Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs #5 – “Big Red” by Ken Griffey and Phil Pepe

10 01 2016

Last year I read a couple of books about the current class of Hall of Famers.  I finished autobiographies about Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz.  Craig Biggio and Randy Johnson don’t have autobiographies, but I have found books that I could read about them.  But in anticipation of Ken Griffey Jr’s HOF induction, I decided to read his father’s autobiography.  Senior wrote a book in 2014 about his life and career.  As a Reds fan, it was a great read!

book cover Griffey sr

Title/Author/Publisher: “Big Red: Baseball, Fatherhood, and My Life in the Big Red Machine” by Ken Griffey and Phil Pepe (Triumph Books, 2014, 224 pages)

Unfortunately, Pepe passed away about a month ago.  He had a Hall of Fame vote, and did turn it in – I’m guessing he’s one of the 437 voters who checked the box next to Griffey’s son, making Junior the recipient of the highest percentage vote in history.

Description:  This book was more like the Martinez book I read, in that it’s a classic beginnings-to-today autobiography.  He starts with his days in Donora, a steel mill town in Western Pennsylvania.  He was born 2 years after the worst pollution disaster in U.S. history, and his father left his family shortly after his birth.  He grew up as a high school football star who played baseball when the weather allowed it.

He covers his time in the minors and his rise to the big leagues, along with George Foster, as the final piece to the Big Red Machine.  A large part of the book covers the 70’s in Cincinnati, when the Reds won back-to-back World Series behind the “Big Four” and skipper Sparky Anderson.  Griffey also covers his time with the Yankees, where he mentored Don Mattingly, had trouble getting along with the irascible Billy Martin, and played under “the Boss” George Steinbrenner.  All along this time, he gives anecdotes of his time raising a future Hall-of-Famer.  He finishes up with his brief return to Cincinnati, which led to his trade to Seattle.  That led to a baseball first – Junior and Senior Griffey playing together in the same outfield, and one memorable night in September 1990 when they hit back-to-back homers.

My review:  The last few biographies I’ve read have been MLB Hall of Famers, but that’s not the case with Griffey, Sr.  However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t an interesting guy for this type of book.  On the contrary, Griffey’s career may be as interesting as any Hall of Famer because of the paths he crossed.

  • As a young high school star, he knew Donora’s famous son, all-timer Stan Musial.  Musial played high school basketball with Griffey’s dad.
  • He started his days as the youngest member of the “Great Eight” – the Big Red Machine – playing for Sparky and alongside Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez.
  • After the Machine was dismantled, he played with Tom Seaver and earned an All-Star Game MVP in 1980.
  • In New York, he was viewed by the Boss as the replacement for Reggie Jackson.  He played for the Steinbrenner managerial carousel, which included Bob Lemon, Gene Michael, Clyde King, Billy Martin (twice), Yogi Berra, and Lou Piniella.
  • While in the Bronx, he actually kept Donnie Baseball in the outfield as a rookie because they thought enough of his skills at first base – even though he had never played the position.  He played alongside Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson while there.
  • He spent a couple of seasons in Atlanta, where he played with Glavine and Smoltz before they became Glavine and Smoltz.
  • He went back to Cincy (again playing for Piniella) and has a World Series ring for the Wire-to-Wire Reds.  There he was teammates with Barry Larkin, Paul O’Neill and Eric Davis.
  • Midway through the ’90 season, he was traded to Seattle, where he got to play with his son, Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez.
  • And he’s coached in the Reds organization for most of his post-playing days.

Needless to say, that’s some serious connections.  He’s played alongside 14 Hall-of-Famers (and Pete Rose), and played for 3 more (and Pete Rose).  That was what struck me most about the book.  He started with Stan the Man, and ended with the Kid.  And gave some really cool perspective along the way.  He confirmed why Junior would never have signed with the Yankees – Billy Martin treated Ken Jr. and Craig poorly when they played in the clubhouse).  He gave his perspective on Pete Rose’s banishment – he thinks Rose should be in the Hall but acknowledges the severity of Pete’s transgressions.  He gives some unique insight into the Big Red Machine days; the most interesting thing in the book to me was that he didn’t particularly like Sparky Anderson for a lot of his playing career.

The best part of the book, however, is when he discusses his son.  Throwing baseballs in the backyard, taking Pete Rose Jr. out as a kid, his sons hitting in Yankee Stadium batting cages, and Junior getting drafted first overall.  The last part of the book talks about their first day playing together and culminates with the day the two hit back-to-back homers.  At the end of the day, baseball is about fathers and sons more than anything else.

Griffey Jr Sr pic

Big Red is a good book for any baseball fan.  As a Reds and Ken Griffey Jr. fan – it was a great book.

Other Notable nuggets:  As you can imagine, this book has a lot of great stories:

  • As I mentioned, the fact that he didn’t have a good relationship with Sparky Anderson was surprising to me.  I guess I assumed it was all hunky-dory in the Reds’ clubhouse.  But from the book, Sparky treated the Big Four differently from everyone else (which is somewhat reasonable).  It’s not that Griffey and Sparky had a contentious relationship – it sounds like they just didn’t talk much.  Sparky just didn’t trust him since he was the youngest.  Griffey is sure to point out that he respected Anderson’s baseball knowledge; it just sounds like they didn’t develop much of a relationship until after retirement.
  • There’s a great story about Pedro Borbon in the 1973 NLCS.   In Game 3, the Reds were getting blown out and a brawl erupted.  Pedro Borbon and Buzz Capra were right in the middle of it, and it ended with Borbon walking off the field with a Mets’ cap.
  • I think I knew this but didn’t really remember it.  Griffey was smack dab in the middle of the Big Red Machine’s first World Series victory.  Griffey scored the tying and go-ahead run in game 7 of the 1975 Series.
  • I didn’t realize how close he was to winning a batting title.  He had the lead on Bill Madlock going into the last day of the 1976 season only to give it up when Madlock went 4 for 4.
  • After the 1978 season the Reds went on an exhibition tour in Japan, and Griffey got to play against Japanese legend Sadaharu Oh.  Strangely, Sparky was fired shortly after that trip.  Griffey said GM Dick Wagner was asking the players about Sparky on the trip.
  • There are a few funny stories with George Steinbrenner.  Rickey Henderson had made a mistake in the outfield, with Griffey backing him up.  After the game, Yogi Berra came up to Griffey and told him he needed to come in to take extra ground balls in the outfield.  Griffey asked why – he wasn’t the one who made a mistake.  Yogi’s response – “George wants you to do that because he can’t tell Rickey”.
  • In 1986, Griffey was frustrated with how Piniella was playing him and actually skipped a game.  I’d never heard that, and the world would go nuts if somebody did that today.  That got him traded to the Braves.
  • Senior actually played respectably in 1990 once he was traded to Seattle.  He thought he had a few more years in his body, but he got in a car accident in Spring Training of 1991.  He played for about a month, but the accident effectively ended his career.

There isn’t a card directly involved with this book, so I’ll go with the one card I know of with the whole Griffey family.  Craig was a prospect in the Seattle farm system who topped out at AAA baseball.  All 3 of them are shown here on the 1992 Upper Deck Bloodlines subset.

1992 UD Griffey bloodlines



One response

17 07 2016
Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs #7 – “Baseball’s Greatest Series” by Chris Donnelly | Lifetime Topps project

[…] Martinez and John Smoltz, I’d have read it for sure.  His dad has one, however, and I did read that one.  Also, Junior’s teammate on the Mariners, Randy Johnson, went into the Hall of Fame […]

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