1968: A Prelude to Heartbreak

By Chris Rewers on Monday, July 26, 2010

When the Cubs opened the second half by winning three of four against the Philadelphia Phillies, I was guilty of dreaming of a miracle stretch run. But after Sunday night's extra-inning loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, the reality that the Cubs won't contend in 2010 is beginning to sink in.

History says that not only won't the Cubs contend, but they will not even sniff .500.

The Cubs are 45-54 and on July 4 were a season-low 12 games below .500. This is the 135th season of Cubs baseball and only once have they been able to achieve a winning record after falling by as many as 10 games under the break-even mark.

After a 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field on July 5, 1968 - one of the 22 times they were shut out that season - the Cubs fell to 35-45 and stood in ninth place in the 10-team National League, 15.5 games behind first-place St. Louis.

To a Cubs fan, the future is always brighter than the past. And in the final weeks of the 1968 season - a campaign that historians refer to as the Year of the Pitcher - the future never seemed more promising.

Suddenly, right before the All-Star break, the Cubs' fortunes turned around. A young team did not make a run at the front-running Cardinals in the latter part of the 1968 season, but they surged past the .500 mark, vaulted into third place, and built a head of steam that carried into the well-remembered 1969 campaign.

The Cubs closed the first half with back-to-back doubleheader sweeps of Pittsburgh on July 6-7. Four wins in two days. Amazing.

Fergie Jenkins and rookie Gary Ross, who earned his first career win, pitched complete games for the Cubs on July 6.

The next day, the Cubs treated a Wrigley crowd of 32,447 to a pair of walkoff wins. Jose Arcia hit a game-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth in Game 1. In the nightcap, the Cubs trailed 3-2 entering the bottom of the eighth but tied the game on consecutive singles by Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and Ernie Banks. In the ninth, pitcher Phil Regan hit a two-out double ansd scored the winning run on a Don Kessinger single.

The good times continued to roll after the All-Star break as the Cubs went 10-5 on a five-city road trip to move within a game of .500. They returned to the Friendly Confines and split the first two games of a four-game set against the Dodgers before catapulting above the .500 mark with a doubleheader sweep of Los Angeles on July 28 in front of a season-high crowd of 42,261 . Joe Niekro earned his 10th win as the Cubs pasted Don Drysdale in an 8-3 Game 1 rout. In the 1968/B07282CHN1968.htm"target="_blank">nightcap, Randy Hundley knocked in the game's only run in the fifth inning as Ken Holtzman pitched a complete-game four-hitter. It was the second of three straight complete-game shutouts by Holtzman. The Cubs completed July by winning 20 of their last 29 and entered August 54-52, in fourth place.

After losing to San Francisco on July 29, the Cubs rattled off six straight wins, capping the streak with a 6-5 victory in 13 innings at first-place St. Louis on Aug. 4. Lee Elia's two-out single drove in Hundley from second with the go-ahead run in the 13th.

Jenkins pitched a complete game while Santo homered, doubled, and drove in four in the second-place Cubs' 10-3 win over the Cardinals at Wrigley on Aug. 13 as the North Siders improved to 64-55 - a season-high nine games over .500.

Cubs closer Regan, meanwhile, was on a roll. The 31-year-old right-hander was acquired from the Dodgers along with Jim Hickman in April in exchange for Ted Savage and Jim Ellis in one of general manager John Holland's better trades. Regan, who was known as "The Vulture," finished the season with a 12-5 mark, saved a league-best 25 games, and posted a 2.27 ERA in 73 games. He was 4-0 with five saves and did not allow an earned run in 11 July appearances (20 1/3 innings). His streak of 18 straight scoreless appearances was snapped on Aug. 6.

The word around the National League was that Regan was throwing a "Vaseline ball" and amidst those rumors all hell broke loose at the Friendly Confines on Aug. 18 while the Cubs were hosting Cincinnati.

Regan entered in the seventh inning and after his third pitch to leadoff hitter Mack Jones, home plate umpire Chris Pelekoudas came out to the mound and told Regan, "Don't throw that pitch again."

Cubs manager Leo Durocher bolted onto the fireld and asked Pelekoudas, "Did you find anything on the ball?"

"No," Pelekoudas responded.

"Then leave him alone," Durocher said.

Pelekoudas had other ideas. He charged Regan with throwing three illegal pitches by "watching the break of the ball." In each instance, the pitches were changed from strikes to balls. In one at-bat, Alex Johnson was granted a pair of extra swings and doubled. In another, a Pete Rose strikeout was nullified and Rose reached base with a single.

In the ensuing mayhem, Durocher, Hundley, and Cubs reserve Al Spangler were all tossed and fans showered the field with debris. The Cubs lost the game 2-1 and the following day NL president Warren Giles admonished Pelekoudas and the rest of his crew, telling them that the "break of the ball" was insufficient evidence of an illegal pitch. Pelekoudas was ordered to apologize to Regan and the Cubs.

The Cubs finished August with a 17-12 record. September was highlighted by a two-game stretch in which Williams hit five home runs, but the Cubs sputtered a bit down the stretch.

The Cubs entered their final homestand with a 79-78 mark in a four-way tie for fourth when Durocher called a team meeting.

"Let's finish third!" Durocher said.

And the Cubs responded by winning their final five games to finish in third with an 84-78 record.

Jenkins (20-15) lost five 1-0 games but still became the first Cubs pitcher to win 20 games in back-to-back seasons since Lon Warneke (1934-35). He led the NL in starts (40), and was second in innings (308) and strikeouts (260).

Bill Hands went 16-10 and Niekro was 14-10.

The Cubs led the NL with 130 homers. Banks hit 32, Williams 30, and Santo 26.

Glenn Beckert led the team with a .294 average and had a league-high 27-game hitting streak from June 26 through July 23. Beckert struck out just 20 times in 643 at-bats.

The Cubs drew 1,043,049 - their best home gate since 1950.

The Cubs were on their way, it seemed.

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