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Today in 1969 Cubs history: Willie Smith walks it off on Opening Day

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Willie Smith in 1968 (note Illinois sesquicentennial patch on sleeve)
Wikimedia Commons

To understand the true meaning of Willie Smith’s walkoff two-run homer on April 8, 1969, 50 years ago today, a little background is needed.

The Cubs had gone into a two-decade slumber after 1946. From 1947-66 — 20 full seasons — they had finished over .500 just once (1963) and lost 90 or more games 11 times.

Then, suddenly, in 1967 they awoke and went into first place briefly in July before fading and finishing third. Still, the 87-74 record they posted that year was their best since 1946 and with young stars Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins, hope was strong for the future.

In 1968 the Cubs got off to a bad start. On July 5 they lost 4-0 to the Pirates and were 35-45, in ninth place, 15½ games out of first. It seemed, as in the words of Jackson Browne, that 1967 had been “only the fitful dreams of some greater awakening.”

That “greater awakening” began in the last half of 1968. From July 6, 1968 through the end of the season the Cubs went 49-33, the best record in the National League. They finished over .500 at 84-78, in third place. To this day they are the only Cubs team to be 10 games under .500 and finish that year with a winning record. (The 2007 Cubs were nine under at 22-31 before winning the N.L. Central that year.) The Cubs finished with winning records in 1967 and 1968, the first time they had back-to-back winning seasons in 22 years.

So hopes were high for the Cubs contending in 1969, even though the Cardinals had won consecutive National League pennants.

In that era, more than half the Wrigley Field seats (3,300 bleachers and 22,000 grandstand) were sold only on the day of the game. The Tribune reported that several thousand were in line by 8 a.m. on Opening Day, April 8, to buy these tickets, and the eventual announced attendance (and remember, in 1969 it was actual turnstile count, not just tickets sold) of 40,796 was “the largest for a Cubs home opener in modern history.” And remember, in 1969 official seating capacity at Wrigley Field was not quite 38,000.

It was a cloudy day, with a fairly mild game-time temperature of 65, and rain in the forecast. Fergie Jenkins immediately gave the Phillies a 1-0 lead before the Cubs could even bat, but Cubs hitters came back in the bottom of the first with three, courtesy of a three-run homer by Ernie Banks. It was the Cubs star’s 475th career home run, which tied him with Stan Musial on the all-time home run list. Ernie passed Musial two innings later with a two-run shot, his 476th, giving the Cubs a 5-1 lead.

But Don Money homered off Jenkins in the seventh, the first of his career, to make it 5-2, and a tiring Fergie gave up singles leading off the ninth to Johnny Callison and Cookie Rojas. Now, these days a manager would come and get his starter in that situation, or not even let him begin the ninth, but that was not how baseball worked in 1969, and not how Leo Durocher operated.

Up stepped Money, and out went another baseball, a three-run homer that tied the game 5-5.

Phil Regan came on and ended the frame. No one scored in the 10th, and again, Leo left his pitcher in too long. In the 11th, Callison singled and was sacrificed to second, where Money doubled him in.

Don Money went on to have a 16-year major-league career, mostly with the Brewers, and had nearly 7,000 plate appearances. At the time he was a 22-year-old rookie playing in his fifth major-league game. He had only four other five-RBI games the rest of his career.

So the Cubs trailed 6-5 going into the bottom of the 11th and most Cubs fans could have been forgiven if they had thought, “Here we go again.”

With one out in the 11th, Randy Hundley singled. And up stepped Willie Smith, pinch-hitting for Jim Hickman:

Modern announcers, though they favor the home team, don’t root outwardly for the club as Jack Brickhouse did back then. For those of us who grew up with Brickhouse, it was a way of life. You could feel the excitement, that’s for sure. The Cubs would win 11 of their first 12 games in 1969 and the playoffs seemed like a foregone conclusion.

Once again this year, April 8 is the home opener at Wrigley Field. (In 1969, it was also the season opener.) Let’s hope for good results (better than the 2019 season-opening road trip, anyway!) as the Cubs begin their 2019 home season this afternoon.

This series will continue throughout the season, noting key events on the 50th anniversary of the Cubs’ memorable 1969 season. Thanks to BCBer MN exile for his assistance with the video clip.