The uniforms. The first thing you'd notice if you could rewind 30 years to watch a baseball game would be the uniforms. More snug, rarely button-down, and with more colors than belong on a baseball diamond, uniforms circa 1979 were a product of their times. (When you pray to the baseball gods, be sure and ask them to forgive the Houston Astros.) Unless your name was George Hendrick (a St. Louis Cardinal in '79), you wore your pant legs high, stirrups visible from the cheap seats. And there was lots of hair, be it an afro straining the limits of your fitted wool cap or wings that flared out between your ears and the cap's edge. Players were smaller in 1979 — for a few reasons — but they made up what they lacked in size with color, character, and tonsorial extravagance.
You would have enjoyed Memphis baseball in 1979. Playing at Tim McCarver Stadium at the Mid-South Fairgrounds, the Bluff City's home team was in its second season as the Class Double-A affiliate of the Montreal Expos. (Considering the Expos no longer exist — having moved to Washington and become the Nationals in 2005 — the 30-year time warp seems that much more jarring.) Playing two levels below the major leagues, the '79 Chicks assembled a band of future big-leaguers that rivals any team the city has hosted since. And it showed on the field. Managed by Billy Gardner — his one and only season at the helm in Memphis — the Chicks won their division's first-half championship. (The Southern League split its season back then, sending first-half and second-half division winners to the playoffs.) Overall, the Chicks finished 20 games over .500 (82-62), a feat Memphis baseball fans have witnessed only three times since.
Memphis Redbirds president Dave Chase was a 25-year-old office manager for the Chicks in 1979, his second in professional baseball. And Chase points to that season as a turning point for minor-league baseball. "That was the beginning of the renaissance for minor-league baseball," he says. "Big crowds, enthusiasm. That was the high-water mark for the Southern League. Coming out of the Sixties, minor-league baseball was dying. I had been in Savannah the year before, and you saw a fan response in Memphis that you didn't see there."
While he wasn't the biggest star of the club, pitcher Charlie Lea made the '79 Chicks a home team in ways most minor-league outfits cannot. Raised in the Mid-South (though he was born an Army brat in Orleans, France), Lea was chosen by Montreal in the ninth round of the 1978 draft after starring on the mound for what was then called Memphis State University. Sent straight to Class Double-A — in other words, his hometown Chicks — Lea pitched in 12 games as a pro in 1978, sporting a record of 3-3 with an earned-run average (ERA) of 3.57. (Lea chuckles when he reflects on leap-frogging Class A. "I'm gonna say it was all about talent, but I was a Memphis guy and Avron Fogelman owned the team. I'm sure their thought was let's put him in Memphis and see what happens with the crowds. If he holds his own, that's great.") Lea would spend the '79 season at the top of a rotation that included two pitchers — Bill Gullickson and Bryn Smith — who would each pitch more than 350 games in the big leagues.
What struck Lea most about his early years in the minors was the realization that the game he'd loved throughout his youth was now a job. He was given a $9,000 signing bonus and by 1979 was earning around $700 a month. "It was the transition from student-athlete, playing three games on the weekend and one or two in the middle of the week and going to class — hanging out with your friends — to slowly evolving into a professional baseball player," Lea says. "It was still fun, but you started to realize that it's a job, especially the first time you see a player get released. This is serious business, and that hit home. For a ninth-rounder like me, this was a last chance in pro ball."
Lea relished playing for the Chicks and felt no rush to get to the big leagues, or even higher in the minors. "I got off to a really good start [in '79], 6-0, I think. Then I was just dreadful over the second half of the year. I was happy to be there, probably too naive. Never did I think I should be sent to Triple-A. I didn't think I was dominating that league by any means, and it showed in the second half." Lea finished the season with a record of 8-8 and an ERA of 4.39.
As for pitching in front of his family and friends at Tim McCarver Stadium, Lea acknowledges their presence as a mixed blessing. "When you're doing well, it's great pressure," he says. "When I was just holding my own, it was bad pressure. It was self-inflicted, but you wanted to do well for your home team and your friends who are at every game. There's no anonymity mixed in. I wouldn't change any of it. That kind of pressure can be a great motivator."
The Chicks ended the season's first half with a record of 36-34, tied atop the Southern League's Western Division with the Montgomery Rebels. Lea laughs when asked about his recollection of the Chicks' 2-1 victory in a tiebreaker at Tim McCarver that earned the team a postseason berth: "If we beat them 2-1 at that point of the season, I know I didn't have anything to do with it!"
Arm injuries forced Lea into early retirement in 1988 after winning 62 major-league games. But for at least two nights, Lea could call himself the greatest pitcher on the planet. On May 10, 1981, in the second game of a doubleheader at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Lea no-hit the San Francisco Giants. Then in 1984, he started and won the All-Star Game for the National League. You can hear Lea these days as a radio analyst on Redbird broadcasts.
If Lea's presence on the team was hometown hero made good, Tim Wallach's arrival was that of a prodigy predestined for a larger stage than Tim McCarver Stadium. Having been honored with the 1979 Golden Spikes Award as college baseball's finest player, Wallach was selected by the Expos with the 10th pick in that June's draft.
"You're always anxious to see your number-one pick," Lea reflects. "He was one of those guys that you came to the ballpark knowing he was playing third base, batting fifth or sixth, sometimes third. At the end of the year, he was gonna have 25 to 30 home runs and 80 to100 RBIs. Tim was laid-back, kept to his business. Typical California guy."
Fresh off leading Cal State-Fullerton to a national championship, Wallach joined the Chicks and split time at first base and designated hitter with slugger Dave Hostetler (who led the Chicks with 114 runs batted in that summer). A future winner of three Gold Gloves as a third baseman with Montreal, Wallach made the adjustment from aluminum bat to wood with relative ease.
"I enjoyed hitting with wood more than I did with aluminum," Wallach says. "Transitioning to wood, you had to use your legs a lot more [for power]. You could get away with more using aluminum." Wallach says the new hitting approach forced him to refine his swing and took him a step closer to the majors. "I never felt like I was a star or above anyone else," he says. "I always had to prove myself, and that's probably why I stayed around a long time. Being a first-round pick, sometimes you can feel like you're owed something. Never did I have the feeling that it was going to be easy. I felt like I had to work, and I did. My goal was to get to the big leagues, but I always focused on where I was at the time."
Arriving in June, Wallach had much to do with the Chicks improving their record over the season's second half. Memphis improved to 46-28 in the second half, only to finish two games behind the Nashville Sounds. Wallach hit .327 over 75 games with the Chicks and slammed 18 dingers in only 257 at bats.
When asked about the likes of Lea or Tim Raines, Wallach is unusually effusive about his teammates of 30 years ago. "Shoot, I played with all those guys a lot of years," he says. "They were not only tremendous baseball players but real good people. When I do see some of them over the years, it's like old times. They're just good people. I made a lot of really good friends during those first two months of playing professional baseball. They welcomed me, and it could have been difficult. They had been moving up together, but they treated me like I'd been there forever."
Among his teammates in 1979, Wallach remembers the versatility of Tony Phillips, a utility player both in the minor leagues and later in the majors, where he played in 2,161 games and was a vital member of two pennant-winners with the Oakland A's. "He always had energy," Wallach says. "He could do anything, play anywhere. He understood what he needed to do, and I think that's why he had so much success in the big leagues. There are a lot of guys who stick around in the big leagues by not trying to do what they can't do."
Wallach went on to play 2,212 games in the major leagues, earning five All-Star appearances. Having spent the bulk of his career a long way from his native California, Wallach owns a pair of records that will never be broken: most games (1,767) and hits (1,694) as a Montreal Expo.
One player stole the show — quite literally — for Memphis 30 summers ago. Only 19 years old and in his third year of professional baseball, Tim Raines hit .290 for the Chicks, scored 104 runs, and stole 59 bases. Destined for the outfield in the majors, Raines played second base for Memphis and opened the eyes not only of fans throughout the Southern League but his own teammates. (Now managing the Newark Bears in the Atlantic League, Raines declined to be interviewed for this story.)
"I played with and against some good players in college, but Tim was probably my first experience at seeing someone you absolutely know is destined to be a major-league player," Lea says. "A lot of guys — myself included — were just humping it every day to improve our craft. But Tim, we knew he was gonna be a big leaguer. He never lifted a weight. They thought he was gonna be the next Joe Morgan, but it wasn't meant to be. He had speed and could cover a lot of ground; he just didn't have the hands to play second base."
Raines came along during a golden era for base stealers. Lou Brock retired in 1979 as baseball's all-time thief, the same year Rickey Henderson debuted with Oakland and began his own race to shatter all of Brock's records. But Raines was more than just flash and dash.
"There are a lot of guys who can steal a base during a part of the game when it's no big deal," Lea notes. "But when the game's on the line, and everybody in the ballpark knows that this is your base stealer, and he's gonna try and steal second base, Tim could still steal the bases. He learned his craft. He knew when to run, knew counts, studied pitchers."
Raines stole his first two big-league bases in September 1979 during a brief promotion to Montreal. After a season of Triple-A ball in Denver, he swiped 71 in the strike-shortened 1981 season for the Expos, winning the first of four consecutive National League stolen-base titles. His 808 career steals rank fifth in baseball history. He won the 1986 National League batting title and the next year was named MVP of the All-Star Game. Over 23 years, Raines accumulated 2,605 hits, played in seven All-Star Games, and was a member of two world championship teams with the New York Yankees.
Details can fade from a baseball season three decades gone by, but the stars of the '79 Chicks share fond memories of the stadium where they played and the manager for whom they played. Billy Gardner moved on to Denver in 1980 (the Expos' Triple-A affiliate) and the Minnesota Twins in 1981 (where he'd manage for five seasons). A second-baseman during his playing career (1954-'63), Gardner was a quiet baseball educator.
"He was a great guy," Lea remembers. "Old-school baseball. He was a lifer, a lot of wisdom to inpart. I don't remember anything he said specifically. Very laid-back. He had a dry sense of humor. And that was my first relationship with tobacco juice. Everywhere he stood. On the railing, in the corner of the dugout. Fences were just dripping with tobacco juice."
Wallach adds, "I was blessed to have him as a manager. He treated everybody the same. He let us play but taught us how to play to be a big leaguer. His patience is what I took from him. He wasn't a really vocal guy. But when he spoke, you heard what he had to say and you took it to heart." Gardner, who turns 82 next month and lives in Connecticut, hasn't managed in the majors since 1987.
As for Tim McCarver Stadium (last used by the Redbirds in 1999 and torn down in 2005), comparisons with modern ballparks only detract from what at the time was a happy home. The Chicks, it should be noted, averaged 3,490 fans in 1979, second in the Southern League.
"It was a cool ballpark," Wallach says. "The fans were right there on top of you. It wasn't huge, so it was a nice place to hit. People in Memphis loved the Chicks."
"That ballpark was as good as all of them, better than most," Lea says. "Back then, it was truly a minor-league experience, very similar to the movie Bull Durham. We played in Savannah, Columbus, Montgomery, Chattanooga, Knoxville ... and every one had old stadiums. There was no AutoZone Park to compare them to, so it was okay. Plus, the goal was to get out of the minors, so it was a nice motivator, too." (Tim McCarver Stadium was expanded before the 1980 season and the team's attendance increased by 95,000. The attendance figure in 1980 — 322,027 — would not be matched until the Redbirds arrived in 1998.)
Lea and Wallach acknowledge a difference between the baseball they played in 1979 and what they see today. But there's no bitterness in their reflections; it's simply then vs. now. "Once you get between the white lines," Lea reflects, "the game remains the same. All the strategy ... that's pretty pure. The culture outside the white lines has obviously changed, with performance-enhancing drugs.
"There was nothing [30 years ago] that could take you above your God-given ability. Nothing you could take that would make you run faster. Nothing you could take that would make warning-track power become home-run power. Nothing I could take in liquid or pill form that would turn my 89-mph fastball into a 94-mph fastball. Once you got to the big leagues, you learned about the availability of amphetamines, but they only helped you get back to your God-given ability if you were sick or hungover."
Lea points out that the late Seventies and early Eighties were a time of chemical addiction in baseball. Raines himself battled and overcame a cocaine habit early in his big-league career. "But those types of drugs," Lea notes, "were performance-decreasing drugs."
Now manager of the Pacific Coast League's Albuquerque Isotopes (top farm club of the Los Angeles Dodgers), Wallach says the biggest difference he sees is in the number of distractions baseball players have today. "It's the same game," he notes, "just played bigger now. The guys I played with, it was the only thing going. We wanted to play baseball. Now, you've got video games, all these other distractions out there. When I grew up, if there were two of us or nine of us, we found a way to play baseball. That's all we talked about: baseball."
The 1979 Chicks faced the Nashville Sounds (a Cincinnati affiliate) in a best-of-three series for the Western Division championship that September. The Sounds took the opener, 10-2, in Nashville, before Memphis won Game 2 in 10 innings, 4-3, at Tim McCarver Stadium. Rick Ramos pitched all 10 innings of Game 2, a contest won by a walk-off homer from Wallach leading off the 10th. The Sounds took Game 3, 5-2, to advance to the Southern League championship series, where they would beat Columbus. Charlie Lea took the loss in the season finale for Memphis, giving up three runs in two innings on the mound. Over the three playoff games, Raines was a nonfactor, picking up only one hit and scoring two runs.