“Ya gotta believe” are the magic words, the “open sesame” of baseball history, immortalized by Tug McGraw in 1973. But the baseball good wish fairy doesn’t always respond. Chicago Cubs fans and players remember the year, 1969, when the wish was never fulfilled.
In the span of two months, the Cubs slipped from nine-and-a-half games in front of the Mets to eight games behind.
“It’s true,” said the late Jack Brickhouse before his death in 1998. He watched it all go down in ’69 from the great heights of the radio announcer’s booth. “The Cubs lost it,” he said.
The Big Fade. A 17.5 game turnaround starting in August. Brickhouse, like the rest of the city of Chicago, had never seen anything like it.
“But let’s not forget,” says the longtime Chicago baseball broadcaster, “the Mets stepped out and won it.”
It’s 44 years later, more than the amount of time it takes for each great remembering. Those who played for the ’69 Cubs are much sought after. “They are still talking about it in Chicago,” said the late Ron Santo, the Cubs’ third baseman, team leader, and cleanup hitter in ’69, interviewed a decade before he passed away
“What I remember most,” says Ken Rudolph, the backup catcher for the Cubs that season, “was what it did for the city. It brought a lot of enthusiasm for the game, a lot of life to Chicago. Bleacher Bums, die-hard Cubs fans, that was the year all of that got started.”
Yes, there’s a special mystique about the ’69 Cubs, who lost everything but won a special place in baseball history. The season has shaped the psyche of Cubs’ fandom to this day.
“Being a Cubs fan is like being in love with a beautiful girl,” says Brickhouse. “The meaner they treat you, the harder it is to leave them.”
At no time was she crueler than in ’69.
The season to remember started with a kick, literally. With the Cubs in first place early in the season, Santo celebrated each Cub win by running down the third-base line into the outfield, clicking his heels. The “low five” was inspired after the second game of a doubleheader, when Jim Hickman hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Montreal Expos. The homer put the Cubs in first place.
“As I ran down the left-field line, I just clicked my heels, I was so excited,” says Santo. “The next thing I know I was watching myself on television clicking my heels. Leo Durocher (the Cubs’ manager) called a team meeting the next day and says, `How about making that the team victory kick?’ “
It became a daily event for the new legion of Bleacher Bums, a rowdy mob of fans, social phenomena themselves, who made noise out beyond Wrigley Field’s ivy-covered wall, to see Santo click his heels like a ballet dancer.
Wins began to pile up almost as fast as the attendance figures for the Cubs, who had become an “overnight” sensation with such new talent as Santo, Don Kessinger, Randy Hundley, Glenn Beckert, and Ferguson Jenkins and perennial favorites Billy Williams and Ernie Banks.
The Cubs led the Mets by nine-and-a-half games entering the dog days of August.
Though the Cubs had lost two critical series in both New York and Chicago against those pesky Mets in early July, it looked as if this were going to be the season to end all of those years of misery. But then it just fell apart—in a short, agonizing span.
“We didn’t blow it. We just didn’t play well at the end of the season,” Santo says.
Certain games stand out, certain turning points. Most of them, in fact, came against the Mets. But the key moment in 1969 for the Cubs, the contest that may have turned the season from glorious to tragic, came against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Several former Cubs recently remembered the game on Sunday, Sept. 7, 1969, when Chicago took a 5-4 lead going into the ninth at Wrigley.
The Cubs had just returned from an awful road trip on the West Coast, losing seven of nine games. A two-run homer by right fielder Hickman in the eighth gave Chicago the lead against the Pirates. But Willie Stargell hit a game-tying, two-out home run onto Sheffield Avenue in the ninth. The Cubs lost the game in extra innings.
“If there was a pivotal moment that season,” Santo says, “it was the Stargell home run. From that particular ball game I’m wondering, `What else is going to happen?’ That for me was the real snake bite. It was just downhill from there.”
Beckert, the Cubs’ second baseman, cringed about that game, too.
“Everything was going good in that game, and then Stargell hit his home run,” he says. “For some reason, that’s the thing that sticks in my mind.”
The next day, Monday, Sept. 8, the 138th game of the ’69 campaign, the Cubs faced the Mets in New York. It was one of those Mondays. Wayne Garrett won the game for the Mets with a run-scoring single in the sixth. But several Cubs said the game was lost earlier than that.
In the first inning, after the Mets’ Jerry Koosman struck out the first three Cubs to start the game, Chicago pitcher Bill Hands sent a message pitch close to the head of Mets leadoff hitter Tommie Agee.
“He flattened Tommie Agee, absolutely knocked him on his butt,” says former Cubs pitcher Rich Nye. “It was a great way for Hands to assert himself. We were thinking, `Now this is the Cubs.'”
“But then in the second inning Koosman came up and faced Ron Santo and drilled him with his first pitch. Ron ran up and down the baseline as if his wrist were shattered.”
Santo stayed in the game. But the Cubs were shaken. “Later on,” says Santo, “somebody on the Mets said it was a message pitch. But I had no idea at the time. If I had known at the time it was intentional, I would have done something.”
Nye says the Cubs appeared to be intimidated by Koosman, adding, “We didn’t do anything after that.” Koosman struck out Banks, Hickman, and Hundley to end the inning.
When Agee came up again, in the bottom of the third, he hit a two-run homer. The tide had clearly turned. Koosman struck out 13 for a 3-2 win.
The Cubs lost the next game, 7-1, on a complete game for a Mets pitcher, a five-hitter by Tom Seaver. The Cubs had lost six of their last eight games to the Mets, who kept winning and clinched the National League East crown two weeks later.
The Cubs were left to wonder: What happened?
“Leo Durocher mishandled the ballclub that last month,” says Brickhouse. “He panicked.”
But Santo defended his manager: “You can’t blame Leo. I felt Durocher did a tremendous job that year.”
Rudolph agreed with the view that the Cubs starters simply ran out of gas.
“The biggest contributing factor was we had a 25-man roster and 15 people playing,” he says. “Leo didn’t rest his starters, and they got tired toward the end of the season. We had lot of younger players…myself, Jim Colborn, Joe Decker, Jimmy Qualls…and we didn’t play a whole heck of a lot.”
For example, Qualls proved to be a thorn in the Mets’ side on at least one occasion in 1969. He broke up Seaver’s attempt at a perfect game with a one-out single in the ninth, while the Cubs were still in first place on July 9.
Says Beckert, “That was Leo Durocher’s philosophy. He was from the old school. He stuck with his everyday lineup.”
But he doesn’t blame Durocher.
“When teams are losing, it’s easy to get down on yourself,” Beckert says. “It weighs on the psyche. It builds its own momentum. Everything fell apart, but when it fell apart, we fell together.”
Despite what happened at the end of the season, it’s still regarded as one of the most glorious years ever in Cubs history.
“What’s amazing to me,” says Santo, “is those Cubs are so well remembered in Chicago. I just wonder what would have happened if we had won.”