1977 Pittsburgh Pirates: The Chuck Tanner Era Starts

The 1977 Pittsburgh Pirates were looking to get back into the postseason. After winning the old NL East five times in the six seasons from 1970-75, the Pirates slipped to second place behind the Philadelphia Phillies in 1976. Pittsburgh also had a new manager. After the retirement and subsequent passing of franchise legend Danny Murtaugh, the Pirates got aggressive in going after the manager they wanted. The front office traded starting catcher Manny Sanguillen to the Oakland A’s to get skipper Chuck Tanner. A new era was ready to start in Pittsburgh.

But getting back to the playoffs meant something considerably different in 1977 than it does today. Back then, both leagues had just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place teams qualified for the postseason. Pittsburgh had won 92 games in 1976 but came up short. They would be better in 1977—but still not good enough.

The Pirates had a balanced starting rotation led up by 23-year-old John Candelaria. The lefthander made 33 starts and posted a dazzling 20-5 record with a 2.34 ERA. It was only good for fifth in the NL Cy Young voting—which was probably too low, but if you look at the contenders, you can see there was a high bar among National League starters. Either way, “the Candy Man” gave Pittsburgh a legitimate ace.

Jerry Reuss, Jim Rooker and Bruce Kison filled out the rotation. They all had their ups and downs. But they consistently took their turns, combining to start 95 games. And there was help behind them. The bullpen had been strengthened by offseason trades.

Pittsburgh acquired Grant Jackson and Terry Forster for some depth. But the big piece was Rich “Goose Gossage.” Only 25-years-old, the Goose would one day become the most feared flamethrower of his day. He came at a price—the Pirates gave up a good outfielder in Richie Zisk to get Gossage from the Chicago White Sox. But the Goose saved 26 games, won 11 more, and finished with a 1.62 ERA. He got further support from submarine-style reliever Kent Tekulve, who picked up ten wins with a 3.06 ERA.

The depth, combined with Candelaria and Gossage’s excellence, gave Pittsburgh the third-best staff ERA in the National League.

The everyday lineup underwent a bit of a makeover. Zisk was gone. The Pirates also lost corner infielder Richie Hebner in free agency—to Philadelphia no less. Pittsburgh also had a strange relationship with veteran second baseman Tommy Helms. After a trade to get Helms in ’76 didn’t work out, the Pirates sold him to Oakland. Then they got him back as the signature piece in a deal that cost them five players—including future stars in starting pitcher Rick Langford and outfielder Tony Armas. After all of this, Helms didn’t play much and was well past his prime.

In addition to all the maneuvering, veteran first baseman Willie Stargell also struggled with injuries. Knee, elbow, and hamstring problems limited “Pops” to 63 games.

But there was still plenty of talent on hand, and it started with rightfielder Dave Parker. “The Cobra” won the batting title with a .338 average. He hit 21 homers, drove in 88 runs, and finished third in the MVP voting. After an off-year in ’76, second baseman Rennie Stennett exploded with a .336 batting average. Leftfielder Al Oliver finished with a .353 on-base percentage and slugged .481. Bill Robinson was 34-years-old, but he stepped in at first base for Stargell and batted .304 with 26 home runs and 104 RBIs.

Tanner also committed the Pirates to a running game. In an era where stolen bases were a bigger part of the game than they are today, Pittsburgh stole more bags than anyone. Shortstop Frank Taveras led the way with 70 steals. Speedy centerfielder Omar Moreno swiped 53. Stennett stole 28 bags. As running games go, the Pirates might not have rivaled the great duo of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier with the Steelers as the best in Pittsburgh. But the baseball version of the ground game was pretty good.

The Tanner era got off to a less than auspicious start, when the Pirates lost three straight at home to the St. Louis Cardinals, giving up 28 runs in the process. But Pittsburgh bounced back pretty quickly. They took a couple games from Philadelphia at home in late April. They swept the Cincinnati Reds, the two-time defending World Series champs in early May, scoring 26 runs in the three-game set. Those series wins over the Phils and Reds were part of a red-hot 15-2 stretch that vaulted Pittsburgh to a 2 ½ game lead in the NL East.

But a visit to Wrigley Field in Chicago, where the  Cubs were a key contender in the East, resulted in a three straight losses over Memorial Day weekend. Pittsburgh dropped two of three in Philadelphia out of the holiday. On June 1, the Pirates were 27-17, 1 ½ games back of Chicago, with both St. Louis and Philly also in the mix.

The Pirates won two of three from the Cubs in a home series that nudged them back to within a half-game of the lead. But a sequence against teams from the West Coast went poorly. Pittsburgh went 6-11 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, and San Diego Padres. The Pirates dropped three of four in St. Louis later in the month. They went on to Philadelphia got four straight defeats handed to them.

On July 8, Pittsburgh was in the danger zone, 8 ½ games off the pace. The Phillies were making a return visit to old Three Rivers Stadium. The four-game weekend series had considerable urgency.

Trailing 7-3 in the eighth inning of Friday night’s opener, the Pirates got rolling. A four-run rally was keyed by doubles from Oliver and Stennett. In the ninth inning, consecutive two-out singles from third baseman Phil Garner, catcher Ed Ott, and Parker set up Pittsburgh to win on a bases-loaded walk.

Saturday afternoon was even more dramatic. An anticipated pitcher’s duel between Candelaria and eventual NL Cy Young winner Steve Carlton turned into a back-and-forth slugfest. The game went 12 innings. Forster and Jackson had kept the Pirates afloat with 5 1/3 combined innings of solid relief. They were rewarded when backup infielder Mario Mendoza, legendary for his light-hitting, knocked a two-out RBI single to win 9-8.

Sunday would be an old-fashioned doubleheader, with just 20 minutes in between games. Pittsburgh churned out a 5-1 win in the opener behind a good outing from Reuss and a solo blast from Garner to get the early lead. The second game was another wild offensive affair. Trailing 10-7 in the bottom of the seventh, Garner ripped a bases-loaded/two-out double that tied the game. Robinson promptly knocked him in with the go-ahead run. The 12-10 win capped off a big four-game sweep. Pittsburgh was back in the race.

By the All-Star break a week later, the Pirates were 50-42. They trailed the Cubs by a 5 ½ games. The Phils were 2 ½ back in second place. The Cardinals were starting to fade, 8 ½ back and in fourth.

Cincinnati would fall from their championship perch this season (the Reds were in the Western Division under the geographically-challenged alignment of the era), and Pittsburgh swept Cincy three straight out of the break. It was the start of an 8-0 homestand that slashed the NL East lead to 2 ½ games. The Cubbies were starting to fade when they came to Pittsburgh on August 8 for a three-game set. Philadelphia was now dead even in the NL East, and the Pirates were hot on the heels of both teams.

On Monday night, Pittsburgh trailed Chicago 6-5 in the ninth inning. A double from Moreno and single from Stennett set up runners on the corners. After a sac fly tied the game, Ott ripped a triple to center to win it. Pirate bats went quiet on Tuesday night, mustering only six hits in a 4-1 loss. They handed the ball to Candelaria to try and secure the series win on Wednesday night.

Candelaria gave seven solid innings, but left in a 1-1 tie. A long night ensued. Gossage pitched four shutout innings. Jackson put five zeroes on the board. We got to the 18th inning still tied 1-1. Finally, Ott came through again—a sac fly for the win.

Pittsburgh was moving past Chicago, but Philadelphia was sizzling in the late summer. The Pirates swept the New York Mets five straight but failed to move the needle in the division race. By Labor Day, Pittsburgh had a solid 77-59 record. But they were seven games behind the Phils.

Taking two of three from Philly in a series that started on Labor Day, chipped away at the lead a little bit. A week later, the Pirates and Phils split a pair. That just wasn’t going to be enough. Pittsburgh played well in September, including a 10-1 stretch. But Philadelphia never gave an inch. The Pirates trailed by as many as nine games, and never got closer than five, which is where it ended up.

The final record was 96-66. That’s excellent by any measure, third-best in the National League and seventh-best in baseball overall. In our own era, it would be an easy playoff season and with Pittsburgh playing well down the stretch, who knows what might have happened in October. But that wasn’t the way it worked in 1977. The Pirates went home.

Pittsburgh had one more year of this to deal with in 1978, when they again had a nice year, again finished strong, and again finished second to their rival across the state. But the big return wasn’t long in coming. In 1979, the Pirates not only returned to the top of the NL East, they went on to win it all.