A YEAR TO FORGET, 50 YEARS LATER: A new book by a Chicago Jewish writer looks back at the heartbreaking 1969 Cubs

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

When I finished the manuscript of “The 1969 Cubs – Long Remembered, Never Forgotten” after six months of furious writing, I realized that in reality, the definitive book about one of the most popular sports teams in Chicago history was a half-century in the making. 

The book was the result of a collaboration between lead author and star Cubs pitcher Fergie Jenkins and yours truly, his literary batterymate. The 50th anniversary of 1969, reasoned Jenkins, was as good a time as any for a retrospective.

“The 1969 Cubs – Long Remembered, Never Forgotten” is a baseball story, a neighborhood story, a Chicago story, a Jewish story and an American story all rolled into one.  Now the narrative is an eternal story, impactful even beyond the 2016 Cubs’ World Series championship that put the ’69 quest and all successive yearnings for the elusive title to bed.  Its lessons transcend wins and losses, successes and recriminations, “Hey! Hey” home-run calls and second-guessing.

A scorecard from 1969, signed by all members of the Cubs.

Jenkins, of course, was the ’69 Cubs’ ace pitcher, who in August of that season had grand plans of helming the team’s first World Series team in 24 years.  He had 17 wins in the season’s dog days with realistic goals of not only racking up his third consecutive 20-win season, but also amassing an astounding 300 strikeouts, whiff-king territory where only Sandy Koufax and a handful of others had previously ventured.

How impactful was the 26-year-old Fergie of ’69?  When he was forced from a Wrigley Field game on July 27, 1969 by a Willie Crawford liner off his hand, Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, baseball’s poet laureate, remarked two days later to his West Coast radio audience:  “Chicago came to a standstill. The entire city must have a missed a heartbeat or two.” Fortunately, Jenkins’ hand was bruised, not broken, and he did not miss a start.

As a younger teen-age fan watching on TV five miles northwest in West Rogers Park, I, too, sweated out Fergie’s injury and all the other daily baseball drama. Nineteen sixty-nine was Year One for both me as a baseball fan and eventually a journalist, and the modern Cubs franchise.  Meanwhile, Wrigley Field came alive as fans began packing the ivy-encrusted field like never before for weekday games in the summer. 

“We are where it’s at,” Scully said of Wrigley Field.  “Without a doubt, it’s become the most vital, breathing ballpark in the National League. It seizes and erupts with feeling. If the Cubs get into the World Series, take every name and address of the Bleacher Bums to make sure they are at the World Series.  They belong as much as the ivy on the wall and the guys in the uniform.”  Attendance increased by 60 percent from 1968, and shot up to a record 1,674,000.

Some members of the 1969 Cubs with author George Castle. From left are former WGN sports editor Jack Rosenberg, pitcher Fergie Jenkins, catcher Randy Hundley, Castle, pitcher Rich Nye and former media relations director Chuck Shriver. Jenkins, and Hundley show off alumni 2016 World Series rings they rather would have won themselves in 1969.

No Cubs team, with the exception of the 2016 world champions, were as beloved and trend-setting as the ’69ers. Yes, we all know what happened. A 10-game first-place lead on Aug. 13, 1969 was obliterated by the out-of-nowhere New York Mets, who began the season 6-11, but finished a once-a-century 38-11 stretch run. By Oct. 1, 1969, the Mets led the Cubs by nine before losing a meaningless season finale at Wrigley Field.  The Cubs ended the season 8-18 and did not put up a fight against a team from an already championship-drunk Big Apple.

The collapse was collective, with both manager Leo Durocher – long perceived as the top culprit for freezing at the switch – and his players equally sharing in the pratfall.  But owner Phil Wrigley and his underqualified general manager John Holland also played big roles that could only be drawn out from the perspective of history.

Fortunately, Fergie and I were able to team up in a Mr. Inside-Outside combo to re-create the times and the state of the Cubs 50 years ago. His pitching knowledge and view from the clubhouse and dugout combined with my pay-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain reporting style were great complements. In an odd way, our paths to assembling a book were not dissimilar.

Jenkins, now 76, is the great-grandson of slaves who took the Underground Railroad north and did not stop at the U.S.-Canada international border.  Escaped slave-catchers often roamed free states with impunity, but could not practice their nefarious dragnet in Ontario. Fergie’s forebears crossed the Detroit River and settled 60 miles away in Chatham, Ont.

In this atmosphere without overt Jim Crow, Jenkins engaged in a largely stress-free childhood. He was able to perfect his master control throwing rocks through the doors of passing freight cars, then became a four-sport athlete in Chatham.  He was signed by the Phillies in 1962, but his true talents were under-used in the minors as he was employed often as a relief pitcher.

In my family, hailing from the shtetl in Ukraine and what is now far eastern Poland, stories circulated that my maternal grandfather, Morrie Zutz, hid as a child in a cellar in Kiev while horse-borne Cossacks charged through the streets looking for Jews. Morrie and family emigrated to Chicago. While he enjoyed his Dutch Masters cigars in the upper center-field bleachers of Wrigley Field as he fell in love with the Cubs, the descendants of those Cossacks might have been ground up in the German invasion of Russia.

Morrie took me to my first Cubs game circa 1961, but died of cancer two years later before he could bring me regularly to Wrigley Field, then just 22 blocks south on the “Howard L” line next to our apartment.  Moving further away to Devon and Western, I had the obligations of a typical Jewish boy at the time. My grandmother, Cele Zutz, and her sister, Adele Turbin, waited outside B’nai Jacob’s building on a September afternoon in 1963 to enroll me in cheder.  There would be no running home daily to catch the tail end of games on TV.  And once school was out in late June, my single working mother placed me in JCC of B’nai Zion day camp, so I could not slum and watch games.

Ron Santo hugs pitcher Ken Holtzman after he threw a no-hit game.

I had no weekly baseball days visiting my father, who lived six blocks away. Marvin Castle usually took my near-invalid grandmother for “Sunday drives” in the era of 30-cents-a-gallon gas.  I tagged along in the back seat of his ancient ’51 Mercury, then a ’56 Pontiac. He did not listen to Cubs’ WGN 720-AM play-by-play by Jack Quinlan and then Vince Lloyd, instead opting for the soothing “World’s Most Beautiful Music” on WAIT 820-AM.

In 1967, I had fits and starts following the suddenly-revived Cubs.  On July 3, the day after Jenkins pitched the team into a first-place tie with the Cardinals before a wild Wrigley Field sold-out crowd, I recall whooping and hollering through our hot third-floor flat over Lloyd’s baritone calls of Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Randy Hundley all homering in the first inning in Atlanta.  And I took my mother and grandmother to the Labor Day doubleheader, sitting in Morrie Zutz’s old seats. Although Ernie Banks won the opener with a 10th-inning homer, Mr. Cub’s “let’s play two” advocacy was not followed my family, who dragged me home between games.

As the 1968 season of promise opened, I was fully immersed in bar mitzvah prep and hardly followed the Cubs.  The Big Day was scheduled for Saturday, June 29, with the Cardinals in town.  I did not have a malaprop with my Haftorah, drawing the nodding approval of the family. Then the bar mitzvah luncheon took place in Rogers Park on Sunday afternoon, as Bill Hands beat the Cards. 

Only in 1969 could I properly follow the Cubs’ 11-1 start, which as a young media junkie I monitored through reading three daily newspapers – the Tribune was deemed two conservative for a North Side Jew – and WGN’s telecasts.  The TV station struck gold in 1968-69, putting on 60-some road games as the White Sox, who formerly shared the station with the Cubs, foolishly migrated to lesser-watched WFLD-TV (Channel  32).  The combination of the increase in WGN telecasts, the Cubs surging to become a contender and many families’ purchase of their first color TV’s stoked interest in the North Siders.

Jerome Holtzman had Cubs beat duty in the first half of the season for the Sun-Times, so the most prominent Jewish baseball writer in the city’s history was my play-by-play conduit.  Thinking of pursuing writing, I had heard Holtzman hung out at Friedman’s deli, around the corner on the other side of the Nortown Theater. But I never mustered up the courage to try to meet Holtzman.

As a teen-ager, my knowledge of the Cubs was strictly a kid’s rooting interest and surely unsophisticated. Meanwhile, the ace pitcher I followed had some concentration lapses in several starts, agitating Durocher and his teammates. Jenkins did not have the pitching maturity he’d possess even two years later when he’d win 24 games and the Cy Young Award. We were both still learning in our lanes.

So I simply exulted in the Cubs’ 40-18 record and sweep of the hated Cards on Billy Williams Day on June 29. I did not understand the cauldron of baseball politics behind the scenes. Durocher and ex-Marine Holtzman nearly came to blows in the former’s office with The Lip, a better talker than fighter, backing down. Or Durocher going AWOL from the team on several occasions. Or opposing teams deriving unneeded motivation from the Bleacher Bums’ guerilla theater with outfielders or Santo clicking his heels after home Cubs wins.

Like everyone else in a less-sophisticated era, I was caught up in baseball nirvana with Jack Brickhouse leading the cheers as “the merry men of Wrigley Field  roll on and on.”

“You know how it is for them,” Scully said of not winning a pennant since 1945. “It’s a big-league city with a tremendous desire for good baseball. They are enjoying every second of it and I don’t think there’s a person in the game who’d begrudge them one moment of it.”

No trouble in paradise was in the offing when Ken Holtzman, for three years considered the next Koufax since he was left-handed, threw hard and was Jewish, no-hit the Braves at Wrigley Field on Aug. 19 – without a strikeout.  I wasn’t the only one thinking the Cubs’ fate was heaven-endorsed when Henry Aaron’s no-no-busting drive to left suddenly took a left turn, as if a giant hand grabbed the ball, after passing over a row or two of bleachers. 

The ball went straight down into the clutching glove of a back-pedaling Williams by the well in the wall.  Aaron rated that drive the hardest-hit ball of his career. But it was, as Brickhouse would say, “one long, loud out.”

“The ball was suddenly suspended up there – it seemed like 40 seconds between the time it left the bat and the time it started coming down – and finally it just dropped into Billy’s glove,” Holtzman recalled.

The lefty then went to 3-and-2 on Aaron trying to get the final out. He got him to ground out to Glenn Beckert. Bedlam erupted as Santo leaped on Holtzman as hundreds of fans, in the final full season without the outfield basket, stormed the infield in celebration. Brickhouse’s promise of an on-field post-game interview with Holtzman went unfilled.

“The reason I didn’t do live TV or radio immediately after that game,” Holtzman  recalled, “was the police had me surrounded in the dugout runway to escape all the fans who had crashed the field.  I later did all the interviews in the dressing room so there was only a slight delay.”

The Cubs now were a season-high 77-45.  Watching the spectacle, Jack Rosenberg, Brickhouse’s right-hand man at WGN, said he was sure the Cubs were playoff-bound.

But baseball is the ultimate game of failure, a truly cruel game.  Another fate awaited the Cubs. And through the upcoming decades, Jenkins and I never forgot the special season, always wondering “why?”

Traded to the Rangers late in 1973, Fergie returned to the Cubs to finish out his career in 1982-83, when I first established a rapport with him. He came back again as pitching coach in 1995-96.  And he is still around as a spring-training instructor and team ambassador.

Breaking into sports media in 1980, I began un-rooting reasons the Cubs did not win it all in 1969. Newly-kept stats showed the wind blew in more than it did not, negating thick-headed thinking about the Cubs fielding a slow, slugging team.  More numbers showed the Cubs had the worst second-half record in the game since World War II, coinciding with their status as the only team without lights.

Management bungling under both the Wrigley and Tribune Co. ownerships was rife. And yet in the final research for “The 1969 Cubs,” I discovered a long-forgotten, but Rosetta-stone-level quote from Phil Wrigley, uttered to Tribune columnist David Condon in 1968:

“Actually, I suspect second place is the ideal spot if you’re an owner. Once you win a couple of championships, once you dominate the league, fans will turn against you. I always felt the great support given to the New York Mets was largely due to a backlash at the New York Yankees.”

Wrigley was so off-target he was a tragic figure. Possessed of more personal wealth than any other owner, he did not want to win down to his marrow. Ken Holtzman often said there is the World Series champion, and everyone else is a runner-up.

In a spiritual way, though, the ’69 Cubs won by losing. Playing in Chicago for many seasons and living in town year-round, they connected with fans like no other team. The greatest players at their positions in team history stocked the roster – Jenkins, Banks, Williams and Santo. Hundley and shortstop Don Kessinger were Top 3 guys at catcher and shortstop, respectively. “Gentleman” Jim Hickman was a beloved clutch hitter.

The thrill ended up being in the journey. And that walk through the city’s consciousness is still going on.

“The 1969 Cubs – Long Remembered, Never Forgotten” can be ordered from Amazon.com or at The1969Cubs.com.

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