Cubs 101 - Pt 12 - The 1969 Cubs
If God hisself pointed down His finger and asked me to describe myself, I would characterize myself as a husband, father and Cubs fan, in that order, even before I list my vocation, religious affiliation, etc. Before my marriage(s) and kid(s), of course, I would just start with “Cubs fan” and just go from there. My story starts with the 1969 Cubs; this is the cornerstone, the immovable boulder on which my mountain of woe and frustration is anchored.
My first game I recall watching was in August 1969, the day Kenny Holtzman was working on his first no-hitter. I suppose I had seen the Cubs on TV before, since they were in first place that year and my Dad is a world-renowned front runner. But he called me in that day because he figured history was being made. Now, there's no guarantee of that - how many times between Milt Pappas' no-no in 1972 and Big Z's surreal game last year were you teased? How 'bout it, Jose Guzman? You too, Frank Castillo?
But there we sat. We about died when Hank Aaron hit his blast to left, even Jack the Brick figured the no-hitter was over. When it blew back into Billy Williams' mitt, the old man (who had just turned 25) jumped off of the couch, and it finally dawned on me that Cubs Baseball was special! Anything that could blast his big ass off of the sofa and onto his feet was serious stuff, man! As we all know, Holtzman got his no-hitter, and I was hooked, incurably and irrevocably, for the rest of my mortal life.
You may have noticed that this story starts at a high point – not the summit, but at a much higher perch than pretty much anything else that has happened in the 40 years since. You also notice that my story started in August, but obviously much had to happen before Holtzman's day, August 19th, with the Cubs 8 games up on the rest of the NL East. For the one or two of you who didn't realize the 1969 Cubs were +8 on August 19th, well, obviously a lot happened after that day, too. Why are the 1969 Cubs, who to the rest of the world were just another team who gagged up a lead down the stretch, still such a compelling story, 40 years later? There have been worse choke jobs – the 1964 Phils and the 2007 Mets are two cases that immediately crop up.
My theory is that, like any formula Disney sports flick, the plot behind the 1969 Cubs was clear-cut, simplistic, and easy for the masses to understand. Most of the middle-aged Cubs fans remembered the last of the 'glory days', which took place in the Thirties (the 1945 pennant was a wartime anomaly – the Cubs ' players were too old or infirm to draft). Since then, they suffered through three decades of total mismanagement. The younger fans, of course, never had a 'glory days', with the 'College of
Clowns Coaches' being their probable initial exposure to the Cubs. So you had the bad times, just like in the movies. Speaking of movies, it is a misconception that the makers of “Rookie of the Year” based their naïve, scatter-brained owner on P. K. Wrigley, and that simply isn't true. Wrigley simply tried to run his team like his confectionary business – with an emphasis on trying the 'latest training methods' and 'maintaining the physical plant', and little emphasis on things like scouting and minor league development.
The plot thickens as a 'youth movement' begins in the early part of the decade, as our eventual protagonists, leftfielder Billy Williams, third baseman Ron Santo, shortstop Don Kessinger, second baseman Glenn Beckert, catcher Randy Hundley and starting hurlers Fergie Jenkins, Bill Hands and Kenny Holtzman, join current team icon Ernie Banks, along with some 'bit players' such as outfielders Lou Brock, Adolfo Phillips and Oscar Gamble who did not end up appearing in the third reel. These youngsters take their lumps for a few years, which results in the appearance of the final 'star', longtime firebrand manager Leo Durocher, who upon his introduction in 1966 infamously stated that '…this is NOT an eighth-place team', referring to the Cubs' finish in a 10-team league the previous year.
Of course, you all realize that the Cubs finished tenth in Leo's first year.
Naturally, the Cubs then followed the plot to its eventual climax, as they rose to the top half of the league, then in 1968 they finished third, their highest finish since World War II. When Willie Smith hit his walk-off pinch-hit homer on Opening Day, 1969, it heralded the arrival of the 1969 Cubs Bandwagon, its big, blue doors thrown open wide…and everyone from the proper hat-and-suit wearing businessmen in the box seats, to the massive “Ladies Day” crowds on Tuesdays, to the construction workers and college boys in the bleachers piled on. In those days, the city of Chicago was more evenly divided in its baseball allegiances. In fact, due to a relatively successful run from their 1959 pennant to their near-miss in 1967, the White Sox enjoyed not only bragging rights, but a superior level of popularity to the Cubs. Cub Fan World, as it existed, had just spent 30 years dragging ass in the baseball desert with little food and water. Its thirst and hunger for victory was about to be slaked, and its superiority as a fan base was to be fought for and won, an advantage we still enjoy today.
For some reason, I seem to remember Banks' 500th home run in May – but that just might be due to it being shown during every rain delay the past 35 years. I am pretty sure I wasn't watching ball then; in fact I do not remember anything of the early season victories, the unprecedented media blitz that ensued, or the controversy of Santo's heel clicking. Today, every great play incites some sort of on-field celebration, high-fiving, chest-bumping, watusi-dancing and shirt-untucking. But in those classier, simpler times, guys simply did not show up each other on the field.
I don't remember how hot that summer was, so I didn't really notice the guys wearing down. Of course, by September, when the Mets roared past them like they were standing still, it was clear there was something wrong. Maybe the Cubs were worn down. Durocher did not believe in playing his bench players – the Old School, which to us now would be the Old, Old School, dictated that starters played every day, unless they had broken bones breaking the skin, and even then they were expected back in two weeks.
Of course, as I look at some stats, like Rebel Hundley's, well, he should have felt fit and strong towards the end. After all, 1969 was his lightest workload in 3 years. He only caught 151 games. The previous year, he logged 160. Utility man Paul Popovich would on occasion wear a Maytag repairman's uniform on the bench, because hell, he wasn't going to get in, anyway. Anyway, the wear and tear on the lineup, coupled with the daytime schedule, is a popular notion for the eventual failure of the 1969 Cubs. If it were a movie, we could show Kess and Beckert seating buckets on the field, stepping on scales every day, watching their weight plummet as the weeks wore on.
I do remember the uproar when Santo jumped on rookie CF Don Young for botching a flyball. It was the wrong thing to do, and I still hear old-timers bring this incident up as the point in time when they turned against Santo, and I've even heard the Young Incident brought up as a demerit keeping Santo out of the Hall. But you wonder maybe what might have been going through Ronnie's mind at the time, since the one glaring hole in the 1969 Cubs lineup was center field, and in his tenure, he saw Brock leave because the College of Coaches didn't think he hit for enough power (?!?) and then saw Phillips get run off the team because he was too laid back for Leo Durocher. Nice guys finish last, remember? The Shea black cat was a nice bit of symbolism, simple enough for even a five-year-old to grasp, and quite probably left a glaze of cosmic residue on my young mind that leaves me open to the existence of Curses.
Keep these numbers in mind: 5-4, 4-5, 5-1, 2-4, 3-0, 9-3, 7-1, 3-2, 7-1, 3-2, 4-0, 1-0, 1-0, 5-2, 3-5, 4-3, 5-0, 2-0, 2-8, 0-8, 0-4, 5-3, 6-1, 3-1, 3-2, 6-0, 5-0, 1-0, 2-0. These are scores, 6 of them are losses, and 23 were not. 10 were shutouts, five more were one-run efforts. This was the September 1969 of the New York Mets. The three losses in the middle happened in Pittsburgh; there is no truth to the notion that the other 26 games were against the Cubs. In fact, the Cubs were 8-17 that month, by far their worst month of 1969, and it was bad, but not legendarily so. The memories of the old-timers seem to indicate that we didn't do squat after Labor Day, but in fact the East was lost due to three things: some sub-par Cubs baseball; Mets pitching so superlative the world has not seen its like since; and the rest of the league rolling over and letting the Amazin' Mets traipse on them.
The postscript? After all, except for Banks, the rest of the Cubs' core was still in their competitive prime. Certainly they were a force to be reckoned for several more years in these pre-free agency times. In fact, we were contenders for the next four years. Ah, but this is my most vivid memory of all about the 1969 Cubs, one that actually did not occur until the next year. Expectations for 1970 could not have been higher; in fact, it was assumed (correctly) that the Mets had shot their wad, and the East was ours for the taking. We even won our first ten home games that year. Then, on April 22nd, Rebel Hundley tore the ligaments in his knee in a collision. The Cubs did not immediately dive into the second division, but they never quite got over the hump, either, and the All-Star catcher was never the same player again. It definitely seemed like his injury popped the bubble of excitement the 1969 club had. Credits, fade to black, curtain.
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