CINCINNATI – For baseball players, Pete Rose and Johnny Bench were pretty good at basketball, too, in their day.
Thousands of Tri-State fans crowded into gyms to watch them dribble, shoot and rebound in person. For two offseasons, that is, until a serious injury put a stop to all the fun.
WATCH the Reds play UC's 1961 and '62 NCAA champions in 1971 in the player above.
If center fielder Bobby Tolan hadn’t ruptured his Achilles tendon in a game in Frankfort, Kentucky, in January, 1971, you might be able to watch Joey Votto and Billy Hamilton run the court today.
Following the 1969 baseball season, Rose got the idea to put together a Reds basketball team to play charity games during the winter. He recruited Bench, Tolan, Lee May, Jim Maloney, Jimmy Stewart and others.
They drove or bussed to high school and college gyms as far as 100 miles away to play teams of former high school and college players, local celebrities, even teachers, and to raise money for good causes.
The Reds played 51 games over two winters and won 47 – with the help of a few ringers.
“We’re 47-4 for two years and that ain’t bad,” Rose told WCPO after losing to the University of Cincinnati’s NCAA champions from 1961 and 1962 on Jan. 23, 1971 at UC’s Armory Fieldhouse.
It seems absurd today. What major leaguer would even consider giving up his free time – not to mention risking injury – to do that?
But it wasn’t uncommon in those days. The Bengals had a basketball team, and so did many other MLB and NFL franchises.
For one thing, many players barely scraped by on their sports salaries. To give you an idea, Bench made $23,500 in 1969. Davey Concepcion made $12,000 in 1970. The entire Reds roster didn’t crack $1 million until 1971. Rose ($107,500) was the only player over $100K.
In those days, many players worked offseason jobs in the cities where they played. Because most teams didn’t have workout facilities, playing basketball was a way to work up a sweat and keep their competitive juices flowing.
And, unlike today, there was nothing in a baseball player’s contract to stop them. The standard contract only prohibited players from skiing. That clause was added in 1968 after Red Sox ace Jim Lonborg hit the slopes and tore knee ligaments just weeks after winning two World Series games against the Cardinals and the Cy Young Award in 1967.
After Tolan went down, three months after the Reds lost the 1970 World Series to the Orioles, General Manager Bob Howsam asked Rose to break up the team. Rose said at first he thought he was being treated as a scapegoat.
“I’ve been playing basketball during the off-season for eight years and Tolan was the first guy I ever saw seriously injured,” Rose told The Enquirer. “I can’t keep in shape over the winter unless I have competition and there are a lot of guys who feel the same way.”
Rose and the other Reds agreed, though, as long as they could play two more games that had already sold a lot of tickets. The last game, against UC’s national champs, drew more than 4,000 and turned out to be a Saturday afternoon to remember.
It was a triumphant homecoming for coach Ed Jucker and some of UC’s biggest basketball heroes from the glory days, including Tom Thacker, Ron Bonham, Paul Hogue and Tony Yates.
Both teams brought in a couple of ringers – UC added two of its older alums, Connie Dierking, who had a 12-year career in the NBA, and Bob Wiesenhahn.
Rose came up with Dick Vories, a two-time Little All-American from Georgetown College.
Tolan was there and signed autographs at halftime, but his injury would keep him out of a baseball lineup for all of 1971.
The game was close at halftime, with UC ahead 57-50, but no contest after that. Vories scored 47, Bench 18 and Rose 16, but the Reds were no match for UC.
Jucker’s team had seven players in double figures – led by Dierking (23) and Wiesenhahn (22) - and the Bearcats won 128-97.
Jucker was impressed by Bench's basketball skills. Looking like he was playing catcher, Bench wound up and threw several passes the length of the court to complete fast breaks.
“Hey, that Bench is something,” the retired UC coach said. “He could play any sport with the best.”
In the locker room afterward, Rose said he was sad it was over.
“Mr. Howsam wants us to stop playing basketball and he is the boss ...” Rose said. “It’s been great public relations for the ball club and the players who stayed here. It’s a shame we can’t continue because we played to close to 90,000 people in two years.”
Proceeds from the game went to the Jim Schroer Scholarship Fund at UC. Schroer, a UC grad, was the football team trainer at Marshall and was killed in the 1970 plane crash.
Bench, looking back on the end to the Reds basketball team, said, “I think it’s really served its purpose.”