I’ve been a collector for my entire life. You never know when you may need a 37-year-old pocket schedule and I don’t want to be unprepared. So I packed up my sons and headed to Chicago for the Fanatics Authentic Sports Spectacular.
One of the big draws of shows like this is the autograph pavilion. There are always lots of big names with big price tags attached.
Since I spent some time working in baseball I’m pretty spoiled and I don’t like to pay for autographs but there were obviously plenty of people who were there specifically for that. Some of the bigger names on hand included Hall of Famers Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, Cal Ripken, Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams. There were also plenty of members of the 2016 Cubs.
But I had two things on my mind: Soak in as much atmosphere and cool stuff as I possibly could and work on my 1972 Topps set.
Baseball cards form the bulk of my collection and my latest project is completing the 1972 set. It’s tough and expensive but I’m in no hurry. Had I been so inclined, I could have easily finished the set. There were multiple dealers there with binders of cards from 1972. The only thing stopping me was the expense of purchasing the cards and the expense of the subsequent divorce when I returned home.
But my favorite part of shows like this is all the oddball stuff you can find.
It was an outstanding afternoon with my kids and a few of their buddies. My youngest son bought his first T206 card and my older son picked up some relic cards. I got a bit closer to finishing my ’72 set and picked up a signed Bill Madlock photo.
As we were preparing to leave, I spotted one last item, a signed Dickie Noles warm up jacket.
Noles holds a special place in my heart as it was his pitch up and in to George Brett in the 1980 World Series that signaled the beginning of the end of the Royals in the series. Kansas City fans probably have different feelings on Mr. Noles.
If you get the chance, I’d highly recommend attending a similar show near you. You never know what you’ll find.
That’s what the 1980 pennant race came down to in the National League. The American League race produced some drama, but the NL pennant race was outstanding and it doesn’t get its due. It had everything, including two divisions that came down to the final weekend. Here are seven reasons the 1980 pennant race was fantastic.
The Pirates Fade
The Pirates were the defending World Series champs and a consensus pick to repeat. They had their core back and held a 5 game lead in the NL East in May. By the morning of September 1st that lead was down to just a half game and they were in a tailspin.
From August 25th through September 9, the Pirates lost 13 of 15 games and were basically out of the race. The Buccos went 10-17 in September, enduring a five game losing streak at beginning of month and a six game skid to end the month, turning half game lead into an eight game deficit by the end of September.
“This is the first time in my 10 years as a big league manager that a club I managed didn’t have a good September,” said Pirates Manager Chuck Tanner. “That has been the big difference. We haven’t won like we used to in September.”
The Astros Inner Turmoil
The 1980 Houston Astros had an extremely talented roster, including one of the top pitching staffs in baseball. Then J.R. Richard went down.
That certainly would be enough to torpedo a lot of teams, but not this Astros team. There was another situation brewing under the surface, however, and it threatened to rip the team apart.
In his book, Joe Morgan – A Life in Baseball, Morgan recounts how he called a players-only meeting in August after a series against the Padres in San Diego. He challenged his teammates to be less selfish and he singled people out. It worked.
Immediately following the meeting, Houston went on a tear and gained a three game lead in the NL West. Everyone was happy according to Morgan except manager Bill Virdon, who felt Morgan had overstepped his bounds. Their relationship changed after that. As the team started winning, players would talk about how much of an influence Morgan was which made the problem worse.
Virdon began benching Morgan late in games and the players noticed. It was a situation that would come back to bite them later on.
The Expos went 19-9 in September, thanks in large part to outstanding pitching. The Montreal staff threw six shutouts in September and allowed a major league low 78 runs. Staff ace Steve Rogers made six starts in 24 days, going 4-2 with four complete games.
Another key for the Expos was taking two of three from Pittsburgh in mid-September. After splitting the first two, Montreal won the crucial third game to grab a one game lead in the division while pushing Pittsburgh down to third place.
“I don’t think the Pirates will give us any more trouble,” Jerry White told the media after the 4-0 win. “Philadelphia is now the team we’ve got to worry about.”
The Phillies Surge
While Expos were surging, so were the Phillies. Six games back on August 11th, they managed to crawl back into a first place tie by the end of play on September 1st. Mike Schmidt took over from there. From September 1st through the end of the season, Schmidt hit .298 with 13 homers and 28 RBI. His hot bat helped the Phillies go 19-10 in September.
On the mound, they got a big big contribution from an unexpected source. Marty Bystom came to the Phillies an an amateur free-agent in 1976. After winning 6- games in 14 starts at AAA Oklahoma City, Bystrom went 5-0 in September of 1980 pitching some of the most important innings in franchise history. His 1.50 ERA earned him NL Pitcher of the Month honors.
“How good is Marty?” Phillies manager Dallas Green asked the media after his final win of the month. “Pressure doesn’t bother Marty. He has that look in his eye. A look of confidence.”
The Expos/Phillies Showdown
Great months by both the Phillies and the Expos set up a showdown in Montreal on the final weekend of the season. There was a tie at the top of the division and whoever won two of three in the series would be off the the NLCS.
“They’ll have to take it away from us in our own park,” said Andre Dawson. “We’re loose and confident and we’d just as soon get it over in the first two days of the series.”
The Phillies sent 16-game winner Dick Ruthven to the mound while the Expos countered with their own 16-game winner, Scott Sanderson. Not surprisingly, Pete Rose got things started for the Phillies by singling to lead off the game. He advanced to 3rd on a Bake McBride double and scored on a Schmidt sac fly to give the Phillies a 1-0 lead.
In the top of the 6th, Schmidt again provided the heroics, this time with a solo home run. Dawson’s sac fly in the bottom of the inning cut the Phillies lead to one, but Tug McGraw came on in the 8th inning and struck out five of the six batters he faced to notch his 20th save and give the Phillies a one game lead in the division.
“Now it’s our advantage,” Schmidt said. “The pressure stays on us but they must be feeling a bit of it themselves.”
“It’s very simple now,” said Expos manager Dick Williams. “We win tomorrow or we have to face the winter with the knowledge that we’re only a second place ballclub.”
Montreal grabbed an early lead in game two and was clinging to a 4-3 advantage in the top of the 9th when Bob Boone‘s two-out single off Woody Fryman scored Bake McBride to tie the game.
McGraw shut out the Expos in the 9th and 10th innings and in the top of the 11th, Mike Schmidt faced Stan Bahnsen with one out and Rose on second.
Schmidt delivered perhaps the biggest home run in Phillies history since Dick Sisler‘s shot on the final day of 1950. The 2-run homer won the game for the Phillies and sent them to the NLCS.
“This will give me a heckuva lot more character for future pressure baseball,” Schmidt said. “We have a bigger hill to climb ahead of us. I’ve yet to prove myself in a playoff and World Series.”
The Astros Meltdown
So the Phillies were in but they still didn’t know who they would play. The Astros held a three game advantage over the Dodgers heading into the final weekend of the season and the two faced off in Los Angeles for a three game series. All Houston had to do was win one game and they would qualify for their first ever post-season appearance.
In game one, Houston had a one-run lead in the bottom of the 9th and their closer Dave Smith ready in the bullpen, but Virdon stayed with Ken Forsch instead. The Dodgers tied it with 2-outs in the 9th and won it on Joe Ferguson‘s walk-off homer off Forsch in the 10th. A young Fernando Valenzuela pitched two scoreless innings in relief to get the win for L.A.
Game two featured Jerry Reuss against Nolan Ryan and again the Dodgers prevailed by a single run. The game was tied at one when Steve Garvey homered off Ryan. It held up and the Dodgers won 2-1.
“He started me with a curve and then came with the fastball,” Garvey told the press after the game. “I was sure it was gone when I hit it.”
That set up a Sunday showdown. A Houston win meant they won the division. A Dodgers win would force a one game playoff.
“Sunday can’t be any tougher than facing Reuss,” said Virdon. “We’re not worried about numbers or statistics. We just need one more win.”
Houston again took a lead in the third game and again the Dodgers fought back in the late innings. Ron Cey’s 8th inning, 2-run homer proved to be the difference. Don Sutton, who started the first game of the series, got the last out and earned his first save of the season.
“We don’t have the killer instinct sometimes,’ said Morgan. “We got ahead 3-0 the same way we have all year, by slapping singles, stealing bases and bunting, but then we sat back and expected our pitchers to hold them. You can’t do that.”
One of the main reasons Morgan was in Houston was to provide veteran leadership, the kind Houston was lacking. This was his biggest test.
“This team is going to grow up a lot in the next day,” he said. “It will be strong or it will die.”
The Astros/Dodgers Playoff
More than 50,000 people packed Dodger Stadium on Monday, October 6th for the one-game playoff to determine the NL West champion.
The Astros sent 19-game winner Joe Niekro to the mound, while the Dodgers countered with Dave Goltz, signed as a free-agent in the 1979 off-season. Goltz recorded double-digit wins for six straight seasons in Minnesota but his first season in Dodger Blue was a disappointment. He entered the most important game of the season with a 7-10 record.
Houston took Morgan’s words to heart and scored two runs in the first inning on two singles, a stolen base and two ground outs. Art Howe hit a two-run homer in the 3rd and the Astros plated three more in the 4th to take a 7-0 lead.
Seven runs were plenty for Niekro as he allowed just six hits en route to a complete game 7-1 final.
“I was confident. I was relaxed,” said Niekro after winning his 20th game. “After the first two innings I found I had a good knuckleball.”
As the champagne flowed in the visitors clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, Virdon finally let his guard down.
“I’m probably as relaxed right now as I’ve been in the last four days,” he said.
Like the regular season race, the 1980 ALCS was a bit anticlimactic, but the NLCS continued the regular season excitement. The Phillies beat the Astros in five thrilling games with the last four going to extra innings. In the end, the Phillies prevailed and went on to win their first ever World Series championship.
After nearly an eight year hiatus, professional baseball returned to Buffalo in 1979. The previous franchise in the AAA International League ran into heavy financial problems and even had to play some home games at nearby Niagara Falls towards the end. But the Buffalo Bisons had some big fans in the city, led by Mayor James Griffin, and when a chance to get back into the game arose, the city was ready.
Oh, War Memorial Stadium where they would have to play needed work. Since the earlier Bisons and NFL Buffalo Bills had moved out it had been mostly empty except for some high school football games. The place was in disrepair.
Prior to Opening Day in 1979 some paint was applied. Some rotting seats were pulled out. The media/press box overhanging home plate was cleaned up and groundskeepers put in new turf for a new field.
But the real story turned out to be team the Pirates put in place. Twelve of the players who would wear a Buffalo uniform that season had or would have major league experience before their careers were over. Catcher Tony Pena would accumulate 18 major league years, Luis Salazar would play 13 seasons in the bigs while pitchers Fred Breining, Stew Cliburn and Dave Dravecky would have have multiple big league seasons. Dravecky would win as many as 14 games one season.
However, the superstar of the 1979 Bisons was an outfielder named Rick Lancellotti. He would hit 41 home runs—just one off the all time Eastern League record. The right-fielder took full advantage of War Memorial Stadium’s cozy right field. It was only about 310 feet down the line and actually got closer as the wall curved toward center field. It was as close as 290 feet at one point and the wall was less than ten feet high.
The Bisons hit 198 home runs in the 140 game schedule. While the lefty hitting Lancellotti let the way, he was far from alone. Switch-hitting first baseman Chick Valley added 25 homers, but the big story was what two right-handed hitters did by going the other way.
Tony Pena hit 34 home runs, drove in 97 and batted .313 that magical season. Later after Tony had been in the major leagues for years and I had a chance to chat with him he admitted he learned how to hit in Buffalo. Before, he had been a typical pull hitter. He had done well enough the season before at Salem with 19 home runs and a .276 average, but he felt by consciously looking to go the other way at Buffalo in 1979 he made himself into a good hitter.
That was demonstrated in a major league career that saw his average among the leaders for catchers until age, injury and part time duty cut into it later in his career. Tony never came close to hitting 34 home runs in a major league season, but he topped out at 15 twice and was in double figures six times.
The other player that may have “made” himself in Buffalo was Salazar. He hit the first home run I ever called on radio in a professional game when he won the home opener with a walk off shot to right center field. Salazar wasn’t even supposed to be in the game. He had been slotted as an “extra” outfielder by Pittsburgh brass that season, but when the “prospect” ahead of him pulled up lame Luis got the start and never looked back. The “prospect” never made the major leagues, but Salazar hung around for 13 seasons mostly with San Diego, the White Sox and the Cubs. In eight of his seasons he played in more than 100 games.
As mentioned above Lancellotti who would later appear in just 36 games over three major league seasons, but star in Japan, hitting 58 homers over two seasons and 198 games, was amazing. For his career he hit 276 minor league homers, 58 in Japan and two in the major leagues. In addition to his 41 home runs in ’79 he also drove in 107 runs and batted .287. He led the Eastern League with 13 sacrifice flies.
Before remembering some of the pitchers one multi-use player has to be remembered. His name was Charles “Chick” Valley. He never played a minute in a major league game, but in 1979 in Buffalo he was not only a crowd favorite, but a real and versatile star.
As a player he was a switch-hitting first baseman. He knew how to pull the ball batting left handed over the right field wall. His 25 home runs that season were the most he would ever hit in a single season. Add 98 RBIs, a .269 average to a superb .380 on base percentage and it was easy to see Chick’s value.
But he could also pitch.
Manager Steve Demeter needed him to help out midway through the season. Valley had pitched in college at San Diego State so the mound wasn’t new to him. He showed he had multiple pitches and good control even if his fastball was lucky to touch 85 mph. In ten appearances he recorded a 2-0 record with a 2.16 earned run average in 25 innings. He allowed only 17 hits while striking out 19 and walking only nine. Valley looked as though he might have something to fall back on should he not be able to hit his way to the majors.
The Pirates were not convinced, and by the next season he was out of the organization. He spent his last three years in professional baseball as a pitcher. His biggest season was in the Milwaukee system at AA El Paso in 1981 when he was 10-5 with a 2.79 ERA as a reliever. After 1983 he was out of baseball. But Chick Valley had two seasons to remember: 1979 as a 25 homer hitting first baseman in Buffalo and 1981 as a ten game winning pitcher at El Paso.
As far as the regular pitchers on the 1979 Bisons were concerned the “Golden Boy” at the outset of the season was Fred Breining. He proved worthy of that status, but when he became the object of the Giants eye he would be part of a deal with San Francisco that netted the Pirates Bill Madlock. In twelve starts for the Bisons, Fred was 5-4 with a 2.63 ERA and 73 strikeouts in just 82 innings pitched. Stew Cliburn was almost as highly regarded. He made 15 starts and was 6-6 with a 3.23 ERA in 103 innings. Both would later put in a few years in major league uniforms.
The Pirates were pushing for Ben Wiltback to start as much as possible. He had the livest arm of anyone on the team, but rarely knew where his fastball was going. He did start eleven games with poor results. He was 1-6 with an earned run average of more than 10! (10.05) He had his chances but manager Demeter had to take him out usually well before he had pitched as many as five innings. All told he threw 43 innings, giving up 70 hits and 48 walks. Needless to say Ben Wiltbank never made it.
But Dave Dravecky did. And no one thought he was anything more than another staff short inning reliever when 1979 began. Dravecky would appear in 35 games that season, but only 13 as a starter. His numbers were not eye opening, but his look on the mound was. His numbers showed a 6-7 record and 4.26 ERA. The latter wasn’t outstanding, but was still nearly a full half run a game lower than the team’s overall 4.72 ERA.
The Pirates saw something in Dravecky, but so did other clubs. Dave had his greatest success in San Diego and San Francisco before cancer and ultimately weakened bone structure cost him his pitching arm.
Others from the 1979 Bisons that saw big league time included outfielders Jose de la Rosa and Alberto Lois along with pitchers Santo Alcala and Bob Long. Matt Alexander was also part of the ’79 Bisons for a while. He and infielder Tom McMillan had actually seen major league time before Buffalo, and Alexander would see more. Manny was a speedy utility outfielder who played 32 games for the Bisons, hit .313 and was a perfect 13-13 as a base thief.
As a full team the Bisons weren’t the best. They finished the season at only 72-67. But they were a thrill a minute at War Memorial Stadium. No opposing lead was safe from that power-laden lineup. Of more importance; baseball was back in a real baseball city and that would lead to a new state-of-the-art ballpark downtown only a few years later.
War Memorial Stadium is no more. It will live forever as the home field for the fictitious New York Knights in the classic baseball movie, “The Natural”. It was a great place to bring baseball back to Buffalo with a memorable team.
About Greg Lucas:
Greg Lucas has been behind a mic since 1965. In addition to calling Bisons games, he’s done games for the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros, where he called a no-hitter, a perfect game and a ball bouncing of an outfielder’s head. He also spent more than 20 years working in the NBA for four different teams. So far, he’s called more than 3,000 games in 25 + sports and counting.
“Green’s Phillies Win Brawl Game” read one headline.
“Phillies Wrestle First Place Away From Bucs” read another.
On May 26th, 1980, the Pittsburgh Pirates came to Veterans Stadium for an NL East showdown. Philadelphia had won four straight to cut Pittsburgh’s lead in the division to just a half game and the four-game series was a chance for the Phillies to reassert themselves as the class of the NL East. The Pirates were in a foul mood after losing six of their last eight, including a 5-2 loss on “Bat Day” in Pittsburgh on May 25th. The loss so incensed the Pirate faithful that a few of them took their new bats and smashed the back window of Willie Stargell’s Rolls Royce.
Pittsburgh sent Bert Blyleven to the mound, while the Phillies countered with rookie Bob Walk who was making his major league debut after going 5-1 in AAA Oklahoma City. For Walk, it would be his first time atop a major league pitching mound but not his first time throwing objects at big-leagues. As a teenager, he was once arrested at Dodger Stadium for throwing a tennis ball at Astros outfielder Cesar Cedeno from the bleachers.
Pittsburgh took a 2-0 lead on Willie Stargell’s first-inning home run. In the bottom of the 3rd inning, with the Pirates lead standing at 3-1, Blyleven threw inside to Mike Schmidt and Schmidt took exception, heading to the mound to confront the Pirates’ hurler and the benches quickly emptied. Home plate umpire Doug Harvey, who carried the nickname, “God” for the clout he earned among players and other umpires, was able to intercept Schmidt before he reached the mound and order was restored.
Walk lived up to his name in his debut, issuing free passes to five Pirate hitters in two and two-thirds innings before being replaced by Lerrin LeGrow. When Kevin Saucier took over for the Phillies in the 5th inning he had revenge on his mind. After getting Dave Parker to ground out to Manny Trillo at 2nd, Saucier plunked Willie Stargell, causing the Pirates dugout to take notice. In the 6th, Saucier finally got a chance to get even with Blyleven and did so by drilling the Pirates’ starter with a pitch. None too pleased, Blyleven picked the ball up and prepared to throw it back at Saucier. Harvey was able to stop Blyleven, but he wasn’t able to prevent the swarm of Phillies or Pirates from rushing the field. Someone tackled Saucier and a nearly five minute brawl ensued. Things were seemingly under control until Pirate outfielder Lee Lacy began hurling insults towards the Phillies.
“I told Lacy to stop trying to instigate things,” Harvey said. “He was cursing and I threw him out of the game. The next thing I knew, (Phillies pitching coach) Herm Starrette was shouting at someone and I told him to stop instigating. He kept yelling and I threw him out of the game.”
But Starrette wasn’t the only Phillies coach causing problems. Bullpen coach Mike Ryan began jawing with several Pittsburgh players and a second brawl broke out, this one bigger than the first. For the Pirates, there was no doubt who was to blame.
“It was Ryan’s fault,” said Lacy. “He ran into a pile of players and started kicking everyone, even his teammates.”
“I didn’t kick anyone,” Ryan said. “As a coach, I was trying to be a peacemaker. Some of the Pirates, two or three of them, started pointing at me. I said, OK, if you want a piece of me, try me.”
The teams finally returned to their dugouts and the Pirates held a 6-5 lead in the 9th inning with their closer, Kent Tekulve, on the mound. Tekulve faced five batters in the bottom of the 9th and retired none of them. Larry Bowa’s single to right field scored Bob Boone and the Phillies had a win and sole possession of first place in the NL East.
It was a lead that would bounce back and forth between the Pirates, Phillies and the Montreal Expos for the rest of the summer.
The complete game is an anachronism in baseball today. But in 1980 it was an important part of the game and a source of pride for the pitchers who threw them.
As the Pittsburgh Pirates began defense of their 1979 World Series championship, manager Chuck Tanner indicated he wanted to see more complete games out of his starting pitchers. If the Pirates were to repeat, Tanner had an eye on resting Kent Tekulve and the rest of the bullpen as much as possible.
His opening day starter, Bert Blyleven, supported his plan 100%. From 1971 through ’78, Blyleven had completed nearly half of the games he started. In ’79, that number slipped to just four in 37 starts and he was not happy about it, feeling it robbed him of the chance for more wins which equated to a larger contract.
Opening Day Difficulties
Pittsburgh opened their season against St. Louis and the Cardinals held a 1-0 lead in the top of the 6th when Phil Garner’s single broke up Pete Vuckovich‘s no-hit bid and brought up Blyleven’s spot in the order. Seeing a chance to possibly tie the game, Tanner lifted Blyleven and sent Mike Easler up to hit. The move backfired as Easler hit into an inning-ending double play.
Through his first four starts of the season, Blyleven was excellent but had nothing to show for it. His record was 0-2, but he had an E.R.A. of 2.42 and was allowing fewer than one base runner per inning while posting 26 strikeouts in 26 innings. The problem was offense. The Pirate bats had produced just eight runs in his four starts.
But for Blyleven, the lack of offensse was secondary to not being permitted to finish what he started. Despite Tanner’s pre-season proclamation, Pirate pitchers completed three of fourteen starts and Blyleven had yet to go the distance.
Game number 15 of the season was on April 29th in Pittsburgh against the Montreal Expos with Blyleven on the mound. Through five innings, the Pirates led 4-2. But a sixth inning Montreal rally tied the game at four and brought Tanner out of the Pittsburgh dugout to once again remove Blyleven. The Pirates eventually won the game 5-4 in 10 innings, but Blyleven was livid. So much so that he requested a trade and left the team the following day.
A Line in the Sand
“I felt I had to speak up,” he told the media. “If I didn’t, maybe 20 years from now, I’d be wishing that I had spoken up. Maybe 20 years from now I’ll wish I hadn’t spoken up.
The move did not sit well Blyleven’s teamates and some weren’t shy in expressing their concern.
“Pitching is more of a strength on our club than most people realize,” fellow pitcher Jim Rooker told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The reason we won everything last year is that our pitching came through when other staffs were not as flexible as ours. We need Bert.”
“I can understand a lot of things about ballplayers,” said Bill Madlock. “But going home… I don’t know why he did that.”
Pirates General Manager Pete Peterson told the press he considered Blyleven semi-retired and sent a message to the other 25 teams announcing his availability via trade and requesting a pitcher in return.
Rumors flew that he was headed to the Yankees in exchange for Ed Figueroa or the Red Sox with Pittsburgh receiving Mike Torrez. One of the more interesting rumors was that the California Angels supposedly knew of Blyleven’s impending departure before the Pirates did. Blyleven lived in California and allegedly told friends he was considering leaving the team.
Blyleven returned to the Pirates a few weeks later and was inserted back into the rotation against the San Francisco Giants. He went the distance in a 5-0 loss and finished the season with a 8-13 record with five complete games. He was traded to the Indians in December.