June 23, 1984: Willie McGee hits for the cycle in the ‘Ryne Sandberg game’

On almost any other day, Willie McGee would have been the star of the game.

On June 23, 1984, Willie McGee became the first Cardinal since Lou Brock in 1975 to hit for the cycle, driving in six runs and scoring three times. Nonetheless, the game will forever be known as “the Ryne Sandberg game” after the Cubs second baseman went 5-for-6 with two homers and seven RBIs as the Cubs rallied from a pair of six-run deficits.

“It has to rank as one of the best thrills I’ve had,” McGee said. “It was one of the best games I’ve played in and the most exciting, but it’s just a different feeling losing rather than winning. It’s not as meaningful. It feels like it’s wasted effort.”[1]

The scoring began quickly in the Cubs’ 12-11, 11-inning win at Wrigley Field. In the first inning, George Hendrick and Sandberg exchanged RBI singles before the Cardinals rallied for five runs in the second inning. St. Louis pitcher Ralph Citarella, making one of two career major-league starts, drove in a run with an infield single. Lonnie Smith added an RBI single and McGee hit a bases-loaded triple that chased Cubs starter Steve Trout from the game after just 1 1/3 innings. McGee scored on a groundout by George Hendrick to give the Cardinals a 7-1 lead heading into the bottom of the second inning.

Sandberg push a run across in the fifth with a bases-loaded groundout and Gary Matthews followed with an RBI double to cut the Cardinals’ lead to 7-3, but McGee answered in the top of the sixth inning with a two-run homer that extended the Cardinals’ lead to six runs.

“He just had to be Willie McGee,” Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog said. “Stop thinking and go to swinging.”[2]

“I’m tired of thinking,” McGee agreed. “Either you hit it, or you don’t.”[3]

On this day, however, even that lead wasn’t safe. In the bottom of the sixth, reliever Ralph Citarella walked Keith Moreland and hit Ron Cey with a pitch before he was replaced with Neil Allen. Allen walked Larry Bowa to load the bases before he allowed an RBI single to Richie Hebner, a two-run double to Bob Dernier, and a two-run single to Sandberg. By the time he struck out Matthews to end the inning, the Cardinals’ lead was just 9-8.

“We just walked too many people,” Herzog said. “We let them back in.”[4]

It remained a one-run game until the bottom of the ninth, when Sandberg, who already had three hits, truly began to take over the game. Cardinals closer Bruce Sutter had entered the game to record the final out of the seventh inning, then retired the side in order in the eighth. In the ninth, however, Sandberg greeted him with a solo home run that sent the game into extra innings. Coming into the at-bat, Sandberg had been just 1-for-10 against Sutter in his career.[5]

“I’m in a state of shock,” Sandberg said. “I don’t even know what day it is. I was going up there thinking about pulling the ball against Sutter. I wasn’t even thinking about hitting one out.”[6]

In the 10th, Ozzie Smith led off with a single and stole second base before McGee doubled to score Smith and complete the cycle. McGee advanced to third on a Hendrick ground ball before the Cardinals’ top pinch-hitter, Steve Braun, entered the game for David Green. Braun grounded out to first base, but McGee scored to give the Cardinals an 11-9 lead.

For the second time that day, the Cardinals were three outs away from the win with a future Hall of Fame closer on the mound. Sutter retired Bowa and Hebner on groundouts, but then walked Dernier, bringing Sandberg to the plate again. For the second time in as many at-bats, Sandberg homered off Sutter to tie the score once again.

“Both of the homers were off of split-fingered fastballs,” Sandberg said. “I was looking for it.”[7]

Cardinals coach Red Schoendienst, who made his pro debut in 1942, was impressed with Sandberg’s composure.

“After those home runs, he didn’t run around the bases with his hand in the air and jumping around,” Schoendienst said. “He didn’t do anything. That’s a professional.”[8]

Said Sandberg, “I don’t want to show up anybody. That’s my nature.” He did, however, admit, “I’ll be clipping the box score out. I’ve definitely got this day marked.”[9]

In the 11th, Andy Van Slyke drew a walk against Cubs closer Lee Smith, then stole second, but he was stranded on second when Mike Ramsey grounded out to second base.

Former Cardinal Leon Durham, who came to Chicago in the trade for Sutter, led off the 11th with a walk. Jeff Lahti, who pitched three innings the previous day, entered the game and saw Durham steal second, then advance to third on a throwing error. With the winning run on third, Lahti intentionally walked Keith Moreland and Jody Davis before pinch-hitter Dave Owen punched a game-winning single into right field to give the Cubs an improbable 12-11 victory.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Van Slyke said. “It was like getting knocked down three times in a fight and then KOing the guy who had knocked you down. And they were knocked down hard. Those weren’t standing eight-counts.”[10]

The result spoiled McGee’s best game since Game 3 of the 1982 World Series. Herr added three hits and Ozzie Smith finished the day 2-for-4 with four runs scored, two stolen bases, and several sparkling plays in the field, including a play that stole a hit from Moreland in the ninth.

“What I want to know is how come everything I hit on that side of the infield is caught by Ozzie?” Moreland asked.[11]

“Ozzie Smith cost us four or five runs,” Cubs manager Jim Frey said. “I don’t know who else catches those balls. He made good plays on Moreland and (Gary) Woods and Jody Davis and Rich Bordi. They call him ‘The Wonder,’ and he is.”[12]

Sutter suffered the blown save and Dave Rucker took the loss.

“I felt all right,” Sutter said. “I made two bad pitches and they both went out of the park. The guys played a great game. We just didn’t hold them.”[13]

Allen allowed three runs in 1 1/3 innings.

“I’ll take the brunt of the heat for this,” he said. “Bruce shouldn’t have had to work today. It was ridiculous what happened. It’s just a shame to get paid that kind of money and put on a performance like that.”[14]

Lee Smith, a future Hall of Fame closer in his own right, earned the win for the Cubs.

For the Cardinals, the loss was part of a rotten weekend that included a three-game sweep at the hands of the Cubs and “all manner of threatening and prank telephone calls”[15] at the team hotel in Chicago. Van Slyke was awakened at 1 a.m. Sunday by a prank caller asking him how it felt to be traded to the Dodgers for pitcher Bob Welch.

“I think the Cardinals made a great deal,” replied Van Slyke before hanging up.[16]

The win improved the Cubs to 37-31 on the season on their way to 96 wins and the National League East championship. They lost to the Padres three games to two in the NLCS.

The game also placed the 24-year-old Sandberg in the spotlight. He finished the season with a .314 batting average, 19 home runs, 84 RBIs, and 32 stolen bases on his way to the National League MVP Award.

“Sandberg is the best player I have ever seen,” Herzog said.[17]

McGee went on to bat .291 with six homers, 50 RBIs, and 43 stolen bases that season. The following year, he won the NL MVP Award with a league-high .353 batting average, 114 runs scored, and 56 stolen bases.

McGee was inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2014.


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[1] Rick Hummel, “McGee Said His Effort Was Wasted,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 25, 1984.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Pitchers Blow It For Cardinals,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 24, 1984.

[3] Rick Hummel, “Pitchers Blow It For Cardinals,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 24, 1984.

[4] Rick Hummel, “Pitchers Blow It For Cardinals,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 24, 1984.

[5] Rick Hummel, “Pitchers Blow It For Cardinals,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 24, 1984.

[6] Fred Mitchell, “That’s entertainment!” Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1984.

[7] Fred Mitchell, “That’s entertainment!” Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1984.

[8] Rick Hummel, “Pitchers Blow It For Cardinals,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 24, 1984.

[9] Rick Hummel, “Pitchers Blow It For Cardinals,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 24, 1984.

[10] Rick Hummel, “Pitchers Blow It For Cardinals,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 24, 1984.

[11] Fred Mitchell, “No Cub monopoly on heroes,” Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1984.

[12] Fred Mitchell, “No Cub monopoly on heroes,” Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1984.

[13] Rick Hummel, “Pitchers Blow It For Cardinals,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 24, 1984.

[14] Rick Hummel, “Pitchers Blow It For Cardinals,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 24, 1984.

[15] Rick Hummel, “McGee Said His Effort Was Wasted,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 25, 1984.

[16] Rick Hummel, “McGee Said His Effort Was Wasted,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 25, 1984.

[17] Fred Mitchell, “That’s entertainment!” Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1984.