May 17 is a significant date in Cubs history, as noted in Duane’s Baseball history unpacked article posted earlier this morning.
I’m going to take an in-depth look at just one of the May 17 events here, the Cubs’ 23-6 win over the Padres 44 years ago today in 1977.
The wind was blowing out on a warm summer-like afternoon at Wrigley Field. The boxscore says it was 86 degrees at game time with a wind blowing at 23 miles per hour. We don’t seem to have spring days like that anymore in Chicago; these days, we seem to get the wind off the lake and temps in the 40s much of the time.
The Cubs were 7-9 in April 1977 and it seemed at the time that they were going to have another sad season. But by the time the May 17 game against the Padres came up, they were on a 13-2 run and only two games out of first place.
The Padres actually took a 2-0 lead off Bill Bonham in the first two innings of this game, and then the Cubs bats got to work.
Gene Clines led off the bottom of the third by being hit by a pitch. Larry Biittner homered to tie the game 2-2. Singles by Bobby Murcer and Manny Trillo put runners on first and second (you rarely saw Cubs runners take third on singles in those days!) and one out later, Steve Ontiveros homered and the Cubs had a 5-2 lead.
George Mitterwald walked. Bonham sacrificed him to second and Ivan De Jesus doubled him home. Now it’s 6-2 and Clines is batting for the second time in the inning. He homered, the third Cubs round-tripper of the inning, and the Cubs had an eight-run inning.
They made it 11-2 on RBI hits by Mitterwald and De Jesus in the fourth and 14-2 in the fifth. The fifth inning featured the first three hitters — Biittner, Murcer and Jerry Morales — hitting home runs.
The Cubs were not even close to being done scoring runs. They loaded the bases with one out on two singles and an error and Murcer singled in two runs. Now it’s 16-2. A walk re-loaded the bases and Mick Kelleher — no great hitter — made it 18-2 with a single. Two more singles by Ontiveros and Mitterwald put the Cubs at the 20-run plateau and after an error re-loaded the bases, the Cubs scored two more on a groundout and a wild pitch.
Bonham was taken out after six innings having allowed just the two runs and was replaced by Ramon Hernandez, a journeyman who’d pitched well for the Pirates earlier in the 1970s. By ‘77 he was about done, and the Padres scored four runs off him. It was the last game he pitched for the Cubs; 11 days later they traded him to the Red Sox for another guy who had seen better days, Bobby Darwin. That didn’t work out either — Darwin went 2-for-12 for the Cubs, spent some time in Triple-A and was released in August.
The last Cubs run was a solo homer by Dave Rosello in the eighth. The seven home runs tied a franchise record — that’s been done two other times, in an 18-10 win over the Mets June 11, 1967 and in a 12-2 win over the Padres August 19, 1970. Since then Cubs teams have hit six home runs in a game 17 times, most recently exactly a month ago, April 17 against the Braves in a 13-4 win, and most famously in Game 3 of the 2015 division series against the Cardinals.
Except for Murcer’s, all the homers were hit by players not known for power. Before Biittner’s first blast of the day, he had not homered since August 23, 1975 when with the Expos, a span of 143 games and 441 plate appearances. Rosello, prior to this game, had homered three times in 198 career games and 564 PA. Ontiveros came into the May 17 game with nine career homers in 342 games and 1,032 PA.
The Cubs thus matched the 23 MPH wind speed with their 23 runs that afternoon. The Cubs have scored 23 or more runs in a game just two other times in Wrigley Field history — the famous 26-23 win over the Phillies August 25, 1922 and a 23-13 thrashing of the Cardinals April 17, 1954.
The victory was the last of a six-game winning streak, but the Cubs resumed winning after losing just once, the following day. They took over first place May 28 with a win over the Pirates with a 28-14 record — a 21-5 run that turned into a 40-15 record for May and June, the best 55-game stretch in Cubs history. Not even the 2016 World Series champions did that.
Sadly, no video has survived from the May 17, 1977 game. It’s not supposed to be as warm or windy tonight when the Cubs face the Nationals at Wrigley Field.
But May 17 is a date when weird things have happened at Wrigley. So who knows?