June 1, 1979: A comeback victory and beginning of 'We Are Family' Pirates
As May turned to June the Pittsburgh Pirates found themselves sitting in an unremarkable fourth place in the National League East. Their current five-game win streak had improved their record to 23-21 but as recently as May 20 they had a losing record and had been as far as nine games behind the division-leading Montreal Expos. With the fifth-place San Diego Padres of the NL West visiting, the streaking Bucs hosted 12,928 fans at Three Rivers Stadium on a Friday evening whose weather caused the opening pitch to be delayed 39 minutes by rain.1
By that same spring Sister Sledge, a band of four sisters, had released two albums that had marginal success but still lost money for its record label, Cotillion.2
After a quiet first inning, a flurry of activity began in the second inning. Pirates starter Ed Whitson, retired the first two batters. An error by third baseman Dale Berra allowed Padres catcher Fred Kendall to reach base. Pitcher Randy Jones singled and Gene Richards walked to load the bases. Ozzie Smith singled to right field, driving in two unearned runs, and right fielder Dave Parker’s error on Smith’s hit allowed the speedy Richards to race home for the third unearned San Diego run. Dave Winfield grounded out to second to end the inning. Enjoying his team’s 3-0 advantage, Jones retired the first two Pirates batters in the bottom of the inning, but Phil Garner tripled to center field, and Steve Nicosia drove him in with a double. Berra flied out to end the inning and San Diego led, 3-1.
The third inning was quiet for the Padres, but the Pirates made it 3-2 when Omar Moreno singled, swiped second, and scored on Tim Foli’s single to left field. Richards hit a two-out single for the Padres in the fourth but was thrown out by Nicosia trying to steal second. In the bottom of the inning an error by Winfield on a fly ball allowed Garner to score, tying the game, 3-3.
In the fifth inning Winfield hit a solo home run to give the Padres the lead again but the Pirates quickly matched it as Moreno walked, stole second again, and scored when Foli singled to center. San Diego manager Roger Craig pulled Jones and replaced him with Dennis Kinney; two batters later Kinney gave up a double to Bill Robinson that scored Foli. After Kinney retired Willie Stargell on a groundout, he was replaced by John D’Acquisto, who got Garner to line out to center. As the teams returned to their dugouts the Pirates had the lead for the first time in the game at 5-4. In the top of the sixth, Pirates skipper Chuck Tanner summoned Enrique Romo to replace Whitson with one out and a runner on first. Romo gave up a single to Broderick Perkins, sending pinch-runner Bill Almon to third, and Richards drove in Almon with a fly ball to right field.
The Pirates were scoreless in the sixth. Star reliever Kent Tekulve took the mound in the Padres seventh and promptly gave the visitors a 6-5 lead with his second home run of the game. The Pirates failed to score in the bottom of the inning.
Neither team scored in the eighth inning. The Padres padded their lead in the ninth inning when Ozzie Smith singled and then scored from first base on a two-out double by Jerry Turner. Tanner and catcher Ed Ott argued with home-plate umpire Jerry Dale that Ott’s sweep tag had connected with Smith. Their arguments failed to convince Dale.3 Turner then scored on a single to center by Kurt Bevacqua. With three outs left in the game, San Diego was leading 8-5, putting the hometown Pirates in a difficult position.
The song “We Are Family” was sung by Kathy Sledge and was about “people leaning on each other for help.”4 It had a big chorus and catchy beat but after some success on the dance and soul charts, by the end of May 1979 it began to stall on the pop charts.
The Pirates needed three runs to tie the game, four runs for another victory to run their winning streak to six games. Pinch-hitter John Milner led off against Padres pitcher D’Acquisto and flied out to center field. Moreno and Foli both singled and there were runners on first and second. Parker, next up, had been booed by the small crowd twice during the game, after making his error in the second inning and again after he struck out in the fifth.5 Parker quickly turned the boos into cheers, swinging at a first-pitch fastball and sending the ball over the center-field fence. The game was tied. Parker had popped up to short off D'Acquisto in the bottom of the seventh so he was sitting on the pitch in the ninth. “You can't tell me the balls aren’t juiced up this year,” D'Acquisto said after the game. “I kept waiting for Richards to catch Parker's ball and it just kept going.”6
After Robinson popped out, manager Craig replaced D’Acquisto with Bob Shirley to face Willie Stargell, who singled to center field. The Padres then brought in star reliever Rollie Fingers. Garner doubled to left for his fourth hit of the contest, moving Stargell to third. Ott was intentionally walked with the intention of having Fingers face Berra, who was batting .195. Manager Tanner countered, sending in Lee Lacy to pinch-hit for Berra. Fingers got two strikes on Lacy, but then missed with four straight balls, forcing Stargell home and giving the Pirates a 9-8 victory.
It was “the fourth disaster Fingers has suffered in the last seven games the Padres have played at Three Rivers Stadium,” wrote the San Diego Union’s Phil Collier.7
The come-from-behind victory was one of 25 Pirates comeback victories that season8 and after the game Willie Stargell celebrated the victory by singing the song “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. The team latched onto the song and soon “The Family” was seen stenciled on the dugout roof, T-shirts, and street signs in the area. The song was played multiple times throughout the games at Three Rivers Stadium. At times the players’ wives even disco-danced on the dugout roof during the seventh-inning stretch.9 Years later, when asked about the team being identified with “We Are Family,” manager Chuck Tanner replied, “That’s what we really were. They all fed off one another. … I loved it. That’s what you want — a family. They argued all day in the clubhouse and then went out there like a family and they played to win. That’s what we were like.”10
Kathy Sledge said after the season, “It's a miracle. We thought the song had made as much noise as it ever would. Then the Pirates came along.”11Both the album and the single sold over a million copies before the end of the year and it finished as the number-two pop song on the Billboard charts for 1979. However, the Pirates using the song was somewhat bittersweet for the Sledges. The sisters were third-generation Philadelphians and Kim Sledge was quick to say, “We appreciate our Phillies. They should have used our song.”12
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 Charley Feeney, “Bucs’ Late Rally Beats San Diego,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 2, 1979: 9.
2 Richard K. Rein, “When the Pirates Hustled to Sister Sledge’s 'We Are Family,’ the Steel City Went Platinum,” People, November 5, 1979.
6 Phil Collier, “Pirates Cut Padre String, 9-8,” San Diego Union, June 2, 1979: C1.
8 Frank Garland, Willie Stargell: A Life in Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishers, 2013), 129.
10 Garland, 129.