McCoy: Former Red was National League’s first DH

Johnny Bench is there to greet Dan Driessen after he scores a run during the 1976 World Series. DDN FILE

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Johnny Bench is there to greet Dan Driessen after he scores a run during the 1976 World Series. DDN FILE

Dan Driessen helped Big Red Machine sweep Yankees in 1976 World Series

There was seldom a time when former Cincinnati Reds first baseman Dan Driessen wasn’t wearing a smile as wide as the distance between first and second.

That smile became as wide as the distance between first and third when he was told he would be the team’s designated hitter for the 1976 World Series against the New York Yankees.

The significance was that the ‘76 Series would be the first time a National League player would be a designated hitter. It was used in all four games of the Reds’ four-game sweep of the Yankees.

And Driessen was the man.

He took to it as if he was born to do it. After going 0 for 4 in Game 1, he was 5 for 10 in the next three games. He was 3-for-3 in Game 3 with a home run. Were it not for the outstanding play of Reds catcher Johnny Bench, Driessen might have won the World Series MVP.

“I thought it (DH) was a pretty good thing because it gave me a chance to get into the World Series,” said Driessen during an interview this week. Hall of Famer Tony Perez was the Reds’ first baseman. Without the DH, Driessen would have been relegated to pinch-hitting.

“It was great for me and everybody on the team was excited because I was an extra bat,” he said.  “Manager Sparky Anderson showed confidence in me and that gave me confidence.

“The weather was kind of messed up and our guys were on the field in the cold. I got a chance to get warm sitting in the sauna (when the Yankees batted, and the Reds were on the field).

“And I had a chance to study the pitcher I was facing on the clubhouse TV, see what his pitches were doing, pick up his patterns,” he added.

Of his performance in the 6-3 Game 3 win, Driessen said, “I got an infield single to start the thing. We were facing Dock Ellis and I really like how it turned out. I remember at one point when Ellis hit all of us (with pitches) without any reason. To get him back was a good thing.”

That was in 1974 when Ellis pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates. To open the game, he hit Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Driessen in succession. He tried to hit Perez, throwing two pitches behind him, but missed and walked him. He threw two pitches at Johnny Bench’s head and missed.

Manager Danny Murtaugh removed Ellis and he later said, “I thought our guys were intimidated by the Reds and I wanted to show ‘em that we shouldn’t be afraid of those guys.”

Driessen not only was not intimidated by Ellis, he was not intimidated by the mighty pinstripes.

“I felt really good that I was able to help Cincinnati pull off the sweep,” he said. “That was a super team when you had four Hall of Famers on that team. They haven’t put Rose in the Hall of Fame, but he should be there with Bench, Morgan and Perez. We were confident that if we were losing by a run or two going into the ninth inning, if one guy got on, we would get a rally going. It was a good feeling to play on that team because it was truly loaded.”

After the 1976 World Series, the Reds traded Perez to Montreal to make room for Driessen at first base.

And, although it made room for him, Driessen believes it was a trade that should not have been made.

“I hated to see Tony go because he was a friend and such a good ballplayer, and a team player,” he said. “They asked him if he wanted to stay, but that I was going to get a lot of his at bats. He said, ‘No, I’ll go,’ and he left for Montreal … one of those baseball decisions that has to be made now and then.”

The DH is now part of the National League landscape and Driessen’s feelings are mixed about it.

“It’s good for guys at the end of their careers, they can stretch their careers out a little longer,” he said.

“I like the DH, but at some point, I like to see the pitchers hit. You have some pitchers like Zach

Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, they can swing the bat. Back in the day, pitcher Rick Rhoden and guys like that could really hit.

“I will miss that a little bit, but if it means prolonging the careers of some real sluggers, I’ll settle for the sluggers hitting,” he added, referring to Nelson Cruz coming to the National League and the possibility of Albert Pujols returning to the St. Louis Cardinals.

While the DH is now universal, a part of both leagues, the shift remains, although it may be taken away next year and teams will be required to have two infielders on each side of second base.

“I really don’t like the shift that much, but if you work on it enough as a hitter you can take advantage of it,” he said.

“The type of hitter I was, I could basically beat the shift,” he said. “I hit a lot of balls to left field (he batted left handed). If they pitched me away, I could have slapped the ball through that big hole at shortstop.”

Driessen played in the majors for 15 years, the first 11 with the Reds. He hit .301 in 1973 and .300 in 1977. His career totals: .267, 153 home runs, 763 RBI, 154 stolen base and he never struck out more than 85 times.

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