Later this week, the Cubs and Cardinals face off for the first time all season. This is probably the most storied and famous baseball rival in the Midwest. After all, these are the two oldest Midwest teams and as an added bonus they both have sizable fan bases.
In honor of this traditional rivalry, I did some wandering over at Retrosheet to look up the best games in history. A few notes looking at what determines if a game makes my list:
Retrosheet doesn’t have boxscores for all baseball history, so thus seasons currently without the full Retrosheet treatment are less likely to have games appear on this countdown. Thus some deserving games won’t make it, but this is the best I can do.
Also, I will prioritize games that took place during pennant races in which both teams were involved. This is really key because unlike baseball’s other storied rivalries (Yankees-Red Sox or Dodgers-Giants), the Cubs and Cards rarely clash for the pennant against each other. The Cubs are mostly to blame for this, because, well, they usually suck. That said, in the early 20th Century the Cubs were great and the Cards sucked. The 1920s and 1930s were the only pronounced time when both were serious contenders, hence you’ll see a lot more of those games. (Also, it turns out there were an unusually large number of spectacular games between the teams then.)
Oh, and as veteran readers of my top-10 lists should already expect, this list has more than 10 games. Folks, I come across a lot of fun games when looking up this stuff, so I’ll tie games together.
Let’s get to it: Here are the 10 greatest games Cub-Cardinal games — all 15 of them:
No. 10: Wartime pennant push
Sept. 1, 1945: Cardinals 3, Cubs 2. The Cubs entered this game in first place, with the Cardinals, who had claimed the previous three consecutive pennants, in second place. The day before St. Louis won the first contest in the three-game series at Sportsman’s Park to pull just 2.5 games behind Chicago. This was the first of eight September meetings between the rivals, so the race was easily within reach to whoever got the better of the other.
This began as a definite pitchers’ duel, with only one run scored in the first six innings, and the game tied 1-1 in the middle of the eighth. Then a mini-flurry of late-inning scoring added to the drama as the Cards and Cubs took turns pushing a run in all of the remaining half-innings. The Cards managed to send the home crowd of nearly 20,000 happy when they scored the winning run with no outs in the bottom of the ninth.
Chicago still led the NL, but only by a game and a half. A fourth straight pennant was for the taking. They never got any closer, but at the time that was not clear.
No. 9 (Tie): Baseball for axe-murderers
April 16, 1955: Cardinals 12, Cubs 11 (14). April 22, 1980: Cubs 16, Cardinals 12. These are the two of the greatest slugfests in Cubs-Cardinals history. The 1955 contest was a back-and-forth that saw the Cardinals blow 2-0, and 6-4. Not to be outdone, the Cubs lost 4-2, and 9-6.
The best part is that when the Cubs scored a pair of runs in the top of the 12th, the Cards came right back and tied it up when Wally Post homered off of Chicago reliever Bubba Church. That was St. Louis’ only homer, but the Cubs had a half-dozen – all with none on.
The 1980 game frankly wasn’t as good overall, but has one key element in its favor: it ended in the coolest way possible, a walk-off grand slam. Actually, the big blast from the bat of backup backstop Barry Foote capped an impressive comeback, as the Cubs trailed 12-6 at one point.
No. 8: Random great game
June 21, 1927: Cardinals 6, Cubs 5 (13). Last year I wrote a column for THT called “Random great game” about a fun Cub-Cardinal 1990 game featuring multiple comebacks I watched as a kid. This was a similar game, only better.
In the 1990 game, the Cubs twice entered the bottom of the frame needing to score a run to avoid losing. Both times they did. In this 1927 game, the Cardinal thrice needed a run – and they did it every time.
They trailed 3-2 entering the bottom of the ninth, 4-3 in the 12th, and 5-4 in the 14th. They scored once in each of the first two moments to keep the game going, and twice in the 14th to end it with a win.
There was a pennant race going on (both teams ended the day tied for second place, 2.5 games behind the eventual pennant-winning Pirates), but it’s mostly here because it must’ve been such a fun game to watch.
No. 7 (tie): Sometimes, a five-run lead in the ninth isn’t enough
Aug. 29, 1930. Cubs 9, Cardinals 8 (13). July 28, 2002: Cardinals 10, Cubs 9. The Cardinal clubhouse could not have been a fun place to be after this one. The Cardinals were in second place with a month left to play, trailing the defending pennant winning Cubs by 5.5 games. However, fresh off an inspiring win the day before (stay tuned, it’ll show up later on the list), the Cards were looking to close in.
Early on, it looked like yesterday’s momentum would carry them through the day. They jumped out to a 5-0 lead early, and that’s how the score stood when the bottom of the ninth rolled in. At that point, the Cubs – so helpless through the first eight innings – rattled off five runs before making three outs. Ouch.
No matter, St. Louis scored three times in the 11th to put the game away. Then the Cubs came back with three runs in the bottom of the frame. Double-ouch. Then the Cubs scored another run two innings later to seal the game. Triple-ouch.
The stunned Cards went on to lose the next day’s contest 16-4 to Chicago. They ended the series 7.5 games out with only a month to play. For a lot of teams, that would’ve ended their season. The Cards just shook it right off and played lights out baseball, winning 21 of their next 24 and clinching the pennant.
The 2002 game was much more straightforward, and with no pennant race story in the background. The bottom of the ninth featured an even more impressive comeback, though, as St. Louis won it outright in regulation. Heck, the Cubs never even got the second out, let alone third. Who knows how many runs the Redbirds could’ve scored before making three outs?
No. 6 (tie): The biggest comebacks (that I know of)
June 24, 1922: Cubs 10, Cardinals 9. July 3, 1925: Cardinals 10, Cubs 8 (10). In both games, a team led by seven runs, only to end up losing the game. St. Louis was up 7-0 after the fourth inning in 1922. An inning-and-a-half later, the Cubs were on top to stay.
Three years later, the Cubs jumped out to an even earlier 7-0 lead, taking only three innings to build their seemingly impregnable position. The Cards didn’t tie the game 7-7 until the eighth and didn’t got ahead until extra frames.
It’s possible, even likely, that there have been bigger comebacks in the series, but either A) Retrosheet doesn’t have their boxscores yet, or B) I missed them.
No. 5 (tie): Chicago postseason dreams
Sept. 25, 1935: Cubs 1, Cardinals 0. Sept. 9, 1989: Cubs 3, Cardinals 2 (10). On Sept. 2, 1935, the Cubs were 79-52, in third place in the National League. They were only 2.5 games behind the first-place (and defending world-champion) Cardinals, but it would clearly take a major pennant push to get them into the World Series.
Well, the Cubs began a pennant push that could safely be called major. In fact, when the Cubs and Cardinals faced off on that day in the first of a five-game season-ending series against the Cards, they hadn’t lost since Sept. 2. Their record stood at 97-52, with a three-game lead over the Cards.
St. Louis could still claim the pennant by torching Chicago in the series, but Chicago just needed a win this day to wrap up the title. A Phil Cavaretta homer provided Chicago’s only run, but that’s all the Cubs needed as Cub pitcher Lon Warneke hurled a gem, allowing exactly two hits and facing only 28 batters. There have been better pitching performances in Cubs-Cardinals history, but none came in such a high-stakes game.
The 1989 contest was actually a bit more dramatic. The Cardinals entered the game trailing the front-running Cubs by only a half-game. Whoever won that day would be in first place. The Cubs led most of the day, 1-0, but St. Louis pushed across a pair in the sixth to take the lead. St. Louis threatened to extend their lead in the top of the eighth, but couldn’t capitalize. Instead, the Cubs tied it in the bottom of the frame and won it in extra innings.
This didn’t end the 1989 division race, but the Cards fell apart right after it, and didn’t win another game for almost a week. Actually, this game marked the effective end of Whiteyball. The Cards, winners of three of the previous seven NL pennants, got off to a terrible start in 1990, and Whitey Herzog resigned as manager. The team didn’t return to glory until Tony LaRussa arrived.
No. 4: The only nine-inning no-hitter
May 15, 1960: Cubs 4, Cardinals 0. This really wasn’t a great game, but a great performance. But my, what a performance! Don Cardwell not only tossed a no-hitter, but he only walked one batter, Alex Grammas, who made it on with one out in the first inning. The next 26 went down in order.
In my previous lists I’ve ranked no-hitters fairly low, because the games themselves aren’t that good. That said, I’m probably just over thinking myself when I do that. Would you rather watch a no-hitter or a back-and-forth game? Yeah, I’d generally go with the no-hitter, too.
I should note King Cole threw a no-hitter for the Cubs against St. Louis in 1910, but the game ended after seven innings.
No. 3 (Tie): Best pitchers duels
April 13, 1950: Cardinals 1, Cubs 0 (13). Oct. 1, 1920: Cubs 2, Cardinals 1 (17). The 1950 game is the longest 1-0 game in Cubs-Cardinals history. (Well, that I know of – Retrosheet doesn’t have extra-inning info for all baseball history.) It’s also the only game listed for which there’s no Retrosheet boxscore available, so I don’t have much else to say about it.
The 1920 game was fun. Only one Cubs-Cardinals game (that I have extra-inning info for anyway) has ever gone longer than its 17 innings. And, because it was 1920, both starting pitchers went the distance. Added bonus: both are Hall of Famers – the extremely deserving Pete Alexander won his 27th game of the year, and the bad joke of a VC selection Jesse Haines was not only the hard-luck loser, but picked up his 20th loss of the season.
If it’s any consolation, Haines’ Game Score of 97 ties the record for highest known Game Score in a Cubs-Cardinals game. (It’s tied with then-Cardinal Ernie Broglio, who picked up a 97 in a shutout on July 15, 1960.) Pete Alexander’s Game Score of 94 is the second-best by a Cubs pitcher against St. Louis. The best? A score of 96 on Sept. 25, 1920 by Frank Castillo. Yeah, that’s right – Frank Castillo.
No. 2: The greatest Cubs-Cardinals game in memory
June 23, 1984. Cubs 12, Cardinals 11 (11). Yup, it’s the Sandberg game.
This was back when NBC’s Game of the Week really meant something, and this GotW immediately established Sandberg across the nation as a star as he hit game-tying homers off of Bruce Sutter in the ninth and 10th innings. (My how the game has changed: Bruce Sutter faced 15 batters and threw 3.1 innings.)
The Cardinals jumped out to an early 7-1 lead, and were cruising along up 9-3 when the Cubs scored fifth in the bottom of the sixth. Then Sandberg tied it twice in a row with a solo shot in the ninth and a two-run shot in the tenth. He had nothing to do with the final rally though. Leon Durham walked, stole second and advanced to third on a catcher error. St. Louis then intentionally walked the bases loaded, only to have a pinch-hit single send in Dawson. This game had an impressive comeback, a multitude of late-inning heroics, the signature moment for a Hall of Famer. Yeah, it’s a great game – but not quite the greatest of them all.
No. 1: The greatest Cubs-Cardinals game in history, Cardinals 8, Cubs 7 (20)
Aug. 28, 1930: Cardinals 8, Cubs 7 (20). I’ll admit, part of the fun in doing a column like this to reach back and find some game no one’s ever heard of and arguing on behalf of its brilliance. So perhaps that biases me a bit toward putting this up at No. 1.
Perhaps, but I really don’t think so. This is a game unlike any other. First off, it’s the longest Cubs-Cardinals game ever. None other topped 17 innings. Second, it came in one of those brief spells where both teams were serious pennant contenders. In contrast, during the Sandberg game, the Cubs may have been on their way to the title, but the Cards were in midst of their second straight .500ish season.
In 1930, the Cubs were defending NL champs and in first place when the game happened. The Cardinals would eventually win the pennant this year. The two teams combined for eight of the ten NL pennants from 1926-35, and this was right in the middle of that stretch. A keen eye will have already noticed that this game took place the day before game No. 7 on this list.
Last, but certainly not least, this really was a spectacular game. St. Louis pounced out to an early 5-0 lead, only to see a late Cubs rally tie it back up. The game then featured some impressive extra-inning heroics, as the Cards went up 7-5 in the 15th, only to see the Cubs tie it up in the bottom of the frame.
Last but not least, this game also featured possibly the greatest relief performance in any Cubs-Cardinals game, as St. Louis hurler Syl Johnson tossed the last 12 innings, allowing only two runs on nine hits and one walk, while fanning nine. Game Scores aren’t supposed to be applied to relievers, but Johnson’s line would give him a score of 84.
If this game happened in current times, I think it would be an easy No. 1. Since the article is on the best Cubs-Cardinals games in all history, not just within the scope of lived memory, it belongs at No. 1 despite its obscurity.
I’m sure there are some great ones I missed. That’s fine. While the most enjoyable part of this process is researching all the great games the teams have played, the second best part is hearing people bring up their choices for games I passed over or just plain missed. Feel free to submit your choices in the comments.
References & Resources
This article would not be possible without the wonder and glory that is Retrosheet.