The 1974 Cubs were not a very good team, and that was by design after the teams of the previous several years had contended and failed to make the postseason.
Stars like Fergie Jenkins, Ron Santo, Glenn Beckert, Bill Hands and Randy Hundley were traded away.
Sure, there were still some decent players on the club — Rick Monday, Jose Cardenal and Rick Reuschel — and a solid acquisition from the Jenkins trade in Bill Madlock, who finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. The pitching staff was just slightly north of horrendous. The 826 runs they allowed were eclipsed, but just barely, by the awful Padres, who gave up 830.
The team sank to last place in the National League East in late July and stayed there for the rest of the year. Only a dead-cat-bounce six-game winning streak in mid-September prevented them from challenging the club record for losses.
Meanwhile, the Pirates and Cardinals were having quite a battle for the N.L. East title, and the Cubs were going to have a say in who won, because they visited Pittsburgh for the final three games of the season, after losing two of three to the Cardinals in St. Louis. Entering that final weekend, the Cards and Bucs were tied for the lead at 85-74. St. Louis visited Montreal, where they split two games. The Cubs, meanwhile, helped out the Pirates by losing the first two of their set.
Thus Pittsburgh led by one game going into the season’s final day. The Cardinals and Expos were rained out in Montreal, which meant they would have to play a makeup game the next day if the Cubs could beat the Pirates.
The Cubs had a 4-3 lead with two out in the bottom of the ninth, and Reuschel had two strikes on Pirates pinch-hitter Bob Robertson. Manny Sanguillen stood on third base, representing the tying run.
The video below shows what happened next. Stop it at :20 because that’s just the first part of a typical Cubs disaster from that era.
Robertson struck out, but catcher Steve Swisher’s throw hit Robertson and went into right field. You can see Sanguillen crossing the plate, but the run would not have counted if Swisher’s throw had been accurate. The Cubs would have won the game. Instead... nope.
Reuschel got Rennie Stennett to hit a comebacker and so the game went to extras tied 4-4. Jose Cardenal led off with a single and was forced at second by Madlock. But Jerry Morales hit into a double play to end the inning.
In the bottom of the 10th, Ken Frailing, one of the pitchers acquired from the White Sox for Santo, replaced Reuschel. With one out, Al Oliver tripled. Cubs manager Jim Marshall ordered the next two hitters (Willie Stargell and future Cub Gene Clines) walked to load the bases and set up a force at any base. (I don’t understand why modern managers don’t do this in extra innings.)
Anyway, Marshall then brought in Oscar Zamora to face Sanguillen. Now go back to the video, at :20.
Sanguillen hit a 50-foot dribbler down the third-base line. Madlock couldn’t handle the ball and it went for an infield single, winning the game — and the division — for the Pirates.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the Pirates were a particular nemesis for the Cubs from 1970-79, when the Cubs went 66-111 (.373) against them, 60 percentage points worse than they were against any other team in that time frame. Oddly, that 96-loss 1974 Cubs team went 9-9 against Pittsburgh, the only year in that 10-game span that the Cubs did NOT have a losing record against the Pirates.
EPILOGUE: Whether it was that tough race to the division title or the fact that they really weren’t all that good (88-74 to the N.L. West champion Dodgers’ 102-60), the Pirates lost the NLCS to L.A. three games to one and were outscored 20-10.