Episode 14 of This Week in Baseball (covering the week ending August 30, 1977) starts off with a sight sure to warm the heart of any baseball fan: Earl Weaver going completely ape-feces about an umpire's call. This is a tease for a compelling segment we shall get to before the program concludes, and is meant to signify the pressure of the divisional races as baseball enters its last month. Or it may be meant to signify a cry for help from Weaver.
The meat of this episode begins with a montage of "hard charging" plays that, like Weaver's meltdown, are meant to symbolize the hard-fought pennant races being waged in the big leagues. Runners sliding! Second basemen upended! Outfielders crashing into fences! Showman umpire Ron Luciano making theatrical out calls at third, second, and home! (Click on the image for view en-gif-ening.)
First up, the AL East, in which the Red Sox, Orioles, and Yankees have jockeyed for position all season. At the moment, New York is out in front, 3 games ahead of Boston and 4 up on Baltimore. "As predicted, a couple of guys named Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson had a lot to do with it," Mel Allen notes. "After Reggie moved into the cleanup position of the batting order, the Yanks won 17 of 19." You are no doubt wondering, Why on earth wasn't Reggie Jackson batting cleanup to begin with? We get no clues from TWIB, but the reason was that Billy Martin hated him. The only reason Jackson got any chance to bat cleanup is because George Steinbrenner commanded Martin to do so or be fired. Pride, Power, Pinstripes!
Apart from Jackson, the Yanks are getting contributions from Mickey Rivers ("But for Rod Carew, Rivers would be battling for a batting title," Allen surmises) a "fireballing youngster" named Ron Guidry, and Graig Nettles, who leads the team in homers and RBIs. One of Nettles' shots is snared by this crowd of senior gentlemen, a sight that makes me happy for reasons I can't quite articulate. Yay, old guys!
Though the Yanks seem poised to pull away from the pack, the Red Sox remain in the hunt. In Allen's words, Jim Rice "has been the most consistent batter on the club" batting .320 and belting 3 homers in recent games, while slugger George Scott has bashed 31 longballs already already. Allen seems particularly impressed by Butch Hobson, who he sees as "quickly becoming one of the best sluggers in the game." Spoiler alert: An elbow injury pretty much ended Hobson's career before the decade was out. Shows what you know, Mel. Where's your crystal ball now?
The Orioles remain the "surprise team of the east" with contributions from rookies like second baseman Rich Dower, who recovered from an early "horrendous" slump and recently collected seven hits in as many at-bats. Another fresh face, Andres Mora, has maximized his opportunities by driving in 34 runs with his first 37 hits. But the offense rests largely on the back of star switch-hitter Ken Singleton, who is hitting over .400 from the right side thus far this season. Rookie switch-hitter Eddie Murray does not merit a mention, and I'm sure he was real pleased about that, too.
Next, TWIB gives us an update on the AL West, which is even more densely packed with pennant hopefuls. Like the Yankees, the Royals are defending their division title and have pulled out in front, only they are fighting off three teams instead of two. Allen gives the edge to the Royals because "Kansas City doesn't fret about a fella named George Brett!" Nor should they, Mel, unless you know something about Brett you're not telling us. If you've got the test results, just give it to us straight, we can take it.
KC is also getting help from Hal McRae, who leads league in doubles and has a cannon for an arm. TWIB shows McRae making an excellent throw home to nail a runner at the plate, which also presents us this tableau that I present to you without comment.
The Royals have to contend with a trio of surprise contenders. Chicago led the division for a good chunk of the summer and are still hanging in there with a homer-happy lineup led by off-season pickups Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble, who is seen depositing a pitcher's offering into the upper deck at Comiskey Park. Allen also gives credit to closer Lerrin LaGrow, who has saved 20 games. LaGrow probably wouldn't appreciate being referred to as "one of Bill Veeck's bargain basement pickups." But then, his teammates probably wouldn't appreciate being called "White Sockers" either, as Allen refers to them multiple times in this segment. He used a similar appellation for the Red Sox in earlier episodes, and though I realize the "X" in the team name presents some thorny pronoun issues, "Socker" seems a clumsy solution. Also, this would surely confuse the viewer into thinking Mel might be referring to the indoor soccer powerhouse the San Diego Sockers? Right guys?
The Twins remain the hunt as well, as Rod Carew is headed for career highs in every offensive category, Larry Heisel leads league in RBIs, and reliever Tom Johnson has filled the vacuum left by the departure of fireman Bill Campbell. Still, the most surprising team in a surprising bunch remains the Texas Rangers. No one gave the Rangers much chance in 1977—least of all their own front office, who, in one of the weirder events in baseball history, cycled through four managers in a single week.
Eventual skipper Billy Hunter (seen below in the snazzy shades) insists he spotted the issue with the Rangers earlier in the season: "The team was a conglomeration of people from various organizations, and they really haven't had a whole lot of time to work on fundamentals as a team." Now that this error has been rectified, Allen calls Texas "baseball's best defensive team," and tries to prove it by showing us Bump Wills making a great diving stop at second base. Toby Harrah continues to slug and make a successful transition to third base, while Mike Hargrove has led off 6 games with homers.
"September is gonna be a mighty hard ride for the Rangers," Allen counsels, "and for everyone else in the wild horse races of the American League." And those wild horse races could not drag us away from them, or something.
After a break, TWIB brings us a feature on a wild Reds-Phils game in Cincy. Philadelphia enjoys a healthy lead in the NL East, but the Reds absolutely need a sweep of this three-game series if they want to hang onto any hope of catching the Dodgers in the NL West. The Reds win the opener, but find themselves down 3-2 in the seventh of game two. Joe Morgan takes care of that by walking, stealing second, taking third on an error, then racing home on a wild pitch to draw even. The Phils regain the lead in the top of the eighth, but the Reds tie things up again on a Pete Rose RBI single.
Philly goes ahead a third time, 5-4, in the top of the ninth, and in the bottom half, the Reds fall victim to a strike-em-out-throw-em-out DP (a move made even dumber by the fact that RBI leader George Foster is at bat at the time). With Cincinnati down to its last out, Dan Driessen belts one off the CF fence. He races around bases and just barely beats a throw home for a game-tying inside-the-park home run. The play at the plate is very close, and Mike Schmidt is so incredulous at the safe call, he throws down his glove in disgust, followed by his hat. I imagine Schmitty later took out his frustrations on a Chevy pickup.
We don't see Schmidt's reaction to what happens next, but it can't be too pleasant, because Johnny Bench homers off of Tug McGraw for a walkoff win. The Reds take the series finale the next day, thus keeping their pennant dreams alive for another 24 hours.
The only reason overtaking the Dodgers seemed remotely possible is because LA has hit a rough patch of late, but in Allen's words, they "got back on the winning track this week." Steve Garvey went three whole weeks without an RBI, but finally busts out of his slump by knocking in the winning run during a game against Cardinals. With that hump gotten over, Garvey goes on to kill the Cards in another game, hitting three doubles and two homers, one a grand slam. Despite their struggles and despite Cincy's sweep, the Dodgers remain 8 games in first place.
This is as good time as any to mention that every single time I've had to type "Garvey" for this series, on the first try it's come out as "Gravey." Makes me wish the former Dodgers first baseman would put on a ton of pounds so we could all call him "Steve Gravy" and enjoy a good laugh at his expense. Ah, dreams.
After another break, TWIB dedicates its weekly "weird plays" segment to "all those angry managers" who get upset with umpires and make a scene on the field of play. This montage is set to wacky music, of course, though every single manager seen in this portion of the program has a serious Serial Killer Vibe to them. There are some true gems in this collection, including:
- Herman Franks tossing his gum at an ump when no other projectile is handy
- Earl Weaver furiously covering up home plate with dirt
- Billy Martin desperately trying to get in the face of an ump who keeps turning his back to him
- Weaver (again) firing his cap into the stratosphere like frisbee
- Franks (again) hurling several metric tons of dugout equipment onto the field
- Weaver (yet again) reacting to an ejection by theatrically "ejecting" the umpire himself
It takes a lot to stand out in an Angry Manager contest that includes the likes of Weaver and Martin. However, the champ by far is Tigers skipper Ralph Houk, who engages the umps with behavior that might get a modern manager fined, suspended, and possibly imprisoned. The fiery Houk even hurls his cap at the back of an umpire's head. I can't really show that to you in video form, so click on this here image to view a gif of some of Houk's choicer moments of insanity. (If you look closely, you can see the moment of impact when Houk's hat caroms off the ump's dome.)
Then, more in the TWIB "weird" play tradition, we see the Rangers set an odd record. At Yankee Stadium, Toby Harrah of the Rangers hits a long ball to right field. Lou Piniella leaps to snare it, misses, crashes into the fence, and goes down in a heap. Harrah takes advantage and scurries around the bases for an inside-the-park home run. On very next pitch, Bump Wills hits his own ball to deep centerfield. Mickey Rivers gets a glove on it, but the ball bounces off his leather and rolls far away from him. This allows Wills to run out his own inside-the-parker. This marks only the second time in baseball history a team hit two inside-the-park homers in a row. Perhaps the Yankees were distracted by this historical tidbit, since NOBODY goes out to check on a badly injured Piniella. Even the ump has his back turned, as if to say You didn't see nothin', keep movin'.
But this historic anomaly (and historic indifference to the pain of others) pales in comparison to an actual historic mark set this week in San Diego, which is where we conclude this week's episode. In a game against the Padres legendary Cardinals speedster Lou Brock tied, then broke Ty Cobb's all time stolen base record. TWIB shows up Brock's record-breaking steal, as well as a scoreboard tribute that, even befitting the times, seems woefully inadequate for the occasion.
Play stops for a moment to honor Brock, as he is presented with a small trophy of some kind and congratulated by Padres ace Randy Jones. Brock is given the mic to address the crowd and concludes his remarks thusly: "All I can say is, Randy, I did it my way."
I have no idea what this is supposed to mean, but while allowing for the fact that TWIB does not show us the entire ceremony and thus may have eliminated some important context, I've narrowed it down to a few possibilities:
- Randy Jones (or someone else) had implied Lou Brock did it some way other than his own, and Lou Brock was merely clarifying.
- Lou Brock a huge Sinatra fan.
- Lou Brock failed to prepare remarks and, in the glow of the moment, busted out a weird non sequitir.
If you have any insight into Brock's remarks, please do not tell me. Unexplained weirdness will always trump reality.