I broke two of my reading guidelines when tackling Joe Posnanski’s The Machine, his 20010 book about the remarkable 1975 Cincinnati Reds, focusing on their larger-than-life personalities as much as he does on the way they steamrolled through the National League. The first rule is that I almost never read baseball books. Baseball is work; reading is pleasure. When work invades pleasure, it becomes work. So I keep them separate as much as possible. The second rule is that I try not to read books written by people I know, especially if I count them as friends (as I do Joe), because then if I don’t like the book, I am faced with the difficult task of keeping my mouth shut, which, as many of you surely realize, is not something at which I am particularly skilled.
The good news is that I liked The Machine quite a bit – not as much as I loved The Soul of Baseball, which isn’t really a baseball book anyway, just a book about some people who played the game, but that’s an absurdly high standard. I won’t pretend to give The Machine an objective review, so I’ll focus on why I would recommend it.
I turned two during the 1975 season and have no memories of the Big Red Machine other than my parents telling me about those teams (including their dismantling of the Yankees in the 1976 World Series) when I was first becoming a baseball fan about five or six years later. Posnanski does a good job of keeping readers in the flow of the season, which started slowly for the Reds but turned into a romp that didn’t end until they faced the Red Sox in October, while also weaving in short but telling anecdotes about the team’s central personalities – primarily Rose, Anderson, Morgan, and Bench, and if you need their first names, well, you’re probably not the target audience here anyway.
Posnanski does a good job of humanizing Rose and Morgan, both of whom needed it for obvious yet totally unrelated reasons, while somewhat demythologizing Johnny Bench, who was one of baseball’s last true Hollywood stars, although he’s now better remembered for Krylon commercials and his gigantic hands. (Truckasaurus.) Rose doesn’t come off as sympathetic, just as pathologically driven; you won’t forgive his transgressions, but you can at least somewhat understand how he reached that bottom. Morgan, meanwhile, comes off as the cerebral player we all thought he was, given his stat lines, but that he did his best as an announcer to convince us that he wasn’t. (Disclaimer: I’ve never met Joe Morgan, and have no idea what he’s like as a person or as a student of the game.) Anderson, Tony Perez, Davey Concepcion, and Ken Griffey (Sr.) don’t get quite the same treatment, although I found the quiet rage of Griffey, still evident in contemporary quotes within the book, more reminiscent of Barry Bonds than of Ken Griffey, Jr., who had more of a reputation in baseball circles as an idler and a bit of a diva.
The Machine kicks into high gear at the end of the book when the nobody-respects-us Red Sox reach the Series and finally give the Reds the test they didn’t have all season. Those games were dramatic and come off as such on the pages, especially the epic Game 6, which Posnanski evokes through quotes and stories, including Rose’s boundless enthusiasm for what he correctly identified at the time as one of the greatest games in baseball history.
Posnanski mentions the team’s ethnic makeup and players’ obliviousness to it a few times during the book, but I wonder if that was truly a coming of age for MLB players post-Civil Rights Movement or just a function of winning breeding good chemistry. Was it unusual at the time to have a lineup – and the book is mostly about the lineup – that was so racially balanced? Did contemporary news sources see it as a big deal? In 1960, it would have been, and in 1980 it would scarcely have been noticed. I don’t know where 1975 fell on that continuum.
Posnanski’s writing has always spoken to me and, as you’d expect, the book absolutely flies – I knocked it off on a weekend trip to LA earlier this month. The friend who gave me this as a gift made a damn good call.