1977 Chicago Cubs: A Blazing Start Followed By More North Side Disappointment

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.

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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.

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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.