September 30, 1979: Pirates hold off Expos to take NL East crown
“This is the greatest day of my life,” said the champagne-drenched Chuck Tanner, manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, in the clubhouse after his team defeated the Chicago Cubs, 5-3, to capture a hard-fought NL East title on the last day of the 1979 season.1 The victory concluded a fairy-tale, emotional journey for the Bucs, who survived a furious challenge from the Montreal Expos. “This may or may not be the most talented Pirate team ever,” wrote Dan Donovan of the Pittsburgh Press, “but it is the gutsiest.”2
Ten weeks earlier, struggling to play .500 ball in early July, the Pirates seemed like unlikely candidates for a division crown. But propelled by timely hitting, boosted by the late-June acquisition of third baseman Bill Madlock, and supported by the league’s deepest pitching staff, the Pirates went on a 23-8 run that transformed a seven-game deficit into a half-game lead on August 5. Pittsburgh increased its cushion to four games on August 16, but could not pull away from Montreal. Expos skipper Dick Williams, seemingly destined for another “Impossible Dream” performance like the one when he piloted the 1967 Boston Red Sox in dramatic fashion to their first AL pennant in 21 years, led the Expos on a 30-9 surge to take first place by a half-game on the eve of a dramatic four-game series with the Pirates in the last week of the season. The Pirates took three of four from the Expos in Pittsburgh, and then had the chance to clinch the division title in the next to last game of the season. But the Pirates' inspirational leader, Willie Stargell, made a costly throwing error in the 13th inning of a tied game to allow the Cubs to score and win the game, 7-6. A dramatic stage was set for September 30, the final day of the season.
Three Rivers Stadium was packed with 42,176 spectators who were all anxiously watching the scoreboard — not just because their beloved Steelers were en route to an expected loss at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles, but rather to see the results of the Expos-Philadelphia Phillies game taking place at the same time in Montreal. The Pirates needed a victory and a loss by the Expos to capture the title outright.3 “We were upset with the guy operating the scoreboard because he was making us stop the game when we were going,” said “Mad Dog” Madlock. “We called upstairs and told him not to do it.”4 The operator obliged, and in the days before cell phones, the lack of knowledge about the Expos-Phillies game only increased the dramatic tension at the park.
Bruce Kison got the start for the Pirates. The 29-year-old righty was best known for his spectacular outing in Game Four of the 1971 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles as a rookie (6⅓ innings of scoreless relief to pick up the win), and had quietly carved out a reputation as excellent late-season pitcher, picking up 23 of his 81 career wins in September. Lacking his best stuff in this game, Kison gave up two singles in the first, third, and fourth innings. But the Pirates infield, underrated defensively, squelched each scoring opportunity with inning-ending double plays. Pittsburgh turned its fourth double play in the fifth inning, erasing a leadoff walk. With two outs in the sixth inning, Kison surrendered his first and only run on Dave Kingman’s league-leading 48th round-tripper.
The Pirates struck quickly against the Cubs starter, 29-year-old Lynn McGlothen. With one out in the first inning, Tim Foli walked, moved to third on Dave Parker’s single, and then scored on Stargell’s sacrifice fly to center field. The Pirates increased their lead to 2-0 in the fourth inning when second baseman Phil Garner singled just beyond Cubs second baseman Steve Dillard to drive in left fielder John Milner from third base. The Pirates tacked on another run the following inning when Stargell connected for a solo shot, his 32nd home run of the year, off McGlothen. He also moved past Pittsburgh Hall of Famer Honus Wagner to become the Pirates' all-time leader with 1,476 RBIs.
Nursing a precarious 3-1 lead, Kison had developed blisters on his middle finger (a chronic problem) making it difficult to throw his slider, and yielded to the Pirates bullpen, by far the busiest in the major leagues, to begin the seventh inning. Dependable side-arm closer Kent Tekulve, appearing in his 19th game of the month and league-leading 94th for the season, hurled the final three frames to earn his 31st save, but not before testing everyone’s resolve by surrendering a run in both the seventh and eighth innings.
The “decisive hit” of the game, according to Jim Naughton of the New York Times, occurred in the bottom of the seventh with the Pirates leading, 3-2.5 With two outs and the bases full, left fielder Bill Robinson lined a single to right field off reliever Dick Tidrow to drive in center fielder Omar Moreno and Foli and give the Pirates a commanding 5-2 lead. “[That hit] was the ballgame,” said Madlock after the game.6
In a 1-2-3 ninth inning, Tekulve induced the final batter, catcher Bruce Kimm, to pop up to Madlock. “A soon as it went up,” said shortstop Foli, “I knew it was over.”7 Just about 15 minutes earlier, the raucous crowd had learned from the PA announcer that the Expos had lost to the Phillies, 2-0. The victory gave the Pirates their sixth NL East crown in the decade.
As the Pirates celebration moved from the field to the clubhouse, players and coaches were overcome by a combination of excitement, emotion, and relief. Willie Stargell, a goat the day before but one of the heroes this day, was moved to tears. “We don’t have many .300 hitters and we don’t have any 20-game winners; what we have is 25 guys who play hard,” said the team captain. “What we have is a lot of junkyard dogs.”8 The close-knit, racially integrated “We Are Family” Pirates, whom Bob Verdi of the Chicago Tribune called “as much machine as it is a melting pot,” was noted as much for its competitive and team-oriented approach to the game as it was for its down-home and relaxed nature.9 “We aren’t very pretty, we make a lot of noise, and we make fun of one another,” said “Scrap Iron” Garner. “But when we go out on that field, we’re all business.”10
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, “Pirates Climax Tense Finish — NL East Champs,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 1, 1979: 1.
2 Dan Donovan, “’79 Pirates Gave It Their All and Then Some,” Pittsburgh Press, October 1, 1979: B1.
3 While the Pirates were playing their 162nd game, the Expos were playing their 160th due to rainouts. Had the Expos beaten the Phillies, they would have played a doubleheader in Atlanta. If they had won those two games, they would have forced a one-game playoff with the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh won the season series with the Expos, 11-7.
4 John Clayton, “ ‘Ganghouse’ Pirates Play It Cool,” Pittsburgh Press, October 1, 1979: B4.
5 Jim Naughton, “Pirates Win Division By Defeating Cubs, 5-3,” New York Times, October 1, 1979: C1.
6 Dan Donovan, “NL East Title Only the Beginning for Bucs,” Pittsburgh Press, October 1, 1979: B3.
8 Phil Musick, “Stargell’s Brilliance Drives Pirates to Top,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 1, 1979: 9.
9 Bob Verdi, “Pirates Win the Title with a Loaded Deck,” Chicago Tribune, October 1, 1979: E1.