1976 was the first full year that I considered myself a Cubs fan. Watching the games on WGN every afternoon was something of an elixir for the eight-year old that I was at the time. The games were always in the sunshine at Wrigley Field, and the away games must have happened, but they were never quite the same. Baseball looked better in the daytime, then and now.
The emergence of Bruce Sutter as a go-to reliever was the biggest surprise of the season. The pitch he threw, the split-fingered fastball, looked like a magic trick the way it dropped out of sight. Sutter learned to throw it after having surgery on his arm to revive a flagging minor league career, and I suppose you could say that it worked. 1977 was the best it ever got with him, as far as I was concerned, but the end of 1976 showed what was in store for the future.
The best storyline of the season, though, unfolded on the very last day. Some of this I remember, and some of this is computer-aided. The value of using the internet to assist with personal memories is discussed here. It was a Sunday at Wrigley Field, the Bears were playing the Redskins at Soldier Field, and fewer than 10,000 fans had come out to watch two baseball teams who were collectively 64 games under .500.
The reigning National League batting champion, Bill Madlock of the Cubs, trailed Cincinnati’s Ken Griffey (Sr.) in the league batting race. To make matters worse, Griffey planned to sit out his team’s last two games against the Braves. The Reds were defending world champions, and their playoff date with the Phillies was already set. If Madlock wanted another batting title, he was going to have to earn it.
On the mound for the Expos that day was the late Woodie Fryman. Madlock’s first at bat was a bunt to third base, which he beat out for a hit. Madlock came up again in the third, and beat out an infield hit to key a 5-run Cubs rally. Madlock wasn’t going down without a fight.
Madlock came up again in the fourth, and became one of the last batters to face Expos reliever Chip Lang, who at age 23 might have believed a long big-league career awaited him. Madlock singled in Tarzan Joe Wallis (I love that name) from third base, and things got even more interesting in the batting race. Madlock now stood at .3372, which was just an eyelash behind Griffey at.3375. I remember hearing Madlock’s average articulated out to four decimal places, and thought it was strange, but I understand it now. Madlock still needed another hit.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, Madlock came up against the Expos’ Dale Murray. He would pitch in other big-league games, if you’re wondering. Madlock lined a single to right on the first pitch he saw, lifting his average to .3385. Madlock had taken the lead in the batting race away from Griffey. The fans at the game that day will probably never forget what they saw.
But everything wasn’t over yet. Madlock’s turn in the order came up again in the bottom of the eighth. A hit would have raised his average even higher, but an out would have dropped him back behind Griffey. So Madlock “pulled a Griffey” when Rob Sperring, a utility player with one more big-league season ahead of him, took the at-bat instead. Madlock’s work was done for day.
When word of the events in Chicago spread to Cincinnati, Griffey interrupted his planned weekend off to try and counter Madlock. He pinch hit in the bottom of the seventh, and again in the eighth, but struck out both times, effectively handing the batting title to Madlock. It was the first time a Cubs’ player had repeated as the league’s hitting leader.
Madlock would try for a third hitting crown the next season, but in someone else’s uniform. Cubs ownership balked at paying a two-time batting champion what he was worth, and so they traded him to San Francisco for Bobby Murcer (more on him later). In the years since, Bill Buckner and Derrick Lee have won batting titles for the Cubs, but neither one in such dramatic fashion. And the young kid that I once was–who was watching the game on WGN–had another reason to follow his new favorite team.