I liked Billingham...because he was sharp every time he pitched against us. I wanted him on my side
- Manager Sparky Anderson on why the Reds included 'Cactus Jack' in the famous 1971 trade with Houston
Outside of Cincinnati, Jack Billingham is best known to most baseball fans for one pitch. It took place on April 4, 1974, Opening Day in Cincinnati. Billingham had been given the coveted assignment of starting the Reds' first game of the season against the Atlanta Braves. The typical hoopla surrounding Opening Day was overshadowed by the Braves' Hank Aaron who ended the 1973 season one home run short of tying Babe Ruth's all-time home run record of 714. An anxious Riverfront Stadium crowd buzzed with anticipation over the possibility of seeing baseball history. They were not held in suspense for long as Aaron blasted a Billingham fastball over the left-center field fence in the bottom of the first inning to tie the record.
For Reds fans, of course, "Cactus Jack" is remembered for much more than surrendering Aaron's historic homer. In Cincinnati, Jack Billingham is recalled as the workhorse of the Big Red Machine's often-overlooked starting rotation and as one of the finest postseason pitchers in Reds history.
Signed out of high school by the pitching-rich Dodgers in 1961, Billingham spent seven years in the Dodger farm system before finally reaching the parent club in 1968. Used primarily as a relief pitcher throughout his Minor League sojourn, Billingham appeared in fifty games for the '68 Dodgers, all but one of his appearances in relief. When given an opportunity to start on August 5 against the Pirates at Dodger Stadium, he held the Bucs scoreless for eight innings in a game the Dodgers' won 1-0 in ten innings. Along the way, Billingham struck out eight batters including future Hall of Famers Willie Stargell (twice) and Bill Mazeroski (once). He finished the season with a 2.17 ERA.
Despite his impressive debut season, the Dodgers left Billingham unprotected in the 1969 expansion draft. Selected by Montreal, her spent spring training with the Expos before being dealt to the Astros on Opening Day to complete an earlier trade in which the Expos' Donn Clendenon had refused to report to Houston. Billingham worked almost exclusively out of the bullpen for the Astros throughout the 1969 season before moving into the starting rotation during the 1970 campaign, finishing that year with thirteen wins, a 3.98 ERA and a career high 187 2/3 innings pitched. A full-time starting pitcher in 1971, Billingham's record fell to 10-16 despite an improved ERA of 3.39.
As much as the Astros' home park, the Astrodome, was a haven for pitchers, it was a nightmare for hitters. The Astros finished the 1971 season with a 79-83 record despite sporting the statistically second-best pitching staff in the National League. While the pitchers excelled, Astros' hitters managed to score the third-fewest runs in the league. The Astros' struggle to score runs was the primary factor in a trade that is almost uniformly acknowledged as the most significant in Reds history.
Desperate for a power hitter, the Astros soon found a trading partner in the Reds. After winning the 1970 pennant, the Reds had slumped badly in 1971 and General Manager Bob Howsam decided that significant roster changes were in order. Howsam had been eyeing Astros' second baseman Joe Morgan for some time and was convinced that he was just the type of player the Reds needed to return to contention. The Astros' need for power coupled with the Reds' desire to add Joe Morgan resulted in the blockbuster trade of November 29, 1971. The Reds traded first baseman Lee May, second baseman Tommy Helms and utility player-pinch hitter Jimmy Stewart to Houston for Morgan, infielder Denis Menke, outfielders Ed Armbrister and Cesar Geronimo and Jack Billingham.
As great as the trade is understood to be today, it was anything but well received by Reds fans at the time. Of course, no one knew that in the deal, the Reds had acquired in Morgan a player who would became possibly the greatest second baseman in baseball history or that Cesar Geronimo would become one of the best defensive outfielders of his time or that Jack Billingham would blossom into an All-Star and a post-season stopper. Reds' coach George Scherger had been a manager in the Dodgers' minor league system when Billingham was a Dodger farmhand and he strongly recommended that the Reds be sure that Billingham was included in the trade. It did not take long for the Reds to see the wisdom behind Scherger's recommendation.
At 29, Billingham became the oldest member of a Reds staring staff that also featured Don Gullett, Gary Nolan, Ross Gimsley, Wayne Simpson and Jim McGlothlin. He finished the 1972 season with a rather pedestrian 12-12 record but managed to lower his ERA for the third consecutive season, posting a 3.18 mark that was the third lowest among the starting staff. The Reds ran away with the Western Division title that year, besting the Dodgers by 10.5 games. Once in the post-season, Billingham took a no-decision in the Reds' Game 2 victory over the Pirates before shutting out the Oakland A's for 132/3 innings in the World Series. The Reds lost the first two games in Cincinnati and with the Series moving to Oakland, Billingham was called on to stop the bleeding. He did so in impressive fashion, limiting the A's to only three hits in the Reds' 1-0 victory. After earning a save with a scoreless ninth inning in Game 5, Billingham allowed only one unearned run in five innings before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in Game 7. The A's emerged victorious in the game, 3-2, and claimed one of the most tightly contested World Series ever played.
Billingham's post-season showing was a precursor to back-to-back 19-win seasons in 1973 and 1974, years in which he became the unquestioned anchor of the Reds' rotation. Named to the All-Star team in 1973, he led the National League in innings pitched, starts and shutouts and was second in wins. While Billingham was enjoying the best seasons of his major league career, 1973 and 1974 were frustrating years for the Reds as the club was upset in the 1973 NLCS by the Mets and finished second in the division race to the Dodgers in 1974. Some began to wonder if this talented team was ever going to be as good as the sum of its parts.
The Reds answered that question decisively in 1975 with 108 regular season victories, a playoff win over the Pirates and a World Series win over Boston. Billingham contributed fifteen wins in the regular season and, picking up where he left off in 1972, put up stellar numbers in the World Series, allowing only one earned run in nine innings including two shut -out innings in relief of Don Gullett in Game 7. The Reds rolled to a second consecutive World Championship in 1976 but Billingham struggled with a 12-10 record and a career high ERA of 4.32. His reduced effectiveness coupled with the emergence of co- Rookie of the Year Pat Zachry limited Billingham to one relief appearance in the four-game World Series sweep of the Yankees. Coming on in relief of Fred Norman in the seventh inning of Game 2, Billingham allowed an RBI groundout that tied the game but held the Yankees scoreless for the remaining two innings. The Reds won the game with a run in the bottom of the ninth, earning Billingham his second World Series victory. For his career, Billingham sported a 0.36 ERA in 25 1/3 innings of World Series pitching, a major league record.
Following an ineffective 1977 season, the Reds traded Billingham to the Tigers where he resurrected his career with a 15-8 record. Another solid season followed before Billingham pitched his last season in 1980.
"Cactus Jack" Billingham, one of the greatest big game pitchers in Reds history and the mainstay of the Big Red Machine's starting rotation remains among the Reds' all-time career leaders in shutouts, wins, strikeouts and starts. He was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 1984.