Former Cubs pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, who has worked for many years as a broadcaster for both the Padres and ESPN, often talks baseball to various groups as a featured speaker. Having heard him speak, I can tell you he’s a good storyteller.
Inevitably, the 1984 Cubs, for whom Sutcliffe starred with a 16-1 W/L record (back when pitcher wins still meant something), a 2.69 ERA, 1.073 WHIP and 6.0 fWAR, will come up as a topic of Rick’s conversation. And that’s when he’ll tell you that the Cubs were at a disadvantage because Major League Baseball took away a home date from the Cubs in the National League Championship Series, forcing them to play three games in San Diego.
Usually, Rick’s listeners nod knowingly and repeat this story, to the point where it’s become an article of faith among some Cubs fans. “MLB stole our home field!” people have said, and continue to say. “And that’s why the Cubs lost!”
They didn’t, and it wasn’t. I’ve written about this before, most recently in 2013. Here, I’m going to present to you specific details from contemporary sources that prove without a doubt that Rick Sutcliffe’s story is incorrect.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Rick Sutcliffe and have always been a fan. He and I are almost the same age. We both lived that 1984 season intensely, Sutcliffe as the eventual N.L. Cy Young Award winner, me as a devoted fan of that team. As such, I followed all developments regarding the 1984 Cubs closely. Back then, of course, there was no internet and no sports talk radio, so beyond the radio and TV broadcasts of games, the primary way to follow your favorite sports team was the newspaper.
Through my Chicago Public Library card, I have access to a complete archive of the Chicago Tribune through 1994, which is online at the CPL’s website. (Fascinating stuff, too, if you live in the city of Chicago and want to look up anything the Tribune covered in those years, it’s all available.) Just a note here: The articles found in this archive are in PDF form and not available if you don’t have a CPL card. Thus while I can cite them, I don’t have any direct online links to post here for those articles.
Before I tell you about what I found in this archive, there’s a very simple thing to cite as proof that the Cubs did not lose a home date in the 1984 NLCS. In that time, MLB did not give home field to the team with the best record in postseason series. Instead, they simply alternated home field each year between divisions in the LCS, and leagues in the World Series.
In 1983, it was the N.L. East’s turn to have home field, as you can see here. The pattern back then, in the then five-game championship series, was “2-3” — in other words, the team with home field got the last three games at home, the team without home field thus got the first two games at home. The 1983 N.L. West champion Dodgers thus hosted the first two games, the 1983 N.L. East champion Phillies would have had the last three if needed, but the Phillies won the series in four games.
And so it was that the N.L. East champion was slated to host the first two games of the NLCS in 1984. On Tuesday and Wednesday, October 2 and 3.
Now, this began to bother MLB executives when it started to become clear in mid-August that the Cubs were very likely going to win the division. Obviously, TV money was at stake. The networks then covering postseason games — NBC and ABC — could have lost millions if they had to cover those games at the then-lightless Wrigley Field on weekday afternoons. This was considered by MLB moguls to be more important for the World Series than for the LCS round, and most of the discussion during August centered around those games.
On August 16, the Tribune reported that the commissioner’s office was considering forcing the Cubs to put temporary lights in and around Wrigley Field so night games could be played in the postseason. However, when the lights-in-Wrigley discussion had begun when Tribune Co. took over the team in 1981, city and state laws had been passed that essentially prohibited night games — not by banning lights, but setting up hours at which noise from the ballpark couldn’t happen. The TV networks washed their hands of this (despite the money involved), saying it was “baseball’s problem.”
So other proposals began to be discussed by the commissioner’s office and MLB’s Executive Council of owners, including the possibility of moving Cubs postseason home games to Comiskey Park or Milwaukee County Stadium. That proposal was rejected, and a few days later, the Tribune reported that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn would take no position on temporary lights, kicking it back to the Executive Council, one of whose members, not identified in print, was quoted in the Tribune August 25 as saying:
All of us, Bowie included, are aware that we’re in a no-win situation. Good arguments can be made for both sides. Beyond the issue of money, one of the reasons baseball went to World Series night games was so more people could have the opportunity to watch the games.
A few days after that, August 29, the Tribune reported this fascinating idea:
Baseball executives may have come up with a way for the World Series to be played in daylight at Wrigley Field that would keep both the Cubs’ neighbors and NBC-TV happy: Move the starting date of the Series back four days, to Saturday, Oct. 13.
With the series scheduled to begin this year in the NL park, the traditional starting date would have put games in Wrigley Field on Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 9 and 10, when NBC was counting on night telecasts to boost its fall ratings. Pushing Game 1 back to Oct. 13, however, would put those games on Saturday and Sunday, when the network had already planned for day games.
The Series would then switch to the American League park for games Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with games 6 and 7 — if necessary — again set for Wrigley Field on Saturday and Sunday.
Quaint, no? Day games in the World Series. Those used to be an fun, an event, and quaint also is the notion that World Series games would boost TV network ratings. Yes, that actually did happen, back in the day.
The proposal above would have been a way for the Cubs to keep home field in 1984 had they won the N.L. pennant, because as noted, NBC had no objection to playing World Series day games on weekends. But MLB officials eventually decided they didn’t want six days between the end of the championship series and the beginning of the World Series, and so that proposal went nowhere.
And so, instead, the Commissioner’s office — back then, it had much more power over the “best interests of baseball” than it does now — decreed that the home fields for the World Series would shift if the Cubs won the N.L. pennant and they would open the World Series in the A.L. park on October 9 and 10, then play three home games at Wrigley Field October 12, 13 and 14.
October 12, 1984 was a Friday. MLB made a concession to lightless Wrigley Field, they thought, by having a proposed afternoon game on a Friday. The Saturday and Sunday games in that series would have been scheduled to begin at 1:45 p.m. Central time — but the Friday game, in order to try to get at least some of it into early evening in Eastern time, would have begun at 2:45 p.m. Central time, 3:45 p.m. in ET.
Sunset on October 12, 1984 in Chicago was at 6:15 p.m. That would have been interesting as darkness started to fall in the late innings. (Also, I have a vivid memory of the weather that day in Chicago being an all-day chilly rain. The game likely would have been rained out, which would have caused a whole new set of problems.)
Anyway, here’s the definitive proof of what MLB decided to schedule for the 1984 postseason, in this screenshot from a Tribune article dated August 31, 1984:
“Simple as night and day,” indeed. This is exactly as I recall it happening 34 years ago, and exactly the way the NLCS was played: two day games at Wrigley, two night games in San Diego, and Game 5 in the afternoon with the Padres hosting. Had the Cubs won Game 5 of the NLCS in San Diego, they would have headed to Detroit for World Series Game 1. When the Padres won that game and the NLCS, they hosted the Tigers for Game 1 on October 9. (Two days’ notice for when the World Series was going to begin without knowing where — and no complaints about hotel rooms!)
But as you can also see in that graphic, there was no change in the NLCS schedule at all — except Game 1 would have changed from a day game (if at Wrigley Field) to a night game (if at another NL East city).
That’s it. It happened just that way.
For the World Series, as also noted above, the National League was scheduled to have home field advantage in 1984. The A.L. had it in 1983, as you can see here — the Orioles had the first two games at home, then they and the Phillies played the next three in Philadelphia. Baltimore would have hosted Games 6 and 7, but they won the Series in five games.
So why has Rick Sutcliffe told the wrong story all these years? My guess is that he has conflated the fact that the Cubs would have lost home field in the World Series had they made it, with the fact that they never were supposed to have home field in the NLCS anyway, but wound up losing the series. It makes a better story to tell that the Cubs had something taken away and maybe that’s why they lost, even if it isn’t true, which it wasn’t and isn’t.
One thing, though, that I have never understood is why — and you can see it in the schedule above — the Cubs were forced to fly to San Diego and play on October 4 without a travel day. The A.L. series between the Royals and Tigers did get a travel day — why not the N.L. series? The Cubs lost Game 3 of the NLCS 7-1 and looked pretty flat doing it. If they have a travel day and play Game 3 well-rested, maybe they win the series in three games. Obviously we’ll never know.
But one thing I do know is that Rick Sutcliffe ought to stop telling the false story about the Cubs losing a home date in the 1984 NLCS. It just didn’t happen that way.