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A Cubs Perfect Season
By Dan McGrath, Bob Vanderberg
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2011 Dan McGrath and Bob Vanderberg
All rights reserved.
April 8, 1969
Cubs 7, Phillies 6
The Willie Smith Game Gave Cubs Hope
It's fitting that one of the most memorable seasons in Cubs history would begin with one of the most memorable games.
The Willie Smith Game. It's the only description needed. And in Philadelphia it might be remembered as the Don Money Game if fate hadn't intervened in the person of Smith, a cheerful, amiable pitcher-turned-outfielder who also sang professionally during a fairly obscure baseball career that featured one unforgettable moment.
The 1969 season was the Cubs' fourth under firebrand manager Leo Durocher. They had improved in each of the previous three campaigns after ruefully living up to Durocher's takeover pronouncement that "this is not an eighth-place team" by finishing 10th in 1966.
Even before it started, the 1969 season was historic. Expansion added two teams to each major league — Montreal and San Diego in the National, Kansas City and Seattle in the American — and four six-team divisions were created to facilitate scheduling and emphasize geographical rivalries. The schedule remained at 162 games, with the division champions then meeting in two best-of-five playoff series to determine each league's World Series representative.
The Cubs were assigned to the National League East, one of the toughest divisions with the two-time pennant-winning Cardinals, the hard-hitting Pirates and on-the-rise young clubs in New York and Philadelphia. But the Cubs were a confident team when they took the field for the April 8 season opener against the Phillies, and a standing-room crowd of 40,796 at Wrigley Field shared in that optimism.
Ernie Banks was still "Mr. Cub," still a productive, dangerous hitter at 38. All-Stars Billy Williams, 30, and Ron Santo, 29, added more thunder to the middle of an imposing batting order. Young veterans Glenn Beckert and Don Kessinger joined Santo and Banks in the league's best infield. Randy Hundley was a rock behind the plate and deft handler of a pitching staff that featured Ferguson Jenkins, Ken Holtzman and Bill Hands in a strong rotation.
The bench, the bullpen and rookie Don Young in center field were the team's only question marks, but nobody wanted to hear a discouraging word on Opening Day. The call to "Play Ball!" produced spine-tingling anticipation.
A single, a sacrifice, his own error and Deron Johnson's RBI single put Jenkins in a 1–0 hole in the first inning, but Banks got him out of it when he powered a three-run homer into the left-field bleachers off Chris Short in the bottom of the first.
It remained a 3–1 game when Banks faced Short with Williams on first and one out in the bottom of the third. Banks took the veteran lefty deep again for a 5–1 lead as Wrigley rocked.
Jenkins had a propensity for giving up solo homers throughout his career, so no one flinched when the rookie Money tagged him for one leading off the seventh inning, cutting the Cubs' lead to 5–2. Jenkins settled down and was three outs away from a complete-game victory when Johnny Callison and Cookie Rojas opened the ninth inning with singles. That brought Money to the plate, and the 22-year-old shortstop was money once again, slamming a three-run homer off Jenkins that tied the game 5–5 and turned the raucous crowd deathly quiet.
Barry Lersch, in his major league debut, had shut the Cubs down on two hits over four innings in relief, and Phillies manager Bob Skinner demonstrated his faith in the rookie right-hander by letting him bat in the 11th, after an RBI double by that man Money had given the Phils a 6–5 lead. Money was 3-for-5 with 10 total bases and five RBIs for the day.
Lersch stayed in the game and got Banks on a fly to right leading off the 11th, then gave up a single to Hundley. With Jim Hickman due up, Durocher played one of the hunches for which he was famous. Hickman was 0-for-4 with a strikeout, and Durocher didn't like his chances against the hard-throwing Lersch in the gathering dusk. So he went to his bench for the left-handed-hitting Smith, a former pitcher who'd been converted into an outfielder while playing for the Angels because of how well he swung the bat.
Smith, 30, had one thing in mind as he stepped to the plate with darkness falling. And when Lersch threw him a 1–1 fastball, he produced it, sending a high drive into the right-field bleachers. The two-run, game-winning, pinch-hit homer touched off pandemonium at Wrigley Field. Hundley fairly danced around the bases in front of Smith. Jack Brickhouse's call on television — "Willie Smith!!! Willie Smith!!!" — was simple but eloquent, one of the most memorable in Brickhouse's Hall of Fame career. Throughout Chicago there was a sense that this could be the start of something big.
The feeling lasted throughout the summer as the Cubs played championship-caliber baseball, drew record crowds to Wrigley Field and turned their "Bleacher Bum" followers into cult figures. The end of their World Series drought — then a modest 24 years — seemed to be in sight.
But it was not to be. Their lack of depth exposed the Cubs as a tired team over the season's final six weeks. Meanwhile, the Mets caught fire behind a dominant young pitching staff. They not only overhauled the Cubs to win the NL East, they swept the Atlanta Braves in the first National League Championship Series and stunned the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in a five-game World Series, earning a place in baseball lore as the "Miracle Mets."
History is less kind to the Cubs. Their 92–70 record and second-place finish is viewed as an epic collapse, and there's no denying it was a dispiriting letdown, mostly because of the day-to-day thrills and high-wire excitement that preceded it. But no one who experienced that 1969 season will ever forget it, least of all Willie Smith.
He died of a heart attack in his hometown of Anniston, Ala., in 2006. He was 66. He had modest numbers: a .248 career batting average, 46 home runs, 211 RBIs ... and one moment that will live forever in Cubs history.
At a Glance
WP: Regan (1–0)
HR: Banks 2 (1, 2), Smith 1
Key stat: Banks and the Phillies' Don Money combined for 10 RBIs.
April 9, 1982
Cubs 5, Mets 0
The New Tradition Arrives with Green
As a major league pitcher, Dallas Green had modest talent but a fierce competitive drive. As a novice major league manager he railed against the complacency and sense of entitlement he found in the Philadelphia clubhouse, then cracked the whip and drove the Philllies to the 1980 World Series championship.
Anybody who expected business as usual at Wrigley Field after Tribune Co. bought the Cubs and installed Green as general manager before the 1982 season was in for a surprise. Green gagged at the "lovable losers" image that permeated the place — "Even the vendors had a hang-dog, defeatist attitude," he observed — and vowed that the "new tradition" he was implementing would be all about winning.
Cubs fans had heard that before, of course, but Green took a jackhammer to the Cubs' roster to prove he was serious about changing the culture. First baseman Bill Buckner, left fielder Steve Henderson and center fielder Ty Waller were the only starters from the '81 season finale who were in the lineup for the '82 home opener, and Waller had moved from third base to accommodate rookie Ryne Sandberg.
With a curious crowd of 26,712 looking on, manager Lee Elia's Cubs kicked off the home portion of the new tradition by invoking a big name from their past. Ferguson Jenkins, 39, who'd been brought back as a free agent the previous winter, pitched 6 2/3 innings of scoreless, five-hit ball, combining with Lee Smith to shut out the Mets. Buckner hit a two-run homer off Mike Scott in the fourth inning. The other big contributors were Philadelphia émigrés who accompanied Green to Chicago: shortstop Larry Bowa went 2-for-4 and scored three runs, and catcher Keith Moreland was 2-for-4 with a two-run single in the eighth inning.
The Cubs lost the next two games and six of their next seven, finishing April with a 7–14 record en route to a 73–89, fifth-place showing.
But change would be a constant during the Green regime, and it would frequently be change for the better. Sandberg (now at second base), Leon Durham (now at first) and Bowa would be the only holdovers from the '82 home-opener lineup who took the field in Pittsburgh on Sept. 24, 1984, when the Cubs beat the Pirates behind Rick Sutcliffe to clinch the NL East title and reach the postseason for the first time since 1945.
At a Glance
WP: Jenkins (1–0)
S: Smith (1)
HR: Buckner (1)
Key stat: Jenkins won his 148th game as a Cub.
April 10, 1970
Cubs 2, Expos 1
Game-Winner Is Callison Deal's First Dividend
The 31-year-old left-handed batter stepped into the box. There were two outs, he had made no hits this Friday afternoon in Montreal's Parc Jarry and his new team, the Cubs, appeared to be on the verge of beginning the season 0–3. He himself had not fared all that well thus far, having collected one hit in 10 at-bats.
This is not what general manager John Holland and manager Leo Durocher had anticipated the previous Nov. 17, when they traded pitcher Dick Selma, a 12-game winner in '69, and 19-year-old outfield prospect Oscar Gamble to the Phillies for the veteran outfielder — a mainstay in Philadelphia for a decade, a three-time National League All-Star and the Midsummer Classic's MVP in 1964, when his three-run walk-off homer had stunned the American League.
The batter was Johnny Callison, pride of the Chicago White Sox farm system in 1958, when he too was 19, the year he hit 29 homers and batted .283 at Triple-A Indianapolis and was so impressive in a September call-up that the Sox named him their Opening Day left fielder for 1959. An ill-advised trade had sent him to Philly for third baseman Gene Freese in December 1959, and Callison soon established himself as a Phillies hero.
On the day the Cubs landed him, Durocher had declared: "Callison has the best arm in the league outside of Roberto Clemente. He not only adds to a solid defense, he also gives us another big bat in the lineup."
The big bat had been silent, but that was about to change. The host Expos had led 1–0 since the fifth inning, when a two-out RBI single by Marv Staehle — like Callison a onetime White Sox rookie hopeful — had given Joe Sparma the lead over Bill Hands. Glenn Beckert opened the ninth with a walk, but when Billy Williams rapped into a double play, the Cubs were staring at 0–3.
But then Ron Santo singled to left, and now Callison was the batter. Sparma, a former Ohio State quarterback, went into the stretch and delivered. Callison swung and the ball sailed over the right-field fence for a 2–1 lead. A few minutes later, after Ted Abernathy had retired Adolfo Phillips, Bob Bailey and Bobby Wine, the Cubs had their first triumph of 1970. Callison was hitting .313 by May 1, and the Cubs were 13–5 and in first place.
At a Glance
WP: Aguirre (1–0)
SV: Abernathy (1)
HR: Callison (1)
Key stat: Callison's home run was the 190th of his career. He finished with 226.
April 11, 1955
Cubs 7, Reds 5
'Toothpick' Sam Jones' Debut One to Remember
As befitting his status as the ace of the Cubs' pitching staff, Bob Rush was given the Opening Day start for the 1955 season. The assignment took Rush and the Cubs to Cincinnati, where the Reds played the traditional season opener a day earlier than everybody else in recognition of their status as baseball's first professional team.
It was a rough outing for the veteran right-hander — the hard-hitting Reds touched up Rush for four runs and 10 hits in just 3 2/3 innings. But one man's struggle is another man's opportunity. Sam Jones, acquired from Cleveland the previous winter, took over in the fourth inning and earned his first Cubs win in his debut with five innings of two-hit relief pitching as the Cubs beat the Reds 7–5 before 32,195 fans at Crosley Field.
Dee Fondy doubled home Ernie Banks and Ransom Jackson in the second inning, and after Harry Chiti's double scored Fondy, Rush had a 3–0 lead. In the third, Joe Nuxhall took over for embattled Reds starter Art Fowler, and Gene Baker greeted the Old Left-Hander with a home run for a 4–0 Cubs lead.
The Reds got half of it back on Ted Kluszewski's two-run homer in the third, but not to worry: Fondy singled to right and Chiti homered to left to put the Cubs up 6–2 in the top of the fourth.
Rush, though, couldn't finish the bottom of the fourth. Wally Post singled to center and pinch-hitter Hobie Landrith doubled to right. After Johnny Temple's RBI groundout and Gus Bell's RBI single scored two runs, Jones replaced Rush and retired the dangerous Kluszewski on a grounder to first.
The lanky right-hander known as "Toothpick" for the ever-present toothpick he kept in his mouth, even while pitching, would keep the Reds quiet until the ninth, when Bell's double and a pair of two-out walks loaded the bases. Hal Jeffcoat relieved Jones. Jeffcoat hit Ed Bailey with a pitch to force in a run but retired Post on a grounder to preserve the 7–5 victory and a 1–0 start to a 72–81, sixth-place season.
The 2-for-4, three-RBI day was an encouraging start for Chiti, a catcher who was never known as a robust hitter during 10 major league seasons. Jones, meanwhile, would make history of a more dramatic sort one month later when he became the first African-American pitcher to throw a major league no-hitter.
At a Glance
WP: Jones (1–0)
S: Jeffcoat (1)
HR: Baker (1), Chiti (1)
Key stat: Chiti's 3 RBIs were half of his April total.
April 12, 1922
Cubs 7, Reds 3
The Hall of Fame Battery
No one suspected it — no one could have, as the Baseball Hall of Fame wouldn't open for another 14 years — but the Cubs trotted out a Hall of Fame battery to face the Reds in the 1922 season opener on April 12 at Cincinnati's Redland Field.
And it's not likely anyone suspected Cubs catcher Charles Leo "Gabby" Hartnett was Cooperstown-bound after the 21-year-old went 0-for-2 in his major league debut, a 7–3 Cubs victory.
The pitcher, however, was another story. Sturdy right-hander Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander was an established star with a 190–88 career record and a 2.18 ERA when the Cubs obtained him from the Philadelphia Phillies for the unforgettable Pickles Dillhoefer, Mike Prendergast and $55,000 on Dec. 11, 1917.
Alexander was beginning his fifth season with the Cubs when he faced the Reds this day. If he didn't exhibit Hall of Fame stuff, he got the job done with a complete-game seven-hitter and helped himself with an RBI double.
The Cubs staked Alexander to a 2-0 lead in the second inning on Hack Miller's RBI single and Marty Krug's fielder's-choice grounder. The Reds got on the board in their half of the second when Babe Pinelli singled home Sam Bohne, but the Cubs got the run back in the sixth when John Kelleher singled, stole second and scored on Bernie Friberg's single.
Alexander's run-scoring double and RBI singles by Kelleher and Jigger Statz were the big hits as they broke open the game with a four-run seventh, chasing losing pitcher Eppa Rixey.
The Cubs would finish 80–74 and in fifth place. Alexander, 35, would go 16-13 with a 3.63 ERA and 20 complete games, a far heavier workload than Hartnett's. Backing up catcher Bob O'Farrell, the rookie hit just .194 with no homers and four RBIs in 31 games, a quiet beginning to a distinguished career. Over 20 big league seasons, Hartnett would hit .297 with 236 homers and 1,179 RBIs. Along the way, he earned a reputation for his stellar defense and excellent handling of pitchers. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955, still the only Cubs catcher so honored.
Alexander, 373–208 lifetime and a three-time 30-game winner, entered the Hall in 1938.
At a Glance
WP: Alexander (1–0)
Key stat: Hall of Famer Hartnett was the only Cub to go hitless.
April 13, 1976
Cubs 5, Mets 4
Perhaps it was optimism born of a 2–1 start to the season in St. Louis.
Perhaps it was the belief that a young Cubs nucleus would continue to develop and lift the team into contention.
Or perhaps it was anti-Mets passion that had been virulent in Chicago since the sorry end to the '69 season.
Whatever the reason, 44,818 fans jammed Wrigley Field for the Cubs' 1976 home opener. They were treated to a 5–4 victory over the despised New Yorkers in which Jerry Morales, Manny Trillo and Rick Monday were the hitting stars and Paul Reuschel stole some of the pitching thunder from his more accomplished brother, Rick.
Excerpted from 162-0 by Dan McGrath, Bob Vanderberg. Copyright © 2011 Dan McGrath and Bob Vanderberg. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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