The 1979 World Series between Baltimore and Pittsburgh is one the earliest World Series I can remember. Pittsburgh and Baltimore played in a true Fall Classic that year, with Pittsburgh rallying from a 3-1 deficit to win in seven games.
I remember I bought my first tabletop baseball game that same year. It was Strat-O-Matic in the red box with the batter, catcher and umpire graphic that looked like it had been cut from pale green construction paper and appeared nothing like the major league ballplayers promised inside the box. Inside the box… I remember those first black and white basic cards. They came pre-cut in those days and already bundled into teams with narrow rubber bands. They were sturdier then, too, but I digress.
A lot of my interest in tabletop board games these days is nostalgia and, the truth is, I have a lot of nostalgia for those late seventies and early eighties seasons as a result. One of the first teams I created when I was rating teams for Baseball Trivia Challenge was the 1978 Seattle ball club (because that’s where I lived at the time) and the two teams I’m going to talk about here: 1979 Baltimore and Pittsburgh. After I’d finished the ratings for both teams a couple things sprang to mind.
To begin with, I wouldn’t characterize either team as great. Baltimore won 102 games and lost only 57, which is very good. Like the 1969 team, they played excellent defense. But outside Ken Singleton, Eddie Murray, Gary Roenicke and a few others, they weren’t a big-hitting team.
They scored 4.76 runs per game (R/G), sixth best in the majors just ahead of Pittsburgh, who ranked seventh at 4.75 runs per game. For context, California topped the majors at 5.35 R/G with Boston second at 5.26.
Baltimore’s starting pitching staff, which featured Cy Young Award Winner, Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez, Steve Stone, Scott McGregor and Jim Palmer were, with the exception of Stone (who was only so-so but would nonetheless win the Cy Young Award the following year), solid but not spectacular.
They had a solid bullpen but lacked the sort of shutdown closer we’re accustomed to today. That probably had more to do with the times than anything else. Tim Stoddard, Dave Ford, and Don Stanhouse all had excellent seasons and Sammy Stewart was a true long-reliever.
Pittsburgh had their own vibe— specifically, the Sister Sledge hit “We Are Family.” The patriarch of the family was 39-year-old, Willie “Pops” Stargell, who served as an inspiration to teammates both on and off the field. Named co-MVP in the National League, Stargell was quick to recognize his teammates contributions, dispensing “Stargell Stars” to his mates for great plays.
But while Stargell garnered the most attention, it was a man 11 years his junior who was Pittsburgh’s best player. Dave Parker entered the 1979 season fresh from winning the NL MVP the year prior and although 1979 was a regression year, it was still plenty spectacular. Indeed, the sturdy Parker managed to bang out 193 hits (6th best in the NL), bat .310 (7th best), and knock in 94 runs (8th best). And, oh yeah, he also won a Gold Glove for his play in right field.
Pitching in hitter-friendly Three Rivers Stadium, the pitching staff performed admirably. Although none of the starting staff won more than John Candelaria’s 14 games, they performed well together as a group. The bullpen was a strength. Closer Kent Tekulve’s submarine delivery may have been a bit unusual but it achieved excellent results. Tekulve finished third in the majors with 31 saves and his 94 appearances topped all relievers. Enrique Romo, Grant Jackson and Jim Bibby were all solid contributors.
Series Outlook and Predictions
Statistically, the two teams appear evenly matched. Of course, such comparisons are often overly simplistic. Baltimore and Pittsburgh each scored almost exactly the same number of runs per game but Baltimore compiled those numbers with the help of a designated hitter. On the other hand, Pittsburgh played in a run-friendly park.
I was a math major in college so I did what all math majors do in these circumstances: I started scribbling out a few equations. Without getting into the details, I calculated that Pittsburgh should win roughly 55% of the time. This allowed me to determine they had about a 60% chance to win the series. I further determined the most likely outcome was for them to win in 6 or 7 games (6 games was most likely but by less than 1%).
Mind you these calculations were based on the Game 1 batting lineups and both managers, but especially Baltimore skipper, Earl Weaver, changed the batting lineups as the series progressed. Also, according to the ratings, none of these lineups featured Baltimore’s best batsmen in the lineup together. On the other hand, Chuck Tanner, Pittsburgh’s manager, seemed to do a better job selecting lineups conducive to scoring runs.
Finally, I tried to utilize the same starting lineups the teams used during the actual series. This extended to the pitching staff as well, though this was obviously influenced by individual game conditions. In the end, I think I did a fairly decent job.
And with that, “Play ball!”
Game 1: Flanagan’s the man again!
Cy Young Award winning lefty, Mike Flanagan, was dominant, pitching 9 innings of shutout baseball to lead Baltimore to a 2-0 win and 1-0 lead in the series. Baltimore’s Eddie Murray scored the game-winning run in the first inning and shortstop, Mark Belanger, added an insurance run in the sixth. Pittsburgh starter, Bruce Kison, who had to leave the game after the fourth inning with an injury was the tough-luck loser.
|W – Mike Flanagan (1-0)||L – Bruce Kison (0-1)||GW – Eddie Murray (1)|
Game 2: Foli wins it for Pittsburgh!
Baltimore pitcher, Jim Palmer, extended Pittsburgh’s scoreless inning steak to 14 before shortstop, Tim Foli, struck for 3 runs in the sixth inning to put Pittsburgh ahead 3-0. It was all they needed and then some. All-Star Ken Singleton scored a run in the bottom of the ninth to avoid the shutout but it was far too little too late.
Bert Blyleven pitched 8 shutout innings for Pittsburgh and closer, Kent Tekulve, earned the save despite allowing the final run to Singleton.
|W – Bert Blyleven (1-0)||L – Jim Palmer (0-1)||GW – Tim Foli (1)|
Game 3: Baltimore wins Game 3; Stewart, Bumbry shine
After starting pitcher, Scott McGregor, was hurt after the third inning, Baltimore’s Jack Dempsey knew he had to do something to help reliever, Sammy Stewart, who’d entered the game to replace him. Dempsey’s strategy— to argue balls and strikes with home plate umpire, Russ Goetz, and get tossed from the game— didn’t help in the least, but fortunately for Baltimore, Stewart barely noticed, pitching 5 solid innings in relief to earn the win and help give Baltimore a 2-1 Series edge.
Center fielder, Al Bumbry, was the hero at the plate, scoring 4 runs and giving Baltimore a lead they would never relinquish.
|W – Sammy Stewart (1-0)||L – John Candelaria (0-1)||GW – Al Bumbry (1)|
Game 4: Heartbreak and Elation!
Dave Parker scored 4 runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to tie the game and NL MVP, Willie “Pops” Stargell, scored the winning run in the 11th inning to lead Pittsburgh to an improbable victory over Baltimore. The victory was critical for Pittsburgh as it prevented them from facing the unenviable prospect of being down three-games-to-one, instead tying the series at two games a piece.
For Baltimore the loss was devastating and would prove a harbinger of things to come.
|W – Enrique Romo (1-0)||L – Tippy Martinez (0-1)||GW – Willie Stargell (1)|
Game 5: Slow Collapse!
For the second game in a row, Baltimore jumped out to a large early lead and couldn’t hold on, relinquishing the last of a 5-0 lead on Tim Foli’s 2 run outburst in the sixth inning then failing to mount a response. Mike Flanagan, who’d pitched brilliantly in his first outing, was decidedly less effective in this one, allowing 6 runs in six innings work before being replaced by Tim Stoddard.
Pittsburgh’s, Jim Rooker, started the game and allowed 5 runs through 5 innings before being replaced by fellow starter, Bert Byleven, in a surprise move by Pittsburgh skipper, Chuck Tanner. Blyleven was brilliant again, holding Baltimore scoreless over the last 4 innings.
|W – Bert Blyleven (2-0)||L – Mike Flanagan (1-1)||GW – Tim Foli (2)|
Game 6: Onslaught!
Returning home for game 6 after two heartbreaking 1-run losses, Baltimore appeared flat out of the gate. Even so, after scoring on Bill Madlock’s error in the bottom of the sixth inning, Baltimore entered the seventh inning down just 2-1 with three-time Cy Young Award Winner, Jim Palmer, on the mound. It wasn’t the sort of scenario that augured disaster, but disaster struck all the same. Pittsburgh scored 7 runs in the final three frames— against three of Baltimore’s finest pitchers— turning a tight game into a blowout. The final score was a disheartening 9-1.
|W – John Candelaria (1-1)||L – Jim Palmer (0-2)||GW – Willie Stargell (2)|
This one felt incomplete, like a book missing an important chapter. Just as in real-life, the statistics don’t help a lot. They paint a picture of a Baltimore team that struggled to score, tallying just 22 runs over the course of the series, but that’s a bit misleading. Coming into Game 6, Baltimore had outscored Pittsburgh 21-20 and had generally been the more explosive team.
It was true, of course, that some of Baltimore’s stars failed to produce as expected: Team MVP, Ken Singleton, and to a lesser extent left fielder, John Lowenstein (who was eventually replaced by Gary Roenicke) both come to mind. In addition, Palmer, Stoddard and Stanhouse all had a rough go of it in Baltimore’s Game 6 loss but they were otherwise solid. Palmer was a tough-luck loser in Game 2 (allowing just 3 runs in 9 innings), Stanhouse earned a save in Game 3 and Stoddard didn’t allow an earned run in two appearances.
The real difference was Baltimore’s inability to hold a lead. Going into game 4, Baltimore held a 2-1 series lead and entered the ninth inning ahead 7-3. After Singleton failed to ice the game with a run, Dave Parker smashed home 4 runs and the Pirates wound up winning 8-7 in 11 innings. Baltimore followed that disappointing effort by taking a 5-0 lead in game 5 before fading down the stretch again, losing 6-5.
Pittsburgh won in much the same fashion as they did in real-life, closing out the series with three straight wins. Their top three stars— Parker, Stargell and Madlock— all played well as did future Hall-Of-Famer, Bert Blyleven, who pitcher 12 scoreless innings, including 4 in relief.
After going scoreless through the first 14 innings of the series, Pittsburgh’s offense responded with 29 runs over the last 41 (a clip equivalent to 6.4 runs per game).
In an evenly-matched series, they emerged the best!
1979 Baltimore Batting
1979 Baltimore Pitching
1979 Pittsburgh Batting
1979 Pittsburgh Pitching