The list of Hall of Famers keeps on rolling along, as we proudly announce Tony “Big Dog” Perez with our honor of being the greatest to wear the #24 in Reds history.
Born in Ciego de Avila, Cuba, Perez was not awarded the opportunities that many American-born athletes receive when they begin to play the game. Working at a sugar cane factory in his home country, Atanasio Perez Rigal was discovered.
One of the longest baseball odysseys in history had begun when at age 17; Perez signed a deal with the Cincinnati Reds and was given a visa that allowed him to come to the United States.
Perez would not become a full-time player until the 1967 season, when he was 24 years old. The years of Minor League seasoning, and parts of three big leagues seasons spent watching from the bench, proved vital.
In his first four seasons as the primary man at the hot corner, Perez was elected to the All-Star Game each year. He also finished in the top-10 of MVP balloting three out of the four years, and produced a monstrous, 40 homerun, 129 RBI season in 1970 when the Reds made it to the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles. Maybe more than anyone, Perez was a victim of his legendary teammates. With Morgan, Bench and Rose all in the same locker room as him, MVP awards were hard to come by. Then again, acknowledgements like that went by the way side of “Doggie.”
Tying into the best #23 to ever play for the Reds, Lee May, was that upon May’s exit, it left a vacancy over at first base for Perez to fill. From that day forward, Perez would never venture back to the other side of the diamond, cementing his legacy as one of the Reds great first basemen.
The heart and soul of the Reds championship clubs left for north of the border following the conclusion of the most dominant season in National League history, 1976. Dynasties can realistically never last forever, but shipping Perez off to the Montreal Expos all but drove the final nail into the coffin of everything that the Reds had built.
After three average seasons in Montreal, (by Perez’s standards at least) he found his way over to the club that he fought tooth and nail with in the 1975 World Series, the Boston Red Sox. With the added benefit of the designated hitter, Perez was able to give one last, 25 homerun/105 RBI effort, signifying the last golden year of his career.
As a measure of some sort of exacted revenge, Rose, Morgan and Perez all found their way onto the 1983 Philadelphia Phillies roster. The calculation worked, as the Phillies managed to win the National League pennant before ultimately falling short to the Baltimore Orioles in the Fall Classic.
Having no ill feelings for the club that gave him everything, Perez returned for his ride off into the sunset. Being used as a marginal bench player and back-up first baseman, Perez stuck it out until the conclusion of the 1986 season, marking an astounding 23-year playing career in just the Major Leagues. Perez was 44 years old when he played in his final game.
At the conclusion of his playing days, Perez still managed to find his way back into a Major League dugout. He was the head man in charge of the Reds in 1993, and the same for the Florida Marlins in 2001.
With his number being retired, and no one different of impact having worn it since the mid-1950s, Perez was an easy lock for this distinction.
The same number, 24, has been made famous by legends such as Willie Mays, Rickey Henderson, Ken Griffey Jr., and even Barry Bonds. All those mentioned (excluding Bonds) are enshrined in Cooperstown alongside Perez.
For as long as the Reds will be playing baseball in the Queen City, the debates will rage on over who the best first baseman has been. Those of a much older time will claim Ted Kluszewski. Those that grew up with the Big Red Machine as the Greek Gods of baseball will scream for Tony Perez. Those watching the current state of affairs in baseball will tell their kids that Joey Votto is the clear choice.
The one thing that cannot be disputed is the fact that Tony Perez was one of the best hitters who ever lived, and he will always be, a Cincinnati Red.