Now that Major League Baseball has finally realized having their footage on YouTube is a good thing and has posted lots of vintage games, I’ve been watching some of them this spring and summer. I’ve been focusing on famous games that I know about that I was not able to watch originally, either because I was not alive or because I was too young to stay up for them as a boy.
What follows is the first installment of a new series of posts, Vintage Baseball Videos, about my experiences watching these games. I discuss interesting historical tidbits and elements of the broadcasts that stand out to me. It is an exercise in nostalgia, without which baseball would not exist, rather than in historiography. We’ll see how long the series lasts before I get tired of it or run out of time to work on it, but I’ll try to do at least one game a week for now.
I became a baseball fan when I was five in 1985, so this game (here is the link to it) occurred before I was a fan, in the last year that the League Championship Series were best-of-five instead of best-of-seven. I lived in northern Illinois from 2004-2011 during graduate school (i.e., before the Cubs finally won a World Series in 2016), and knew lots of Cubs fans, and heard stories about how this game continued to haunt them because they still hadn’t broken the World Series drought that was already four decades old in 1984. Although the game is a traumatic memory for Cubs fans, it’s worth noting that they have won a World Series in the intervening 37 years and the Padres have not.
ABC’s broadcast crew for the game was Don Drysdale on the play-by-play with Reggie Jackson and Earl Weaver (both active in the majors at the time, Jackson as a player and Weaver as a manager) as the color commentators and Tim McCarver as the sideline reporter. All are now in the Hall of Fame. My initial reaction was that it would not be a good broadcast because two-thirds of the booth team were not regular announcers, but the chemistry between the three is good, and Drysdale and Jackson have a fun back-and-forth repartee representing the pitching and hitting perspectives, respectively, throughout the broadcast.
Before the bottom of the first there is a recorded interview between Drysdale and Cubs starting pitcher Rick Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe is incredibly articulate and, seemingly, genuine in it (compare the wooden interview Steve Garvey gives to McCarver before the beginning of the game). It’s no surprise that he has become a good color commentator for ESPN after retiring as a player.
The San Diego crowd made an incredible amount of noise throughout the entire game, beginning with the Padres’ player introductions. The boxed-in architecture of Jack Murphy Stadium (the one good characteristic of all of the cookie-cutter baseball/football stadiums of the era) helped to keep in the sound.
I knew very few of the specifics about this game before watching it other than that the Padres won and that Leon Durham made a supposedly decisive error. The game illustrates how quickly one can bounce between baseball’s highs and lows. Durham, who had a .307 career average with runners in scoring position at the time according a graphic flashed during his first at-bat, hit a two-run homer in the first inning to give the Cubs an immediate lead. This hit helped lead to Padre starter Eric Show’s (pronounced to rhyme with “Mao,” not “owe”) quick exit. Show only pitched 1.1 innings before being pulled after giving up three runs on three hits (two homers) and a walk. The Padres’ bullpen then delivered 7.2 shutout innings.
After a failed hit-and-run by the Cubs in the top of the third, Jackson notes that he’s never been the hitter in a hit-and-run because he swings and misses too much. He later retired as the all-time leader in strikeouts, and remains so.
Durham’s error with one out in the bottom of the seventh, which allowed the tying run to score (not the winning run, the tying run, so it’s a little unfair to consider the error “decisive” because the Cubs still had two turns at bat left–they had the tying run at the plate in the eighth inning against Goose Gossage, but couldn’t score–and it’s not Durham’s fault that the Cubs didn’t make what in hindsight was a necessary pitching change after the run scored), is pretty shocking on the replay. He is down on his knees waiting for the ball, but moves his mitt at just the wrong time instead of letting the ball hit it, so the ball goes through his legs. The play is, of course, reminiscent of Bill Buckner’s error at the end of game six of the 1986 World Series, but in the case of the Buckner play he barely gets into fielding position (because of his infamously bad legs) before the ball gets to him, whereas on the Durham play it almost seems like Durham has too much time even though the ball is hit sharply, and he takes his eye off of it. After the error, Tony Gwynn hit a go-ahead double. Then Gwynn robbed Durham of an extra base hit when Durham led off the ninth inning. Again, the Cubs had chances after the Padres took the lead, but they couldn’t capitalize on them.
One last note. I did not realize that Dennis Eckersley was on the 1984 Cubs in his pre-closer days. There is a shot of him warming up in the bullpen at one point, though he never got into the game. So many future Hall of Famers or near Hall of Famers were involved in this series: Eckersley, Gwynn, Gossage, Garvey, Sutcliffe, Graig Nettles. Based on the teams’ rosters, it makes sense that the Padres won the series in hindsight. Even if the Cubs had won, they would have lost to the Tigers in the World Series like the Padres did because of how dominant Detroit was that year. Overall, even though the mythology surrounding the game is a little overblown because of how it emphasizes the Cubs losing rather than the Padres winning, it is an exciting one that is worth watching.