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Cubs and MLB history: The crazy 1973 N.L. East pennant race

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The Cubs were involved. So was a lot of rain.

Tug McGraw of the Mets celebrating his team’s N.L. East title at Wrigley Field, October 1, 1973
Bettmann / Contributor

1973 was the last gasp for the great Cubs core that included Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams, among others. They ran out to an eight-game lead at 48-33 when the first half of the season was complete and many of us thought this would be it, finally, that group would win the World Series.

Right after that 48-33 start, that Cubs team had the worst run of any Cubs team I can remember — worse even than the 2012 bunch that lost 101 games. They went from 48-33 and eight games in front to 56-64 and 5½ games behind over a seven-week span. That’s right, they went 8-31. Eight and thirty-one. That’s hard to do even if you’re a bad team.

By the time that stretch ended August 16 with an 11-game losing streak — is this sounding familiar? — the Cardinals had seemingly taken control of the division. They led by three games.

The Cubs somehow won eight of their next 11. That’s right, eight of 11 after winning eight of 39. I told you this was crazy. They knocked three games off that deficit and seemed to have a chance again. On August 30, the Mets lost to the Cardinals and were in last place, 10 games under .500 and 6½ games out of first place.

The Mets went on a hot streak, while the rest of the division, including the Cubs, muddled around .500. The Mets took over first place Friday, September 21, with the Cubs just 2½ games behind. The standings after the games September 21 looked like this:

Mets 77-77, —
Pirates 75-76, -0.5
Cardinals 76-78, -1.0
Expos 75-78, -1.5
Cubs 74-79, -2.5

By this time the Phillies, in last place, had been mathematically eliminated, but this still left five teams in it with a little over a week to go.

Six days later, after the games of September 27, the Cubs had fallen to four games out. But none of the other teams had taken charge:

Mets 80-78, —
Pirates 79-79, -1.0
Cardinals 78-81, -2.5
Expos 77-82, -3.5
Cubs 76-82, -4.0

The series for the final weekend involving the contenders were:

Mets at Cubs, September 28, 29, 30 (doubleheader)
Phillies at Cardinals, September 28, 29, 30
Expos at Pirates, September 28, 29, 30

As you can see, there were a lot of permutations. If the Cubs had swept the Mets, the Expos swept the Pirates and the Cardinals took two of three from the Phillies, there was a chance at a FIVE-way tie — and as you can also see, the Pirates were short a game. They had a makeup game against the Padres that was to be played in Pittsburgh only if needed to help decide the division title.

And then it rained in Chicago. A lot. That was, to my recollection, one of the wettest, most miserable late September weekends in Chicago history.

It rained until midafternoon Friday, September 28, and with no lights in Wrigley Field they didn’t want to risk playing and having the game called for darkness and so another doubleheader was scheduled for Saturday, September 29. Thus the Cubs and Mets would need to finish their seasons with back-to-back doubleheaders.

Meanwhile, the Expos beat the Pirates and the Cardinals defeated the Phillies on September 28, making the standings look like this with two days to go:

Mets 80-78 —
Pirates 79-80 -1.5
Cardinals 79-81 -2.0
Expos 78-82 -3.0
Cubs 76-82 -4.0

The five-way tie was still in play!

And then it rained again all day Saturday, September 29 in Chicago. The Cubs/Mets doubleheader was postponed and the games were rescheduled for a doubleheader Monday, October 1, the day after the season ended. The other teams played September 29, with the same results as the previous day: Expos over Pirates, Cardinals over Phillies.

So now we have:

Mets 80-78 —
Cardinals 80-81 -1.5
Pirates 79-81 -2.0
Expos 79-82 -2.5
Cubs 76-82 -4.0

The Cubs could still force a tie with the Mets by winning all four games, and if that happened and the Cardinals lost their one remaining game, the Expos won their one remaining game and the Pirates split their two (including the makeup game with the Padres), there would be a five-way tie!

Finally, the rain cleared out of Chicago and the Cubs and Mets played their Sunday, September 30 doubleheader. The Mets could clinch with a sweep.

The Cubs won the first game 1-0, a five-hit combined shutout by Rick Reuschel and Bob Locker, and stayed alive... until they lost Game 2 to the Mets 9-2. The loss eliminated the Cubs. 21,432 showed up at Wrigley Field to see the Cubs in contention on the last scheduled day of the season for the first time since 1945.

But the Pirates and Cardinals both won their Sunday games. Pittsburgh’s win over Montreal eliminated the Expos, so the remaining contenders looked like this after the scheduled end of the regular season September 30:

Mets 81-79 —
Cardinals 81-81 -1.0
Pirates 80-81 -1.5

There were three games left to be played: the makeup doubleheader between the Cubs and Mets at Wrigley Field, and the Padres/Pirates game in Pittsburgh, for which the Padres had to fly to Pittsburgh from San Diego. If the Cubs swept the doubleheader and the Pirates defeated the Padres, there would be a three-way tie at 81-81.

The Cubs/Mets doubleheader was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Central time. The Pirates/Padres game began about an hour and a half later, 1:35 p.m. Eastern time. About an hour after that game began in Pittsburgh, the Mets defeated the Cubs in the first game of the doubleheader, 6-4 on yet another rainy day in Chicago and clinched the N.L. East title. That was probably just about the time the Pirates had taken a 3-2 lead over the Padres at Three Rivers Stadium. Since that game had already been started, the teams finished, with the Padres winning 4-3. (Cubs connection to that Padres team: Don Zimmer was their manager.)

Since the Mets had won the division with their Game 1 victory, the second game of the doubleheader was cancelled. Only 1,913 paid to see that Monday afternoon action at Wrigley Field, 46 years ago today. Just five games since then have had lower attendance at Wrigley, the lowest 1,171 for a Cubs/Mets game September 22, 1980.

And that’s the story of a wacky pennant race that had teams playing makeup games in two different cities the day after the scheduled end of the season to determine a division winner. The 82-win Mets defeated the 99-win Reds in the NLCS and took the Athletics to a seventh game before losing the World Series. All these years later, that’s still the fewest wins of any team to play in a World Series.