The 1978 Cubs, as did their counterparts in 1977, ran out to an early lead in the N.L. East. An eight-game winning streak in late May put them in first place and as the then-trading deadline, June 15, approached, they had a lead of a couple of games and were looking for pitching help.
They reunited with Ken Holtzman, who was acquired from the Yankees more than six years after being traded away, on June 10. Holtzman was rusty from disuse in New York and was awful.
So the Cubs were looking for more help. They turned to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where lefthander Jerry Reuss was languishing in the bullpen after putting up some decent-to-good years as a starter in the mid-1970s.
Here’s how the trade would have gone down, and why it didn’t, from Reuss in his book “Bring In The Right-Hander, My Twenty-Two Years In The Major Leagues”:
I didn’t notice the flashing light on my phone at the Pirates hotel in Atlanta until the morning of June 16. The message was from Pete [Harding “Pete” Peterson, the Pirates VP of player personnel], who asked me to call him at his office at 9:00 a.m. So I did. “Pete,” I said. “This is Jerry. What’s up?” Pete, who loved talking on his new speakerphone, put me on speaker and said, “Let me get to the point. I have a deal in place that would send you to the Cubs (I found out later it was for right-handers Ray Burris and Paul Reuschel). I talked to Bob Kennedy (the Cubs’ GM), and he wants to put you in their starting rotation right away. To make it happen, I need you to waive your no-trade clause.”
Shocked, I answered him, “Pete, do you remember why I asked for the no-trade clause?” He answered, “You wanted it in lieu of more money.” I told him, “That’s right. Plus, I didn’t want to be forced into making a snap decision about my baseball future. You just put me in that place. I’ll need some time to sort this out with my agent, Jack Sands.”
Showing very little patience, Pete said, “The commissioner’s office has given us three hours to complete the deal because it’s after the deadline. Don’t drag this out.”
The book goes on to say that Reuss had questions about how it would be to rent a place in Chicago, tax ramifications, and other things that he didn’t feel he could answer in three hours. They asked Bob Kennedy if the Cubs would buy him out of the no-trade clause (presumably for the money he didn’t get from the Pirates). You can guess what the Wrigley-era Cubs management said back then: No.
So Reuss didn’t become a Cub. The 1978 Cubs, despite having their lowest home-run total (72) since 1947, finished fifth in the National League in runs. But their pitching staff was atrocious, giving up the second-most runs in the league. They had only two reliable starters, Rick Reuschel (who wasn’t quite as good as he had been in 1977) and Dennis Lamp (who had a 7-15 W/L record despite a decent 3.30 ERA because he finished 93rd of 114 qualified starters in run support). Mike Krukow provided 20 fairly good starts, but the Cubs could have used a good starter like Reuss, who wound up having four very good years for the Dodgers from 1980-83 and who threw a key complete game for them in the 1981 World Series.
The 1978 Cubs fell out of first place in late June but were still as close as 3½ games out of the division lead after sweeping a doubleheader over the Astros on September 3. They went 10-17 the rest of the way and that, as they say, was that. They finished 11 games out of first place. Reuss alone obviously wouldn’t have made up the entire deficit, but he certainly could have helped keep the Cubs closer.
Reuss was no Hall of Famer, but did win 220 games and posted 33.1 career bWAR, a definite Hall of Very Good candidate.
Reuss eventually wound up working for the Cubs in the early 2000s, as a spring-training instructor and pitching coach at Triple-A Iowa.
And we’ll never know whether one more good starter might have made the Cubs a contender in 1978.