Today marks the 43rd anniversary of one of the wildest games in baseball history. The date of Thursday, May 17, 1979, fell during an exciting time in my life. At age 17, I would graduate from what was then Saint John Neumann High School (now Neumann-Goretti) in South Philly in just over three weeks.
A big Phillies fan already, an early dismissal as the clock ran out on my senior year allowed me to get home in time to watch my hometown team take on the host Chicago Cubs in an afternoon contest from Wrigley Field.
No one watching on TV along with me here in Philly, or any among the 14,952 in attendance that afternoon at the venerable ballpark on Chicago’s North Side, had any clue as to the historic insanity we were about to witness.
The Phillies, winners of three straight National League East Division crowns under manager Danny Ozark, were off to a flying start that year. Fired up by the first-ever big free agent signing in franchise history during the off-season, first baseman Pete Rose, the Phils were flying along at 23-10 and sat atop the division standings once again.
For their part, manager Herman Franks and the Cubbies, who were also in the NL East in those days, were off to a competitive start. They entered the game six games behind the Phillies but just four out in the loss column with a winning 15-14 mark.
This was the rubber game of the series following a pair of blowouts. The Cubs took the series opener by 7-1. The Phillies answered with a 13-0 victory in the second game highlighted by a Steve Carlton’s three-hit shutout.
It was a getaway day for the Phillies, the finale of a 14-games in 15 days road trip that had seen the club go 9-4 through Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and those first two days in the Windy City.
Ozark sent southpaw Randy Lerch to the mound. At just age 24, Lerch already had 64 big-league starts under his belt. He entered with a 3-3 record on the year and a 3.19 ERA. For the Cubs, Franks would start 25-year-old righty Dennis Lamp who was in the first full season of what would become a 16-year career. Neither pitcher would make it through the first inning.
The Phillies chased Lamp when five of the first six batters produced hits. All six scored thanks to three-run homers from Mike Schmidt and Bob Boone. Franks brought in Donnie Moore to replace Lamp, and one out later Lerch took him deep for the Phillies third homer of the opening frame and an early 7-0 lead.
Lerch would not get much time to enjoy his home run. The first three Chicago batters each singled and big right fielder Dave Kingman followed with a three-run homer to make it 7-4. When former Phillies outfielder Jerry Martin doubled one out later, Ozark lifted the lefty and sent in veteran Doug Bird, who proceeded to allow two more runs.
After one inning the Phillies led the Cubs by 7-5. But the zaniness was just beginning. Following an uneventful second frame the visiting Phils appeared to blow it open by putting up an eight-spot in their half of the third inning highlighted by a three-run homer off the bat of Garry Maddox.
The two teams traded two runs apiece in the fourth, with the Phillies getting RBI doubles from Rose and Maddox and the Cubs enjoying a pair of solo homers, the second of the game by Kingman and another by Steve Ontiveros.
When the Phillies used two hits, four walks, and an error to push across four more runs in the top of the fifth, their 21-9 lead appeared as if it was going to be safe. But a grand slam from Bill Buckner and solo shot by Martin brought the Cubs back to within 21-16 in their half.
After Chicago pushed across two more in the bottom of the sixth, Kingman crushed his third home run of the afternoon to make it a two-run game. Boone doubled home Greg Gross in the top of the seventh, and the Phillies would take a 22-18 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning.
In that home eighth, Chicago finally completed their incredible comeback. Five singles off reliever Ron Reed made the score 22-22, and the game would move into extra innings.
With two outs and nobody on in the top of the 10th, Schmidt blasted his second home run of the day, and the Phillies were back on top. On this zany afternoon with the wind blowing out at Wrigley, no one believed that single run would hold up.
And yet, hold up it did. Rawly Eastwick came on to pitch the bottom of the 10th and finally, mercifully restored a measure of sanity to the proceedings. Eastwick set down Buckner, Kingman, and Ontiveros to put an end to a whacky 23-22 victory.
The Phillies were now 24-10 and had moved out to a 3.5 game lead in the division and appeared well on their way to a fourth straight NL East title. However, this Wrigley slugfest would prove to be their high-water mark on the season.
Collapsing under the weight of pitching injuries, the Phillies would go just 15-28 over the next six weeks, fall to fifth place for a time, and see Ozark fired by late August. Franks did not last much longer, fired with the Cubs at 78-77 and replaced by Joe Amalfitano.
Dallas Green would take over behind the bench for the Phillies, establish order in the clubhouse, and guide the club to a 19-11 finish. The next year he would lead them to the first-ever World Series championship in franchise history. Eventually, Green would leave and help bring the Cubs to the postseason.
But all of that was off in the distance. On this windswept afternoon at Wrigley Field, the Phillies and Cubs put on a wild show. 45 runs, and 50 hits, including 10 doubles, two triples, and ten home runs. It was an afternoon that remains unforgettable to those of us who got to enjoy the madness.
MORE RECENT BASEBALL PIECES
- 4.07.22 – MLB Opening Day 2022
- 3.17.22 – Saint Patrick’s Day baseball
- 2.07.22 – Examining select Hall of Fame cases of Black players not yet enshrined
- 2.01.22 – Charlie Finley and the Swingin’ A’s
- 1.04.22 – Memo Luna and those baseball lost in 2021
- 1.02.22 – My IBWAA 2022 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot