BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The Big Red Machine couldn't be licked. There is no higher praise for a baseball team, and no more serious problem for a postage stamp.
How else to explain the U.S. Postal Service's failure to recognize the Reds among the most memorable phenomena of the 1970s? How else to explain that the mail may soon go through bearing stamps celebrating disco music, photorealism and smiley faces, but not Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Pete Rose?
We refer to the postal service's Celebrate The Century program, a customer participation promotion designed to recognize significant developments of the 20th century and, not incidentally, to market mouse pads, key chains and other collectibles.
The Gallup Organization will be counting votes through the end of the month to determine which 15 subjects best represent the decade of Watergate and Sesame Street for postal purposes. The ballot (available through your local post office or online at http: - - stampvote.msn.com) lists 30 candidates in five categories, and six potential stamps from the world of sports: Monday Night Football, the Oakland A's, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the racehorse Secretariat, community soccer leagues and the tennis boom.
But the Cooperstown Reds didn't make the cut. This despite successive World Series titles and the distinction of being the only ballclub since the dawn of division play to win all of its postseason games (1976). This despite the general consensus that the Big Red Machine is among the three or four finest teams ever assembled.
No write-ins allowed
Excluding the Reds from any reckoning of '70s sports history is an oversight worthy of Bill Clinton's conscience and an outrage on par with the nine-digit zip code. Sadly, there is no satisfactory solution.
No amount of write-in votes can influence this election, for the Celebrate The Century's design phase is too far advanced and its production schedule too tight to introduce new candidates at this stage. The Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee has spoken, and its word is final.
"That's absolutely unbelievable," said Reds' announcer Marty Brennaman, packing up after Wednesday's broadcast. "Even though Oakland won three World Championships (in the '70s), you don't see that team mentioned among the top five teams in the history of baseball. You see the 1927 Yankees, some other teams, and you always see the 1975-76 Reds."
The 13-member committee, which includes actor Karl Malden and former Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps, meets quarterly to sift through suggestions for commemorative stamps. The process can be protracted. In a typical year, roughly 40,000 nominations are received. Of these, only a few dozen make it onto an envelope.
Smiles beat out sports
For the Celebrate The Century program, the committee sought additional input from historians and other authorities before determining each decade's key developments. Thus the 1970 sculpture "Spiral Jetty" has a shot at a stamp, but not the streaking craze that afflicted college campuses. Postmodern architecture may be commemorated, but not pet rocks.
"The committee started with about 50 subjects for each category in every decade," said postal service spokesman Don Smeraldi. "For the '50s, we counted 800,000 ballots. For the '60s, we had 930,000. We're hoping to go over a million on this one."
Smeraldi said the ubiquitous yellow smiley face was atop the '70s poll the last time votes were tabulated, and that Monday Night Football and Secretariat were strong possibilities for the sports stamps. The Pittsburgh Steelers, he said, were "on the borderline." The Oakland A's, predictably, were "down in the pack."
"I could see including the A's if you were trying to represent what that decade was like," Brennaman said. "All those guys ever did was fight with each other."
The Cincinnati Reds made a more positive mark on the '70s. Their postmark, however, will have to wait.
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at firstname.lastname@example.org.