After almost making it a race again, four games out on September 17 with 10 remaining, the Cubs went 3-6 entering that last day and the Mets clinched the division title September 24.
The Mets entered that final day tuning up for the upcoming NLCS against the Braves and pulled several of their regulars mid-game. The Cubs started their everyday lineup, except for Randy Hundley, who sat for John Hairston. Hairston’s brother Jerry later became a longtime outfielder for the White Sox and Jerry’s sons, Jerry Jr. and Scott, both played for the Cubs in later years. It was John Hairston’s only MLB start.
The Mets took a 3-0 lead, but Ron Santo and Ernie Banks homered and the Cubs won the game 5-3 despite making four errors. It was small consolation for the bigger prize they’d lost. Ernie had hit the Cubs’ first homer of the year on Opening Day; his 23rd of the season was their last.
It was a mostly cloudy Thursday afternoon, with temperatures in the 70s and a threat of rain, and as you might expect, a smallish crowd of 9,981 attended. WGN painted their ad sign on the Waveland & Kenmore building to read “Thank you Cubs for a fun year.”
And sideshows were the order of the day. A smoke bomb was thrown on the field in the second inning. The Tribune reported that in the sixth inning “a mini-skirted blonde danced her way from a box seat toward Wayne Garrett, the Mets’ third baseman, put her arms around him and planted a kiss.”
Then the Bleacher Bums got into the act, and it was not well-received. From Tribune writer Edward Prell:
The Andy Frain ushers and the special police crew were no match for these misguided nuts after they invaded the lower stands, gaining access from the catwalk off right field after parading from the other side of the bleachers.
There were at least 100 participating in the mob scene. Some of the demonstrators carried young children.
As they swarmed onto the second aisle of the lower deck, they brushed aside the outnumbered people who were charged with keeping order. They stormed onto the Cubs’ dugout roof, chanting their cheers.
When the final out came, it triggered another demonstration by misguided fans. They leaped from the left field bleachers. One girl was taken by the nearby fire department ambulance to a hospital. It was feared she suffered a broken back. Another girl required attention for an ankle injury.
Despite efforts by ushers and cops, the fans spilled onto the field. They raced around the infield, sliding into bases ahead of an imaginary tag. There were self-appointed coaches at third and first, waving home phantom runners. Meanwhile the organ played “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
Clearly, it was a different time. Incidents like these (and the 1976 rushing of the field at Yankee Stadium after the Yankees won the ALCS that year) led baseball teams to start thinking about ways to keep fans in the stands. It’s among the reasons the basket was installed in the bleachers in early May 1970.
Despite the crushing collapse, it really was a “fun year,” as WGN put it. The Cubs won 92 games, their most in 24 years. They wouldn’t win 90+ again until 1984, when they won 96 games and the N.L. East title for their first postseason appearance since 1945. The 1969 season attendance of 1,674,993 broke a club record that had stood since 1929 (!) and again, would not be exceeded until that 1984 season, when the Cubs drew two million for the first time. (Keep in mind that until 1993, N.L. teams reported turnstile counts instead of tickets sold.)
The Cubs sent out a letter thanking fans, distributed by local media. It read, in part:
Never before, in our career in baseball, can we recall such loyal and vocal support for a ball club. You asked for only one thing, a pennant. In this, we failed. As badly as you wanted that pennant, imagine, if you can, that we wanted it ever so much more. We wanted it not only for ourselves and the club, but to give it to you, the fans of Chicago.
I have always believed the love was mutual, from fans to team and team to fans, and that’s one reason the 1969 Cubs are revered to this day, despite never winning anything. Another reason might be all the memorable events I’ve covered in this series of articles, many great things from great players that are indelible even though they failed to make the postseason. That year’s Cubs are one of the most essential parts of team history that helped create the huge, loyal fanbase the ballclub has now. You can get a bit more understanding of that team and its culture from this June 30, 1969 Sports Illustrated article, a snapshot in time about how the team and its fans created a synergy that, to some extent, lasts to this day.
For those of you too young to remember 1969, it was very much like the 2016 season, the Cubs dominating everyone, seemingly on their way to a World Series... until September, when they utterly collapsed. Many of us thought, even after the collapse, the Cubs would win in 1970. Or 1971, or... those teams contended, but never won, collapsing again in 1973 after having an eight-game lead at the halfway point. The core of that great ‘69 team was broken up by trades after the 1973 season.
And as for the Mets? Well, for many of us who lived through 1969, that created a longtime dislike of the Mets. The Cubs got a bit of revenge in 1984 by beating out the Mets for the N.L. East title, but couldn’t get that World Series win the Mets did in ‘69. The rivalry was diminished in 1994 when the two teams wound up in different divisions and since then have played only six to nine times a year instead of 18.
For me, that disdain of the Mets ended after the 2015 NLCS. When the Cubs faced them that year, my first feeling was that, as a fan, that could assuage the hurt of 1969, though of course none of the players in that NLCS was even alive that year.
The Mets, as you know, swept that series. They were just better, their pitching shutting down Cubs hitters. The Cubs got no revenge, but the Mets won it fair and square. It sounds paradoxical, ending a hatred borne of a loss with another loss, but there were no dropped fly balls or bad calls at the plate or black cats. That defeat on the baseball field in some way, for me anyway, wiped away the tears of 46 years, and the next year the Cubs got to the Promised Land, winning the N.L. pennant and World Series title, a gift decades in the making.
This concludes my season-long remembrance of the 50th anniversary of one of the most memorable seasons in Cubs history. Shockingly, the 2019 Cubs had a 1969-style collapse over the last couple of weeks of the season, losing nine in a row when they seemed to have a playoff spot locked up.
There’s always next year. Right?