Cubs of the 1970s: Bruce Sutter

It’s been said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. My journey as a Cubs fan is measured not in miles but in years, and the first step in that nearly 40-year journey was taken in the 1970s. I still remember it well, too.

I was a seven year-old boy with a broken leg in Jerome, Illinois. I thought of it then as Springfield, but Jerome was actually a small village located just outside the city limits. Calling it Springfield would be like someone living in Lincolnwood or Evanston saying they live in Chicago. So I’ll call it Jerome and move on from there.

The seven year-old that I was couldn’t go out and play all of the running around games that he wanted to. I was homebound, and wasn’t very happy about it. So I turned on the TV one afternoon in late 1975, and found something that forever changed my life.

I was surprised to find a baseball game on TV that day. I had only been to my first ballgame in St. Louis the previous July, but I knew there was a Game of the Week on NBC every Saturday. It wasn’t Saturday, though, and there it was, baseball on TV. I thought I was dreaming.

The first play that I saw was Rennie Stennett of the Pittsburgh Pirates pulling into third base with a triple. The TV then flashed a crude–by today’s standards–graphic informing the viewers that it was the first time a player had ever gone 7-for-7 in a major league game. The historical aspect of that accomplishment appealed to me, so I kept on watching the game. The combination of Jack Brickhouse’s voice, Wrigley Field, and baseball on TV worked their magic on me, and as a result I’ll follow the Cubs until the day I die.

Perhaps suffering a 22-0 loss at home should have been a red flag for me. But I was a kid, what did I know about the game? I just knew that the ballpark looked so much better than the one I had been to in St. Louis. Green grass, sunshine, baseball…what’s not to love?

I doubt I watched another Cubs game on TV in 1975. But the World Series that year was nothing less than exhilarating. I didn’t yet know that “World Series” and “Cubs fan” were mutually exclusive terms. I opened up my heart to baseball that year, and no other sport has been able to get inside that space since. I’m a baseball guy to my core, and happily so.

One of the best ways to get into the game and learn the things I needed to know was through baseball cards. These were the pre-Internet days, remember. There were books filled with baseball stats, and magazines like Baseball Digest and Sports Illustrated to tell the game’s stories, but if I wanted to know who was who, baseball cards were the way to go.

I had lots of cards back in the day, and I kept them in a blue plastic box with a folding clasp on it. I would gather up the sixteen cents I needed to buy a pack of cards by finding spare change around the house, or doing chores for a little extra money–always in coins, though–and riding my bike to the Super-X drugstore near my house. Every pack included a stick of gum, which could be chewed while I sorted through the cards. I was the happiest kid alive in those moments.

There wasn’t any such thing as a “rookie” card in those days. There was a “Future prospects” card which had young players from different teams on the same card, but nobody ever wanted those cards. The cards to get were the stars of the game like Johnny Bench, George Brett, and Pete Rose. The cards were numbered with 00 at the end for superstars, 50 for the really good players, a single 0 for All-star caliber players, and a 5 at the end for players better than average.

Topps was the only brand available in those days, but there were other ways of finding cards if you wanted them. The bottom of Hostess snack cakes had three cards you could cut out, and I remember pleading with my mom to buy Ding Dongs with a Rick Reuschel card, or Twinkies with Jose Cardenal underneath. And on occasion she actually did buy the snacks. Good times never felt so good.

Cereal boxes also provided cards of baseball players. It was more of a crapshoot, though, because it was only one card and you couldn’t tell who the player would be, like you could with the Twinkie boxes. But the holographic background, and the copious verbiage about the player on the back, were something that Hostess couldn’t match.

The last four seasons of the 1970s–from 1976 to 1979–were the best days of my life, as a Cubs fan. Jack Brickhouse became the grandfather I never had, and the end of a school day meant running home from school to see as much of the Cubs game as I could on Channel 9. The names of the players from those years are indelibly embedded in my memory: George Mitterwald, Larry Biittner, Pete LaCock (a name that still makes me laugh), “Tarzan” Joe Wallis, Ivan DeJesus, Jerry Morales, Steve Ontiveros, Bill Madlock, Mick Kelleher, Bill Buckner, Manny Trillo, Dave Kingman, Bobby Murcer, Ray Burris, Scot Thompson, Rick Monday, Miguel Dilone, Barry Foote, and on and on. If you were there, you know those names, too. And if you weren’t, well, those were the days.

Choosing just one of these names to write about seems like an impossible task, but it’s not, really. In fact, there’s one name that stands out and epitomizes those halcyon days of being a Cubs fan: Howard Bruce Sutter.

Bruce Sutter (I only knew about the Howard part from the back of a Kellogg’s baseball card) was a six-year minor leaguer before his big break came. He played for the Cubs’ minor league affiliate at Key West, Florida, and was involved in a game that is legendary for having a fly ball that never came down. In today’s world of time-limited control over a player’s rights, Sutter would have been shunted aside before he found his pitch. But when he did, brother, it was a whole new ballgame.

Bruce Sutter’s 1977 Topps baseball card is his “rookie” card, in the distasteful modern sense of the term. But if I had such a card at the start of the 1977 season, I would have looked at it and wondered who he was. Who he was at that point was a less-than-accomplished relief pitcher, on the verge of revolutionizing the game.

After Sutter had surgery on his arm in the offseason–surgery that he didn’t even tell the Cubs about–he learned how to throw the split-fingered fastball. It came in looking like a fast ball, but the bottom dropped out, as if by magic. It looked like a magic pitch, when you saw it on TV. And the hitters never had a chance to hit it.

Sutter rode that magic pitch to the All-Star team, the Cy Young award and, after a fairly long wait, into the Hall of Fame. He won a World Series with the Cardinals in 1982 (more about that in a second), and served up the two home runs to Ryne Sandberg in the fabled “Sandberg game” back in 1984. He pitched with the Braves at the tail end of his career, and retired in 1988. He wasn’t a “closer” in the modern sense of the word, but when he came into a game–whether in the sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth inning–it was lights out for the other team. Yes, he was that good.

One mark of Sutter’s dominance was a record that he held from 1977 until earlier this month. Sutter struck out at least one batter for 39 consecutive relief appearances, from June to October of the could-have-been magical 1977 season. In fact, Bruce Sutter in 1977 was truly something to behold: a 1.34 ERA, and 129 strikeouts in 107 innings pitched. The Cubs were riding high in the first half of that season, and Sutter was the primary reason why.

The team seized first place in late May, and stayed there throughout June and July. It was a heady time on the North side, that’s for sure. When Sutter developed some arm trouble in early August and went on the disabled list, the Cubs fell out of first place. By the time he came back three weeks later, the Cubs had fallen to third place and they never got their mojo back. It was the closest that the Cubs would come to success for many years.

Sutter was at the top of his game, and all of MLB, when he was traded to the Cardinals after the 1980 season. The Cubs did get Leon Durham, who was a star in the 1980s for the team, and Ken Reitz, who was serviceable, if nothing else, at third base. But Sutter took his talents to St. Louis, and since he won the World Series there, he’s now enshrined at Cooperstown in a Cardinals cap. And that hurts, to be honest about it. He’ll always be a Cub–maybe the ultimate Cub–to me.

R. Lincoln Harris is a guest contributor for Wrigleyville Nation. He also writes for BlueBattingHelmet.Wordpress.com, ChicagoSideSports.com, ThroughTheFenceBaseball.com, and FiveWideSports.com. Thanks R. Lincoln for the contribution!