The Box Score is a series in which we select one impressive box score, do all sorts of historical research, watch the game if we can find it, and write about it. It has a complementary podcast called – you got it – The Box Score Show.
The Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears met 16 times between 1955 and 1993, postseason matchups included.
Among this collective of games, the highest scoring was a 29-16 Bears victory during the 1968 regular season. So 45 combined points. In a football game. Hardly newsworthy. In fact, in none of these 16 meetings did both teams eclipse 20 points. Two days before Christmas 1979, the Eagles defeated the Bears in a wild-card game that produced 44 total points.
Seven months prior, the Philadelphia Phillies defeated the Chicago Cubs 23-22. And yes, they were playing the sport of baseball. So none of those 16 NFL matchups produced more total points than the 45 combined runs of the Phillies and Cubs.
Major league games in the 1979 season averaged 8.9 total runs scored and 1.6 home runs – a paltry 0.8 homers per team per contest. It was 15 years before some bubbly cocktail of steroids, smaller ballparks and juiced baseballs would launch a homer-happy era that continues to this day. In the last five completed seasons, homers have flown out of MLB ballparks at a rate of 2.5 per game, with 2019 being the most homer-happy season to date at 2.8 dingers per contest.
In that ’79 season, there were three instances of teams scoring at least 20 runs in a game. Two of those occurred in the same game. This game we speak of today. On a gusty Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field, May the 17th, the visiting Phillies of Philadelphia watched leads of 7-0, 17-6 and 21-9 eventually slip away amid a barrage of six Chicago Cubs home runs – but the Phils would best the North Siders in 10 innings, slugging five homers of their own.
Before we delve into the pertinent details of the looming dinger-fest, it’s important we first contextualize the match-up of this ballgame’s starting pitchers.
For the Phillies, it was Randy Lerch, who despite having a less than desirable surname, had recently pitched his way into Philadelphia’s starting rotation and had proven to be a very decent swinger of the lumber. He launched two dingers in their NL East clinching victory over the division rival Pittsburgh Pirates just a season earlier. In 1979, Randy Lerched his way through a tough season on the mound, finishing 10-13 with a 5.07 ERA for skipper Danny Ozark.
For Joey Amalfitano’s Cubs, it was Dennis Lamp taking the mound on this fateful Thursday at Wrigley. When Lamp was on, he certainly provided a bright spot in Chicago’s rotation that season; finishing 11-10 with a 3.50 ERA.
Each starter entered the game with respectable starts to the season. Lerch and Lamp had ERAs of 3.19 and 3.05, respectively.
Neither survived the first inning. Here’s how it went down.
Larry Bowa and Pete Rose, two of the game’s non-mustached players, get on base for Mike Schmidt. Bowa doesn’t want to wear his helmet while on base, so he tosses it off the field, which, as humans born after this game, came as a bit of a surprise. This is apparently a thing because it happens throughout the game. Style first, comfort second, safety last.
The 38-year-old Rose and his one batting glove are at this point hitting .346. He went on to hit .331 in his first season with the Phils. And he’s on base as Schmidt hits his ninth home run of May and third in as many days. Philly’s got a 3-0 lead with one out. With this, Rose moves ahead of Mickey Mantle for most runs scored by a switch hitter. Donnie Moore is already warming up in the Chicago pen. Obviously, Lamp is not ready to pitch. Bob Boone hits a three-run shot. It’s 6-0, and that’s the end of Lamp’s day.
Lamp’s light, not unlike the wind at Wrigley this afternoon, is blown out quickly. In a third of an inning of work, he allows six hits and six runs (all of which are earned) after facing only seven Philadelphia batters.
Lerch is now about to get rocked himself. But before taking the mound he manages to showcase some great plate proficiency by connecting on a solo shot for the Phillies’ third of the inning. It’s 7-0 Philadelphia. He had one of two games in modern baseball history (since 1901) in which a starting pitcher hit a home run but was knocked out of the game before completing an inning of work. Hall of Famer Bob Feller did it in 1950.
Onto the bottom of the first. No. 3 hitter Bill Buckner (mustache of course) drives in leadoff hitter Ivan DeJesus (mustache), then Dave Kingman and his mustache hit a baseball off a building across the street. On the fly. It’s less of a hit than an explosion. The two-run shot makes it 7-4 and there have still only been three outs in this game.
After an out and a double, the Phillies pull Lerch, who just walks off and tosses the ball to the pitching coach without waiting for him to get to the mound. There have been four outs and both starters have been pulled.
The Cubs get an RBI triple from Donny Moore, a relief pitcher. So for the Phillies, Lerch homered in the top of the first, and Moore – who relieved Lamp – triples in a run in the bottom of the inning. If you’re gonna score 45 runs in a baseball game, you’ve probably got to have pitchers sucking at pitching and not sucking at hitting.
As for Moore’s RBI triple: We can check this back to 1974, and Moore stands as the only reliever to have an RBI in the first inning of an MLB game.
By the time this epic opening frame ends, 13 runs have crossed the plate with Philadelphia ahead 7-6. It is one of six games in modern MLB history in which each team scored as many as six runs in the opening frame. This stands as one of seven games in the divisional era – so dating to 1969 – in which both starters have combined to pitch less than 1.0 inning. Two games have had the starters not record an out among them.
Neither team scores in the second, which along with the ninth were the only scoreless innings of the game. In the bottom second, the Cubs put runners on first and third with nobody out but can’t drive anyone home. The inning ends with a listless grounder to first. Pete Rose, potentially on some uppers, celebrates this easy unassisted put out like it’s a touchdown, spiking the ball into the dirt before gracelessly lumbering back into the Philly dugout.
In the top of the third, a series of bloop hits and a walk makes it 9-6. Rose comes up with bases loaded and hits an opposite-field double to left to push the lead to 11-6. It’s now second and third with one out for Schmidt, who’s intentionally passed. The bases loaded for Del Unser (mustache), who grounds out but drives in a run to make it 12-6. Garry Maddox hits one out that shouldn’t have even been a warning-track fly. It’s the definition of a wind-aided dinger. Nevertheless, the Phillies open up a 15-6 advantage. So what kind of game is this? It’s the kind of game that in the third inning a relief pitcher bats twice. That’s Doug Bird. They send 13 to the plate.
The Phillies piled on eight more runs in the third. It is one of three instances since 1950 in which a team has had two innings of seven or more runs within the first three innings of a game.
If you’re a watcher of Cubs games, you know they tend to have random guests stop by the TV booth. In this one we get Ray Meyer of DePaul basketball acclaim. But before the bottom half of the third, we also get, for some reason, Bulls’ guard Tate (no relation to B.J.) Armstrong, who looks like he just got done surfing. He joins play-by-play man Jack Brickhouse in the booth and in a particularly candid exchange predicts that two humans named Larry Bird and Magic Johnson will be superstars in the NBA.
Sizemore (no stache) hits a bloop single but pitcher Willie Hernandez (stache) strikes out so there’s no response to the eight-run inning.
McBride (mustache) leads off the fourth with his cap is in his back pocket in case he gets on and wants to take his helmet off. The stache-less Bowa singles. Rose, batting righty, clubs another double to the opposite gap. Schmidt is intentionally walked, setting up Maddox’ fourth hit of the game. He’s taken out of the game at this point after injuring himself sliding into second. Former Cub Gary Gross and his mustache replace him. In total, the Phils get two runs in the top of the fourth, extending their lead to 11 runs. It’s 17-6.
It’s only the bottom of the fourth when DeJesus strikes out, Mike Vail (mustache) singles for already his third hit of the game. Buckner flies out. Kingman then hits just about the same home run off the same building and Steve Ontiveros follows with another bomb to make it 17-9. At the end of four innings, we’ve had 30 hits.
In the top of fifth, Luzinski walks, McBride gets the Phillies’ 18th hit of the game, Bowa connects on bloop double, Rose does not get one of his 4,256 base hits but reaches on an error and Schmidt walks. It’s 19-9 when Unser steps in for the third time with the bags loaded and drives a sacrifice fly. The Phillies end up batting around three times in five innings. It’s now 21-9, Eagles lead the Bears at the start of the third quarter.
Tug McGraw is on the mound for the bottom of the frame, which is kind of odd because it’s a 12-run game and he owns a 1.59 ERA and .139 opponent average. But he’s about to allow seven runs in 2/3 of an inning. With the Phils’ lead sliced to 21-16, Ron Reed comes in and he’s got a 0.43 ERA for at least a few more minutes.
Reed gets out of the inning, but his ERA is about to go up over 6.00. Serves you right for not having a mustache.
In the top of the sixth, Bowa bloops in his fifth hit of the game already. His average has gone from sexy to sexier. It’s the 37th hit of the game. In steps the Mike Schmidt, whose lumber is subdued yet again, walking for the fourth time. Other than that, it’s a rare frame in which nothing happens, aside from Philly stranding two.
In the bottom half, the Cubs rally (again). Kingman drives another towering homer onto Waveland Avenue to cut the deficit to 21-19. The three Kingman home runs – each one apparently longer than the previous one – are the stuff of Wrigley Field legend. The second was described as being hit “around the third story” of a three-story building beyond the left-field wall, and the third was said to have hit the “front porch of the third house across Waveland Avenue.”
After the final out, Rose spikes another baseball. Would it be a gamble to insist this man is pure class?
Brickhouse, who departed the booth for a few frames, is back in the top of the seventh. It seems he’s not contractually obligated to do his job during the middle innings.
It’s here that Brickhouse tells us about another epic. This Phillies-Cubs battle stands as one of two games in modern MLB history in which both teams scored at least 20 runs. On August 25, 1922, the same teams – in the same ballpark – played a 26-23, nine-inning game. On that day, the Phillies’ 23 runs were not enough, as the Cubs, who led 25-6 after four innings, withstood a late Philadelphia charge to win.
There were only three home runs in that game but 51 hits along with nine errors. All of the homers were from the North Siders. Yes, the Phillies scored 23 runs without a home run.
Onto the bottom of the seventh, where Brickhouse catches us up. It’s 22-19, and the tying run comes up for the first time since the second inning, but a double play on the first pitch to Larry Biittner ends the inning. But an inning later, the Cubs finally even the game at 22 when Buckner, Jerry Martin and Foote hit RBI singles.
We to the top of the ninth when Bruce Sutter is in with his famous splitter and subtle mustache. We don’t want to spoil the surprise for him, but little does he know he’s going to win the NL Cy Young this season. Just not for this game.
Rudy Meoli has perhaps his proudest plate appearance in his short career, drawing a walk off the future Hall of Famer. He even manages to steal second before moving to third on a ground out by future FOX color man Tim McCarver. But the Phils strand another, leaving the door open for the heart of the Cubs’ order in the bottom half of the ninth.
Go figure that Rawly Eastwick, who to this point has allowed eight earned runs in 9.2 innings this season, throws five pitches in a 1-2-3 inning. Eleven pitchers worked in the game, with nine of them allowing at least one run. The two who emerged unscathed were the Cubs’ Ray Burris (1.2 innings) and the winning pitcher, Eastwick. Perhaps aided by the late afternoon shadows, Eastwick managed to retire all six Cub hitters in the ninth and 10th innings. Those were the only 1-2-3 innings by any pitcher in the game.
Ah, the top of the 10th: First up is Bowa, who’s already 5 for 7 in the game. Larry grounds to second. One down. In steps Rose, the last hitter Bruce would likely want to face in this situation. Pete’s got three hits in the game and six in the series, including five doubles to this point. But he flies out to left. Two down. In strolls Michael Jack Schmidt, who’s made two errors, homered and walked three times. On a full count, Schmidt takes a hanging splitter and sends it to Waveland Avenue, putting the Phillies ahead once again.
The Cubs have 3-4-5 coming up in the bottom of the 10th. So it looks promising, right? Meh. Buckner flies to left. Kingman fans. Ontiveros’ check-swing grounder to the third ends it.
“A very sad finish to one of the greatest games anybody has ever seen anywhere,” Brickhouse said.
Schmidt’s homers provided the game’s first three runs and the final run. His three-run shot in the first inning was clearly aided by the 17-MPH winds, but Schmidt’s game-winner in the 10th, while not Kingman-esque, lands on Waveland Avenue. Those were two of Schmidt’s 50 career home runs at Wrigley; his 78 lifetime home runs versus the North Siders are third most all-time by a Cubs opponent, trailing only Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. They’re in some record books, so let’s open ours.
There were 97 total bases in the game (most all time) and it was the only game with 50 or more hits and at least 10 home runs. Five Phillies and six Cubs had at least three hits, with Larry Bowa leading this offensive parade with five – one of two times he reached that figure in his 2,247-game career.
As for the combined single-game home run record? The 11 hits here matched what was then a record. Eleven in a game has now happened 15 times. Twelve has happened four times, and in June 2019, the Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks combined for 13.
This winds up being the only game in major league history in which both clubs produced 20 or more runs and at least five dingers. Chicago and Philadelphia’s combined OPS in the game was 1.410 – fourth highest in modern MLB history. This is the only game in Phillies history in which the team allowed six or more home runs and won. The franchise has a 1-19 record all time when surrendering at least six longballs.
The Cubs’ failed comeback bid was highlighted by three mammoth Kingman home runs, plus a grand slam by Buckner. They are the only team to ever have a player hit three homers in a game, another player hit a grand slam – and lose.
Philadelphia’s lead grew to 21-9 midway through the fifth inning. By the end of the eighth, the score was 22-22. The Cubs ultimately lost, but the 12-run deficit they overcame is tied for the largest for any club since 1901. Only three other teams have managed to do it – and each of them went on to a victory.
No other team in modern MLB history has scaled a hill so large without being rewarded.
Animation by Paul Connors.