The first season of This Week in Baseball has devoted much airtime to the unexpected success of the Chicago Cubs, who captured first place in May and held onto it for much of the long, hot summer. But all the attention of Mel Allen and co. must have put the mush on the Cubbies, because episode 11 (covering the week ending August 9, 1977) begins with Allen informing us "the Chicago Cubs have been falling on hard times." The injury bug has bitten them, as we see Larry Bittner make a great sliding catch in left field, hitting the ground hard, and having to leave the game. Even worse, closer Bruce Sutter is now on the shelf until September with shoulder woes.
The walking wounded Cubs have been pushed out of first place for first time since May and are showing signs of fatigue. TWIB shows us their second baseman let a grounder go right through his legs during a game at the Astrodome and barely moving afterwards, as if to say, "Guess that'll happen. I am a Cub, after all."
The Cubs slip out of first place while in Houston, where they lose two out of three to an Astros team on the rise. "The Astro Van is parked in third place in the west!" Allen says, as we are treated to a shot of this sweet ride. Pretty sweet for a van of this era, even without a Frank Frazetta airbrushed mural. My only question: I assumed Allen's phrase was a reference to the Chevy Astro van. Thing is, those didn't start rolling off the assembly line until 1985. So was Mel referring to NASA's Crew Transport Vehicle, which was also referred to as the Astrovan? Or can Mel see into the future? Remember, we've seen evidence of his clairvoyance before.
TWIB spends a moment on Houston's sort-of ascendancy, highlighting some preternaturally good snags in the field. However, I am more intrigued by their weird mascot, who is show on the Astrodome field shaking hands with the first base coach. TWIB never shows us a frontal view of this thing, so I can't tell if this meant to be a cowboy or a little Dutch boy. He's either on his way to rustle up a posse or plug up a dam with his thumb. Also, from this angle, it looks like this costume had to be operated with one dude sitting on top of another who was crawling on his hands and knees, which I'm pretty sure was outlawed by the Geneva Convention.
While the Astros did their part, the main reason the Cubs have fallen out of first place is the hot play of the Phillies, who sweep three from the Dodgers. They do it largely on the back of the Bull, as Greg Luzinski sparks rallies in two consecutive games to beat LA, including one of his trademark titanic homers. Steve Carlton takes care of the last game all by himself, going the distance and contributing two singles as well. Carlton now has 16 wins (tops in in the National League) and 13 straight at home. Once his victory cinches the sweep, we see Tim McCarver greeting him out on the mound, no doubt telling Lefty how Bob Gibson once did something similar but better.
After a break, Allen chirps that "pennant pastures grew a little greener in Kansas City this week." So green, in fact, that fans will camp out on a mountain several hundred miles just to get a blurry glimpse of the Royals. "Hey, I think that powder blue dot looks like Amos Otis!"
As you may recall from last week's episode, the Royals dropped three of four in a big series in Chicago, all while being taunted by a raucous Comiskey Park crowd. This week, the Royals return the favor and sweep three from the first place White Sox. One big sign that the tide is turning in their favor comes when Freddie Patek is called out trying to steal scond, but Whitey Herzog protests that the fielder dropped the ball. The umps confer and, amazingly, reverse their decision. (Just as amazingly, it's at least the second time something like this has happened in the bigs this season.)
But the Royals needed no help from the umps for John Mayberry, who punished Chicago in this series, including hitting for the cycle. Or, as Allen put it, "Big John Mayberry single, doubled, tripled, and homered in one Royal rout!" Mayberry's feat is celebrated with a scoreboard flourish while the PA system plays "Big Bad John" and the crowd sings along. I understand the sentiment, but I'm not sure how I'd feel if I was serenaded with a song about a guy who was crushed to death in a mining disaster. Was any player ever celebrated with a rousing play of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"?
George Brett does the damage in another game against Chicago, belting a three-run homer to turn a 3-1 Sox lead into a 4-3 Royals win. "The three-game sweep packed four teams within three games of each other!" Allen proclaims. "That’s a lotta fish in a small pool. So who will sink and who will swim in this wild western race?" One of these four teams goes unmentioned (their name rhymes with Blexas Strangers), but we do get a brief reminder that the Twins are also in the AL West hunt, as Rod Carew continues to have an amazing season with the bat. So impressive, he inspires signs at Metropolitan Stadium like CAREW’S CREW and this doozy.
No offense, shirtless signmaker dude, but as signifiers go, this would be a pretty ineffective one. People nod all the time for a million different reasons. It would be virtually impossible to tell who was nodding for Rod and who was just nodding period. Allow me to demonstrate the quandary you have created with a little playlet I have prepared for this occasion.
SIGN GUY [played by Jon Glaser]: Hey, I saw you nodding. You like Rod too, high?
SOME PERSON [I dunno, Paul Rudd, I guess]: What? No, my wife was just asking me something. Who is Rod?
SIGN GUY: Rod Carew, man! One of the greatest hitters ever!
SOME PERSON: Sorry, I'm not much of a baseball fan. And who are you?
SIGN GUY: I'm the Nod for Rod Guy.
SOME PERSON: Please leave my house.
From Minnesota we take off for the Pacific Northwest, where TWIB takes its inaugural look at the expansion Mariners. Seattle recently honored their 1 millionth fan and his family, and all of them could not possibly look more pleased at this moment. The kid all the way to the right seems particularly thrilled. Nah, just kidding he's miserable. That kid would much rather be at home cranking 2112 though some big chunky headphones strapped to his dome. I assume dad said he could borrow the Charger on Saturday if he bucked up and went to a damn game with him for once.
TWIB interviews Seattle's first expansion draft pick Rupert Jones, who tells us he's "having the best time of my life." We get to see Jones make a tumbling catch in center field and smack a ball off the outfield fence that his hustle transforms into an inside-the-parker. Much like TWIB did with Toronto a while back, they try to sell some fairly routine plays as signs of the Mariners coming into their own, or something. One department where the Mariners truly are precocious is the making of upsetting signs, as footage of a homer reveals placards dedicated to first baseman Danny Meyer: MEYER’S MOMMAS. I would have been very happy having never seen that, TWIB.
On a more positive note, this segment treats us to an interview with Seattle’s famous co-owner, legendary song and dance man Danny Kaye. Here's what he has to say about his fledgling club's outlook:
The constant building and development programs we’re gonna go through, I think, by the time three or four years rolls around, I think we’re gonna be able to field a club that is not only going to be a source of great pleasure to us, but I think is gonna be a source of irritation to other clubs.
That's an odd way to put it, Danny, but whatever works. And it has worked to an extent for Seattle, as the Mariners have played .500 ball over the past two months, and just took two of three from the Yankees. We know this because we see a very unhappy Billy Martin arguing with umps. "For babies in the very complicated world of baseball, I think we’ve done remarkably well!" Kaye concludes.
After a break, we are treated to a feature on Ron Luciano, the histrionic American League umpire. At a time when umpires were anonymous to the average fan, Luciano became famous for his theatrical calls, like this one. Or this one. Or this one. "Fans love Luciano because he’s a real showman, and, well, because he’s a real fan," Allen shares. "Ron also loves to tell a story." This is true, as Luciano was a featured personality on that bygone hot stove tradition, the winter banquet circuit. He shares on such tale with us now.
Nolan Ryan was trying for his second no hitter in a row, and he’s out there in the sixth inning when Remy made a diving catch of a ball that was unbelievable, threw over to first and the guy’s out, and I stood there applauding! I’m supposed to call him out and I’m standing there applauding!
Luciano sums up his umpiring philosophy thusly: "They can say, 'Hey, Luciano did a decent job for a change,' but at least they know it was Luciano."
Then, it's on to the weird plays. In a game at Wrigley Field, a looping liner is hit up the middle, and the Astros shortstop and second baseman converge to try and catch it, both arrive on the scene at the exact same time. Someone catches the ball, but it's unclear who. Allen challenges us to figure out whodunit before slo-mo replay reveals it was the shortstop. In the parlor. With the candlestick.
"How do you pitch to Dave Parker, league-leading hitter?" is Allen's next puzzler. If you're Pedro Borbon of the Reds, the answer is to throw Parker a super slow floater. The Cobra swings and misses badly, and looks pretty angry at the tactic. I'd run if I were you, Pedro. In another case of a missing badly, a pitch in the dirt gets through catcher Darrel Porter’s legs. He stumbles around blindly looking for it while Allen chuckles, "It was right in front of you the whole time." I never knew Mel Allen had such a cruel streak in him.
More hot missing ball action follows, as a Steve Carlton pitch gets past catcher Tim McCarver. McCarver’s return throw is a bit high and zips past Carlton’s glove, into the outfield. And then, the throw back to the mound sails well wide of Carlton and into on the opposing deck circle. Did the Phillies have a substitute teacher that day?
In Kansas City, George Brett sprints to catch a foul ball and makes a valiant leap to catch it above the visiting dugout. However, he not only misses the ball, but has to hang on for dear life to the dugout roof. Members of the White Sox grab his legs and guide him to safety. Or try to tear him limb from limb; it's unclear.
In the same game, Jim Essian of Sox steps up to plate, ready to tear the cover off the ball. He is so focused on hitting he doesn't notice the weighted donut is still on his bat. Seeing this makes me wonder why there was never a lawn game in the 70s-80s where you had to whip weighted metal donuts off a bat and into some kind of target. Seems like it'd be super fun and no more dangerous than jarts.
In an Astros-Pirates tilt at the Astrodome, Houston first baseman Bob Watson attempts to pin a Pittsburgh runner to ground, for reasons neither he nor Mel Allen see fit to explain to us. Silliness abounds in this game, as third baseman Enos Cabell fields a tough grounder and finds his cap sliding around on his head. "This is what you call the Houston hat dance!" Allen quips. Yes, the Houston hat dance is definitely a thing that exists to be referenced?
And then, the good plays. Duane Kuiper of the Indians (who seems to show up here every week) dives to snare a line drive, then doubles up a runner at first. However, he takes a backseat to Braves rookie Barry Bonnell, who goes vertical to rob a homer from Ted Simmons at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. No, he did not use a trampoline, although you'd be forgiven for thinking so after seeing this shot.
George Foster is shown crushing one into Riverfront Stadium upper deck for his 38th homer. Foster not only leads the NL in RBIs, but is on pace to equal Roger Maris's mark of 61 homers in a season. That kind of year deserves congratulations from disembodied Mickey Mouse hands!
In other worthy feats, Frank Tavares of the Pirates steps up with the bases loaded and belts a ball down the right field line at Riverfront Stadium. The ball banks off the wall and gets away from Ken Griffey. This allows the speedy Taveras to race all the home for an inside-the-park grand slam "A sight seldom seen!" Allen remarks. Meanwhile in St. Louis, Lou Brock has stolen base number 886, putting him just six behind Ty Cobb’s all time mark. "And Lou, we’re counting down."
The Angels’ Bobby Bonds wins this week's Gillette Special for belting six homers in six days, during which time the Angels won all of their games. TWIB is impressed by Bonds, but the fans aren't, if this shot of a nigh-empty Anaheim Stadium is any indication.
This week, TWIB eschews hard-sell tactics from Mel Allen and instead goes for the heartstrings by concluding with his shot of a little girl waving. No fair, TWIB; how am I supposed to make fun of this?