"Love the exchange with the great Frank Robinson about the Rose-Fosse collision."
- Cincinnati author John Erardi
"The previously untold story of President Nixon and his Secret Service guardians at the 1970 All-Star Game adds a rich twist to the unforgettable ending of a true sports classic."
- Fox Sports Talk Show Host Andy Furman
Riverfront Stadium was aglow. Literally.
Only the fifth night All-Star Game in Major League Baseball history, the 1970 Midsummer Classic had reached the bottom of the sixth inning, and in the evening sky the lights ringing the upper deck were producing a halo effect above the brand new ballpark alongside the Ohio River.
Richard M. Nixon, the 37th President of the United States and an ardent baseball fan, settled into his front row seat.
The American League had moved ahead 1-0 in the top of the sixth on Carl Yastrzemski’s jam-job single to center that drove in – as irony that night would have it – Cleveland’s Ray Fosse. The Americans’ catcher had opened the inning with a single to, yes, Pete Rose in right on the first pitch he saw. If the AL stars could hold that lead, they’d end a seven-year losing streak.
Sam McDowell, the Cleveland lefthander they called Sudden Sam, was in his third inning on the mound for the AL. He walked Dick Allen and Rose to start the bottom of the sixth, but retired Rose’s Cincinnati teammate, Tony Perez, and Chicago’s Jim Hickman on pop flies to second baseman Davey Johnson of the Orioles. That brought another of Rose’s teammates, Johnny Bench, to the plate.
The 51,838 partisan fans anticipated something dramatic from their superstar catcher, but Sudden Sam struck Bench out for the second time in three innings. It was on to the seventh. As Mr. Nixon recorded a K in the scorecard he was keeping, up in the Press Box came an announcement:
“The stadium elevator will be shut down after the top of the seventh inning by Secret Service until the President leaves the stadium.
“Anyone covering either team’s locker room should take the elevator from the press box to the locker room level BEFORE the middle of the seventh. After the top of the seventh, you won’t be able to go to the locker rooms until the President has left the stadium.
“You will be able to see the rest of the game on television monitors in the interview room under the stadium.”
I was among dozens of reporters who hustled to the Press Box elevator, a 25-year-old sports writer hired at The Cincinnati Enquirer less than a year earlier. It was my first All-Star Game.
Little did I – or any of the other writers who went “down under” as the seventh inning began – know what would happen in the next two hours. In the game, or to us.
Riverfront Stadium, the long-awaited successor to Crosley Field, had hosted its first game just two weeks earlier, on June 30 – its opening a half-season behind schedule. So uncertain was Riverfront’s readiness, in fact, that Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had Atlanta Fulton County Stadium waiting in the wings, ready to serve as the site of the 1970 All-Star Game if Cincinnati’s new park could not.
Finally, on June 1, a brief wire service story ended the suspense:
Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced today that the 1970 Major League All-Star Game definitely will be played in Cincinnati July 14.
Construction disputes and other problems threatened to delay opening of the new park. Kuhn said all facilities were expected to be in excellent shape for the All-Star Game.
As it turned out, “all facilities” weren’t exactly in “excellent shape” at Riverfront Stadium the night of the 41st All-Star Game. The giant outfield scoreboard that hung above the centerfield seats went blank for a time during the fourth inning. And that malfunction wasn’t the only glitch.
The so-called “interview room” was a makeshift area in a large, unfinished concrete space under the seats in the lower bowl near home plate. It was defined by large tarps that hung like so much wash on a backyard clothesline. There indeed were televisions mounted on tall stands, as the announcement in the Press Box promised. But the screens were BLANK. The writers, who had been assured they’d be able to see the last few innings on TV, had audio only. Technical problem, we were told. It was being worked on, we were told.
Curt Gowdy, Tony Kubek and the recently retired Mickey Mantle – just two years removed from his last All-Star Game – were in the broadcast booth for NBC. At field level was Lindsey Nelson. The telecast recorded the highest TV Nielsen Rating ever for an All-Star Game, 28.5, which equated to 16,670,000 households, a 54 share.
But for those in the “interview room,” it might as well have been on radio only. It was as if we had stepped back in time, to 1938 in Cincinnati, when the sixth All-Star Game could be heard but not seen.
While members of the press were making their way down under, the American League increased its lead in the top of the seventh. Facing Gaylord Perry, Brooks Robinson singled to center with one out. After Tony Oliva walked, Davey Johnson’s infield single loaded the bases.
No one could have scripted the next hitter. Ray Fosse lined out on a backhanded catch by Cito Gaston in deep center. His sacrifice fly gave the Americans a 2-0 lead.
Twenty eventual Hall of Fame players graced the All-Star rosters that year (plus the gambler who would surpass the immortal Ty Cobb in total hits and, many argue, belongs in Cooperstown with them). The American League roster included the two Robinsons, Frank and Brooks; Yaz – Carl Yastrzemski; Harmon Killebrew, Luis Aparicio, Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter and Rod Carew, who was injured and did not play. The National League team featured Bench, Perez, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Joe Morgan, McCovey, Joe Torre, and pitchers Gibson, Gaylord, Perry, Tom Seaver and Hoyt Wilhelm (who at the age of 47 years, 353 days would have broken Satchel Paige’s record as theh oldest player ever to participated in an All-Star Game had he entered the game).
Two managers who made it to Cooperstown (Earl Weaver and Leo Durocher) and home plate ump Al Barlick, who would become the sixth umpire enshrined, also took part.
But for all that star power, a few one-time all-stars helped to decide the game.
The AL led 4-1 starting the bottom of the ninth. Dick Dietz, a 28-year-old catcher for the Giants making the only All-Star appearance of an otherwise undistinguished eight-year major league career, homered to deep center off Catfish, who had come on in the ninth to finish off the NL. A single by McCovey and a sacrifice fly by Clemente later in the inning tied the score. With the winning run at first, Pete Rose struck out to end the rally and send the game to extra innings.
If only we could go back to the press box for extra innings, the marooned reporters said to each other! But this All-Star Game was so suspenseful that the President of the United States decided he’d stay and see how it would end. The elevators remained locked down.
There was no Internet in 1970. No laptops or cell phones, either. Curt Gowdy, with help from Kubek and Mantle, was our link to the outside world, or at least to the world of the game that should have been unfolding before our very eyes.
The Americans managed a single and two doubles in their first three extra innings, but no run. Meanwhile, the Nationals didn’t put a man on base in the extra innings until two were out in the bottom of the 12th. Then came the first All-Star Game hit of Pete Rose’s illustrious career, a single to center. In nine previous All-Star Game plate appearances, Rose had walked twice, laid down a sacrifice bunt and gone 0-for-6 with four strikeouts.
The next hitter was Billy Grabarkewitz, a 24-year-old Dodgers infielder in his first full major league season. Grabarkewitz would be out of the majors by 1975, but in the 12th inning of his only All-Star Game, he singled just under the glove of shortstop Luis Aparicio. Rose stopped at to second. Then came the deciding single by journeyman Jim Hickman.
As soon as I heard Curt Gowdy say Rose had scored the winning run by crashing into Ray Fosse, I headed for the American League locker room. The obvious angle was the play at the plate, but I didn’t know if Fosse would be able, much less willing, to talk about it. My deadline was less than 30 minutes away.
And then I spotted Frank Robinson, still in uniform even though he had left the lineup about two hours earlier. Asking the Cincinnati icon to comment on what sounded like a controversial play by a former Reds teammate seemed a natural, and something I should be able to get quickly. I figured Robby would be willing to talk with me since I’d interviewed him the day before.
Getting only grunts for answers, I finally asked Robby if he thought Rose scored on a dirty play. His response was something that remained between him and me for the next 45 years.