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Miracle Collapse: The 1969 Chicago Cubs

Miracle Collapse: The 1969 Chicago Cubs

by Doug Feldmann, Don Kessinger (Foreword by)

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Civil unrest at home, war abroad, and political uncertainty gripped the nation as the 1970s approached. In the summer of 1969, as a tumultuous decade of American history neared its end, Major League Baseball presented sports fans with a thrilling distraction: a pennant race that pitted the Chicago Cubs, those much-loved perennial also-rans, against the


Civil unrest at home, war abroad, and political uncertainty gripped the nation as the 1970s approached. In the summer of 1969, as a tumultuous decade of American history neared its end, Major League Baseball presented sports fans with a thrilling distraction: a pennant race that pitted the Chicago Cubs, those much-loved perennial also-rans, against the defending National League champs, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the upstart New York Mets.

Miracle Collapse is the story of how one of the most talented Cubs teams ever to take the field—with Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, and ace pitcher Ferguson Jenkins among their ranks and led by the irascible manager Leo Durocher—raced to an early division lead and a seemingly certain pennant, only to unravel spectacularly at the season’s end.

A time capsule in which baseball lore jockeys with history, Doug Feldmann’s book draws readers into the lives of these legendary Cubs players and their fierce bond with the city of Chicago. During this magical summer of baseball peaks and valleys, life goes on: Durocher “disappears” for a few days before his wedding; players leave the team midseason for National Guard duty; play is interrupted to announce man’s landing on the moon. It is against this backdrop that Miracle Collapse captures a baseball season for all time.

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Miracle Collapse

The 1969 Chicago Cubs

By Doug Feldmann

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006

University of Nebraska Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8032-2026-X

Chapter One

The Lip, the Windy City,
and a Society on
the Move

Leo Durocher is a man with an
infantile capacity for immediately
making a bad thing worse.
-Branch Rickey

The crackle of the voices through the microphone could barely
be heard over the airwaves. WDAP was just a tiny radio station on
Chicago's North Side, struggling to survive, when on June 1, 1924,
a man named Elliott Jenkins from the Chicago Tribune newspaper
marched in and announced that things were about to change.
The station's facilities soon received a complete overhaul-including
its call letters. Jenkins spoke to the masses with a few,
simple words that would change Chicago broadcasting forever.

"This is WGN, formerly WDAP."

The letters were short for "World's Greatest Newspaper," a
moniker that was placed at the top of every edition of the Tribune.
The paper's venture into radio had actually begun three years
earlier, when the city's first station, Westinghouse's KYW, starting
receiving many of its stories and market reports from the newsrooms
of the Tribune. From the time that KYW opened for business
until WGN took over, the sale of radiosets in Chicago had
increased fivefold, as the Tribune Company had found a great
investment opportunity in another-albeit competitive-medium.
WGN's first order of business in the summer of 1924 was
to cover the Republican National Convention from Cleveland
and the Democratic National Convention from New York. In
October of that year WGN would broadcast its first professional
baseball game, a crosstown match-up between the Chicago Cubs
of the North Side and the Chicago White Sox of the South.

Another powerful early station in the city, WMAQ, received the
first loosely defined "rights" to broadcast both Cubs and White
Sox home games in 1924, although the concept of property
law in sports broadcasting had not yet surfaced. It was the work
of Hal Totten that secured the "contract" for WMAQ. Totten, a
young writer with the Chicago Daily News, had personally broadcast
almost every Cubs and White Sox home game that season,
an amazing feat. Although broadcasting alone, Totten still had
plenty of company, as small-scale, "pirated" broadcasts were being
heard around Major League parks in addition to the formal
broadcasts from radio stations covering the games. One of the
more famous pirates in the early days of baseball on the radio
was Tom Convey in St. Louis, who sat atop the YMCA building
across the street from center field at Sportsman's Park, home of
the two local teams, the Cardinals and Browns. Convey was constantly
being chased away by Cardinals owner Sam Breadon, who
wanted no outside transmission of his team's games whatsoever.
Since no station held exclusivity rights for broadcasting the contests,
listeners could tune into any number of announcers who
seemed appealing. By the end of the 1920s nearly ten stations at
any given time were piping the sounds of professional baseball in
Chicago through the airwaves.

Radio was a growing, amazing phenomenon that promised
to change the nation. The public's fascination began with station
KDKA in Pittsburgh when a group of individuals first broadcast
the results of the United States presidential election on
November 2, 1920, from the top of the Westinghouse building
in East Pittsburgh. They used one hundred watts to announce to
a handful of listeners the news-received via updates phoned in
from the Pittsburgh Post newspaper-that Warren Harding had
defeated James Cox. Eager to learn their broadcast's geographic
radius, the announcers strongly encouraged any listeners to call
and reveal their locations. The historic event had its origins four
years earlier with the construction of a special transmitter in the
garage of a Westinghouse engineer. Soon after the election results
were broadcast from atop the building, the novelty of the
radio set had spread quickly, soon becoming a veritable family
member in most U.S. homes. Historical records indicate that
around four hundred thousand sets were in use in private residences
and stores in 1922, a figure that exploded to 4 million in
1925 and to 13 million by 1930-comprising nearly two-thirds
of American households.

However, baseball broadcasting of the hometown Pirates by
KDKA remained quite primitive. A "runner boy" would sit atop
the wall at old Forbes Field and scribble the happenings of the
game onto a piece of paper. He would then drop the paper to
another boy, who would sprint to a nearby telephone to tell the
station the "play-by-play." Using a similar method in 1921, WJZ in
New York broadcast the World Series over the radio for the first
time. The widespread arrival of radio in the 1920s-although
still in its infancy-reinforced a long-held fear of Major League
Baseball owners who envisioned empty, profitless ballparks, with
the masses staying at their comfortable homes while being told
about the game through the microphone.

It took a forward-thinking owner of the Cubs named William
Wrigley to change attitudes about broadcasts and, in turn, alter
the future of sports forever. In contrast to the philosophy
of his contemporaries, Wrigley imagined substantially growing
the fan base by bringing the ball game into homes. He wanted
entire households to become fans of the sport-and, thereafter,
paying customers. Wrigley firmly believed in the proliferation of
radio broadcasts for baseball, and he passed his aggressive pursuit
of airtime on to his son, Phil, who enjoyed a great surge
in attendance at the family's Los Angeles park in the Pacific
Coast League (PCL) after putting the PCL games on the radio.
The Wrigley family, who had made a fortune in the chewing
gum business, now applied their successful business principles
to marketing their baseball teams. William never wanted to limit
creativity-for example, he was also the first to have a "Ladies'
Day" at his ballpark, whereby women would be admitted free of
charge (typically on Fridays). Although not receiving any admissions
revenue, the club would instead enjoy increased beverage,
food, and cigarette sales at the park with the extra customers.
Pressure from women's groups ended the practice by the 1980s,
but with the idea, William Wrigley had accomplished what he
had set out to do: use the radio to make entire families of fans at
home and, in doing so, to "invite" all members of the family-not
just the lone man of the house-out to the stadium to see a
game for themselves. Not long after putting his plan into action,
Wrigley became the first owner to have all of his team's games
sent over the airwaves. Almost immediately, stations began lining
up at his door for the privilege.

Before Walter "Red" Barber took a job as a broadcaster with the
Cincinnati Reds in 1934, he rode on a bus all night to Chicago
and tried for an interview at WGN but was denied. After two seasons
in Cincinnati the twenty-seven-year-old Barber became the
announcer in 1935 for the first networked radio broadcast of
the World Series between the Cubs and the Detroit Tigers. He
remembered the experience well: "Nobody was even thinking
about television in 1935. But that [the World Series] was the
first sporting event that was ever on the Mutual Broadcasting network.
That was a network then of four stations: WGN in Chicago,
CKLW in Detroit, WOR in New York and, of course, the mighty,
half-million watt transmitter of WLW in Cincinnati." Baseball fans
in Chicago regularly heard the voices of Pat Flanagan on WBBM,
Bob Elson and Quin Ryan on WGN, and even comedian Joe E.
Brown, who made appearances on various stations from time
to time. Ryan was a local product, brought into the WGN studios
from the campus of Northwestern University, where he had
been a drama student. Cubs games were easily heard throughout
the Midwest, including the far reaches of rural Iowa-where a
young man named Ronald Reagan described the action from
Des Moines via Western Union telegraphs.

Elson would serve as the Cubs' primary broadcaster from 1939
to 1942. After his enlistment in the Navy during World War Two,
he returned to Chicago to cover the White Sox. Those who heard
him would almost invariably speak of his mesmerizing, trademark
monotone. Elson would sometimes purposely drift away from
the baseball game and regale listeners on, for example, the fabulous
session of gin rummy that he had had with his neighbors the
other evening. In later years he was likened to Bob Prince of the
Pirates, who was said to be able to simultaneously eat an apple,
read a book, and broadcast a ball game. During the war years
Elson was replaced in the Cubs and White Sox radio booth by an
enterprising young reporter from Peoria, Illinois, named Jack
Brickhouse. With the exception of spending 1946 with the New
York Giants, Brickhouse remained as the chief announcer of the
North Siders until passing the sounds of the game over to Harry
Caray in 1982, who had just spent eleven seasons with the White
Sox. As Brickhouse began to do more work with the television
broadcasts of Cubs baseball, it became Vince Lloyd's turn to be
the radio play-by-play voice, joining the team in 1965 as WGN
established itself as the "voice of the Cubs."

* * *

Like WGN, another institution in Chicago that had gained national
fame through the middle of the century and into the 1960s
was the Edgewater Beach Hotel, the premier lodging and entertainment
destination in the Windy City. Located on Chicago's
grand North Shore along Lake Michigan in the 5300 block of
North Sheridan Road, the unmistakable complex with its pink
buildings would blare happy music and offer dancing long into
the weekend nights. The big bands of Jerry Gray, Frankie Carle,
Benny Goodman, and many others would thrill patrons for
hours on end. If it was summertime and the weather was right,
Gray would open his set with his famous number "Dancing in
the Dark" while couples took their foxtrots outside the building
to the Beachwalk. An hour-long radio show called Your Saturday
Dance Date
would join the action live at Edgewater Beach for
the last half of the show, after sending listeners tunes from New
York in the first half. Indeed, if you were accompanied to the
Edgewater, it was a certainly a special date-especially if you were
treated to dinner beforehand in the exquisite Marine Dining
Room. WGN had done its first primitive broadcasting from the
Edgewater in March 1924, only months before it would take over
WDAP to firmly establish itself in the city. The Edgewater was also
where National League teams stayed when coming to Chicago to
play the Cubs. "Club officials enjoyed the location, a five-minute
bus ride to Wrigley Field; the players loved the Edgewater Beach
nightlife," writer John Theodore noted. Theodore, in his book
Baseball's Natural, detailed the perilous fate of former Cub Eddie
Waitkus. Waitkus was shot on the twelfth floor of the Edgewater
in June 1949 by Ruth Ann Steinhagen, a young fan who had
become infatuated with the player. Ultimately, Waitkus would
recover from his wound and face Steinhagen in court before resuming
his baseball career.

Doomed by civic progress, the Edgewater was eventually cut off
from its beachfront location with the expansion of Lake Shore
Drive. The famous resort hotel shut its doors in 1967. Demolition
began in 1969 and was completed the following year.

The demolition of the Edgewater was another symbol of a
changing era, of the discarding of the old and subsequent welcoming
of the new, particularly in urban America. In the early part
of the 1969s, more and more citizens were turning to electronic
media for their information on local and world news, athletics,
weather, and cultural interests. It was a shift that had been both
foreseen and decried by famed syndicated New York sportswriter
Grantland Rice half a century earlier. Rice had the privilege of
broadcasting that first World Series in 1921, but even as he spoke,
he felt as though he were undermining and even dooming his beloved
craft of the pen. He passed away in 1954, mercifully before
grasping the full weight of the airwave overhaul to come.

As the sixties rolled on, and nightly images of war were seen
in American homes for the first time, the new cultural tide of
television strengthened. With the help of electronic media, society
seemed to change overnight. Mainstream change was everywhere-
if change hadn't hit a community or institution yet, it
was on its way. A fellow broadcaster of Caray's with the St. Louis
Cardinals during the 1960s, Jack Buck, reflected on how even
professional baseball players got caught up in the turbulence
of the times. Describing a scene during the 1969 season in his
autobiography, That's a Winner!, Buck wrote: "Once at O'Hare
Airport in Chicago, we got off the plane and walked through
the terminal. The players were carrying music, wearing sandals
and t-shirts. One of the players was wearing Levis without undershorts
and had a hole in the seat of his pants. I remember
thinking, 'These are the Cardinals?' Almost all of them had
long hair, some wore earrings. Other ballclubs were just as motley
looking, depending on their leadership and the control the
manager and owner had over the players. They were at the age
to be rebellious, and they wanted to join in the activities going
on around them. They wanted more freedom, and that's when
Marvin Miller entered the picture with the players' union and
started putting pressure on the owners."

Mr. Buck's point was well-taken. Major League baseball players-who
were once mysterious, faceless figures whose activities
were known only through newspaper articles-were now
Everyday Joes, seen regularly on television and blending in with
the other young people who chose to take part in antiwar rallies,
marijuana legalization campaigns, and free-love persuasions.
The halls of education-at the elementary, high school,
and even college levels-were now being invaded with the
"Radical Relevant Curriculum," brought by left-wing school reformers
seeking to supposedly "free" the student from the "jails"
(schools) and "jailers" (teachers) of society. Naturally, the labor
front was not immune to the fury of the day, a battleground that
was completely new to baseball. After an unprecedented stand
by Marvin Miller, players began to push for collective bargaining
agreements for their contracts. By the end of 1968 the Major
League Baseball Players' Relation Committee and the newly
formed "Players' Association" came to what was called an "initial
agreement," though it hardly served to prevent future bad
tidings. Miller had taken over the players' leadership in 1966,
shortly after sharpening his legal teeth on new contracts for the
United Steelworkers.

But while the face of the Major League player became more
obscure, tangible changes to the game were also taking place
in 1969. New to the American League were the Seattle Pilots
and the Kansas City Royals, while the National League welcomed
the San Diego Padres and the Montreal Expos. Such expansion
was seen as a continued, progressive advance for baseball, which
was finally stretching to, literally, all four corners of the country
(with Florida still enjoying only the stint of spring training,
however). And with the expansion, the leagues each split into
two six-team divisions for 1969. For the first time ever, two clubs
from each league would qualify for the postseason, as a "league
championship series" would decide the pennant winner in each
circuit. More immediately noticeable would be the shaving of
the pitcher's mound to two-thirds of its former size, lowering the
crest from fifteen inches high down to ten. Furthermore, the
umpires were directed to shrink the strike zone for the 1969
season, with the top of the knee (as opposed to the center of the
knee) and the armpit (as opposed to the shoulder) now forming
the frame for a pitched strike. In a prelude to the homer-happy
days of the late 1990s and beyond, baseball officials feared losing
fans to the ever-increasing popularity of televised football games
and other shows and thus sought to increase the offensive output-and
presumably the excitement-of the games for fans by
giving increased advantages to the hitters.

Regardless of the rule changes, social circumstances, or other
distractions, the Cubs loved playing for their owner, Phil Wrigley.
One team member from 1969 once said, "If all the owners had
been as fair to the players as Mr. Wrigley was, we wouldn't need a
Players' Association." Wrigley, like his father, had come to grips
with the way the game was changing as the 1970s were quickly
approaching. "Baseball is too much of a sport to be called a
business," he pronounced, "and too much of a business to be
called a sport." He wanted an old-school manager to run his club,
one who respected the game and fostered respect in his players.
The perfect such candidate was waiting for an opportunity in the
middle in the sixties, and he was given one.


Excerpted from Miracle Collapse
by Doug Feldmann
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Doug Feldmann, who grew up in the Chicago area, is a professor in the College of Education at Northern Kentucky University and is the author of five books. He is also a part-time scout for the Cincinnati Reds.

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