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A Day In Wrigley Field History: April 6, 1971

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It was cold. It was Opening Day. And it was memorable.

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The 1969 Cubs fell short of winning a division title. Hopes were up in 1970, but it was just another failure.

Could the Cubs do it in 1971? Guys like Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins were still in the primes of their careers, and hopes were high as the Cubs took the field at Wrigley on April 6 to open the season against the Cardinals.

The boxscore says 39,079 attended, but the Tribune reported 41,121 (in those days, "paid" and "total in the house" numbers were both announced) fans were shivering in 40-degree cold, and all witnessed a fantastic pitcher's duel between future Hall of Famers Jenkins and Bob Gibson. It went into extra innings tied 1-1. The Cubs had scratched across a run in the fourth inning on a pair of singles and a double; the Cardinals tied it on a solo home run by Joe Torre in the seventh (Torre would go on to have the best year of his career and be named N.L. MVP).

Jenkins completed the top of the 10th by retiring the side 1-2-3. He had allowed just two hits besides Torre's home run.

The Tribune's George Langford tells what happened next:

Billy Williams’ swing is regarded as the quickest and sweetest in baseball and when the Cubs’ lithe slugger triggered it in the 10th inning yesterday a classic ended.

It lifted 41,121 fans in Wrigley Field to their frozen feet as they watched the ball soar toward the right field bleachers for a home run that climaxed a pitching masterpiece by two of the game’s best and provided the Cubs with a 2 to 1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Bob Gibson, who in the opinion of several Cubs pitched better than they had seen him in two years, was the victim of Williams’ drive, and Fergie Jenkins, who in the judgment of a number of players hurled the best game of his life, was the beneficiary.

There have been few opening day contests which have been more artfully executed. It was virtually without flaw and was punctuated by a truly remarkable fielding play by Shortstop Don Kessinger and another by Third Baseman Ron Santo that was only slightly less spectacular.

Manager Leo Durocher termed Kessinger’s charging, bare-handed grab of Matty Alou’s bunt in the ninth inning “the greatest play I’ve ever seen by a shortstop” and Santo made a sprawling stop of Julian Javier’s smash in the eighth which was rewarded by a standing salute from the sellout crowd which had the old park half filled by 9:30 a.m.

In those days, with 22,000 unreserved seats on sale only on the day of the game, for big games there were frequently many people who showed up extremely early, forcing Cubs officials to open the gates far earlier than usual.

I remember this game well, as it was the first Opening Day I ever attended (and yes, I remember how cold it was, too). I missed a few in my college years, which will make the 2014 opener my 38th. This one might, even after all these years, be the most memorable of all those I saw in person. (And quick, too -- check out the game time in the box score.)

Fergie Jenkins threw 32 complete games in his career where he allowed three or fewer hits. This one was the only one among those where he threw 10 innings.

If only this game had been a portent of the season to come, but it wasn’t. The Cubs floundered around third and fourth place much of the year before they sneaked to within 4½ games of first place after a doubleheader sweep of the Astros August 20.

That's just about when things blew up between Durocher and some of his players, with Leo and Ron Santo nearly coming to blows in the clubhouse. You can read more about that here. It was the beginning of the end for those teams that never quite made it.