P.K. Wrigley, John Holland & Co. traded away many of those who tried again and failed to win a division title in 1973, the fifth straight year the Cubs were supposed to be strong contenders, yet never won anything.
1974 began with a revamped lineup, and the Cubs split their first six games, all at Wrigley Field. The season thus got off to at least a decent start, and the seventh game of the year was to be the second of a three-game set with the Pirates.
I'll let Richard Dozer of the Tribune give you the game details, and then tell you a couple of stories about this game -- some from personal experience, at least one perhaps apocryphal.
The score, as Whitey Lockman was quick to point out, was George Mitterwald 8, Pittsburgh 9. It was the manager's way of reminding the Cubs and all who lavished praise on Mitterwald for the best day of his career that to let George do it alone would not have been enough.
But the Cubs did wallop the Pirates, and it wasn't even close: 18-9 in Wrigley Field, where the wind blew toward center at upwards of 12 miles, and the list of home run hitters was headed by Mitterwald. George hit three of them for the first time in his life, later added a double, and thus added up 14 total bases -- most since Rick Monday had 13 [also with three homers] against Philadelphia two years ago.
Wearing a black eye which he got from failing to catch a sideline pitch from Ken Frailing one day earlier and still only three days out of a sick bed, Mitterwald opened his glorious day with the first grand slam homer of his career to highlight a five-run first inning off Jerry Reuss.
The other Cubs who homered that day were Monday, Jerry Morales and Bill Madlock (for Madlock, it was his first Cubs home run). For Mitterwald, it was not only a career day for him, but a career day for just about anyone. Since that windy, warm 1974 afternoon (and since I was at the game, I can tell you it was far windier than the 12 miles per hour reported by Dozer), just three Cubs have had eight or more RBI in a game: Dave Kingman, who also smacked three homers and drove in eight runs on May 14, 1978, a game I wrote about in last year's history series; Barry Foote, who had his eight-RBI day April 22, 1980, and Sammy Sosa, whose three homers drove in nine runs against the Rockies August 10, 2002. And just one Cub has had 14 total bases since Mitterwald's big day: Aramis Ramirez against the Reds in Cincinnati September 16, 2004.
The apocryphal story: Mitterwald was supposedly feeling better from his "sick bed" the day before this game, but was told he wouldn't be playing April 17. So he went out on a bender the night before -- only to be told when reporting to the ballpark that he'd be starting. Allegedly, goes the story, he had this monster day at the plate with a raging hangover.
The story I can tell that I know is true, having been at the game, beyond the very strong wind, was the performance of Pirates pitcher Steve Blass, who had been a World Series hero three years earlier and even two years before this game had posted a 19-8 mark with a 2.49 ERA and finished second in Cy Young voting. Inexplicably, in 1973 he could no longer throw strikes; in 23 appearances (18 starts) covering 88⅔ innings he issued 84 (!) walks with just 27 strikeouts. He led the major leagues with 12 hit batters and threw nine wild pitches. The sudden loss of a pitcher's control has, since then, been termed "Steve Blass disease".
The Pirates wanted to give him one last shot, so Blass came into this game in relief in the bottom of the fourth with the Bucs already trailing 10-4. The inning went: walk, walk, double, reached on error, reached on error, walk, wild pitch resulting in a run, groundout scoring a run, then two more groundouts. I happened to be sitting in front of a real loudmouth guy that day, possibly drunk, who spent the rest of the afternoon heckling Blass unmercifully for his poor performance. The game was sad for Blass -- he clearly had nothing left, and the Pirates soon sent him to Triple-A to try to get his command back. It didn't work -- he was even worse in the minors, making 17 starts, throwing 61 innings and issuing 103 (!) walks, hitting 16 batters and throwing 12 wild pitches, ending up with with a 2.672 WHIP and 9.74 ERA. (Somehow, he posted two wins.) The Pirates released Blass at the beginning of 1975. The 1974 game at Wrigley was his last big-league appearance.
Finally, Cubs starter Burt Hooton didn't fare very well, either, even given the huge lead. The Cubs led 18-4 going into the ninth and now, 40 years later, no manager would let a starter finish a game like that. But in 1974, complete games were still thought of as something a pitcher should do, and so Hooton labored through a ninth in which he gave up six hits, including a pair of home runs. His line: nine innings, 16 hits and seven walks allowed, along with the nine runs (five earned).
It was a game for the ages. I'll never forget attending that one.