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Book review: ‘The 1969 Cubs’

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It’s hard to believe 50 years have gone by.

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In 1969, the Cubs were 24 years from their most recent league pennant and that honestly didn’t feel too long. Of the “Original 16” teams, two others (Indians, 1948 and Phillies, 1950) had similar droughts and the Athletics franchise hadn’t appeared in one since 1931, two cities ago.

So while Cubs fans had gone through 20 years of bad baseball, finishing over .500 just once between 1947 and 1966, it wasn’t the century-long drought that took on a life of its own in 1969. With Leo Durocher taking over as manager in 1966 and the team suddenly in contention the following year, it seemed at the time just part of the cycle of baseball.

The new book “The 1969 Cubs,” co-written by Cubs Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins and longtime Chicago sportswriter George Castle, looks at the team from the perspective of that time frame, how the city and the fanbase got tremendously excited about the prospect of getting to the World Series. Remember, this was the first year of divisional play where teams would have to win a best-of-five League Championship Series to get to the World Series.

The Cubs, after their great second half in 1968, came into 1969 as favorites to get to that World Series, even though the Cardinals were two-time defending league champions.

This book is a loving chronicle of that season, and it’s a bit different than most books you see written by a baseball player “with” a sportswriter. In most of those, the writer does most of the writing, giving voice to the ballplayer.

“The 1969 Cubs” is clearly a joint effort. Fergie’s first-person accounts of his daily travels to the ballpark with Billy Williams, who lived nearby, his and his teammates’ willingness to play every day, and how they were all as crushed as the fans were by the September collapse come out clearly in his portions of the book.

Castle’s contributions add to this by shaping the narrative that was put out every day for Cubs fans by local media and on WGN-TV. While WGN didn’t have national cable exposure in those days, it did have a “network” of TV stations that covered most of Illinois and Iowa and parts of Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. It’s likely that more people watched Cubs games, even in that era, than local broadcasts of any other team, and Castle goes into fascinating detail about how Cubs games were covered on television, with WGN’s broadcasts far ahead of their time with camera coverage, replays and more. (Unfortunately, the publisher didn’t have anyone double-check the chapter on WGN, as the station is misidentified there as “WGH.”)

Meanwhile, Jenkins devotes an entire chapter to the team’s fatigue, titled “We Played ‘Til We Dropped — By Our Own Choice.” While the Cubs didn’t have many suitable backups, save for infielder Paul Popovich, Fergie quotes a couple of his teammates as saying they wanted to play every day.

Don Kessinger:

“Would I like to have some days off? Answer is no. I wanted to win a pennant. If Leo had come to me and asked if I wanted a day of rest, I’d say no. That’s the way all of our guys felt. We felt we were the best team in the league.”

Glenn Beckert:

“Back then, there was a feeling in baseball if you weren’t in the lineup playing, your job was in jeopardy. It’s not like today when players take for granted they’re going to be rested. If your name wasn’t in the lineup, you went up to the manager and asked why am I not playing today? There was a different atmosphere. Only a manager who didn’t have the talent in the starting lineup used backups. The Mets had great pitching, but they didn’t have the talent we had at the everyday positions. And that’s why they used everybody on their team. They had to. The Cubs had a set lineup and so did other teams in that league.”

But Fergie went on to describe how the fatigue got to every player, one by one, and reached this conclusion:

Durocher was in effect a 1930’s manager going against a 1970’s (or later) skipper in [Gil] Hodges.

And I think that’s correct. Casey Stengel won 10 pennants and seven World Series as Yankees manager in the 1950s in part because he platooned a lot of his players, something that was brought further into vogue by Earl Weaver with his great Orioles teams of the 1960s and 1970s. Leo didn’t — either because he was stuck in a 1930s mindset, or because he simply didn’t have any decent bench players, or both.

Then why is this team so beloved, 50 years later? Ron Santo, quoted by Fergie, summed it up best:

“Everybody asks me, what did the ‘69 Cubs have that everybody remembers us? I tell them, ‘We related to the fans. We signed autographs. We talked to them.’”

The book remembers those fans, too, describing in great detail the famed Bleacher Bums as well as the other Cubs fans who packed Wrigley Field, setting a franchise attendance record that had stood for 40 years.

If you lived through the Cubs’ 1969 season, this book will flood all your memories of that year back. If you’re too young to know it first-hand, the book is a time capsule of not only the Cubs’ year, but the things that were changing around baseball and in society in general. Those of us who lived through this collapse thought the Cubs might win the following year, or the next, or... obviously it never happened with that group, and the special things that happened that year faded away, even the player/fan relationship changed. 1969 was a unique year in Cubs history, worth remembering or learning about, and this book is well worth reading.

In addition to the Amazon link above, you can find this book at 1969cubs.com, where you can buy a copy signed by Fergie.

Lastly, a reminder that throughout the 2019 baseball season I’ll be running a series here on key events and games from the Cubs’ 1969 season, on the exact 50th anniversary date.