For Gutzon Borglum and son Lincoln, the creation of Mount Rushmore took 14 years of painstaking, minute precision. History couldn’t be carved in an instant.
Yet last week, after Lebron James erected his basketball Mount Rushmore, it took less than three days for hundreds more to be carved into fictitious sports mountains. In places less remote than South Dakota, analysts and fans built Rushmores for football players, Yankees, sports movies, and Space Jam characters.
(Okay, maybe that last one was just me. For the record, it’s Michael Jordan, Bill Murray, the Muggsy Bogues Monstar, and Lola Bunny. That debate is over. Let’s move on.)
So naturally, here at Blog Red Machine’s headquarters, which in this case is a studio apartment in Indianapolis, I decided to construct Mount Redsmore. And when you are dealing with one of the most historic franchises in North American sport, that is no easy task.
Gutzon, I feel your pain. Even if it’s in the past, history should never be etched in stone.
Rules of Mount Redsmore
First, some guidelines.
1. To earn a place on Mount Rushmore is not the same as being the best. Mount Rushmore, as much as it is an ode, is a timeline, a sequence, a history. By 1941, I think it was debatable as to whether Teddy Roosevelt was one of the four best presidents in our nation’s history. But he most certainly earned that place on the mountain for one, his dedication to preservation (which I’m sure that mountain appreciated), and two, his influence in making the United States a more global entity (which comes with good and bad). History lesson aside, I take this into account in constructing Mount Redsmore. It wouldn’t make sense, as much as one might be tempted, to put four members of the Big Red Machine on the list. That leaves out too many years, eras, and teams.
2. In this debate, I focused almost entirely on a player’s contribution to the Reds and Cincinnati’s legacy. So, for example, I don’t even consider Ken Griffey, Jr., for his greatest contributions to baseball came as a Seattle Mariners, and it is on that mountain that he belongs. Similarly, I felt that Jonathan Broxton was best kept on the McDonald’s Mount Rushmore. Dude can clearly crush a McRib.
3. I tried my best to toss personal feelings aside, or else I would have spent an inordinate amount of time attempting to justify the honorable mentions of players like Pokey Reese and Corky Miller‘s mustache.
Now, let’s get to the list.
- Jose Rijo (14 years played, 10 in Cincinnati).
Reds stats: 97 wins, 2.83 ERA, 138 ERA+, 1x All-Star, 1x World Series MVP.
Let me, for a second, revel in what might have been.
Before injuries derailed the life and times of Jose Rijo, the hurler from the Dominican Republic solidified his legend in Cincinnati. His performance in the 1990 World Series, alone, merits mention on this list, as he’s forever the linchpin that brought a banner back to Cincinnati. He allowed one run against Oakland in a four game sweep, taking two wins and the MVP trophy.
In 1993, he led the NL in WAR. A few years later, he effectively disappeared. But, oh, what might have been.
George Foster (18 years played, 11 in Cincinnati).
Reds stats: .286/.356/.514, 244 HR, 140 OPS+, 5x All-Star, 1977 MVP, 39.4 WAR
Foster is often the cog in the Big Red Machine most forgotten when people wax poetic about those Cincinnati teams of the 70s. But the man was an offensive force, and a key piece in bringing home the two World Series Championships that the Reds secured in their greatest era.
Foster hit a career .326/.370/.372 in World Series games, and was particularly influential in the 1976 Cincinnati victory. And Foster raked during the regular season, too. Twice he led the league in both home-runs and RBIs.
But he doesn’t make this list because of the greatness that surrounded him. As I said, the Big Red Machine can’t make up the entire mountain. However, Foster shouldn’t be forgotten. Without him, the Queen City might never have secured those crowns.
Heinie Groh (16 years, nine in Cincinnati; 1913-1921).
Reds stats: .298/.378/.394, 515 walks versus only 257 strikeouts, 40.9 WAR.
Let’s get the obvious joke out of the way: his name sounds like some sort of ass-fertilizer.
Done giggling? Can we move on? Okay, good.
Groh was a man ahead of his time, an on-base machine well before Bill James helped us see its value. And he also earned a reputation as one of the better defensive third basemen in the game after floundering at second base in his early years.
At some point in his career, Groh led the National League in the following categories: walks, hits, doubles, on-base percentage, runs scored, and on-base plus slugging. He also led the league seven times in double plays started by a third basemen, and finished top three in WAR from 1915 to 1918.
Not bad for the butt of the joke.
Bid McPhee (18 years with the Cincinnati Highlanders, Red Stockings, and Reds; 1882-1899).
Reds stats: .272/.355/.373, 568 stolen bases, 2258 hits, 52.7 WAR, 6x leader in assists by a 2B, 8x leader in fielding pct.
I wanted so badly for McPhee to be the George Washington on this mountain. The Hall-of-Famer, who dates back to the 19th century, is almost more myth than man in baseball’s annals. According to legend, he is the last second baseman to field without a glove, and soaked his hands in saltwater to toughen the skin. And for his troubles, he made a whopping $2300 in 1887; Joey Votto just made that much spitting a sunflower seed.
Most notably, McPhee is one of three Hall of Fame players to spend their entire career in Cincinnati. For that, me and my pansy hands salute him.
Ted Kluszewski (15 years, 11 in Cincinnati).
Reds stats: .302/.357/.512, 4x All-Star, 1954 MVP runner-up, 251 HR
Emotions aside, the Big Klu probably doesn’t warrant mention on this list. He appeared in zero postseason games, never received more than 14% of the Hall of Fame vote, and might be most famous for his incredible biceps that bulged from his sleeveless uniform.
But Klu has a bigger legacy than that in Cincinnati. Not only did he finish in the league’s top 10 in batting average for seven separate seasons, but he took that hitting prowess to the next level. Most forget that he was the hitting coach under Sparky Anderson for the Reds in the 1970s. Those guys, I’ve heard, hit pretty well –machine like, even.
Tony Perez (23 years, 16 in Cincinnati).
Reds stats: .283/.346/.474, 127 OPS+, 287 HR, 1306 SO, 2x WS Champion, 7x All-Star
Perez earned his nickname as the “Mayor of Riverfront” and deserves his place in history as a Hall-of-Fame player and Big Red Machine contributor. But he is far from the accolades of his better teammates.
In the postseason, he hit .238 with an OBP under .300 and almost as many strikeouts (37) as hits (41). That was a theme for much of his career, as he ranks 12th in strikeouts by a batter all-time.
That said, he’s a great story. He never once went on the DL, and given his background, I’d say it’s because he valued, above all else, the chance to play. When the Reds signed him in Havana, Cuba, his bonus was the $2.50 it cost him to get a visa.
With the mountains he has already climbed, this one is of no importance.
Joey Votto (7 seasons, so far, in Cincinnati).
I’ll make this quick, because, by now, you’ve read the book on Joey Votto. But simply consider the fact that in seven seasons, he’s already hitting .314/.419/.541 with an OPS+ of 155. He’s an MVP, a four-time All-Star, and, amazingly, signed through 2024 to play in Cincinnati.
Today, he doesn’t make Redsmore. But Votto has his boots on; he’s climbing the mountain.
The last cut
Joe Morgan (22 years, eight in Cincinnati).
Reds stats: .288/.415/.470, 152 HR, 406 SB, 2x MVP, 8x All-Star, 5x Gold-glove winner, a career WAR over 100, 2x World Series Champion.
This one hurts the most.
According to Bill James, baseball historian, Joe Morgan knows no equal. He’s the best second baseman in a sport that dates back to pre-Civil War sandlots. He led Major League Baseball in WAR four separate times. He nearly average a 20 HR/50 SB split as a Cincinnati Red.
So how could he not be on the mountain?
For one, as I mentioned, this isn’t the Big Red Machine Mount Rushmore, so a superstar was going to fall short. To me, Morgan is the obvious choice. Even if his peak years happened during his stay in Cincinnati, he still played a majority of his career elsewhere. Longevity matters when discussing the impact of a legacy on a city, on a fan base.
Morgan also didn’t exactly rise in the biggest moments for the Reds. As much as I hate the constant discussion of “clutch genes,” it’s hard to overlook Morgan’s career postseason batting average of .182 when picking nits between him and two of the greatest players to ever play the game.
All of this said, Joe Morgan almost certainly belongs in a conversation started by these words: “name the best four players that ever wore a Reds uniform.” If that’s your criteria for Rushmore, he should be set in stone.
At last, you’ve made the ascent. You’ve arrived. By process of elimination, you may already know whose faces are now forever carved into Mount Redsmore (or, at least, until the first commenter tells me where to stick my mountaintop).
And I believe the greatest moments of Reds history can be traced in the wrinkles of these four faces.
Frank Robinson (21 years, 10 in Cincinnati).
Reds stats: .303/.357/.512, 324 HR, 150 OPS+, Rookie-of-the-Year Award, 1961 MVP, 6x All-Star, 1x Gold-Glover, 63.9 WAR.
Like Joe Morgan, Robinson didn’t spend a majority of his career in Cincinnati. But unlike Joe Morgan, there was no team on which he spent more time, and unlike Joe Morgan, he was the unquestioned star of the Reds team he played on.
Robinson is one of baseball’s greatest. He ranks 24th all-time in WAR, took home a Triple Crown in 1966, and came into the league, bat blazing, at a time when black men were much less than welcomed, much more than scrutinized.
And to me, he represents the best Cincinnati Red in the era before the Big Red Machine stole Cincinnati hearts.
The case against him would argue that he was inducted into the Hall-of-Fame as a Baltimore Oriole, that many keys to his legacy (the Triple Crown, his Manager of the Year Award, his Presidential Medal of Freedom) belong to another city.
But it was Cincinnati that had the guts and the scouting eyes to sign Robinson, only a couple years after making Chuck Harmon their first African-American player. And many of those first years of Frank’s were some of the sweetest. If Mount Redsmore is to represent a Cincinnati that existed before 1970, you can find no better ambassador.
Barry Larkin (19 years, all in Cincinnati).
Reds stats: .295/.371/.444, 2340 hits, 12x All-Star, 9x Silver-Slugger, 3x Gold-Glover, 1995 MVP, 70.2 WAR
When a man gives two decades of high-quality baseball to a single city (in which he was born and raised), he belongs.
When a man wins Gold Gloves at the same position inhabited by Ozzie Smith, he belongs.
When a man is a chief ambassador of his sport overseas, a builder of the Champions Sports Complex, the first team captain since Davey Concepcion retired, a winner of both the Roberto Clemente and Lou Gehrig Award, and ALL in the name of Cincinnati, he belongs.
Barry Larkin belongs.
The Reds have not won the World Series since 1990, a fact of which I’m sure all reading this are painfully aware. The star of that franchise, that moment, the man that graced the newspapers as he leaped into the air, he belongs. He’s the city’s last happy sports memory. He’s the face of the only team post Big Red Machine to hunt, and dominate, Red October.
Add to that a Hall-of-Fame career, and the formula spits out an easy solution: he belongs on the mountain. To leave him out would be to pretend that baseball hasn’t been played well in Cincinnati since the 70s.
A younger generation remembers differently. They remember number 11, shortstop –the last reminder of Queen City pride.
Pete Rose (24 years, 19 in Cincinnati).
Reds stats: 3358 hits, .307/.379/.425, Rookie-of-the-Year, 1973 MVP, 13x All-Star, 2x Gold-Glover, 2x World Series Champ, 78.0 WAR.
The hit king needs no introduction.
And his complicated legacy has been chronicled by our own Jesse Borek.
So I’ll keep this simple. Yes, Pete Rose is a sleaze. But, darn it, he’s Cincinnati’s sleaze.
Like Larkin, Pete Rose grew up in Cincinnati, and in a story made for the Silver Screen, got to give his city 19 years of beautiful, blustering baseball.
He played six different positions for the betterment of the team. He earned a once-derogatory, now legendary, nickname for hustling with wild abandon. He did enough in the community, like Larkin, to earn Clemente and Gehrig Awards.
So maybe he is selfish. But he gave Cincinnati enough to deserve a place on the highest peaks of the seven-hill city. On its mountain.
Johnny Bench (17 years, all in Cincinnati).
Reds stats: 2x MVP, 14x All-Star, Rookie of the Year, 10x Gold-Glover, 389 HR, 75.2 WAR
Johnny Bench should wear a mask in the center of this mountain.
Thy catcher is thy captain, and Bench captained one of the greatest rosters in baseball history. And from both sides of the plate, he helped lead them to the promised land. With the bat, he hit a career .279/.340/.523 with five home-runs on the World Series stage. Behind the plate, he threw out 43% of would-be base-stealers (8% better than league average) and ranks 7th all-time in Total Zone Runs as a catcher.
His legacy is unquestioned.
ESPN ranked him as the greatest catcher of all time. The best college catcher, each year, gets an award named after him.
You know you’ve reached a special place when you are no longer just honored, but THE honor.
And all of this he did in Red and White, for the Ohio River city that loved seeing number five crouched behind the plate.
Needless to say, when the Reds drafted him as the 36th pick in the second round, that, my friends, was quite a catch.
And so it is written. So it is carved. The Mount Rushmore of Cincinnati baseball has risen from the sand.
Get out your wrecking balls.
Let me hear your best.