The Pittsburgh Pirates had been the NL East’s pre-eminent team in the early part of the 1970s. They won five division titles from 1970-75, and brought home the World Series trophy in 1971. While they stayed competitive from 1976-78, they also gave way to the Philadelphia Phillies, who won three successive NL East crowns in succession, while the Pirates finished second. The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates get back on top—first in their division, then in the baseball world itself.
Each of Pittsburgh’s second-place finishes the previous three years had been progressively better. They were a distant second in 1976, a competitive second in 1977 and chased the Phils to the season’s penultimate day in 1978.
In ’78, a slow start had left the Pirates with too big a margin to make up. As such, it was disappointing to start the 1979 season by losing 10 of their first 14 and to still be sub-.500 at Memorial Day, 6 ½ games out.
The Pirates had a balanced team though, finishing third in the NL in ERA and leading the league in runs scored. Dave Parker was a star in right, finishing with a .380 on-base percentage, hitting 25 home runs and driving in 94 runs. Bill Robinson hit 24 home runs in the left field spot. Tim Foli and Omar Moreno were solid at getting on base, and played good defense at shortstop and centerfield respectively. Phil Garner was inserted into the second base job and finished with a .359 OBP.
Pittsburgh’s pitching was well-balanced and suited for the long haul. Bert Blyleven, John Candelaria and Bruce Kison all finished between 12-14 wins, with ERAs between 3.19 and 3.60. Don Robinson and Jim Bibby could both start and come out of the bullpen.
Grant Jackson and Enrique Romo were solid relievers with ERAs just under 3.00. And manager Chuck Tanner could turn to Kent Tekulve and his submarine pitching style to close the door. Tekulve saved 31 games and finished with a 2.75 ERA.
But no one was better than the 35-year-old first baseman, Willie “Pops” Stargell. He hit 32 home runs, finished with a .352 OBP, provided incomparable leadership and his fingerprints were on virtually every big moment this team had, both in the regular season and October. Stargell shared the NL MVP award with St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman Keith Hernandez.
Pittsburgh’s rallying cry would become nationally known—they adopted the Sister Sledge song “We Are Family” to underscore their togetherness, and in June the team began to find its footing, helped in no small part by the acquisition of third baseman Bill Madlock from San Francisco. Madlock finished with a .390 OBP and .469 slugging percentage, further juicing up the attack.
The Pirates were 46-39 by the All-Star break, though they were still in fourth place, trailing the Montreal Expos and Chicago Cubs, along with the Phils. To no one’s surprise, Chicago fell apart in the season’s second half. To everyone’s surprise, Philadelphia did as well. The race would come down to the Pirates and the Expos (today’s Washington Nationals).
Pittsburgh closed July by taking three of four in Montreal, then sealed Philadelphia’s fate with a stunning stretch in which the teams played eight times in early August, and the Pirates won all eight. Pittsburgh then went 8-2 on a West Coast trip and they rolled into Labor Day with a record 80-54 and a 3 ½ game lead.
Montreal was an up-and-coming team though, and even as the Pirates went 7-4 in early September, the Expos wiped the lead out and the teams were tied on September 17 when Pittsburgh went north of the border for a two-game series.
Don Robinson faced off with Montreal ace Steve Rogers in Monday night’s opener, and Robinson met the moment—a six-hit complete game delivered a 2-1 win. Tuesday’s game was tied 3-3 in the 11th inning, when Pops came through, blasting a two-run homer to dead center. Pittsburgh was now up two games.
But the Expos played better coming out of the series. The Pirates split their next six, Montreal capitalized and Pittsburgh trailed by a half-game when the teams began their final head-to-head series of the year, a four-game set that would open the regular season’s final week.
Monday was a doubleheader and Bill Robinson hit a big home run in a three-run sixth inning that keyed a 5-2 win. Pittsburgh was poised to sweep when they led the second game 6-3 in the eighth inning, but a blown save by Tekulve allowed Montreal to rally and reclaim first place with a 7-6 win.
Pittsburgh took over the next two nights, the biggest nights of the 1979 NL East race. Tuesday’s game was tied 3-3 in the fifth, when the Pirates unloaded and won 10-4. Then on Wednesday, they bashed Rogers for ten more runs, and took a 1 ½ game lead with four days left.
On Thursday, Pittsburgh lost a makeup game with St. Louis. Their record was 96-63, while Montreal was at 94-63. The potential for two days of Expo makeup games loomed if the weekend didn’t settle things. Both teams were at home, Pittsburgh with the Cubs and Montreal with the Phillies.
On Friday night, Parker hit a second-inning home run, kickstarting a four-run rally and the Pirates won 6-1. The Expos went to 11 innings, but lost to the Phils. Pittsburgh now had the lead in the loss column and controlled their own fate.
Just as quickly, fate reversed itself. Blyleven coughed up a 3-0 lead on Saturday, and the Pirates ultimately lost 7-6 in 13 innings. Montreal won 3-2, and the loss column was again even.
Pittsburgh at least knew that if they won on Sunday, Montreal would need to first take its own finale, then win two makeup games and then meet the Pirates in a one-game playoff. In a big game who better than Stargell to take over? Pops homered, Parker had three hits and the pitching combination of Kison and Tekulve delivered a 5-3 win. And the word from Montreal was good—Philadelphia sent their ace, lefty Steve Carlton to the mound and he shut out the Expos 2-0. The NL East race was over.
Rematches awaited the Pirates in both rounds of the postseason. They had lost the National League Championship Series to the Cincinnati Reds in 1970, 1972 and 1975. In this case, the fourth time was the charm—Pittsburgh won the best-of-five series in three straight, taking the first two in extra innings on the road. Stargell hit the game-winning shot of Game 1 and was named NLCS MVP.
The Pirates had beaten the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series, rallying after losing the first two games on the road. This time the comeback was even better. They trailed the Series 3-1 in games, and had to first beat AL Cy Young winner Mike Flanagan, and then win two in a row on the road.
That’s exactly what they did. Trailing 1-0 in the sixth inning of Game 7, Stargell hit a two-run homer. He was named Series MVP and the Pirates became the last team to win the final two games of a World Series on the road.
It would be twelve years before the Pirates returned to postseason play, and they haven’t won the World Series since. But that magical year of 1979 provided enough memories for a lot of Family reunions.