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Today in 1969 Cubs history: The day the dream really died

One missed play summed up the collapse.

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Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia in the early 1960s
By xnedski - CC BY-SA 2.0,

After the Cubs were swept in New York in the “Agee game” and the “black cat game,” they moved on to Philadelphia, where an out-of-gas offense got shut down by the Phillies 6-2 on September 10. It was the Cubs’ seventh straight defeat.

Even so, they entered action on the night of September 11 in Philadelphia just one game behind the Mets (though two behind in the loss column) with 19 games remaining. There’s still enough time to come back, right? Right?

That might be true, but the Cubs were in disarray after losing seven games in a row. The Phillies were awful, though, a 99-loss team in 1969, and so the Cubs put their hopes on Dick Selma to defeat them in this second of a two-game set.

The Cubs nursed a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the third, when a two-out single and walk put runners on first and second, with the speedy Tony Taylor (19 steals that year) on second. Then Selma decided to try a play that he had discussed with Ron Santo earlier in the year.

Fergie Jenkins’ book “The 1969 Cubs” describes what happened with Dick Allen at the plate:

Selma ran the count to 3-and-2, but did not particularly want to throw another pitch to the feared slugger in that situation.

He recalled being taught an avant garde pickoff play by Roger Craig in spring training with the Padres, prior to Selma’s trade to the Cubs. With the full count, the runners would be off with Selma’s motion. But instead of pitching to the plate, he’d wheel and throw to third to get Taylor.

Months before, Selma told Santo how he’d signal the play. “Knock the ball down, ‘Dag,’” was the verbal prompt. Santo would acknowledge the play by shouting “OK.”

But so much time had passed that Santo did not recall the prompts. He concentrated on the hitter. The situation logically would not be the time to employ an unusual pick-off play. When he heard Selma yell for him to knock the ball down, that’s exactly what a Gold Glover would do with Allen — keep the ball from getting into left field.

“I missed the sign,” Santo said in For Love of Ivy. “Sure, I’m thinking — knock the ball down. I had forgotten that was the signal for that play. Selma wheeled and threw toward me; the ball went over my head into left field. A run scored.”

On TV, the image of the ball sailing into left field, no one taking the throw at third and Taylor scoring nailed down the idea that if it rains, it pours in this strange twist of the ‘69 season.

It was just the sort of thing that happens to collapsing teams. The game was only tied at the time and the Cubs actually took a 2-1 lead in the top of the eighth on Ernie Banks’ 22nd homer of the season. But two doubles and a homer by Allen in the bottom of the inning off a tiring Selma gave the Phillies a 4-2 lead. Willie Smith homered in the ninth and the Cubs had the tying run on base, but it ended in a 4-3 loss, the Cubs’ eighth in a row.

Now, had that third-inning play been made properly, would the Cubs have won the game? We’ll never know, and now being two games out and having the Mets’ magic number reduced to 18 seemed to take everything out of the Cubs. They finally broke the losing streak the next night in St. Louis, but then lost three more in a row before winning the last game of their disastrous 2-7 road trip in Montreal. They returned to Wrigley Field September 17 four games out and playing the Phillies in front of a sad little crowd of 6,062. They won that game and there still seemed a chance, four games out with 12 to go.

A four-game losing streak followed and that, as they say, was that. The Mets, who had won a game September 15 in which Steve Carlton set the (then) major-league record with 19 strikeouts, seemed a team of destiny.

The Mets clinched the N.L. East September 24 with a 6-0 win over the Cardinals.

This series will continue throughout the season, noting key events on the 50th anniversary of the Cubs’ memorable 1969 season.