Cubs Classics: Wrigley Field slugfest
The winter of 1979 produced the blizzard of the century for Chicago when it dumped 21 inches of snow on the city from Jan. 13-14 of the new year. A deep freeze followed that kept snow on the ground until March 6. An inadequate response to the snow removal and function of city works cost incumbent Mayor Michael Bilandic his job while paving the way for the city’s first female mayor Jane Byrne.
The return of baseball that spring was never more appreciated. The matchup between the Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies on May 17, 1979 proved to be arguably the most exciting loss in team history.
A late-week Thursday afternoon game featured Cubs right-hander Dennis Lamp and Phillies left-hander Randy Lerch as starting pitchers. The previous game featured future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton shutting out the Cubs 13-0. The die was already cast for the Philadelphia hitters from the Wednesday blowout victory.
A warm day produced an 18 mph southwest jet stream blowing toward Wrigley Field’s power alleys. Lamp took the mound and was shelled by the Phillies for two 3-run homers and 6 runs in the 1st inning. Both Mike Schmidt and Bob Boone homered as Lamp retired only one of the seven batters he faced.
Righty Donnie Moore replaced Lamp. After striking out Rudy Meoli, Moore gave up the third home run of the inning to Lerch. A confident Lerch took the mound leading 7-0. He quickly found out it was not going to be a good day for any pitcher. He faced just six hitters and five of them got hits. The first three hitters singled, Dave Kingman’s 3-run blast meant the North Siders had scored 4 runs in 4 at-bats. Doug Bird replaced Lerch and allowed 2 more runs.
So it went as the teams found themselves battering pitchers on both sides the next 9 innings. A decisive second home run of the game by Schmidt in the 10th inning — off another future Hall of Fame pitcher Bruce Sutter — the Cubs’ sixth pitcher of the day, was the 45th run of the game.
The game featured 3 home runs by Kingman, who went on to hit 48 for the season (to lead the league) and finish 10th in the National League MVP voting. Cubs favorite Bill Buckner hit a grand slam in the 5th inning to help Chicago put a dent in the huge lead (21-9) the Phillies had by the bottom of that inning.
In the Cubs’ half of the 6th, Kingman’s third homer made it 21-19. The Cubs tied it at 22 apiece in the 8th with 3 RBI singles.
This 4 hour, 3 minute offensive barrage in front of 14,952 fans, was certainly one of the most entertaining games on record. Well, that would be true unless you were unfortunate enough to have pitched for either side that day.
Philadelphia manager Danny Ozark put some perspective on the offensive carnage he witnessed: “After this one, I guess we proved we can get by without a designated hitter.”
During this epic battle, the teams combined for 45 runs on 50 hits. Eleven pitchers were used in total, nine of whom gave up at least 1 run. Offensively, 11 hitters had 3 or more hits in the contest. A side note, the game was umpired by replacement umpires (mostly college and amateur umps) who called the balls and strikes during the MLB umpires strike. Ironically, the ump’s work stoppage lasted from spring training of 1979 until the very next day, after the 23-22 spectacle had become a classic.
This was actually the second time in baseball history that the Cubs gave up 23 runs to Philadelphia. The other time had Chicago scoring 26 runs in a game at Cubs Park (not yet officially called Wrigley Field) Aug. 25, 1922. The combined 49 runs that day are still the most ever in a MLB game.
Bruce Levine is a contributor to Marquee Sports Network and a baseball analyst for 670 The Score.