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1969 Cubs Historical Heroes and Goats: Part 1

We travel back 50 years to look at a fabled team

Willie Smith in 1968 (note Illinois 150th anniversary patch)
Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps, a year will come when my off-season series isn’t a season that ends in gut-wrenching fashion. This isn’t that year. For some, I know that looking back on these seasons is a source of pain. Certainly, I remember the bitter pain of the 2003 season I wrote about last year. Definitely, I remember being blindsided by the end of the 1984 season. I wasn’t alive in 1969, but of course it is hard to be a Cub fan without having some level of awareness of what 1969 was in Cub history.

Your mileage will vary, but I’m going to say this. Yes, the best part of being a sports fan is buying in... all of the way in. Experiencing the highs and the lows as the season goes on. In those seasons, if you do that, it’s gonna hurt or make you angry when a once promising season turns to ashes. It’s going to be frustrating when they have extended losing streaks or are bad for several years in a row. You can’t really fully experience the joy, the sorrow and the madness of being a fan without that full buy in.

As a defense mechanism, we might distance ourselves from the team. We take a wait and see approach. We’ll wait to see if the team is any good before the buy-in. That has helped. Certainly, the 2019 season was off just enough that I didn’t get fully invested. And so, I wasn’t nearly as put off when things went south as I was in 2018 when I spent a chunk of the season believing the team would get back to the Series even if they would face an uphill battle once there.

Even if you take that ride and even if the team breaks your heart, don’t let it poison how much fun the journey was. Of course, 1984, 2003 and 1969 were all heart-breakers. But don’t let that ruin the joy that was a franchise reaching the playoffs for the first time in nearly 40 years, a team that won the first playoff series in almost 60 years and the team that was loaded with talent and came so close to ending the losing.

Of course, every season is necessarily a part of the collective lore of a franchise. But specifically, all three of those seasons shape everything Cub. The 1969 Cubs shattered the franchise attendance record. A record that would stand until... 1984. The 1984 team shattered the 1969 record, pushing past two million tickets sold for the first time in Cub history. There would only be three subsequent seasons in the next 35 and counting seasons with fewer than two million, and two of those were seasons shortened by labor disputes. The 2003 season would flirt with three million and then the following season, it would cross that mark.

These great seasons grow Cub fandom. It’s easy for me to remember that I first started watching Cub games in 1983. But I fell in love with them in 1984. I decided in spring training that they were destined for the playoffs and when they did, I was smitten forever. But my actual Cub fandom traces back to 1969. You see, that’s when my parents fell for the Cubs. And so it was that I was raised a Cub fan. In 1983, my dad took me to my first game. In 1984, my love affair grew. And eventually, I’d hear stories about some of the great players in Cubs history. It made me smile as I started to look deeper into the 1969 season that it begins with a memory my dad had told me about.

I hope you’ll join me for this look back into 1969. I hope you’ll help me remember and celebrate some of the greatest Cubs players ever. I hope we’ll mostly remember the good about that season and not dwell too heavily on the bad that was the way it fell apart. I’m going to take a look at who some of those players were. We won’t only look at the superstars, but some of the role players and how they contributed. Of course, 1969 was a very different time than 2019. Only about 20 guys logged significant plate appearances or innings. A vastly different experience than we see these days.

Setting the table

In 1969, the Cubs were coming off two straight years with a winning record. In 1967, the Cubs had won 87 games and finished in third place in the 10-team National League. That was 14 games out of first. In 1968, they’d again finish third, but they took a step back and only won 84 games. That was good for 13 games out of first. In 1969, the National League expanded from 10 to 12 teams and split into two divisions for the first time. The new teams were the Montreal Expos and the San Diego Padres.

The 1969 Cubs were managed by Leo Durocher. The team boasted a core of four future Hall of Famers in Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, Ron Santo and Billy Williams. The Cubs had a starting rotation that boasted four starters that combined for 159 starts in the era of the four-man rotation and had a pair of 20-game winners. The bullpen was led by Phil “The Vulture” Regan who appeared in 71 games, saving 17 of them. The lineup boasted four players who’d hit 20+ homers. A young Joe Niekro made a made a cameo for this team as did Oscar Gamble.

Five Cubs would make the All-Star team. None of them were pitchers and none of them were outfielders. Nope, the Cubs sent their catcher and all four infielders to the All-Star Game.

Game 1, April 8: Cubs 7, Phillies 6, 11 innings (1-0)

On opening day, the Cubs win a thriller in 11 innings. It didn’t initially look like it would be, as the team jumped out to a 5-1 lead after three innings. But the Phillies scored four runs over the final three innings to tie the game at five. It would stay there until the 11th when the Phillies plated a run to take a 6-5 lead (for those fans of old school ball, it was a single, a sacrifice bunt and a double for the lead). In the bottom of the 11th, Randy Hundley singled with one out and Durocher sent Willie Smith to pinch hit. Willie hit a home run to deep center field and the Cubs walked it off. That event ticked in at .788 for Smith. Here’s the homer:

  • Superhero: Willie Smith (.788). 1-1, HR, 2BI
  • Hero: Ernie Banks (.277). 3-5, 2HR, 2R, 3RBI
  • Sidekick: Randy Hundley (.091). 1-4, 1R, HBP
  • Billy Goat: Ferguson Jenkins (-.269). 8IP, 5ER, 9H, 0BB, 9K
  • Goat: Ron Santo (-.087). 1-5, 1R
  • Kid: Don Young (-.085). 0-3, BB

Game 2, April 9: Cubs 11, Phillies 3 (2-0)

The Cubs plated two in the third, the Phillies bounced back with two in the fourth, but the Cubs took the lead for good with two in the bottom of the fourth. Then they broke it wide open with a seven run seventh as they opened the season with back-to-back wins. The Heroes and Goats observation of the game is we may have a lot of positive WPA’s on the Goat side given the lack of substitution.

  • Superhero: Bill Hands (.186). CG, 7H, 0BB, 3R (1ER), 6K
  • Hero: Billy Williams (.169). 4-4, 4 2B(!), BB, R, 2RBI
  • Sidekick: Glenn Beckert (.146). 3-5, 2B, 2R, 2RBI
  • Billy Goat: Ron Santo (-.119). 1-4, BB, RBI
  • Goat: Randy Hundley (-.062). 0-4, SH, RBI, R
  • Kid: Don Kessinger (.004). 2-4, 2B, 2R, 2RBI, SF

Game 3, April 10: Cubs 6, Phillies 2 (3-0)

The Cubs allowed a run in the top of the first, but then scored in each of the fourth through eighth innings, including two in the fifth and completed a three game sweep of the Phillies.

  • Superhero: Ken Holtzman (.298). CG, 11H, 2ER, 2BB, 5K
  • Hero: Ron Santo (.158). 3-4, 2HR, 3R, 2RBI
  • Sidekick: Don Kessinger (.142). 2-5, 2B, 2RBI
  • Billy Goat: Billy Williams (-.157). 0-5, K
  • Goat: Glenn Beckert (-.051). 0-3, 2BB
  • Kid: Ernie Banks (-.012). 0-4

Game 4, April 11: Cubs 1, Expos 0; 12 innings (4-0)

It took 12 innings to do, but the Cubs opened a second consecutive series with a walk-off win. That run scored with two outs in the 12th. In fact, the decisive rally started with two out. Don Kessinger walked, stole second and went to third on a throwing error. Glenn Beckert walked and moved to second on defensive indifference. Billy Williams then singled in the winning run. That play is an interesting change through the years. Obviously, with runners on second and third and no outs, you are always in a ton of trouble. But, modern strategy would call for Williams to be walked intentionally, even knowing that Ron Santo and Ernie Banks were to follow.

  • Superhero: Joe Niekro (.695). 9IP, 7H, 1BB, 2K
  • Hero: Billy Williams (.474). 3-6, RBI
  • Sidekick: Ted Abernathy (.419). 3IP, 0H, 2BB, 2K
  • Billy Goat: Ron Santo (-.259). 0-4, 1BB, 1K
  • Goat: Ernie Banks (-.211). 0-4, 1BB, 1K
  • Kid: Al Spangler (-.208). 0-4, SH

Game 5, April 12: Cubs 3, Expos 7 (4-1)

This is one of those “the game wasn’t as close as the score” type of games. The Expos plated five runs over the first three innings and were leading 7-0 before the Cubs scored three in the bottom of the ninth.

  • Superhero: Gary Ross (.003). 2IP, 0H, 0BB, 2K
  • Hero: Jim Qualls (.002). 1-1, 1R
  • Sidekick: Billy Williams/Hank Aguirre (.000). Williams 1-4, RBI. Aguirre 1 IP, 1H, 0BB
  • Billy Goat: Ferguson Jenkins (-.304). 2IP, 7H, 5ER, 0BB, 1K
  • Goat: Ron Santo (-.073). 0-4, 2K
  • Kid: Don Kessinger (-.037). 1-4, 1R

Game 6, April 13: Cubs 7, Expos 6 (5-1)

A 5-1 first week of the season included three walk-off wins. That is one fantastic way to start a season. In this one, the Cubs plated two in each of the first two innings, but the Expos bounced back with two in the third and three in the fifth. A run in the eighth for the Expos had the Cubs trailing 6-4 heading into the ninth.

Jim Hickman reached on an error to start the inning. Willie Smith then reached on a fielder’s choice, when the Expos tried and failed to get the lead runner. After a strikeout, Don Kessinger had an RBI double. A ground out had two outs and runners on second and third. This time, the Expos elected to intentionally walk Billy Williams. Ron Santo followed with a walk to tie the game and Ernie Banks followed with a single to walk it off.

  • Superhero: Ron Santo (.424). 0-2, 3BB, 1RBI
  • Hero: Don Kessinger (.251). 1-5, 2B, R, RBI, K
  • Sidekick: Ernie Banks (.226). 1-3, BB, SF, 2RBI
  • Billy Goat: Glenn Beckert (-.331). 2-5, R, K. (Beckert’s ground out with runners on second and third failed to tie the game and made the second out).
  • Goat: Bill Hands (-.164). 7IP, 5H, 5R (0ER), 2BB, 6K (Cubs made three errors)
  • Kid: Jim Qualls (-.128). 0-1, K

Despite the 5-1 start, the Cubs were only tied for first place. The Cubs and Pirates posted identical results for the first six games and the two teams were tied on each of the first six days of the season.

Week 1 Hitter Feature: Willie Smith. Smith had the dramatic walk-off homer in the opener. He was 30 years old in 1969. He came to the Cubs in June 1968 when the Cubs traded Lou Johnson to the Indians. He was initially signed by the Detroit Tigers in 1960 and debuted with them in 1963, getting into 17 games. In a nine-year career, Smith would play in 691 games for five teams. He largely played corner outfield and some first base. He also pitched in 29 games in his career, including three starts. In fact, he was primarily a pitcher with the Tigers in 1963. The best year of his career was 1965 for the California Angels. He had a line of .261/.308/.423 and slugged 14 HR while getting a career high 498 plate appearances.

Smith played in three seasons as a Cub, getting 562 PA with a .244/.311/.425 line and slugging 19 homers. His OPS+ across those three years was 97, pegging him just below league average. In 1969, Smith played in 103 games, but only had 223 PA, largely appearing as a pinch hitter. But, he did have a line of .246/.330/.441 with nine homers and an OPS+ of 104.

Week 1 Pitcher Feature: Joe Niekro. Niekro threw nine shutout innings in his 1969 debut for the Cubs in a game where the Cubs would ultimately win 1-0. Many will remember Joe as an Astro, a team he played for 11 years with. The younger brother of Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, Joe was drafted by the Cubs in the June 1966 draft (3rd round) after failing to sign with the Indians in the January 1966 draft (7th round).

Joe reached the majors for the Cubs in 1967 at the age of 22. He pitched in 74 games, starting 54 as a Cub before being traded early in the 1969 season. Indeed, his best years were with the Astros, amassing 144 wins in 397 games (301 starts) for them. In all, Joe pitched in 702 games, starting 500 of them. He pitched in parts of 22 big league seasons and won 221 games. He twice received Cy Young and MVP votes (‘78 and ‘79) and made the 1979 All-Star team. Both seasons were with the Astros. His most remarkable statistic? 172 wild pitches, 24th all-time. Of course, his brother had 226 of them, good for seventh.

His most similar player names on Baseball Reference by age are fun for a variety of reasons. Yovani Gallardo, a very modern player at age 22 was his closest comp. Familiar names like Ed Whitson (30) and Dick Tidrow (32). Joaquin Andujar (35) is a fun name to remember. At 37, there is a familiar face in Charlie Root. Then at 38 there is brother Phil. Jerry Koosman at 40 and 42 with another Jerry (Reuss) in-between and then Dennis Martinez in 43. That group of comps lands Joe very squarely in the Hall of Pretty Good. That list of names had a number of interesting contributions in baseball history to say the least.

Up Next: Week 2 will see the Cubs finish their opening homestand with two games against co-division leader Pittsburgh. The team then heads out on the road and plays two in St. Louis before heading for another weekend series with the Expos north of the border in Montreal. That series includes a Sunday double header. That would be the first of 14 scheduled double headers (15 overall).