It is popular consensus, and rightly so, that Bob Howsam was the architect of The Big Red Machine, and that manager Sparky Anderson was carpenter who nailed it together.
There is, though, another man who seldom receives his proper props for being an early part of The Machine’s success.
HIS NAME IS DAVE BRISTOL. FIRST of all, Bristol managed the old minor league San Diego Padres, the Reds top affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. Managing most of the players who became The Machinists, Bristol won five championships in eight years, from 1957 to 1965.
He had started his managing career as a 24-year-old player/manager for the Reds Class D (the bottom of the minor league ladder at the time) Hornell Redlegs.
Bristol was promoted to the Reds coaching staff in 1966 under new manager Don Heffner. But Heffner lasted only half a season and Bristol took over the team on July 13.
And he managed the Reds through the 1969 season, taking the team to the brink of success. But he was fired after the 1969 season, replaced by Sparky Anderson. And the rest, as they say, is history.
BRISTOL, THOUGH, DID MORE THAN enough to be considered for the Reds Hall of Fame, right?
He also served two terms as a Reds coach, including under manager Pete Rose, after Bristol’s managing career with the Reds, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants.
Bristol, a baseball lifer, was known as a volatile guy who took guff from nobody, especially umpires. He always had his players’ backs.
In 1969, I was assigned to cover my first major league game, subbing for Jim Ferguson, the beat writer at the time for the Dayton Daily News.
Before I left for the game, Ferguson told me, “Pitcher Gary Nolan is on the disabled list and is scheduled to throw in the bullpen before the game. Be sure to ask Bristol how he did?”
SO AFTER THE GAME, a 2-1 victory, I wanted to be the bright, young, aggressive reporter. So I asked the first question: “How did Gary Nolan do in the bullpen?”
Bristol looked up at me, his bushy eyebrows fluttering, and he said, loudly, “We just won a great $^&$#^ ballgame and you want to know how #%&%# Gary Nolan did?”
Scared me to death. I never asked another question and in preceding games I refined from questioning Bristol. Later, when he became a coach with the Reds, I repeated the story to him. He broke into a large grin and said, “I loved to intimidate young writers.”
He succeeded. Indelibly.
AFTER THE REDS FIRED HIM, Bristol’s career as a manager was spent trying to guide miserable, talentless teams.
He was hired as the second manager of the old Seattle Pilots in 1970, a team on the brink of bankruptcy. Just six days before Opening Day Milwaukee car dealer Bud Selig bought the team and moved it to Milwaukee. But the Brewers remained in the American League West, meaning their travel consisted mostly of debilitating west coast trips.
Nobody could have won with that team. It wasn’t the Brew Brew at the time. It was the Motley Crew and after two seasons and 30 games Bristol was fired in 1972.
HIS NEXT STOP WAS worse. He was hired by super meddler Ted Turner, owner of the Atlanta Braves, to be the manager in 1976. Turner rivaled even Oakland owner Charles O. Finley as a meddler full of controversy.
Midway through the ’77 season, with the Braves on a 16-game losing streak, Turner sent Bristol on what he called, “A scouting trip,” and took over the manager’s role. He didn’t know how to put on a baseball uniform and needed help. The Braves lost, 2-1, to the Pittsburgh Pirates and National League president Chub Feeney stepped in and relieved Turner of his duties.
The Braves lost an Atlanta franchise record 101 games — but only 100 of those losses were Bristol’s. Actually, all 100 belonged to the team that should have been called the Atlanta Papooses.
HIS FINAL MANAGERIAL STOP was San Francisco, another team on the downswing, taking over the team in late 1979 and managing through the 1980 season.
One of my favorite baseball stories is one involving Bristol when he managed the Giants. The team was on a long losing streak on the road and after a loss Bristol had a message for the team.
“Tomorrow,” he said, “We will have two buses from the hotel to the ballpark. The first one will leave at 3 o’clock and will take all the players who need extra work. The empty bus will leave at 4:30.”
What Sparky Anderson accomplished cannot be debated negatively in any way. But many of us, including some of his players like Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Lee May, wonder what might have happened if Bristol had been retained to complete what he accomplished with those players in the minors. And certainly, just for laying the groundwork, Bristol deserves Reds Hall of Fame consideration.