The 1977 MLB season was the beginning of a pattern—for two straight years, the same four teams would win division titles, the same two teams would win pennants and the same team would win the World Series. Given that this script involved the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers meeting in the Fall Classic, I can’t imagine anyone at ABC or NBC, the networks that then carried postseason baseball, were complaining.
New York had returned to the World Series in 1976, but was still looking for their first championship since 1962 and first under the ownership of George Steinbrenner. The Yankees, with Cy Young reliever Sparky Lyle won a tight AL East race, surviving the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles.
Los Angeles was under new leadership, as veteran manager Walter Alston retired and rookie skipper Tommy Lasorda took over. The Dodgers dethroned the two-time defending World Series champ Cincinnati Reds and their MVP left fielder George Foster, winning the NL West with ease.
The Kansas City Royals and Philadelphia Phillies served as the foils for the two marquee heavyweights. Kansas City actually finished the regular season with the best record in baseball, winning 102 games. Philadelphia won 101, had one of the game’s best offenses and the NL Cy Young winner in Steve Carlton. Both teams had surged down the stretch, blowing open close division races in the AL West & NL East respectively.
But in October, it was the Yankees and Dodgers who came through. Both LCS matchups were good ones, the Yanks-Royals particularly so. Ninth-inning rallies decided each one For Los Angeles, that came in Game 3 of what was then a best-of-five round. New York waited until the 11th hour, the ninth inning of the deciding fifth game in Kansas City.
The World Series was decided by the fact New York got superior starting pitching, namely in Games 3 & 4. It is remembered for a spectacular individual display put on by Yankee rightfielder Reggie Jackson, who hit three home runs on three swings to salt away the deciding sixth game.
You can read the complete story of the 1977 MLB season in a compilation of articles available at Amazon. The compilation has eight articles about notable teams–the four division winners, the Red Sox & Orioles, and the two teams that lifted a city’s hopes in the summer and then dashed it with a collapse–the White Sox & Cubs. The compilation also contains game-by-game narratives of all three postseason series. Download it today.
From 1969-74, the AL East had dominated by Baltimore, as they won five division titles in that six-year period. The Orioles slipped back to second place in 1975& 1976, winning 90 & 88 games respectively, and losing out to the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in successive years. The 1977 Baltimore Orioles made a surge forward and won 97 games, but again had to settle for second place.
Baltimore suffered key free agent losses in the offseason. Second baseman Bobby Grich departed, and the biggest loss was Reggie Jackson, who spent one year with the Orioles in between his more heralded tenures in Oakland and New York. Jackson’s decision to sign with the rival Yankees made his loss hurt twice as much.
Paul Blair, the great defensive centerfielder, was traded to New York in a deal that did not work out. Elliot Maddox was the key piece coming back, and while Maddox finished with an on-base percentage of .375, he only played 49 games.
If offseason moves weren’t going to help, then someone had to come from within and the Orioles found a future Hall of Famer in 21-year-old Eddie Murray. He hit 27 home runs and finished with 88 RBI, playing the DH role this year while 34-year0old Lee May still occupied first base. May hit 27 home runs of his own and drove in 99.
The Baltimore offense was top-heavy, with Ken Singleton being the other big-time contributor. With a .438 on-base percentage, 24 home runs and 99 RBI, Singleton finished third in the American League MVP voting.
Other contributors included centerfielder Al Bumbry and his .371 OBP, and young third baseman Doug DeCinces, who finished with a .339 OBP/.433 slugging percentage. Overall though the Oriole offense did not have great depth and they finished 7th in the 14-team American League in runs scored.
Pitching was what defined the Orioles in manager Earl Weaver’s tenure and while the 1977 staff wasn’t on a par with what was produced in 1969-74, it was still pretty good. Jim Palmer won 20 games, pitched over 300 innings and finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
Palmer was supported by Rudy May, the lefty who won 18 and pitched 251 innings. Mike Flanagan, the 25-year-old who would win the Cy Young in 1979, won 15 with a 3.64 ERA. Ross Grimsley was another 200-inning horse.
The rotation suffered the same problem as the lineup, and it was a lack of depth. Tippy Martinez, with a 2.70 ERA, was the only reliable reliever. There were two talented 23-year-olds, Scott McGregor and Dennis Martinez, who had bright futures ahead of them in the rotation. But in a mix of relief and spot starting each had ERAs in the 4s in 1977.
Baltimore lost three straight at home to Texas to open the season and were still just 9-8 by the end of April. It was May that things picked up, starting off with an 8-3 stretch against poor opposition in Seattle and Oakland. The Orioles then won three of five games in New York, including a 12-inning Saturday affair where Murray hit a two-out, two-run single to win it.
When Memorial Day came, Baltimore was 25-17 and in first place, a game and a half up on New York and 2 ½ ahead of Boston. But the Orioles started June by losing seven of ten, including two straight in Fenway Park when they were outscored by the Red Sox 21-8. Baltimore slipped two games back and when Boston came south to old Memorial Stadium it got worse—the Red Sox scored 25 runs in a four games, the Orioles were shut out twice and by the time the sweep was finished, Baltimore was staring at a 6 ½ game deficit in the AL East.
The Orioles nudged back to within 3 ½ games and then went up to Fenway to turn the tables. The opener of a three-game series was shaping up as a classic duel between Palmer and Boston ace Luis Tiant and Baltimore trailed 2-1 after seven innings. DeCinces unloaded, hitting home runs in both the seventh and the eighth and the Orioles pulled away to an 8-2 win. They won the next game 5-2 behind Flanagan and a 12-8 slugfest completed the sweep.
New York was waiting back at Memorial Stadium and after dropping the opener, Baltimore again heated up. They trailed the second game 5-3 in the eighth with Yankee closer Sparky Lyle, who ultimately won the Cy Young Award on the mound. The Orioles scored three times and beat Lyle 6-5. Grimsley threw a shutout in a 6-0 win. Murray closed out the series with a walkoff RBI single in a 4-3 win.
By the All-Star break, Baltimore was 53-39, a game and a half up on Boston and three games ahead of New York.
A late July trip to Yankee Stadium saw things start to turn for the worse. The Orioles held a 4-0 lead early in the game and were still up 4-2 in the ninth. Tippy Martinez gave up a two-run homer to tie it, and then Reggie won it for the Yanks with a walkoff shot in the tenth. Baltimore lost two of three in the series and it led to an August where control of the race got away.
It had less to do with the Orioles, who played reasonably well, going 16-11 and more to do with the Yankees, who sizzled in August with a 22-7 mark. But either way, it meant that on Labor Day, the Orioles were five games out and in third place. The Red Sox were 4 ½ out in second.
Baltimore took advantage of a soft schedule stretch in September and won 10 of 13 from Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto and closed to within 2 ½ games to stay alive. The Orioles won a series with the Red Sox and pushed to within a game and a half on September 22 with a week and a half to go. It was still a race.
The problem was, the divisional matchups, especially with the Yankees, had been frontloaded and Baltimore was out of chances to play New York. The Orioles dropped two of three in Cleveland and when the final weekend began, Baltimore and Boston were both three games back and playing head-to-head. One of them had to sweep and the Yankees had to be swept at home by lowly Detroit.
New York lost on Friday night, and a slugfest ensued in Fenway. The young arms, Dennis Martinez and McGregor, struggled and the Orioles trailed 11-7 in the ninth. Then they scored three times and loaded the bases with one out. Maddox came to the plate. The failure of the Blair trade came full circle right here as Maddox struck out. Bumbry grounded out and the bid for the AL East title was over.
Baltimore got a small token of revenge on Saturday, knocking out Boston with an 8-7 win on a day New York lost again. With both the Orioles and Red Sox now eliminated, when the rain came on Sunday, they just called it a season. Each team finished 97-64.
Weaver had moved his team back closer to the top than they had been since 1974. Although the New York run would last one more year, by 1979, the Orioles would reclaim the top spot in the AL East.
The Chicago Cubs had been contenders each year from 1967-73, but, unsurprisingly, given the history of this franchise, they had never won a division title. They slipped to 75-87 in both 1975 and 1976 and made a managerial change. Herman Franks enjoyed a successful run with the San Francisco Giants, with four straight second-place finishes from 1965-68 in what was then a ten-team National League with no divisional splits.
Franks was brought on to lead the 1977 Chicago Cubs and for a few tantalizing months it looked like the Cubbie Hour of MLB history had finally arrived. Then another cruel late summer and early fall reminded us that indeed, the Cubbies are still the Cubbies.
Chicago made a significant trade prior to the season, trading centerfielder Rick Monday and relief pitcher Mike Garman to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Both players would help the Dodgers upend the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati and win the National League pennant. But the Cubs got value in return—first baseman Bill Buckner and a good defensive shortstop in Ivan DeJesus.
Another deal saw Chicago’s good-hitting third baseman Bill Madlock dealt to San Francisco, part of a package that brought Bobby Murcer back in return. Murcer was one of the better offensive rightfielders of the time, and he hit 27 home runs for the Cubs in 1977. The deal also netted a new third baseman in Steve Ontiveros who made sure that the Cubs—at least in the short-term—didn’t miss Madlock. Ontiveros posted a .390 on-base percentage.
Murcer and Ontiveros were two parts of an offense that ranked third in the National League in runs scored. Manny Trillo, a second baseman who was great with the glove, was also pretty good with the bat, putting up a .339 OBP. Jerry Morales in centerfield had a .348 OBP/.447 slugging percentage. Larry Bittner played around the diamond and his .345 OBP made him a steady offensive asset.
The power was a little weak—Murcer was the only player to hit more than 20 home runs, something that stands out even more when you consider the hitters’ haven that Wrigley Field is. But at the end of the day, offense was not the reason the 1977 Chicago Cubs didn’t win the NL East. Pitching was.
Chicago pitching ranked 8th in the NL in ERA and was heavily reliant on two great arms. Rick Reuschel was the ace of the rotation, winning 20 games with a 2.79 ERA. At the end of the bullpen was Bruce Sutter, a second-year pitcher who was not only pitching well—31 saves with a 1.34 ERA, but was redefining the game.
Sutter was having success throwing the split-fingered fastball, the first to really use the pitch regularly. And he was one of the pioneers of the closer’s role, along with Rollie Fingers in Oakland and Goose Gossage who went from the Chicago White Sox to the Pittsburgh Pirates before really gaining fame with the New York Yankees.
The rest of the Cub rotation was spotty, with Ray Burris, Bill Bonham and Mike Krukow all having ERAs up over 4. The bullpen had another good arm in Willie Hernandez, a 22-year-old lefty who worked 110 innings with a 3.03 ERA.
Chicago came flying out of the gates, and at the end of June, were sitting on a 47-22 record. They were 8 ½ games up on the Philadelphia Phillies—who had won the NL East in 1976, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had been this division’s cornerstone team through 1975 and was looking to reclaim their status.
A road trip to St. Louis started to show some cracks. The Cubs lost to their archrival in a pair of pitchers’ duels, 2-1 and 3-1, and then got crushed 10-3. Reuschel and Sutter combined to salvage the finale with a 4-0 shutout, but this was part of a stretch where Chicago lost seven of eight.
Right before the All-Star break, Chicago went to Philadelphia and again lost three out of four. The lead over the Phils was cut to 2 ½ games. St. Louis had faded, while Pittsburgh lurked at 5 ½ out.
The week of August 8-14 can live in infamy on the North Side of Chicago. The run-up to the week had been bad. Sutter hit the disabled list on August 3 with arm problems. He would return three weeks later, but the time the closer got back, the damage was done.
Chicago went to Pittsburgh for three games to start the week. The Cubs lead the opener 6-5 in the ninth and Reuschel pitched into the final inning. The ace gave up a double to Omar Moreno, a single to Rennie Stennett and a triple to catcher Ed Ott and Chicago lost 7-6.
An early home run by Buckner and a strong outing from Burris righted the ship on Tuesday, as Hernandez got the save in a 4-1 win. But the finale was a crusher—the Cubs and Pirates played 18 innings and again it was Ott breaking Chicago’s hearts, this time with a sac fly that won it for Pittsburgh.
It was time to come home and play a four-game set with the Phillies on the weekend, one that would conclude with a Sunday doubleheader. Reuschel faced Philadelphia ace Steve Carlton, on his way to the Cy Young Award, in the opener. The Phils won 10-3 in a game that set the tone for the weekend.
Philadelphia scored 10 runs in each of the first three games, only one of which Chicago was competitive in—they blew a 6-2 lead after six on Saturday. The Phillies hit 11 home runs in the three games, and then the sweep was capped off with a 4-2 win in the nightcap of the Sunday doubleheader.
The awful week ended with Chicago now staring at a 6 ½ game deficit. And the Phillies were hot, keeping the momentum all the way through the season. It would have required an outstanding effort for anyone to keep pace with them, and Chicago’s play was anything but.
The Cubs started the month of September with a 72-60 record, and finished the season at 81-81. You could still draw an optimistic conclusion—Chicago had their best season in three years—but it wouldn’t be the Cubs if the collapse wasn’t the beginning of some sort of end. The team went 79-83 the following year and again played mediocre in 1979. Franks was fired at the tail end of that year, though since the firing came with the team record at 78-77, I suppose the skipper can lay claim to a winning season. The club itself finished sub-.500.
Sutter would win the Cy Young Award in 1979, but find his ultimate glory in St. Louis, where he closed out the 1982 World Series for the Cardinals. Hernandez would eventually win a Cy Young Award, MVP and close out a World Series of his own…for the Detroit Tigers in 1984. Chicago spent a few more years in futility before finally getting their own postseason trip in 1984. The search for a World Series title went on for nearly another forty years, before finally ending in 2016.
The 1977 Chicago White Sox made a managerial change coming into the season. The fortunes of the South Side franchise had started to collapse in 1968 and it had been a decade since the team had even won more than it lost. The White Sox hired Bob Lemon, former ace pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. Chicago saw immediate success in a sizzling summer, although in the end that only served to raise false hopes.
Scoring runs was the key to the White Sox’ success for much of 1977. They ranked third in the American League in runs scored, with two big trades serving as the lynchpin. Chicago acquired power-hitting rightfielder Richie Zisk from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage, and another reliever in Terry Forster.
The inclusion of Forster in the deal undoubtedly enraged this writer’s great-aunt, an Irish lady on the South Side who loved the White Sox and made her way down to the bullpen to start chatting with the pitchers. Forster ended up signing a baseball for her and even sending a Christmas card. I trust that Aunt Julia found some solace in the fact Zisk hit 30 home runs and had 101 RBIs for her beloved team in 1977.
In the first part of April, the White Sox’ front office struck again. They dealt shortstop Bucky Dent to the New York Yankees and got designated hitter Oscar Gamble in return. Gamble hit 31 home runs and had 83 RBIs. Chicago also got a young pitcher in Lamar Hoyt, who was not ready to contribute at the big-league level in 1977, but eventually won a Cy Young Award for the White Sox six years later.
Zisk and Gamble were the cornerstones of the offense, and they had good supporting pieces. Catcher Jim Essian had a .374 on-base percentage, and third baseman Eric Soderholm had a .350 OBP. Chet Lemon (no relation to the new manager) was a good all-around player in center, a .343 OBP/.459 slugging percentage, and Lamar Johnson provided some serious pop in a more limited role. In 400 at-bats, Johnson hit 18 home runs and posted a .342 OBP.
Pitching was more problematic, and that’s being kind. The White Sox ranked 10th in the league in ERA and did not have a single starter with an ERA under 4. Lerrin LaGrow had a good year out of the bullpen, saving 25 games with a 2.46 ERA, but his was the only notable performance.
Chicago’s rotation was populated by three young arms—Francisco Barrios, Kevin Kravec and Chris Knapp that took the ball regularly and were going through growing pains. Wilbur Wood was the other end of the spectrum, now 35-years-old and his former effectiveness gone. And Steve Stone may have won 15 games, but the ERA was 4.51.
In spite of the pitching issues, Chicago spent the first three months playing very steady baseball. There were no dramatic streaks, good or bad, and at the end of June they were 40-32. The White Sox were a game back of the Minnesota Twins, where first baseman Rod Carew was making a run at the .400 mark (he would settle for .388 and the MVP award). The Kansas City Royals, who had won the AL West in 1976, were 3 ½ games off the pace.
Summertime in Chicago saw the White Sox start to sizzle. They won nine in a row, split a pair with Kansas City and when Minnesota begin what would be a sharp fall from grace, the White Sox suddenly found themselves with a four-game lead. Kansas City was coming to town for a four-game set that would bring July to an end.
It would be an electric weekend on the South Side, complete with a Sunday doubleheader. The White Sox trailed the opener 8-6 I the seventh, but behind a balanced offensive assault led by three hits apiece from Chet Lemon and the speedy Ralph Garr, Chicago won 11-8.
Another comeback was ahead on Saturday. The bats were quiet for six innings and the Royals were up 3-0, but once again the final three frames were big. Soderholm’s three-run blast was the key blow in a 6-4 win.
Sunday’s first game was Chicago rally again, and not once but twice. Stone and KC’s Marty Pattin were hooked up in a pitcher’s duel that the Royals led 2-1 in the ninth. An error set up a game-tying single from Chicago infielder Jorge Orta. Kansas City scored twice in the tenth. Chicago opened their half of the 10th with first baseman Jim Spencer drawing a walk and Chet Lemon homering to tie it. Soderholm drew a walk, was bunted over and scored on a single by Garr.
Chicago lost the nightcap, but they concluded the series and the month of July with a 5 ½ game lead on Kansas City. As it turned out though, the rally of Sunday’s early game would be the final real high point of 1977.
The White Sox came out of that series and dropped three of our at home to Texas, giving up 32 runs in the three losses. Chicago then paid a return visit to Kansas City for a three-game weekend set.
Knapp had lost the finale of the previous series to Royals’ ace Dennis Leonard. The two pitchers picked up where they left off to open this series and Kansas City jumped all over Knapp for a 12-2 win. On Saturday, the White Sox led 3-1 after seven innings, but the bullpen collapsed in a 6-3 loss.
On Sunday, Chicago attempted to bring back their comeback mojo. They were trailing 2-1 in the ninth, in the game thanks to a great outing from Ken Kravec and then Gamble tied it up with a home run. Kravec came out for the ninth and walked Royal centerfielder Amos Otis. The pitcher was pulled, but Otis was bunted over and singled in.
That healthy lead Chicago had enjoyed in the AL West (prior to 1994, the leagues were split into just two divisions with no Central in existence) was all but gone, down to a half-game.
The Royals had a head of steam and they wouldn’t look back, barreling down the stretch and winning 102 games, the most in major league baseball. The White Sox didn’t collapse, but nor did they play particularly well, and were helpless in the face of the KC freight train. Chicago lost eight of their next twelve, but stabilized and split their next fourteen games.
Chicago trailed by five games on Labor Day and went 16-14 during the month of September, but it was still a good 12 games behind Kansas City.
There was still plenty of reason to be optimistic. The White Sox had won 90 games and by the standards of today, would have been in contention to the very end (the sixth-best team in the AL, they would have been barely nipped for the last playoff spot). What’s more, they had done it with young pitchers who would presumably get better.
That didn’t happen. By the time the White Sox enjoyed real success, in the division title year of 1983 all of Barrios, Kravec and Knapp were out of the organization. Bob Lemon would taste success sooner—but only after the White Sox fired him midway through 1978, and he was promptly picked up by the New York Yankees, who immediately began a legendary rally from 14 games back to catch the Boston Red Sox and go on to win the World Series. The fans of the South Side, including Aunt Julia, had longer to wait for playoff baseball.