It was forty years ago today … and we were on top of the world

Today is the 40th anniversary of Kenny Holtzman’s (first) no-hitter. To me, this is a significant milestone to be remembered for several reasons. First, it is arguably one of the top five games in Cub history. Second, 1969 is the most storied Cub season, and this game, this no-hitter, was literally the pinnacle, every game before it in 1969 led to this point, and just as clearly the day after the long, slow, agonizing decline began. Finally, it was even more significant to me, because I was there.

The Setup

This game was the first game of a much anticipated home stand. The team had just completed a long two week, 12 game (note 8 night games), 4 city (Hou, LA, SD, DF), west coast road trip in which they had a blistering 9-3 record (and 13 of their last 17). During this trip the Cubs hit their mathematical season high-water mark of nine games in first place on several occasions, the latest being on August 16th.

The Cubs were playing the Braves, the eventual Western Division champs that year. 1969 was the first year of divisional play. Every year in baseball history before 69, the season ended and the World Series immediately started with the lone NL winner vs. the lone AL winner. Being a traditionalist I was against divisional play, but especially felt that this first year was going to somehow cheapen the Cubs eventual 1st place finish. Or worse, the Cubs would win with the most NL victories only to have the World Series opportunity stolen in the short pre-series. (In fact, the Cubs would have subsequently appeared in three World Series by these pre-69 rules, in 84, 89, and … 2008).

The all-star game was less than a month away. The Cubs infield (14-18-11-10) were the starting all-star infield (Santo and Kessinger were the top vote getters), with Hundley getting the start behind the plate for Bench (who I think had reserve duty – there was a war going on you know).

We started that day 31 games over .500, and eight games up – on the Mets. The Mets of all teams. The laughing stock of baseball the last seven years. If you did a survey at Wrigley that day the vast majority of Cub fans would have said they were far more scared of the Cards who were lurking in third place than the Mets. Today we expect to win the division, we should be in first place in August. In 1969, it was so incredibly unexpected, so unnatural, we simply didn’t know how to take it. It wasn’t just that we were in first place, we were in first place for the first time IN MY LIFE past the all star break.

The Game

There were three hall famers in our starting lineup 14, 26, and 10 (ok, officially two but that has to change eventually). Two more HOF’ers (2, 31) were sitting in our dugout. Kessinger, Beckert rounded out the infield, Young and Hickman the outfield. Hundley was injured (the iron-man missed both of Holtzman’s no-hitters) and Bill Heath filled in (in what would turn out be his last game ever). The Braves also started three HOF’ers, the true all-time home run champ Aaron, the starting pitcher and Cub nemesis Phil Niekro, and Orlando Cepeda who was in the midst of his grand tour of NL teams.

Bottom of first; Kessinger – single; Beckert - line drive single, Kess to third; (that was the daily double 25 years before we trade marked it), Williams – K; Santo who was leading the league in RBI’s, got his 100th, on a 3 run HR (25th) shot down the line onto the cat walk.

And that was it, no more scoring the rest of the game. The entire game was an even 2 hours; Neikro settled down and only allowed the Cubs 2 more hits the rest of the game. We were all aware that Holtzman had the no-no as early as the top half of the third, but otherwise I honestly don’t remember any other game specific plays until the top of the seventh.

Hank Aaron led off the seventh. If you are in the bleachers during batting practice (back then they let you in the bleachers before BP started), especially when the wind is blowing out, and the big boys start peppering them out, you get a good feel for judging home runs. This one going left or right, too short - warning track, this one’s going on Waveland, – and this one is coming right at us.

Aaron hit the first pitch and my immediate reaction – this one is coming right at us. I was in the second row left center bleachers, slightly to the center field side of the indent in the wall. About half-way through its flight the ball began to hook toward the left field line. But, it still had the distance. I saw Williams tracking toward the wall, and then, nothing - the ball and Williams disappeared. There was a crowd reaction, but I couldn’t see the end of the play, nor could anyone around me. I expected it to be a HR, a half second later we realized that Williams made an amazing catch. Of course I have seen this replay a hundred times (like to show my kids where I was sitting – they are so not impressed) since, and still marvel at how Billy stuck with it.

The electricity was already clearly evident, but from that moment to the end of the game it was like nothing I have ever experienced in any sporting event – ever. In the ninth, I became aware of people crowding in around us, they were positioning to get as close to the field as possible. 2 outs, Hank Aaron up again, worked a 3-2 count. I was scared to death. As soon as he hit it on the ground I knew we were golden, I couldn’t see Beckert do his infamous double clutch, but he got it to Banks. No-hitter.

Then all hell broke loose.

I tried to stay focused on the field, I saw Santo lead the charge to maul Holtzman. But, at the same time the bleachers around me were literally pouring onto the field. There was no triangle top to the wall, no goofy garden-hose basket, fans stood or sat on the wall and then jumped down to the field, some used the ivy to climb/fall down. Thirty seconds after Aaron grounded into the last out there were literally hundreds of fans on the field. As I looked around at least half of the left field bleachers were on the field. I can’t explain why we didn’t follow, I can only say that today, 40 years years later (even though I detest goofballs who run on the field today), I have a tinge of regret for not following. If this game was not the sole reason for the eventual triangle top and basket in the bleachers it was certainly the tipping point. By the next April the old wall was marred for life.

Post Game

I didn’t realize until I saw Vince Lloyd’s on field interview with Holtzman that night, that he had no strike outs (I remember Holtzman saying he was “challenging every batter”). Also Heath was injured in the eighth, and with the no-hitter on the line, a new (3rd after Hundley) catcher entered the game in the ninth. With the no-hitter, Holtzman got his 7th shutout of the year, tying him with the league lead shared by his teammate - Fergie Jenkins. The Cubs top three of Jenkins, Holtzman, and Hands worked 53 (yes fifty three) complete games that year.

The no-hitter was a confirmation, we were always seeking confirmation, that the 69 team was for real. No flash in the pan. Jim Palmer had just thrown a no-no for the Orioles six days earlier, and since the O’s were also the only team that had a better overall record than the Cubs it bolstered the talk the O’s were a superior team to the upstart Cubs. So the best team in the AL just threw down no-hitter, this was our answer. Obviously it was going to be a Cub/Oriole world series. I remember coming home on the L, discussing strategies for camping out overnight for world series tickets. We were sure it was going to happen - turns out it was my last trip to Wrigley in 69.

Just as you can graph the Cubs 69 season to this pinnacle on August 19th, you can start the agonizing, panicked decline the very next day. The Cubs lost the next three to the Braves, and lost 7 of 9 for the rest of the this long anticipated home stand. Then came September.

69 wasn’t just about a good team that didn’t quite get there, it was a culture change. Today, watching to game in the bleachers is still fun (IMHO the best location to see a game), but it is not the same as back then. The economics are a big factor. In 69, I paid ONE dollar to get in the game. With the bus, L, hot dog and coke (too young for beer) my total spend was less than $3. It was the perfect timing for me, I was young enough not to have a full time job, old enough to go to game with my friends, and I was fortunate enough to see about a dozen or so games in the bleachers that year. I wasn’t alone; you would see the same core people at every game. Experiences from one game built upon those proceeding, and it was an experience so fundamentally different than the years proceeding 69 that it was shocking. Orchestrated chants, getting the "ummmmmmmm" sign from Selma from the bullpen with any offensive rally, getting at the ballpark at 7am to sit on the sidewalk for three hours, cheerleaders with hard harts walking on top of the outfield wall, trumpets blaring (was that Mike Murphy), all this to me was heaven. We didn’t sing Go Cubs Go, but we all made sure we saw #10 click his heels.

Sorry, I know this is now way too long. But, it was a lot of fun to write. Today is a special day.

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