Could have, should have, been a magical season, especially for those of us who lived through it. The Cubs had come off a good second half of 1968 -- they were 35-45 after losing to the Pirates on July 5, 1968; they went 49-33 the rest of the way to finish 84-78. This is the only time in franchise history that the Cubs have come from ten games under .500 to finish with a winning record (they nearly matched that last year, coming from nine under, 22-31, to finish 85-77).
And so there was much anticipation when they opened 1969 at home against the Phillies on April 8. They roared out to a 5-1 lead on the strength of two HR by 38-year-old Ernie Banks, who hit a three-run job in the first inning and a two-run shot in the third, and Fergie Jenkins was mowing down Phillies, walking no one and striking out nine. Even a Don Money HR in the seventh didn't bother Fergie much -- no one was on base, and so the Cubs entered the ninth inning leading 5-2.
In 2008 baseball, that situation would automatically prompt a manager to bring his closer in. Not then, and not with Fergie, who would throw 311.1 innings that year, the second of four straight years he threw over 300 innings. But he was tiring. Future Cub Johnny Callison singled. Future Cub coach Cookie Rojas singled. And then Money hit his second HR of the game, tying the score at 5.
Only then did Leo Durocher bring Phil Regan into the game. Regan got three outs without incident, and the game went into extra innings. Regan and the Phillies' Barry Lersch (who was making his major league debut that day) soldiered on through the tenth and into the 11th, something else which would be unheard-of in 2008, in the age of seven-man bullpens.
In the top of the 11th, Callison singled again, was sacrificed to second by Rojas, and scored on a double by Money (who matched Banks with 5 RBI that day -- he'd have only 37 more the rest of the year). It silenced the sellout crowd of 40,796, some of whom left, figuring the Cubs had lost 6-5.
Those who did missed one of the signature moments in Cub history. Ernie Banks led off the last of the 11th against Lersch and struck out, but Randy Hundley singled, putting the tying run on base. Willie Smith was sent up to bat for Jim Hickman, and he slammed the first pitch into the right field bleachers for a walkoff HR, the crowd going wild.
In this note posted on Len & Bob's WGN blog two years ago when Willie Smith passed away, they quoted Glenn Beckert's remembrance of that win:
That win energized the season. The Cubs started 4-0, lost one, then won 7 more for an 11-1 start. We won't go through what happened at the end of the season, but the beginning was "wonderful" -- appropriate, as that was Willie Smith's nickname.