May 17, 1979, a day game for the ages

May 17, 1979, a day game for the ages

May 17, 1979, a day game for the ages
When I was asked to write about some memorable games I've seen in my years with the organization, the idea was to pick one for each month of the season. I remember thinking that it could be difficult but that I would give it a shot. Turns out selecting a game in May was pretty easy.

The Phillies were set to play the Cubs on Thursday, May 17, 1979, at Wrigley Field in the final game of a three-game series. In those days, when you played the Cubs at home, it was always day baseball.

The day before, the Phillies had won easily, 13-0, behind a Steve Carlton three-hitter. They pounded out 16 hits, including homers by Mike Schmidt and Garry Maddox. That seemed like a pretty good offensive day, but it was just the warmup for the main event.

The first order of business before a game in Chicago is to check the wind. That morning, I couldn't help but notice a lot of debris flying by my hotel window. That was the first indication that it could be a wild day.

Walking to the team bus, I saw people wobbling up Michigan Avenue trying to maintain their balance as the winds blew everything not tied down. And since it was a warm day, with the wind coming out of the southwest, you knew every pitcher wanted to be anywhere but in a big league uniform.

In 1979, I was still the traveling PR representative, but I'd work the radio broadcast for games that were televised. We didn't televise that day, so I was destined to be a spectator at one of the greatest shows in the history of baseball.

Before the game, I called my boss, Larry Shenk, to check on a few items, and the "Baron" asked me about the weather. I laughed and told him I'd never seen a day like this and that we could have a 19-18 game. He later would remind me of that conversation and how prescient I'd been.

Randy Lerch and Dennis Lamp were the starting pitchers. Schmidt and Maddox blasted a three-run homer, and Lerch added a solo shot to give himself a seven-run lead before he'd even thrown a pitch.

But every ball in the air had a chance to leave the ballpark, and it didn't take long for the Cubs to throw up a six-spot, highlighted by Dave Kingman's three-run blast, the first of three homers for him that day.

Lamp and Lerch each pitched one-third of an inning. If the managers had known what was going to happen, they probably would have left their starters out there longer.

The Phillies kept pounding Cubs pitching, scoring eight runs in the third, two in the fourth and four in the fifth to make it 21-6. I had been pretty worried about this one after the first inning, but it seemed as though the Phillies were comfortably ahead.

However, the Cubs scored 13 in the middle three innings and cut the Phils' lead to two runs. No pitcher was safe. Tug McGraw later was quoted as saying he wanted to get into the game and stop the craziness. He got his wish, becoming the third pitcher used by Danny Ozark, and promptly gave up seven runs, lasting just two-thirds of the fifth inning.

After the Phils added a run in the seventh, the Cubs scored three in the eighth to tie the score at 22. A football game had broken out at Wrigley, and nine innings wouldn't be enough in this epic.

Finally, with two outs in the top of the 10th, the game was decided by two future Hall of Famers. Schmidt, who would go on to hit 50 career homers at Wrigley, lined a splitter from the game's best relief pitcher, Bruce Sutter, into the bleachers in left-center, and it was 23-22.

Rawly Eastwick, a native of South Jersey, retired the Cubs in order in the bottom of the inning and finally, mercifully, it was over.

There were a lot of funny stories after the game, but one stuck out. Wrigley Field had just one scoreboard in those days. It was in dead center and the score was kept inning by inning. There was nowhere to see the cumulative score. Schmidt said he'd caught himself looking at the board and adding the runs to see if the Phillies were still ahead. Both he and Cubs infielder Mick Kelleher wore No. 20. Schmidt said that he caught Kelleher's attention and pointed at his uniform as if to say, This one might end up 20-20.

The Phillies left Chicago with a 24-10 record and feeling good about a fourth straight National League title. It was Pete Rose's first year in Philadelphia, and the postseason was hopefully on the horizon. But the pitching staff would be devastated by injuries, and the Phils would finish fourth, with a record of 84-78, 14 games behind the eventual World Series champion "We Are Family" Pirates.

The attendance that day in Chicago was 14,952, but there are probably 100,000 people who say they witnessed that wacky afternoon in person. I was lucky enough to be there, and I will never forget the sight of those baseballs flying out of the ballpark during batting practice and having a feeling that something special was going to happen.

To this day, that game was the most entertaining I've ever witnessed.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 R H E
Phillies 7 0 8 2 4 0 1 0 0 1 23 24 2
Cubs 6 0 0 3 7 3 0 3 0 0 22 26 2
Time: 4:03

This story originally appeared in the second issue of the 2010 Phillies Magazine. Subscriptions are available for the 2012 Phillies Magazine.

Now in his 40th season with the Phillies, Chris Wheeler joined the club's public relations department in 1971 and was added to the broadcast team in 1977. His book, "View From the Booth," is available online and in bookstores now. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.