1969: That Sinking Feeling

By Chris Rewers on Friday, September 17, 2010

I wasn't around in 1969 but I can relate to the way Cubs fans in September of that year must have felt.

It must have felt something like the time that I finally convinced a beautiful gfirl to go on a date with me. We had a terrific time and shared a lot of laughs. It seemed like we really hit it off. I walked her back to her apartment building.

When we got to the front door, I said, "Goodnight."

"Goodnight," she replied as she shook my hand and closed the door in my face.

There was not a second date.

On Sept. 2, the Cubs beat the Cincinnati Reds twice, winning the completion of a suspended game 5-4 and then, with Fergie Jenkins claiming his 19th victory, winning the regularly scheduled game 8-2. The Cubs, at 84-52, led the National League East by five games over the hard-charging, second-place New York Mets.

Veteran reliever Ken Johnson, who had been acquired in August from the New York Yankees, earned the save in the suspended game and remembered the raucous atmosphere in the Cubs clubhouse that night.

"I remember the reporters coming up and saying, 'Well, you've just wrapped up the pennant,' " Johnson told Rick Talley in The Cubs of '69 (Contemporary Books, 1989). "Then I don't know what happened. Nobody does."

What happened next was a collapse so traumatic to Cubs fans that even today my father and grandfather shake their heads while discussing it. It was a sad, slow, agonizing ending for what up to that point had been the season of a lifetime.

The Cubs lost eight in a row and 11 of their next 12.

The Mets, meanwhile, won 12 of 15. In a span of 12 days - Sept. 3-Sept. 15 - the Mets went from five games behind to 4.5 games in front.

The Mets had some great young pitching - Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan - but on paper, the Cubs were the far superior team. Unfortunately, in this case, they don't play the games on paper.

"The only guys in the Mets lineup who could have started for any other team that year were (left fielder) Cleon Jones and (center fielder) Tommie Agee," Cubs broadcaster Ron Santo, the Cubs third baseman in 1969, said during a recent game. "Maybe (shortstop) Bud Harrelson. But that's it."

The Cubs' collapse began on Sept. 3 in Cincinnati when Jim Maloney pitched a complete-game two-hitter in a 2-0 Reds victory, but the North Siders' lead remained at five and their magic number was reduced to 23 when the Mets lost to the Dodgers, 5-4, after an RBI double by Willie Davis in the bottom of the ninth.

After an off day, the Cubs returned to Wrigley Field for a weekend series with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates hammered their way to a 9-2 victory on Sept. 5 and a 13-4 triumph on Sept. 6.

In the finale on Sept. 7, a dramatic two-run homer by Jim Hickman in the bottom of the eighth gave the Cubs a 5-4 lead. Cubs closer Phil Regan opened the ninth by retiring Matty Alou on an infield popout and recorded the second out when Gene Alley hit a tapper back to the mound.

Up stepped Willie Stargell. Regan was a pitch away from giving the Cubs their 85th victory of the season when Stargell crushed a 2-and-2 pitch into a strong breeze off the lake, inside the right-field foul pole and onto Sheffield Avenue.

"I just couldn't believe it when when he hit the bloomin' ball over the wall," Cubs catcher Randy Hundley remembered.

The shell-shocked Cubs wasted a leadoff double by Billy Williams in the bottom of the 10th and then lost in the 11th when an error by shortstop Don Kessinger led to a pair of unearned runs.

While the Cubs were being swept by the Pirates, the Mets took three of four from the Phillies to trim their deficit to 2.5 games.

The Cubs were hearing footsteps as they opened a two-game series with the Mets in New York on Sept.8.

Cubs starter Bill Hands decided to send a message to the Mets with the first pitch in the bottom of the first when he delivered a fastball under the chin of Agee that knocked the New York center fielder on his ass.

The move backfired badly. The Mets were not intimidated. Mets starter Koosman hit Santo on the right forearm with the first pitch of the second inning. Santo, writhing in pain, walked to first base.

"(The Cubs) just sat there," Talley wrote. "Nobody charged the mound. Nobody screamed or shouted. They just there on a silent bench at Shea Stadium, while their cleanup hitter writhed in pain at home plate. It was a strange way indeed to battle for a pennant."

Agee gained his own vengence when he hit a two-run homer off Hands in the third.

The score was tied 2-2 in the bottom of the sixth when Agee led off with a double, setting the stage for the season's most memorable play.

Wayne Garrett grounded a single through the right side of the infield. Right fielder Hickman fielded it cleanly and fired an accurate one-hop throw to Hundley ahead of Agee. The Cubs catcher received the throw in front of the plate and as Agee slid past him, he delivered a sweep tag to the baserunner's hip.

Homeplate umpire Satch Davidson called Agee safe in what proved to be the winning run in the Mets' 3-2 victory. Hundley reacted by leaping into the air so high that Kessinger recalled that "it had to be a world record for a vertical jump."

"I tagged him so hard, I almost dropped the ball," Hundley remembered. "Right up his bloomin' side. It wasn't just a little tag: I swept him right up the uniform.

"How in the world could Davidson miss that play? I get upset right now just thinking about it. The pit of my stomach gets so stinkin' upset. I want to go through the wall. It wasn't even close. I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe it. I wanted to flatten (Davidson)."

Davidson stood firm.

"Randy made a sweep tag and missed," Davidson told Talley. "That's the way I saw it then, and that's the way I saw it later on TV replays."

"That had to be the most important run of the season for the Mets, and it was an outright gift," Hundley said.

In a gloomy Cubs postgame clubhouse, the only sounds were the roars of manager Leo "The Lip" Durocher as he addressed the media.

"No comment," Durocher growled. "I don't say anything after a game - win or lose. You can wait until snow comes over the fucking clubhouse door, and I won't have anything to say. No comment. No fucking comment!"

The next day, the Mets completed a series sweep as Seaver, who earned his 21st victory. bested Jenkins in a 7-1 New York win. The Mets were just a half-game out.

It was the game that included a black cat walking in front of the Cubs dugout as Santo stood in the on-deck circle and the New York fans sang, "Goodbye, Leo!" throughout the evening.

"Nobody knew what to do," Williams told Talley. "I guess that's because we'd never been there before."

On Sept. 10, while the Cubs were losing their seventh straight, in Philadelphia, the Mets swept a doubleheader from Montreal to move a game in front. The Cubs, who had been in first for the first 155 days of the season, never returned to the top.

The next night, the losing streak reached eight in a 4-3 loss to the Phillies. The lowlight of that game came while the Cubs were leading 1-0 in the bottom of the third. With two outs, Johnny Briggs was on first and Tony Taylor was on second. Slugger Richie Allen was awaiting a 3-and-2 pitch when pitcher Dick Selma stepped off the rubber and fired the ball into the left-field corner. Selma anticipated Taylor to run on the pitch and hoped to catch the baserunner in a rundown. The problem was that Santo was not covering third base. Taylor scampered home with the unearned tying run.

The Mets again beat the Expos to extend their lead to two games with 18 games to play.

"I'd never seen (Durocher) so mad," Santo remembered. "I couldn't tell whether he was mad at me or Dick or what, but the veins were aout to burst out of his neck. He just couldn't believe what had happened."

It was a chaotic postgame scene in the visitor's clubhouse at Connie Mack Stadium.

"Leo kept yelling, 'Where's Selma? Where's Selma? Go find Selma, but nodody could find him," coach Joey Amalfitano remembered."I'm looking everywhere. Then I go upstairs into the training room and there in a locker, I see two feet sticking out from under some clothes. It was Selma hiding."

The Mets' winning streak reached 10. The Cubs, meanwhile, lost 10 of 11 while averaging 2.63 runs and 6.63 hits per game. Opponents during that span averaged 5.73 runs per contest.

The Mets, who won 38 of their last 49, increased their lead to as many as nine games and finished eight in front of the Cubs with a 100-62 record.

"Those last three weeks were a nightmare," Santo remembered.

The Mets then swept the Atlanta Braves in the first National League Championship Series and topped the heavily favored-Baltimore Orioles in five games in the World Series.

"I never saw anything like it in my life," Durocher recalled. "Our offense went down the toilet, the defense went down the drain, and I'm still looking for the pitching staff. I could have dressed nine broads up as ballplayers, and they would have beaten the Cubs."

For highlights of the 1969 Cubs season, visit mediaburn.org.

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