Inside the convenience store, I heard a radio bleat an update from what had seemed like another runaway Chicago Cubs loss.
“You gotta be kidding me!” I blurted to my pal Ken. “The Cubs are coming back!”
We dashed to our bikes and pedaled fast back to my house. We darted downstairs, snapped the "on" button and turned the dial to Channel 9. After a few moments of warming up, the screen showed the score: The Cubs indeed were turning things around in what we could tell would be one of the wildest baseball games in all of our 15 years.
Forty years later, that game — which, on May 17, 1979, the Cubs somehow lost despite scoring 22 runs — still burns brightly in my mind. A new book, “Ten Innings at Wrigley,” provides a fascinating chronicle of a remarkable game during an otherwise unremarkable Cubs season. But, more interestingly, the book also deftly explains why baseball gripped us '70s kids, at a special time and place in America.
I’m not sure why Ken and I weren’t in school at the time of the first pitch. It was probably one of those “institute days,” whatever that meant. For us, it meant a delicious weekday afternoon, with a main course of Strat-O-Matic baseball (a dice game that held an addictive power over us, along with legions of aficionados nationwide), accompanied by a side order of Cubs baseball, televised live from the North Side at 1:20 p.m.
At the time, I was vaguely aware that life soon would be changing radically. The looming summer would be my last before I’d turn 16 and be expected to hold a part-time job. A month in advance, I was already cherishing summer ‘79 as likely the last blast of school’s-out freedom.
Plus, though we were total baseball junkies — Cubs, Sox, Strat-O-Matic, Babe Ruth League — we also could feel the pull of hormones. But it was hard to visit (or impress) a girl on a 10-speed bike, so youthful romances were mostly on hold until we could get our driver’s licenses the following year.
So, on that fateful afternoon, Ken and I were perfectly content to witness the Cubs host the Philadelphia Phillies at home. But soon into that game, things started to get out of hand, even by Cubs standards. Uber-nemesis Mike Schmidt, the Phillies’ slugging third baseman, who always treated Wrigley Field like his personal playground, banged a three-run homer in his first at-bat. By the top of the 4th inning, the Phils were ahead 17-6.
Ken and I started joking about the score seeming more like that of a typical Chicago Bears loss. We didn’t realize how football-esque the score would become.
Regardless, we decided to take our bikes to a 7-11 to get a Slurpee. That’s where we heard a radio update: The Cubs had tallied three runs, making the score 17-9. Granted, an eight-run deficit was still daunting. And by the time we raced back to my house, the Phillies had boosted their lead to 21-9.
But we somehow sensed something special about this game. Plus, back then — and even though I was a fan of the Sox, who were habitually as hapless as the Cubs — we felt a tight allegiance to Major League Baseball. “Ten Innings at Wrigley” explains some of those reasons.
For one, in the pre-steroid era, players didn’t look too much different from our fathers. Schmidt, for instance, was known as “Muscles” — but stood 6 feet 2 inches and weighed 195 pounds, about the size of today’s shortstops. Meanwhile, the Cubs’ cleanup hitter, Dave “Kong” Kingman was 6-6 but weighed just 210 pounds — “roughly a pound of it mustache,” the book says — hardly the heft of a giant beast. Size-wise, it wasn’t so hard for kids to imagine themselves one day in their major-league shoes.
Meanwhile, as the book points out, baseball had not yet become commercialized by cable TV. Wrigley Field wasn’t heralded as a baseball cathedral ensconced in a vibrant and expensive urban cityscape. Back then, a lot of us simply called the place “Cubs park,” a dumpy stadium in a tumbling neighborhood. Starting that year, revenue from fledgling cable TV would revive the then-struggling sport, though at a cost of making the Cubs popular and upscale. I miss the days when going to a baseball game was not a major investment: You could show up at Wrigley and get a seat for a few bucks, maybe going the cheap route and plunking down just $1.50 for a spot in the bleachers.
Plus, watching and following pro ball wasn’t nearly as complex as today. Sabermetrics, launch angles, exit velocities and all of the rest of modern computer-driven analyses certainly translate into smarter baseball. But, for us ‘70s kids, all that technology makes baseball seem a bit too much like math class.
At that simpler time, baseball was a simple pleasure, even as the Chicago teams got perpetually creamed.
And that’s what made May 17, 1979, so magical. Somehow, the Cubs managed to pound their way back, tying the game 22-22 in the eighth inning. Wide-eyed, Ken and I yelled at the screen as loudly as if we were at the park, in part out of fear that the Cubs would find a way to blow it.
They did. With Cubs relief-pitching maestro Bruce Sutter on the mound, Mike Schmidt came to the plate in the 10th inning.
"Oh, brother," declared TV announcer (and native Peorian) Jack Brickhouse. Minutes later, the Cubs went down 1-2-3. Final score: 23-22.
Yet 40 years later, I still count that game (along with the memories) as a winner. So is the book, a pleasant ride back to a sport and time long gone and sorely missed.
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.