What if the Tigers and Cubs had met in the 1984 World Series? Here’s an alternate history

Clockwise from top left: Jack Morris, Rick Sutcliffe, Lou Whitaker and Ryne Sandberg, and Kirk Gibson.

Clockwise from top left: Jack Morris, Rick Sutcliffe, Lou Whitaker and Ryne Sandberg, and Kirk Gibson.

With the Chicago Cubs seemingly primed to make a serious run at their first World Series appearance since 1945 (and first world championship since 1908), it is a good time to hearken back to the year 1984.

Why, you ask? Because that was the year the Cubs nearly faced the Tigers in the World Series.

They were so close, but it all fell apart quickly. In the five-game National League Championship Series, Chicago won the first two contests at Wrigley Field in convincing fashion. They outhit, outpitched, and outclassed their opponents, the San Diego Padres, in just about every way.

From there, it was on to southern California, which turned out to be none too sunny for Cubs Nation. The Padres won the final three games in what can only be called a colossal choke job by Chicago. To this day, Cubs fans still have nightmares of that easy ground ball going right through first baseman Leon Durham’s legs in the seventh inning of Game Five (Durham, incidentally, is now the hitting coach for the Toledo Mud Hens). His error helped turn a slim 3-2 Cubs lead into an eventual 6-3 San Diego advantage, and that was the final score.

The Padres entered the World Series with a world of momentum, but were steamrolled by the Tigers in five games.

Which brings us to our story. It seemed like all of America (well, the networks, anyway) were pulling for a Tigers-Cubs World Series. It never happened…or did it?

It was Sunday, March 3, 1985. At 2:30 pm, listeners could tune in to radio station WJR (and about 95 stations nationwide) for a make-believe broadcast of a Tigers-Cubs World Series Game Seven. According to the Detroit Free Press, “The game was created by computer and features the voices of Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell, Cubs announcer Harry Caray and CBS network broadcaster Jack Buck above recorded crowd noise.”

The project was the brainchild of Tim O’Neill. At the time, he was working as a marketing manager for a computer retailer. Once the idea got into his head, he could not let it go. He crunched a bunch of numbers on his Apple computer, which essentially played a simulated game. The announcers already knew the result beforehand, and it was up to them to recreate it for audio.

“I don’t think it’s any secret,” O’Neill claimed the day before the broadcast, “that the matchup most fans wanted to see in the Series was the two old franchises, with the old ballparks and all. Originally, I thought we would just be able to sell it in Chicago and Detroit, but the interest in it around the country was tremendous.”

For its time, the simulated game was quite a leap of statistical analysis. O’Neill assessed each team’s strengths and weaknesses, and implemented strategy based on conversations he had with Tigers manager Sparky Anderson, and Cubs skipper Jim Frey.

WJR billed it as the “What If World Series.” Some of you who were around in those days may recall listening to it. It did not get a lot of buildup in the press, and if you missed it, they did not replay it again later. Incredibly, however, a recording exists in its entirety, and is available on YouTube. I’ve embedded Part One at the bottom of this article.

I had not heard it since listening to the original broadcast. Hearing it once again brought back a ton of memories, and I urge anybody who loves baseball on the radio, and who grew up listening to Ernie Harwell, to give it a listen. Ernie is in top form, and it sounds almost as if it really happened, even though it is all just a re-creation, a dream in the floppy disk of a clunky Apple computer. It is a wonderful piece of audio history.

I won’t spoil it for you by revealing who wins. You’ll have to tune in for yourself (below part one is embedded).

To whet your appetite, however, here were the starting lineups:

Tigers:
2B  Lou Whitaker
SS  Alan Trammell
RF  Kirk Gibson
C  Lance Parrish
3B  Darrell Evans
LF  Ruppert Jones
DH  Johnny Grubb
CF  Chet Lemon
1B  Dave Bergman
P  Jack Morris

Cubs:
CF  Bob Dernier
2B  Ryne Sandberg
LF  Gary Matthews
1B  Leon Durham
RF  Keith Moreland
3B  Ron Cey
DH  Richie Hebner
C  Jody Davis
SS  Larry Bowa
P  Rick Sutcliffe

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About Scott Ferkovich

Scott Ferkovich was the editor of Tigers By the Tale: Great Games at Michigan & Trumbull, published by the Society for American Baseball Research. His next book, Motor City Champs: Mickey Cochrane and the 1934-35 Detroit Tigers, will be published by McFarland in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_Ferkovich.