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50 years on, the 1969 Chicago Cubs are still beloved

Half a century has passed since this team thrilled us, then ended in disappointment.

Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Glenn Beckert head to the dugout after Ernie’s Opening Day homer April 8, 1969
Bettmann Archive

It is a sobering thought for those of us “of a certain age” who lived through the 1969 Cubs season and fell in love with that team, only to have our dreams crushed when they faded late in the season, that so many of our childhood heroes are now gone.

Of the 41 players who wore the blue pinstripes in 1969, 18 of them are no longer with us. Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, sadly, didn’t make it to see their beloved team win the World Series in 2016. Jim Hickman, Willie Smith, Oscar Gamble, Gene Oliver, Manny Jimenez, Charley Smith, Randy Bobb, Bill Hands, Dick Selma, Ted Abernathy, Joe Niekro, Hank Aguirre, Ken Johnson, Joe Decker, Don Nottebart and Alec Distaso are the other 1969 Cubs who have passed away.

Of those still living, Al Spangler is the oldest; he’ll be 86 in July. Next is Phil Regan, 82 in April, and Billy Williams, who will turn 81 in June.

Half a century. It’s amazing to me that much time has passed since these players thrilled us. When I watch video of those players memories flood back as if those games just happened this past summer. Some of the living 1969 Cubs, many of whom are Hall of Famers, attended this past weekend’s Cubs Convention and were interviewed by Phil Rosenthal of the Tribune.

The love affair was mutual. Randy Hundley perhaps said it best:

“That ballclub took the hearts of people,” said Randy Hundley, an All-Star catcher who played 151 games for the Cubs that season. “It is amazing when you think about it.”

Fergie Jenkins has a new book out on the 1969 Cubs, co-authored with George Castle (I hope to review the book here soon). He said he didn’t mind the 42 starts he made in 1969:

“There were so many accusations, like Leo played the guys too much, the heat hurt us,” Jenkins said. “I put in the book I didn’t have any problem pitching on three days’ rest.”

It was a different time. Fergie might not have had a problem making seven starts in September, but the results showed maybe he was worn down. He posted a 4.68 ERA and 1.520 WHIP after September 1, compared to 2.93 and 1.068 in 35 starts through the end of August.

Hundley and Jenkins don’t make excuses about what happened, though:

“I don’t ever want the perception of the ’69 ballclub being (a team) that failed because we gave it every stinkin’ thing we could give,” Hundley said.

Said Jenkins: “We had a great attitude. Right to the end the attitude never changed.”

And it’s not the collapse we want to remember. What’s worth remembering is the promise of the postseason for the first time for the Cubs in 24 years that the team gave us through the spring and summer months of 1969. The large crowds, 14 games drawing more than 35,000 and the Cubs breaking their franchise attendance record that had stood since 1929 (!). 1,674,993 went through the Wrigley Field turnstiles in 1969, and remember that’s actual turnstile count, not tickets sold as is announced today. The Cubs wouldn’t outdraw that until 1984.

In the end, I think this team is beloved in a way because they never won anything. Most of the core players — Santo, Jenkins, Hundley, Billy Williams, Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert — stayed together for four more seasons, contending in each one, yet never making the postseason, until they were all traded away. They persevered, yet failed, perhaps giving all of us a metaphor for how life in general doesn’t always give us what we want. Williams was one of only two of the longtime core group who tasted postseason play, a handful of at-bats for the A’s in the 1975 ALCS. Ken Holtzman, a Cub from 1965-71, also played in the postseason for the A’s from 1972-75.

When the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, they made rings for Ernie and Ron and displayed them at the Jostens Store at Gallagher Way. All this did was make it more poignantly sad that the ‘69 Cubs never won. Williams and Jenkins received rings, too, and were welcomed by the 2016 team as part of the group, a lovely gesture that helped to tie half a century of Cubs history up in a pretty little bow.

Throughout this season I’ll be posting articles about the 1969 team, commemorating events of that year on the 50th anniversary date, beginning with their Opening Day walkoff win, a date that coincides with the Cubs’ 2019 home opener.

It’s a year worth celebrating, even though it ended unsuccessfully. None of those players, I think, will ever be forgotten by Cubs fans, no matter their age.