The storylines heading into the Saturday, August 25, 1979, night game between the San Diego Padres and Pittsburgh Pirates were intriguing. The last time the Pirates had won the NL East Division was four years earlier. The team had then spent three seasons trying to get past their in-state rivals, the Philadelphia Phillies. Heading into this contest, the Pirates were the best team in the National League with a record of 73-53. Their division rival, the Montreal Expos, were only two games behind thanks to a win the night before and a Pirates loss. The Pirates were still hot, though, having won 20 of the previous 30 games.
The Padres were heading in the opposite direction. Hopes were high after the 1978 season, when San Diego posted its first winning record ever. But 1979 was disappointing. Going into tonight’s game, the Padres, at 55-74, were in fifth place, 17½ games behind the first-place Houston Astros in the NL West. The day before, Padres owner Ray Kroc gave up his control of the team to his son-in-law, executive vice president Ballard Smith. “Baseball can go to hell. … There’s a lot more future in hamburgers than baseball,” said Kroc, the architect behind the rise of the McDonald’s fast-food chain.1
The game featured a matchup of two of the season’s best pitchers. For the Pirates, it was 28-year-old ace Bert Blyleven, 10-4 with a 3.71 ERA. His mound opponent was reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Gaylord Perry, three weeks from his 41st birthday, 10-11 with a 3.29 ERA, and the loser of his last five starts.
At just after 7 P.M. under clear skies, with the temperature in San Diego 75 degrees and a crowd of 14,607 on hand, the Pirates’ Omar Moreno led off by grounding out to second baseman Bill Almon, who was getting another start over regular second baseman and former Pirate Fernando Gonzalez. Perry then gave up singles to Tim Foli and Dave Parker (the only Pirate on the ’79 All-Star squad) before getting Willie Stargell to ground into a 4-6-3 double play.
Blyleven got his first two outs quickly, a strikeout of Gene Richards and a groundout by shortstop Ozzie Smith, before giving up an infield single to Paul Dade and walking Gene Tenace. He struck out Jay Johnstone to end the threat.
In the second inning John Milner reached Perry for a leadoff single, but Bill Madlock hit into a 6-4-3 double play and Ed Ott flied out. Blyleven gave up a leadoff triple to rookie center fielder Jim Wilhelm in the bottom of the second. After a groundout and a walk to Bill Almon, Perry bunted. Almon went to second but Wilhelm could not score as Stargell charged in to field the bunt and tagged Perry out. Richards’ groundout to second retired the side.
Blyleven yielded two runs in the bottom of the third inning. He gave up a leadoff double to Ozzie Smith, who continued to third base when left fielder Milner misplayed the ball in the corner. With Dade up, a wild pitch by Blyleven allowed Smith to scamper home for a 1-0 Padres lead. After Dade struck out, Tenace smacked a double to left and advanced to third on another error when Milner fell down at the warning track.2 He scored when second baseman Phil Garner bobbled Johnstone’s grounder. Almon flied out to right to end the inning with a 2-0 Padres lead after the three defensive miscues by the Pirates.
Perry continued his mastery, while Blyleven settled down. Perry did not give up another hit until the top of the seventh, when Stargell led off with a single, but the Pirates couldn’t score. In the top of the eighth, Perry surrendered another leadoff single, to Ed Ott, but retired the next three batters. Blyleven, meanwhile, yielded only two hits from the third to the seventh before being lifted for pinch-hitter Mike Easler in the top of the eighth.
In the bottom of the eighth, Enrique Romo held the Padres scoreless. If Perry could hold the Pirates in the ninth, Pittsburgh would be 0-5 in San Diego for the season. But Parker smacked a one-out double and advanced when Stargell grounded to second. Perry walked Milner, placing runners at the corners with two out. Madlock singled to left to score Parker and advanced to second on the throw as pinch-runner Matt Alexander went to third. Padres closer Rollie Fingers, who had a career-high 37 saves in 1978, relieved Perry. With Ed Ott batting, Padres catcher Bill Fahey had one of his three passed balls that season, and Alexander scored the tying run. Ott was intentionally walked and Fingers gave up another walk, to Phil Garner, loading the bases. Padres manager Roger Craig pulled Fingers for reliever Mark Lee, who struck out pinch-hitter Bill Robinson to end the inning. The blown save for Fingers, who was struggling with a sore right elbow, was his 10th of the 1979 season, and his pitching appearance was his last of the season.
Neither team scored in the 10th or 11th. In the Pirates’ 11th, manager Chuck Tanner and Bill Madlock were both ejected. Madlock had struck out looking and tossed his helmet, earning him a trip to the showers. Tanner then charged out to defend his player, and he too was tossed by home-plate umpire Dave Pallone. Coach Bob Skinner managed the rest of the game, although Roger Craig accused Tanner of managing from the dugout runway.34
In the top of the 12th, Padres reliever Eric Rasmussen gave up a double to Garner, walked Bill Robinson, and yielded an RBI single by Moreno to give Pittsburgh the lead. Foli grounded into a double play to end the inning. In the bottom of the inning, Don Robinson, normally a starter, pitched his second inning of relief. Robinson got leadoff batter Jerry Turner to ground out, but gave up a single to Fahey and walked Dave Winfield. Pinch-hitter Fred Kendall (father of future Pirates catcher Jason Kendall) grounded into a force out. With the Padres down to their last out, Dan Briggs singled home Winfield from second to tie the score. Robinson got Ozzie Smith to fly out, ending the inning.
The story of the rest of the game was Pirates reliever Dave Roberts. Roberts, who was with San Diego from 1969 to 1971, pitched the final four innings and earned the win after getting out of bases-loaded jams in the 16th and 17th.
In the bottom of the 16th, the bases were full on a single by Jay Johnstone and two intentional walks. Pitcher John D’Acquisto, batting because the Padres were out of bench players, ran the count to 3-and-0 before taking three straight strikes. Winfield tried to rattle Roberts from second base by taunting him and making the “choke” sign. “I won’t forget what he was saying to me,” Roberts said after the game.5
The bottom of the 17th was even more for Roberts and the Pirates. A bunt single by Smith, a hit by Dade and an intentional walk to Gonzalez loaded the bases with no outs. Roberts got Jay Johnstone on a called third strike that Johnstone argued was not a strike. “It was a curveball across my eyes. I just didn’t think it was a strike,” Johnstone said later. Manager Craig had to tackle Johnstone to keep the center fielder from being ejected. Craig’s bench was only two pitchers, so he could not afford to lose a position player.6 The next Padres batter, Jerry Turner, hit a grounder that forced Smith out at home. Fahey then grounded out to end the threat.
The top of the 19th inning started off uneventfully as Ott struck out and Garner flied to right. Then Bill Robinson, who had entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the ninth, doubled and Moreno was intentionally walked. Foli, 1-for-6 to this point, rapped a single to center, scoring Robinson. The Pirates had the run they needed. Smith led off the Padres’ 19th with a single and was sacrificed to second, but Roberts got two fly balls to end the game. The Pirates had outlasted the Padres, 4-3. About 1,000 fans were still there when the game ended at 1:20 Sunday morning Pacific Time (4:20 in Pittsburgh).7
Each team had used 21 players. Other notable statistics from the combined 161 plate appearances: The teams combined to leave 40 runners on base; the 26 left on by San Diego were one short of the major-league record. The Pirates made four errors and hit into six double plays, but and still managed to win. The two teams batted .111 (4-for-36) with runners in scoring position. Nine of the game’s 24 walks were intentional.
Bill Fahey, who caught all 19 innings for the Padres, said “[t]he game was always on the line … real exciting.” Ed Ott also caught the entire game for the Pirates, as Manny Sanguillen and Steve Nicosia were used as pinch-hitters. At 6 hours 12 minutes, the game set a Padres record that was broken a year later, when they lost to the Houston Astros, 3-1, in 6:17 on August 15, 1980, during a 20-inning affair. For the Pirates, the game was the longest until they were beaten by the Braves 4-3 in 19 innings in 6:39 on July 26, 2011, in Atlanta. The Pirates finished the 1979 season at a 24-11 clip, including a convincing win the afternoon after the 19-inning marathon.
This article appeared in “When Pops Led the Family: The 1979 Pitttsburgh Pirates” (SABR, 2016), edited by Bill Nowlin and Gregory H. Wolf. To read more game stories from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
1 John Schumacher, “Kroc Gives Himself a Break — From Baseball,” Los Angeles Times, August 25, 1979.
2 John Schumacher, “Padres and Pirates Go Into 14th Inning in a 3-3 tie,” Los Angeles Times, August 26, 1979.
3 Charles Feeney, “Kison Rips Grand Slam, Bucs Win,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 27, 1979.
4 There is discrepancy regarding Madlock’s ejection. The Post-Gazette said he was ejected after a third strike, but some records of the game do not indicate that he struck out in the game. Retrosheet’s David Smith said, “[w]e have three scoresheets for that game. Two say that Madlock popped out to first in the 11th and one says he flied out to left. Our account chose the fly to left because that scorer proved to be more reliable over the season. However, none of these showed him with a strikeout. In fact, the official records on microfilm at the Hall of Fame (we have a copy) show Madlock with no strikeouts. The newspaper story was clear that he threw his helmet after a called strikeout. … I am very confident that Madlock did not strike out in this game and I cannot explain the newspaper story.” Smith indicated that one scoresheet indicates Madlock and Tanner were both ejected, but there is no authoritative record that this occurred in the 11th as the Post-Gazette article indicated.
6 Associated Press, “San Diego Strands 26 in 19-Inning Defeat,” August 27, 1979.
7 John Schumacher, “This Time the Pirates Don’t Need 19 Innings,” Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1979.