The 1984 Cubs drove to National League East glory after years of mediocrity and nearly four decades without a postseason appearance. Three Cubs integral to the upswing – second baseman Ryne Sandberg, left fielder Gary Matthews, and pitcher Rick Sutcliffe – placed capstones on their respective outstanding seasons in Chicago’s 4-1 division-clinching win in Pittsburgh on September 24.
As 1984 opened, the Cubs had not had a winning season since 19721 or played in a postseason game since 1945.2 Through 15 years of divisional competition, they had finished no closer than five games from first place.3 Their 1983 season followed a familiar template: a promising start withering into dismal dénouement.4 Two games out of first on July 3,5 by season’s end the ’83 Cubs had slumped to a 71-91 record, a fifth-place finish, and a 19-game deficit.6
A series of upgrades – some internal, others external – reversed Chicago’s fortunes in 1984. The most significant internal gain followed a change in field leadership. Jim Frey, their fifth Opening Day manager in six years,7 had developed young hitters as a coach with the Orioles and Mets.8 In Chicago, he spotted power potential in the 24-year-old Sandberg, a Gold Glove winner in 1983 but undistinguished at bat through two major-league seasons.9 Sandberg blossomed into full-spectrum excellence under Frey’s mentorship,10 leading the National League in runs scored and extra-base hits.11
General manager Dallas Green’s12 trading netted the Cubs’ biggest external improvements.13 Green fortified the outfield by adding Bob Dernier and Matthews in a five-player deal with the Phillies.14 Dernier secured center field and the leadoff spot, earning the first-ever Gold Glove for a Cubs outfielder and finishing seventh in the National League in runs scored. The 33-year-old Matthews, reduced to a platoon role with Philadelphia’s 1983 National League champions, contributed dynamic leadership and an elite batting eye, topping the league in walks and on-base percentage.15
Green also rebuilt Chicago’s rotation through deals for three veteran starters: Montreal’s Scott Sanderson,16 Boston’s Dennis Eckersley,17 and, most significantly, Cleveland’s Sutcliffe.18 Prior to his June 13 arrival in a seven-player swap, the 28-year-old Sutcliffe had attained substantial peaks as 1979 National League Rookie of the Year and 1982 American League ERA leader. Alongside those demonstrations of greatness lurked an ineffective 1980; an infamous confrontation with Tom Lasorda after the Dodgers dropped him from their 1981 postseason roster;19 and a 4-5 record and 5.15 ERA through 15 starts in 1984 while coping with an abscessed tooth.20 His health restored by the time of the trade,21 the 6-foot-7 right-hander resumed his standing among the game’s best pitchers, going unbeaten in July, August, and September.
The reinvigorated Cubs battled the Mets – likewise resurgent after seven consecutive losing seasons of their own – for the division title. Four and a half games behind New York after a series-opening loss at Shea Stadium on July 27,22 the Cubs won the next afternoon’s game with an eight-run eighth inning,23 overtook the Mets with 12 wins in 14 games,24 and seized a 4½-game advantage by August 8. The Cubs later tore off another 14 wins in 17 games, establishing a seven-game lead on September 4 and commencing Chicago’s countdown to a long-awaited title.25
On September 23 the Cubs moved within one win of the division title by sweeping a doubleheader from the Cardinals.26 Their first opportunity to clinch was a night later in Pittsburgh, when Sutcliffe faced the Pirates in the opener of a three-game series at Three Rivers Stadium.27 From July 4, Sutcliffe had won 13 decisions in a row; adding his 15-1 National League record to his Cleveland totals, he stood one victory from 20 for the season.28
Before an audience consisting largely of spirited Chicago rooters,29 Sandberg, Matthews, and Sutcliffe sparked the Cubs to runs in each of the first three innings. Sandberg set the table in the first by lining a one-out double to left off Larry McWilliams. Matthews singled him in for a 1-0 lead.
Sutcliffe joined the attack in the second. With one out, Larry Bowa hit a bouncer to third baseman Jim Morrison, who backed up to field the big hop but threw wildly into the first-base stands. Advancing to second on the error, Bowa scored when Sutcliffe’s hard grounder hit off second baseman Johnny Ray’s glove and skipped into center for a hit.
As in the first, Sandberg and Matthews again ignited the Cubs in the third. Sandberg led off with his 34th double of the season, a smash down the third-base line. After Matthews drew his 100th walk of the year,30 Keith Moreland dropped a bunt toward third. Morrison barehanded the ball, but his throw sailed into Moreland and landed in foul territory. Sandberg scored on the error, increasing the Cubs’ edge to 3-0.
Meanwhile, Sutcliffe cruised through Pittsburgh’s lineup the first time through, retiring the side in order in each of the first three innings.31 Another out appeared in hand when Joe Orsulak led off the fourth with an innocuous-looking bouncer toward Leon Durham at first. But when the ball hit the dirt around the bag, its low bounce surprised Durham. He lunged at the unexpected arc, but the ball skipped freely past him, bound for the right-field corner. Orsulak reached third with a triple.32 One out later, Ray grounded to second with the infield back, bringing Orsulak home.
The Cubs quickly restored their three-run margin. This time, Matthews was the rally-starter, walking again to open the fifth. Moreland dribbled a single between first and second. Ron Cey’s single to left loaded the bases. When Jody Davis grounded into a double play, Matthews scored for a 4-1 Chicago lead.
Sutcliffe held the spotlight the rest of the way. He continued to limit the Pirates to strikeouts and soft contact; by the time Orsulak batted with two outs in the sixth, the “Red Baron” had retired another eight in a row.
Orsulak surprised the Cubs with a drag bunt for the Pirates’ second hit. With the rookie center fielder leading off first, Sutcliffe chased him back with a languid pickoff toss. Sutcliffe’s second pickoff throw, off a faster move, reached Durham as Orsulak stepped toward second. Orsulak dived back desperately, but Durham applied the tag in time, ending the inning.
In a twist on baseball custom, the Chicago fans sang “Take Me Out to The Ball Game” before the Cubs batted in the top of the seventh. Sutcliffe worked swiftly through his half of the seventh, needing just seven pitches to dispatch the Pirates in order. He followed with a perfect eighth; Milt May’s lineout to Durham in that inning was Pittsburgh’s first solid contact of the night.
The Cubs headed to the ninth with a comfortable advantage on the scoreboard and a noisy crowd on their side.The fans greeted Sutcliffe’s plate appearance with a standing ovation; Sandberg’s at-bat provoked “MVP” chants.33
Three outs from history, Sutcliffe took the mound in the bottom of the ninth. Ron Wotus lined solidly to Moreland in right for the first out.34 Pinch-hitter Lee Mazzilli worked the count full before flying to center. Sutcliffe had retired eight in a row.
Only Orsulak stood between the Cubs and the end of their title drought. Sutcliffe got ahead in the count, 1-and-2. His 108th pitch of the night met Davis’s mitt on the outside corner for strike three. Davis pumped his fist in the air and ran to the mound to embrace Sutcliffe. The rest of the Cubs stormed onto the turf, joining the celebration.35
“The magic number is zero … zero,” Bowa exclaimed in a champagne-drenched visiting clubhouse.36
“This ballclub has suffered for 39 years, and that’s long enough,” Frey said. “Everybody said this club had a monkey on its back. Now the monkey’s off.”37
“Twenty-eight guys here deserve a lot of credit,” said Sutcliffe, who missed a perfect game by a fluky triple and a bunt single while earning his 14th consecutive win and 20th victory of 1984. “I didn’t do any more than anyone else. They were in first place when I got here. And this game wasn’t any more important than any of the others.”38
With their victory, the Cubs secured a National League Championship Series matchup with San Diego.39 Postseason honors confirmed Sandberg, Matthews, and Sutcliffe’s integral roles to Chicago’s season. The Baseball Writers Association of America overwhelmingly voted Sandberg the National League Most Valuable Player, with Matthews coming in fifth.40 Sutcliffe was the unanimous selection for National League Cy Young Award.41
In addition to the Sources cited in the Notes, I consulted the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for pertinent material and the box scores noted below. Sources consulted also included a recording of WGN-TV’s Chicago cable broadcast, available at the YouTube link noted below; and a telephone interview with Ron Wotus, Pittsburgh’s shortstop in the game.
1 The 1977 Cubs finished at 81-81.
2 The Cubs lost to the Tigers in seven games in the 1945 World Series. As of 1984, their most recent World Series championship was in 1908, when they beat Detroit in five games.
3 The Cubs finished five games behind the Pirates in 1970 and Mets in 1973.
4 Under the divisional format that baseball adopted in 1969, the Cubs held first place in the National League East as late as June (1970, 1975, and 1978), July (1973), August (1977), and even September (1969). In 1969 the Cubs were in first place by nine games on August 16 but went 17-26 the rest of the way and finished in second place behind the Mets. Jerome Holtzman, “’69 Cubs Capture Only the Memories,” Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1984: 4, 3. From 1969 to 1983, Chicago was 637-645 (.497 winning percentage) in the first half of the season, but only 486-595 (.450) in the second half.
5 Robert Markus, “Cubs Ride Wind Close to Top: Expos’ Lead Down to 2,” Chicago Tribune, July 4, 1983: 3, 1.
6 Fred Mitchell, “Cardinals End Cubs’ Season with a Defeat,” Chicago Tribune, October 3, 1983: 4, 5.
7 In 1980, Frey piloted the Royals to the American League title in his first full season as a major-league manager, but he was fired with the team struggling after the 1981 strike. Fred Mitchell, “‘No Nonsense’ Frey Will Manage Cubs,” Chicago Tribune, October 7, 1983: 4, 1.
8 Dave Van Dyck, “Frey’s Advice Pays Off for Sandberg,” The Sporting News, April 23, 1984: 16.
9 Douglas S. Looney, “They’d Be Dyin’ Without Ryne,” Sports Illustrated, May 28, 1984: 62.
10 Sandberg’s performance in the June 23 Cubs-Cardinals game at Wrigley Field, nationally televised as NBC’s Game of the Week, solidified his stature as a rising star. Sandberg’s five hits included game-tying home runs off Hall of Fame reliever Bruce Sutter in both the ninth and 10th innings; his seven RBIs ultimately led Chicago to a 12-11 win in 11 innings. Fred Mitchell, “That’s Entertainment! Sandberg, Cubs Put On a Show to Remember,” Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1984: 4, 1.
11 Sandberg finished 1984 with 114 runs scored and 74 extra-base hits. Moreover, his 8.6 Wins Above Replacement, as calculated by Baseball-Reference.com, led all National Leaguers.
12 Green had previously served as manager in Philadelphia, helming the Phillies to victory over Frey’s Royals in the 1980 World Series.
13 The 1985 Elias Baseball Analyst outlined Green’s 1984 trading activity, “a series of trades that worked like a Rube Goldberg contraption.” After acquiring reliever Tim Stoddard from Oakland on March 26, Green sent “suddenly extraneous” Bill Campbell to the Phillies in the five-player trade that brought Bob Dernier and Matthews to Chicago. The additions of Dernier and Matthews led to Leon Durham’s reassignment from the outfield to first base. With Durham on first, Green sent Bill Buckner to the Red Sox for starting pitcher Dennis Eckersley on May 25. Green’s final deal in the sequence stemmed “from strength in the outfield”: On June 13 two young outfielders, Mel Hall and Joe Carter, went to Cleveland in the seven-player deal that brought Sutcliffe to Chicago. Seymour Siwoff, Steve Hirdt, and Peter Hirdt, The 1985 Elias Baseball Analyst, (New York: Collier Books, 1985): 103-4.
14 Fred Mitchell, “Cubs Find Phils Looking Other Way: Five-Player Deal Sheds Excess Baggage for Badly Needed Outfield Help,” Chicago Tribune, March 28, 1984: 4, 1.
15 Fred Mitchell, “Boot Camp Bedevils the Sarge,” Chicago Tribune, July 12, 1984: 4, 1.
16 Jerome Holtzman, “Sanderson Deal Gets Cubs Started,” Chicago Tribune, December 8, 1983: 3, 1.
17 Fred Mitchell, “Tearful Buckner Departs: Boston Gets Him for Eckersley,” Chicago Tribune, May 26, 1984: 2, 1.
18 Fred Mitchell, “Cubs Trade Hall to Indians: They Get Sutcliffe in 7-Player Deal,” Chicago Tribune, June 14, 1984: 4, 1.
19 Jason Turbow, They Bled Blue: Fernandomania, Strike-Season Mayhem, and the Weirdest Championship Baseball Had Ever Seen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019), 172-3.
20 Sutcliffe had surgery on an abscessed tooth during spring training in 1983 but did not receive relief from the procedure. Sheldon Ocker, “Sutcliffe’s Return to Form Like Pulling Teeth,” Akron Beacon Journal, June 4, 1984: D4. With his pain persisting at the beginning of the 1984 season, Sutcliffe had oral surgery a second time, on May 4. Ocker, “More Things Stay the Same, More Tribe Lineup May Change,” Akron Beacon Journal, May 6, 1984: E1. In eight starts between May 2 and June 6, Sutcliffe, whose weight dropped from approximately 220 pounds to 198 after surgery, was 0-4 with an 8.47 ERA. Ocker, “Sutcliffe’s Return to Form Like Pulling Teeth.”
21 Fred Mitchell, “Sutcliffe Fans 14, Cubs Breeze,” Chicago Tribune, June 25, 1984: 4, 1.
22 Fred Mitchell, “Gooden, Orosco Give Up Just 4 Hits; NY Goes 4½ Up,” Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1984: 2, 1.
23 The Mets entered the July 28 game having won seven in a row and 21 of their last 25. After Durham’s diving catch of Rusty Staub’s line drive led to a tie-preserving double play in the bottom of the seventh, Chicago scored eight runs off two New York relievers in the eighth to seize the 11-4 win. Fred Mitchell, “Cubs Pile Up Runs to Bury the Mets,” Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1984: 4, 1. A day later, the Cubs swept the Mets in a doubleheader and left New York just 1½ games out of first. Fred Mitchell, “It’s a Clean Sweep: Mets Fall Twice to Greedy Cubs,” Chicago Tribune, July 30, 1984: 3, 1.
24 Fred Mitchell, “Just Another Cub Thriller: Rally Puts Them in 1st,” Chicago Tribune, August 2, 1984: 4, 1.
25 On September 6 the front page of the Chicago Tribune debuted a graphic with “The Magic Number” of Cubs’ victories and Mets’ losses needed for Chicago to clinch the division title; the graphic remained until after the Cubs clinched the title.
26 Fred Mitchell, “Cub Corks Set to Pop: Sweep Sets Up Clincher,” Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1984: 4, 1.
27 After two World Series championships, six divisional titles, and four second-place finishes from 1970 to 1983, the Pirates fell to last place in the six-team division in 1984. Pittsburgh ultimately outscored its opponents by an aggregate 48 runs and led the National League in ERA at 3.11, but still finished with a 75-87 record. The Pirates lost 16 games while allowing two runs or fewer, the most in baseball. The 1984 Expos had 12 such losses, but no other team in the division lost more than eight. Additionally, as the 1985 Elias Baseball Analyst observed, Pittsburgh’s record of 33-60 in games decided by two runs or fewer was easily the worst in the National League. Seymour Siwoff, Steve Hirdt, and Peter Hirdt, The 1985 Elias Baseball Analyst: 145.
28 Between July 4 and the end of the season, Sutcliffe started 18 games; the Cubs won all but one. Their sole loss in a Sutcliffe start during this period was against the Pirates at Wrigley Field on September 19, Sutcliffe’s most recent start before this game. He received a no-decision after allowing five runs, four earned, in 4⅓ innings in Pittsburgh’s 11-6 win.
29 Paid attendance at Three Rivers Stadium was 5,472, approximately one tenth of the stadium’s capacity. Many of those in attendance were Cubs fans. A Pittsburgh Press article estimated that 70 percent of the crowd backed Chicago. Janet Williams, “Cub Fans Celebrate Pennant Win Here,” Pittsburgh Press, September 25, 1984: A2. On WGN-TV’s cable telecast, broadcaster Harry Caray acknowledged over 120 individuals, families, and groups in attendance to root for the Cubs.
30 To commemorate the milestone, Matthews requested – and received – the ball as he walked to first. Matthews’ .410 OBA in 1984 led the National League and tied Baltimore’s Eddie Murray for best in the major leagues. Matthews also became the first Cub to draw 100 walks in a season since Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn in 1960.
31 As Sutcliffe retired the Pirates in the third, WGN-TV showed the first of many images of Cubs staff waterproofing the clubhouse with plastic covering in anticipation of the postgame celebration.
32 On WGN-TV’s replay, Orsulak appeared to stop at second base, but continued to third when Moreland failed to control the ball in the corner. Regardless, the official scoring decision was a triple, rather than a double and an error.
33 “There were very few people there, but a ton of Cubs’ fans,” Pirates shortstop Ron Wotus, later a longtime San Francisco Giants coach, remembered in 2020. “You could hear them the whole game. It was a unique experience.”
34 “He was a tough pitcher,” Wotus remembered about facing Sutcliffe in this game. “I hit it hard to right field. You have your opportunities, and it you don’t make the most of them, you don’t get any more opportunities.”
35 “Now our lives are complete,” Caray exclaimed on WGN-TV. “The Cubs are Number One.”
36 Bob Hertzel, “Cubs Drought Ends in Champagne: 4-1 Victory over Pirates the Clincher,” Pittsburgh Press, September 25, 1984: B12.
37 Fred Mitchell, “Sutcliffe KO’s Cub Frustration,” Chicago Tribune, September 25, 1984: 4, 1.
38 Jerome Holtzman, “It’s Sutcliffe Once Again: Ace Gives Cubs the Pot,” Chicago Tribune, September 25, 1984: 4, 1.
39 After winning the first two NLCS games at Wrigley Field, the Cubs dropped three in a row in San Diego to lose the best-of-five series. Chicago would win the National League title in 2016 and also win its first World Series since 1908 that year.
40 Fred Mitchell, “Sandberg Cruises to MVP Award,” Chicago Tribune, November 14, 1984: 4, 1.
41 Fred Mitchell, “Sutcliffe Still Up in the Air: Cy Young Winner Coy,” Chicago Tribune, October 24, 1984: 4, 1.