BACKGROUND: Consistency eluded the Pirates during Chuck Tanner's first three months in charge. The Bucs started 1977 by committing three errors in their first inning in the field and getting swept in a three-game home series with St. Louis. Less than two weeks later, however, they would embark on a 16-wins-in-17-games joyride, surging to a 2.5-game lead in the NL East on May 24 and earning Dave Parker a Sports Illustrated cover appearance. On the pages inside, Walter Bingham opined that Tanner "has given Pittsburgh fresh verve and a new look that has nothing to do with the variety of jazzy uniforms the players are wearing these days."
That verve and look soon turned stale. By June 19, losing streaks of five and seven games had dropped the Pirates into fourth place, seven games behind the streaking Cubs. Five consecutive wins followed that apparent nadir, but the Bucs then lost eight of nine—capped by a four-game sweep in Philadelphia—to fall ten games off the division pace on the morning of July 4.
Newspaper readers around Western Pennsylvania awoke on Independence Day to Charley Feeney's purple prose in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, lede-ing an account of an 11-7 defeat to the Phillies:
Uncle Sam is 201 years old today and and Pirates' Manager Chuck Tanner is 48. Tanner's Follies—also known as the Pittsburgh Pirates—are making him look as old as Uncle Sam.
Tanner's Follies could probably pack Heinz Hall. That's the place for comedy in Pittsburgh.
Three Rivers Stadium is the place for baseball in Pittsburgh. Remember that, fans. Baseball. It's no place for comedy and it's no place for a lynching.
Some Pirate rooters today are probably in a lynching mood. Their heroes have let them down. Down...down...down.
But Bucco fortunes shifted again. A doubleheader sweep that day led to three wins in four games against the Cardinals. The Phillies then visited Three Rivers Stadium for a weekend rematch—and left with four straight losses. Fans present that series witnessed a parade of memorable occurrences: Mike Schmidt fighting Bruce Kison after a hit by pitch, Willie Stargell stalking Tug McGraw after a subsequent hit by pitch, Morganna The Kissing Bandit smooching John Candelaria, three Bucs' victories after trailing by four runs, a Mario Mendoza twelfth-inning walkoff, a doubleheader sweep, and a Jerry Reuss complete game.
Just seven days after Feeney's histrionics, Phil Musick's Post-Gazette column reflected a major mood swing:
At Three Rivers, on a halter-top of an afternoon and before 39,042 screaming partisans who left the premises fully aware of why baseball is known as the national pastime, the NL East pennant chase was really born.
You can tell when the race becomes official. The athletes begin to behave oddly and the fans fight amongst themselves. The athletes speak seriously of momentum, and playoff money, and knockdown pitches, and other important artifacts of the summer game. The fans speak of World Series tickets and beer.
The Pirates would win 21 of 28 games between July 4 and August 3. When they showed up at Riverfront Stadium for a twinight doubleheader on Friday, August 5, they stood just 2.5 games behind first-place Chicago and one game behind second-place Philadelphia. Feeney's article in that morning's Post-Gazette noted the prominent discrepancy between the Pirates' home and road performances:
Hey, Pirate fans, the lovable, bungling Buccos need you. Honest to goodness, they do. The Pirates miss you on the road. Without their fans, the Pirates might blow it all.
Just take a look at the team's record on the road. It's 22-32. At friendly Three Rivers Stadium the Bucs are 38-14.
ACTION: The Pirates hardly looked uncomfortable on the turf of the two-time defending World Champions. In the top of the second in the opener, they battered veteran lefty Fred Norman for six runs. Dave Parker capped the big inning by driving a Norman curveball into the upper deck for a three-run homer, making the Cincinnati native the first player to reach Riverfront Stadium's right field upper deck. Four more third inning runs off future Pirate Manny Sarmiento put the game out of reach, and Parker added a second home run off Dale Murray in the fifth for a 12-0 advantage.
At that point, the game appeared headed for an uneventful denouement. Between the fourth and seventh innings, Sparky Anderson removed Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Ken Griffey, and Dave Concepcion from the game. Reuss sailed through the resulting white-flag lineup, allowing only four hits and a sixth-inning run.
Anderson called on 40-year-old sidearming lefthander Joe Hoerner, pitching in his 493rd major league game, to mop up the ninth inning. Hoerner retired the first two batters of the inning to bring up Frank Taveras. The first pitch to the Bucco shortstop was a brushback. The second hit him in the shoulder.
Taveras responded by throwing his bat towards the mound. It landed between second and third. Hoerner charged off the mound. Reds' backup catcher Bill Plummer restrained Taveras. Hoerner struck Taveras with a left punch beneath his right ear.
Bill Robinson, who had returned to the dugout after a first-inning Norman beaning necessitated a trip to the hospital, came onto the field and challenged Hoerner to fight, but the situation soon deescalated. Reuss's routine bottom of the ninth closed out the complete-game 12-1 win.
The fans at Riverfront, over 50,000 strong, had not seen the last of the night's fireworks, but the second game's headline moments proved more wholesome than the opener. After the Reds jumped on rookie Bucco starter Odell Jones for two runs in the first, three consecutive singles off Doug Capilla to open the Pirates' second halved Cincinnati's lead. One out later, Capilla walked Jones, loading the bases for Taveras.
Prior to this plate appearance, Taveras had batted 1,779 times in the major leagues without recording a home run. Appearance #1,780 broke new ground. Taveras lined Capilla's pitch sharply down the right-field line and the ball caromed away from Griffey. When Taveras reached home plate with the inside-the-park grand slam, the Pirates had a 5-2 advantage. Three batters later, Bill Robinson's RBI single gave the Bucs their second six-run second inning of the night.
But the lead would not last, as Cincinnati returned fire with a salvo of power hitting. George Foster and Bench homered in the third and fourth innings, respectively, to chase Jones and cut the deficit to 6-4. Tanner called on Grant Jackson to preserve the lead, but Foster—on his way to becoming the only player between 1966 and 1989 to hit 50 home runs in a season—deadlocked the game in the bottom of the fifth with a two-run homer.
The Pirates would soon reassert themselves. Omar Moreno led off the top of the sixth with a double off Capilla and advanced to third on a Griffey error. Jackson then singled him home for a 7-6 lead. Later in the inning, Capilla walked Parker, putting two runners on base with two outs. Anderson summoned Jack Billingham to face Robinson. The veteran right-hander got ahead with two strikes, but Robinson drove a pitch over the wall in left to expand the advantage to 10-6.
Jackson and Rich Gossage held Cincinnati scoreless the rest of the way to complete the 10-6 win and doubleheader sweep. The Pirates, written off a month earlier, now stood just one game behind the Cubs and Phillies in the NL East.
Most Pirates felt that Norman's breaking pitch that hit Robinson just got away. The Pirates unanimously felt that Hoerner intentionally threw at Taveras, who irritated the Reds when he stole second base with the Bucs leading, 7-0, in the third inning.
Taveras, who had a towel wrapped in ice on his right cheekbone, said: "I'll get him (Hoerner) someday."
Pirate Manager Chuck Tanner was angry over the incident. Cincinnati Manager Sparky Anderson was calm.
"Why would anybody want to hit Taveras," Anderson said. "He's no hitter. We want him in there."
- Charley Feeney, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Hoerner was laughing after he hit Frankie," said Robinson, who returned for the second game and hit a three-run homer. "I challenged him to meet me in the runway, but he never showed up. I couldn't go in the clubhouse after him. They'd have killed me."
"He called me a filthy name in the second game from the bench, and I challenged him again. He's a very, very nasty guy."
- Russ Franke, The Pittsburgh Press
What Pirate Manager Chuck Tanner said about Hoerner burned the ears off the Cincinnati news media. He has never been so angry as he was last night, and his vocabulary wouldn't have cleared the editors of Hustler magazine.
"He's just no good. He'll get it some day, but he doesn't have to worry about anybody throwing at him because he never bats. He's such a horse-(feathers) pitcher that they always take him out for a pinch-hitter. He's always behind. He didn't pick on any of our big guys, just the smallest one.
He doesn't have a gut in his body. He's the same s.o.b. who hit Willie Stargell a couple years ago and knocked him out of the lineup.
Go ahead and print all this. I want everyone to see how rotten I think he is."
- Franke, The Press
AFTERMATH: NL President Chub Feeney (no relation to the sportswriter) imposed a five-game suspension and fine on Taveras for the incident with Hoerner. Hoerner merely received a fine from the league, but he never pitched another professional game. Anderson responded to Friday's Bucco barrage by sending midseason acquisitions to the mound on Saturday and Sunday. These were no ordinary pitchers and they did not produce ordinary results: Tom Seaver (acquired in a blockbuster trade at the June 15 trading deadline) earned a complete-game win on Saturday and rookie Mario Soto (called up from the minors about two weeks earlier) closed out the weekend split with a complete-game shutout on Sunday. The Pirates would win 96 games in 1977, but they never again came any closer than 2.5 games away from first.