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The Mysterious Cubs Collapse of 1969

In part 4 of his six-part series on notable pennant chases, Wendel decodes the shocking late-season Cubs collapse of 1969—one of the most mystifying free falls in baseball history—that gave that year’s NL pennant to the New York Mets.

By Tim Wendel, September 4, 2017
Leo Durocher was not everyone’s cup of tea. He was known for being unapproachable and didn’t like anyone to question him. Players did not always appreciate his managerial style and it created disharmony on the 1969 Cubs team.

In June 1969, the Chicago Cubs were the best team in baseball. Not that they appeared to have much competition in the National League. The St. Louis Cardinals, the two-time pennant winners, had fallen on hard times and were in the process of being dismantled. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds were on the upswing but not quite there, leaving also-rans like the New York Mets, which nobody dared to mention in the same sentence with such words as championship and World Series.

Yes, the door to the postseason appeared to be wide open for the Cubs. So much so that running off the field after another comeback victory, third baseman Ron Santo jumped into the air and clicked his heels together.

Manager Leo Durocher liked the stunt as much as the cheering Wrigley Field faithful, telling Santo to “make that our victory kick.”

If only the Cubs knew what lay ahead. Durocher’s crew would have hidden in the shadows instead of jumping for joy. For the ’69 Cubs were about to endure one of the epic collapses in baseball history.

Chicago roared out of the blocks that season, winning 11 of its first 12 games to open up an early lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the new NL East Division. By June, the Cubs held a nine-game lead and maintained it going into mid-August. The team’s infield—catcher Randy Hundley, first baseman Ernie Banks, second baseman Glenn Beckert, shortstop Don Kessinger, and third baseman Ron Santo—all went to the All-Star Game in Washington. In fact, there were so many Cubs at the Midsummer Classic, there was no room for future Hall of Famers, the Cubs’ Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins.

“There was no way we weren’t going to win,” Santo told decades later.

Yet few in the baseball world could have predicted the rise of the New York Mets. On August 16, the Cubs were 31 games over .500. A few weeks later, on September 2, they had improved that to 32 games over .500, only to see their lead over the oncoming Mets shrink from nine to five games.

During that stretch, thanks in large part to the emergence of pitchers Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, the Mets went 15–4. New York would close the season by winning 39 of their last 50 games.

The Mets Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman celebrating an amazing season that only the players believed could happen.
slqcgc on Flickr           

Only in their eighth year of existence, the Mets had lost a combined 737 games in their previous seasons, prompting former Manager Casey Stengel to say, “Can’t anybody here play the game?”

But the Mets came together as a team the season before under new Manager Gil Hodges. The day after Robert Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the Mets were scheduled to play up the coast in San Francisco. After Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon Johnson declared a national day of mourning. While Commissioner William “Spike” Eckert did order the postponement of games in New York and Washington, he let the ball clubs decide if other games would go ahead. Back in San Francisco, it was Bat Day, with a solid walkup crowd expected at Candlestick Park. Yet at the Mets’ hotel, Hodges told his players not to go to the stadium. Even if they had to forfeit the game, they would not play that day.

Frank Mankiewicz, Kennedy’s press secretary, eventually sent a telegram to Hodges on behalf of the entire Mets team. “Please accept my personal admiration for your actions,” it read. “Senator Kennedy indeed enjoyed competitive sports, but I doubt that he would have put box-office receipts ahead of national mourning.”

Pitcher Nolan Ryan, who was one of the Mets’ crop of young arms at the time, believed taking a stand helped the team come together. “From then on, we had each other’s backs,” he said.

In 1969, coming down the homestretch, the Cubs' bats went into a collective slump and their bullpen unraveled as they lost eight in a row, 11 of 12. Their opportunity to finish first for the first time in 24 years slipped away when the Mets pulled within a half-game of first place.

At his wit’s end about what to do, outfielder Billy Williams went into the clubhouse with a bar of soap and wrote, “$17,000” on the mirror. That was an approximate World Series share that season.

The Chicago newspapers had signed Banks, Hundley, and other Cubs to write guest columns, only to have to soon drop them.

In the pivotal game against the Mets, Seaver outdueled Jenkins, who was pitching on only two days’ rest. Durocher’s surprising move appeared desperate. And if that wasn’t enough, a black cat appeared during the game at Shea Stadium in New York. It strolled past Santo, who was in the on-deck circle and then slipped into the Cubs’ dugout.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” Santo said afterward. “It just walked around me and through the dugout, with Leo there. He looked right at Leo and went underneath the stands.”

Yet it became the photo flashed around the baseball world. “The Magic Number Here is 13,” read the headline in the Chicago Tribune.

“A lot of people say we needed more rest, the bench, the black cat in New York, all of that,” Banks said, “but it wasn’t pressure or outside activities or anything like that. It was fear. When you haven’t won, it’s scary and that’s life.”

So much so that the player nicknamed “Mr. Cub” warned several of the younger Cubs about how this season was about to play out. Banks spoke with pitcher Ken Holtzman, who lost more than 20 pounds during that grind of a season.

Banks pulled Holtzman aside after a game in Pittsburgh, telling him, “We’re not going to win it.”

When an incredulous Holtzman asked why, Banks replied, “Because we’ve got a manager and three or four players who are out there waiting to get beat.”

“I’ll never forget it,” Holtzman said decades later. “It was the most serious and sober statement I’ve ever heard from Ernie Banks.”

Such words were prophetic as the Cubs couldn’t slow their freefall. Unlike the 1951 Dodgers, 1978 Red Sox, or 1995 Angels—all teams that were up by at least eight and a half games in August and forced showdowns to close the season—Chicago went under and never resurfaced.

The Mets took the division by eight games and went on to sweep the Atlanta Braves and down the Baltimore Orioles in five games in the World Series.

Santo’s heel clicking, the victory dance his manager once so enjoyed, ended when his teammates told him to stop doing it.

“The collapse affected my life a lot,” Santo said. “For one thing, it was the first time I was booed.  We thought we had a good enough team to win next year, then the year after, but we didn’t.”

Santo doing the heel kick he was famous for during that fateful 1969 season.  Santo did the heel kick as an accident the first time but the “Bleacher Bums” of Wrigley loved it and encouraged him to continue with the show so he did.
EMR on Flickr




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