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A game for the ages – ‘Ten Innings at Wrigley’

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No American sport is as enamored of its own history quite like baseball. Even as today’s players take the field, the shadows of those who came before are omnipresent. Baseball is as much about what was as it is about what is.

But there are some moments that transcend even the game’s historical affection. These are the times that make the leap from history to legend, the instances and accomplishments that are the foundation of baseball’s long and intricate mythology.

Kevin Cook’s “Ten Innings at Wrigley: The Wildest Ballgame Ever, with Baseball on the Brink” (Henry Holt and Co., $28) is a thorough exploration of one such instance, a single game in 1979 that wound up as one of the greatest offensive explosions in the history of Major League Baseball. That game – a May 17 contest that saw the Chicago Cubs play host to the Philadelphia Phillies – ultimately went 10 innings, with a final score of Phillies 23, Cubs 22; it was the highest scoring game of the modern era.

(It was second only in MLB history to a 1922 game that, funnily enough, featured these same teams; the Cubs triumphed in that one, with a score of 26-23.)

Through a combination of personal interviews and meticulous research, Cook gives an inning-by-inning rendering of the game (known to many as simply “The Game”), breaking down every on-field moment while also delving into some off-the-field exploration into the lives of some of the major players. An historic and iconic MLB moment, the picture painted of a generational contest.

In 1979, baseball was in the midst of drastic changes – some that were obvious, while others were subtler. Free agency was in its nascency, but even in those beginnings, the finances of the game were changing. The go-go ‘80s were just around the corner, while the more pharmaceutically-inclined end of that decade loomed as well. The landscape was in upheaval, with stratifying shifts of offensive and pitching philosophies either happening or about to happen.

And there, in the middle of it all, two National League foes faced off. It was May 17, a day game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. The teams were heading in opposite directions; the Phillies were an ascendant power in the NL, while the Cubs were settling into their usual spot toward the back of the division. The signs were there for this to be a high-scoring affair – Wrigley Field with the wind blowing out was the best place to hit in MLB – but there was no way to anticipate what would happen next.

Ten of the highest-scoring innings of all time. One of the greatest offensive explosions that the game had ever seen. The second-highest total runs scored in MLB history.

There were some impressive individual performances – Cubs outfielder Dave Kingman hit three home runs and drove in six, while Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt had two dingers and four walks; Philadelphia’s Larry Bowa had five hits; Chicago first baseman Bill Buckner had four – and six RBI. But the truth is that everyone who swung a bat on that day was primed for success.

Not so much for the pitchers. It was not a great day to be throwing the ball – the first six pitchers got hammered at an historic clip; the first three Philadelphia pitchers gave up 16 over five innings, while the first three Cubs hurlers gave up 21 over less than four. Only Ray Burris (Cubs) and Rawly Eastwick (Phillies) managed to escape unscathed, pitching 1 1/3 and two scoreless innings, respectively.

On either side of the game account, Cook provides some context. Part One of the book offers a condensed history of both franchises involved in the game; we get a look at the historic success (or lack thereof) of the two teams. Part Three looks at how things changed after the game – the Phillies World Series win the next year; the subsequent success and abrupt end of Dave Kingman’s career; Bill Buckner’s legacy-defining error and the sad tragedy of Donnie Moore.

A particular joy of baseball comes from digging through its fertile past. It’s remarkable to think that even in a game with a century-plus of history, there can still be outliers. To think that 45 runs were scored in this one contest; 45 times, home plate was touched. Despite the many thousands of games that had happened to that point (and have happened since), nothing like it had happened in over half-a-century.

It’s that uniqueness that Kevin Cook captures here. There’s an enthusiasm throughout that is infectious, drawing the reader up into the whirlwind combination of time, place and participants; 1979 was very much a crossroads for MLB, and Cook does a wonderful job of evoking that sense of transience.

“Ten Innings at Wrigley” is an engaging account of one of MLB’s greatest games, a look back at an offensive explosion the likes of which we may never see again. It is informative and evocative, transporting the reader to its ivy-covered, high-scoring locale. Baseball fans with an appreciation of the game’s history will enjoy this look back at an iconic moment in the sport.

Last modified on Thursday, 09 May 2019 11:12

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