Growing up as a life-long Chicago Cubs fan, I have experienced my fair share of heartbreak. Some of my earliest memories involve having my dreams crushed when the Cubs got pounded by the San Francisco Giants in the 1989 National League Championship Series. Then there was game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. Up until that fateful night in 2016 when the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years, I was unsure if it would ever truly happen. That distrust, that hopelessness of growing up a Cubs fan most likely was passed along to me from my father. And a big part of his pessimism toward any Cubs success originated from his experiences 50 years ago—when the 1969 Chicago Cubs suffered an epic collapse at the hands of the New York Mets.
Back when baseball was still “America’s past-time,” the 1969 season brought great excitement to Chicago. The Cubs hadn’t made the postseason since 1945, and there were many lean years in between. After a couple respectable seasons in 1967 and 1968 (but still no post-season), 1969 seemed to be looking up. The 1969 Chicago Cubs team was packed with star players, including four future Hall of Famers: Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, and Ron Santo. The future was looking bright.
The team jumped out to a hot start, kicked off by a win on Opening Day with a walk-off home run by Willie Smith.
With all of the excitement surrounding the team that summer, some of the magical party-like atmosphere that Wrigley Field is known for today was born. The idea of the “Bleacher Bums” took off, with the left field bleacher fans wearing yellow hard hats and the right field fans wearing red. The Bleacher Bums would lead the crowd in cheers and songs.
Through August, the Cubs were the kings of the summer of ’69. In a 2015 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Billy Williams recalled: “We won 11 of our first 12 games and, man, were we having fun doing it. The fans were loving it, and our most die-hard fans, the Bleacher Bums, became an integral part of the scene at Wrigley Field. We were treated like rock stars, signing autographs and posing for pictures everywhere we went.”
On August 19, starting pitcher Ken Holtzman tossed a no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves. The Cubs sat eight games ahead of the second-place Mets. This is what Cubs fans had been waiting for.
But then something happened that would cast doubt in the minds of Cubs fans for many years to come. Day after day, the Cubs began to lose. And day after day, the Mets continued to win.
The team began to feel the pressure. None of the players had been in a pennant race before; they started to press—and make mistakes. On July 8, the Cubs blew a 3-1 lead in the 9th inning of a game against the Mets after outfielder Don Young misjudged one fly ball and then dropped another attempting a running catch. The Cubs lost the game 4-3.
In early September, still holding a five-game lead over the Mets, the Cubs lost three games in a row to the Pirates, again squandering a 9th-inning lead in one of the games.
A few days later, during another series in New York, one of the most iconic (not in a good way) moments of the 1969 Cubs season occurred. With Ron Santo standing within the on-deck circle, a black cat jumped out from behind home plate, dashed past Santo, and parked itself in front of the Cubs’ dugout—before disappearing into the stands. An ominous occurrence, for sure. Oh, and the Cubs lost both games in the series of course.
“I saw that cat come out of the stands, and I knew right away we were in trouble,” Santo said. “I just wanted to run and hide.”
It may seem like a silly thing, to have a black cat crossing your path officially derail your season. Truly, this moment is not why the Cubs collapsed. But as someone who wasn’t alive at the time, the moment with the cat is the first thing I think of regarding the 1969 Cubs. And it helped kick off thoughts of curses, superstitions and “lovable losers” that would follow Cubs fans—and teams—for years. Even as recently as a few years ago, Cubs players and coaches were forced to answer questions about whether the team was cursed. The players would always publicly dismiss talk of curses, but being asked about it over and over again, it had to weigh on them. It was 108 years in between World Series titles, after all.
There are many theories for the collapse. Wrigley Field did not host night games until 1988, so perhaps all of the hot summer day games drained the team. Manager Leo Durocher was criticized for not resting his players and for unnecessarily wearing out his pitchers. Or maybe the Mets were just the better team.
For me, looking back, the most amazing part about the 1969 Cubs collapse is that it wasn’t like they lost out on the pennant by a narrow margin. The Mets ended up going 23-7 to finish the season, while the Cubs ultimately lost 17 of their last 25 games and finished eight games back. That’s a 17-game turnaround in the standings, all taking place in the matter of a couple months. After having such a huge lead and looking like a sure thing to make the playoffs, the Cubs absolutely fell on their face—and never really recovered. The four future Hall-of-Famers from the 1969 team never won a World Series, or even made the playoffs, with the Cubs. In fact, the Cubs didn’t make the playoffs (counting back to 1945) until 1984.
1969 tore out Cubs’ fans’ hearts. My dad says the season forced him to build an “insulating layer” as a Cubs fan. “I never allowed myself to get quite so emotionally involved as I was that season,” he said. “It was great fun while it lasted, but so disappointing when it fell apart.”
Thankfully the Cubs won the World Series in 2016; otherwise fans would still be feeling the effects of 1969.
Feature photo source: JayCoop [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]