet of him, he collapsed and couldn't get up. The back of his foot felt as though he had been kicked by a steel-toed boot. He had completely torn his Achilles tendon. He would miss the entire 1971 season.

It was the first, and possibly most important, in a series of unfortunate events that would completely derail the early version of the Big Red Machine, leading to a disappointing 79-83 record and a fourth place finish for the young team predicted to be a dynasty.

Although Tolan made a fine comeback for the 1972 pennant-winning Reds, hitting .283 and he played in the majors through 1979, he was never again the same version of the near-dominant player of 1969 and 1970. And after the accident, Bob Howsam put his foot down--there would be no more Cincinnati Red basketball after 1971.

And so, looking at the two seemingly innocent articles from 46 years ago, one can only wonder what would have happened to the Big Red Machine, and Bobby Tolan, if the players had heeded Sparky's warning in November of 1970 to stop playing basketball. Would a healthy Bobby Tolan have been enough to offset the injuries to the pitching staff and slumps of Bench, Carbo and Perez? If not enough to win a pennant, would it have been enough to have the decent finish, say second place, that would have prevented Howsam from feeling that he needed to overhaul the team with The Deal that brought Morgan, Billingham, Geronimo et al and led to future greatness?

Questions such as these keep fans and ex-managers awake on long winter nights.


  1. Another interesting post, as usual. However,you have to mention Gene Conley whenever the combination of baseball and basketball is mentioned since he actually played for the Red Sox and the Celtics at the same time. Unfortunately he is more remembered for leaving the team bus at a stoplight, going on a five day bender and trying to fly to Jerusalem in 1962. Of course it would now be impossible for a player to compete at his level in both sports, so he will always remain unique.

    1. Thanks for mentioning Conley. His bus/Jerusalem escapade became the stuff on legend. I believe Pumpsy Green accompanied him. Of course, in those days that was better than anything happening on the field for the Red Sox.
      Also, New York fans will remember that Dave Debusschere pitched for the White Sox one year in the early '60s before he became the definitive power forward.