1969 Chicago Cubs
Regular season Season summary Hoping to improve on the previous year's 84-78 record, the Cubs began the 1969 season by winning 11 of their first 12 games, and on August 16, they were 75-44, up by a season high nine games over second place New York. By September 2, they had soared to a 84-52 record, well on pace to exceed the previous season's mark, but their lead over the Mets had fallen to five games. From there the Mets went on a tear. The Cubs ultimately lost 17 of the last 25 games of the season, while the Mets went 23-7 to overtake the Cubs and finish eight games ahead of them. It was one of the most astounding late season collapses in history, with the seventeen-game turnaround being one of the biggest ever. The Cubs finished 92-70, while the Mets won the National League East and would go on to win the World Series.
Summer of '69 Throughout the summer of 1969, led by future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, and the game calling skills of Randy Hundley behind the plate, the Chicago Cubs had built a substantial lead in the newly created National League East. At the conclusion of each victory 3rd baseman Santo would jump and click his heels in celebration. After starting pitcher Ken Holtzman's no-hitter on August 19, the Cubs led the division by 8 1⁄2 games over the St. Louis Cardinals and 9 1⁄2 games over the New York Mets.
The Rise The 1969 season was bookended by a pair of homers that were memorable in a good and bad way respectively. On opening day at Wrigley Field, April 8, the Cubs trailed the Phillies 6-5 in the bottom of the 11th inning. With a runner on base, Willie Smith hit a game-winning home run into the right field bleachers. This event essentially "lit the fuse" to the Cubs' successful first five months of the season. They would win the next three games, and 11 out of their first 12, and create a cushion that would extend to 8½ games in mid-August.
The Fall After the game of September 2, the Cubs record was 84-52 with the Mets in second place at 77-55. But then a losing streak began just as a Mets winning streak was beginning. The Cubs lost the final game of a series at Cincinnati, then came home to play the resurgent Pittsburgh Pirates (who would finish in third place). After losing the first two games by scores of 9-2 and 13-4, the Cubs led going into the ninth inning. A win would be a positive springboard since the Cubs were to play a crucial series with the Mets the very next day. But Willie Stargell drilled a 2-out, 2-strike pitch from the Cubs' ace reliever, Phil Regan, onto Sheffield Avenue to tie the score in the top of the ninth. The Cubs would lose 7-5 in extra innings.
Burdened by a four-game losing streak, the Cubs traveled to Shea Stadium for a short two-game set. The Mets won both games, and the Cubs left New York with a record of 84-58 just 1⁄2 game in front. Disaster followed in Philadelphia, as a 99 loss Phillies team nonetheless defeated the Cubs twice, to extend Chicago's losing streak to eight games. In a key play in the second game, on September 11, Cubs starter Dick Selma threw a surprise pickoff attempt to third baseman Ron Santo, who was nowhere near the bag or the ball. Selma's throwing error opened the gates to a Phillies rally.
After that second Philly loss, the Cubs were 84-60 and the Mets had pulled ahead at 85-57. The Mets would not look back. The Cubs' eight-game losing streak finally ended the next day in St. Louis, but the Mets were in the midst of a ten-game winning streak, and the Cubs, wilting from team fatigue, generally deteriorated in all phases of the game. The Mets (who had lost a record 120 games 7 years earlier), would go on to win the World Series. The Cubs, despite a respectable 92-70 record, would be remembered for having lost a remarkable 17 1⁄2 games in the standings to the Mets in the last quarter of the season.
Bad luck Some superstitious fans attribute the Cubs collapse to an incident at Shea Stadium on September 9: a black cat (an omen of bad luck) walked behind the Cubs on-deck circle where captain Ron Santo was standing. Some fans blame key errors by center fielder Don Young and Santo's immediate criticism (According to Santo: For Love of Ivy, page 95, "At no time did I [Ron] give the impression, let alone a direct quote, that Don Young cost us the ballgame."). Still others blame the number of day games that the Cubs had to play. (Lights were not installed in Wrigley Field until 1988.) Chicago's summers are quite humid (85-90 degrees Fahrenheit on average), and playing in this heat day after day may have taken a toll (although the average temperature that summer was 71.8 degrees, which was relatively low). From August 14 through the end of the season, the Mets had an amazing 39-11 record, while the Cubs record was 21-29 for the same period, slumping to 8-17 in September.
The Book Baseball Hall of Shame 2 places the blame squarely (and perhaps unfairly) at the feet of one man, stating, "In the heat of battle, Leo Durocher, field general of the Cubs, went AWOL once too often. It was because of his lack of leadership that his team lost the fight for the 1969 pennant." Durocher did not believe in using the platoon system. He believed in putting his best eight players on the field every day. Five of the Cubs' regular players finished the season with over 150 games played. Two more had more than 130 games played. In his book, The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, baseball historian Bill James cited manager Durocher's method of using his regular players everyday without any rest days as a factor in the Cubs' collapse.