The 1969 season had been pretty much one big party through the middle of August. But the Cubs lost seven of nine in late August and had their N.L. East lead cut to 2½ games. A five-game winning streak seemed to have righted the ship and the Cubs led the division by five games after defeating the Reds 8-2 on September 2. Their 84-52 record had produced a magic number of 23.
Uh-oh. The Cubs dropped the final game of their series in Cincinnati and lost the first two games of a set to the Pirates at Wrigley Field. They opened action on the last day of that series, Sunday, September 7, with a record of 84-55 and their lead still at 2½ games.
And the Pirates held a 4-2 lead going into the bottom of the seventh that Sunday afternoon. But the Bucs committed a couple of errors in that last of the seventh, and an infield single by Glenn Beckert made it 4-3. In the next inning, a two-run homer by Jim Hickman gave the Cubs a 5-4 lead.
In those days teams didn’t have one-inning “closers” the way we do now. Phil Regan, who was considered the team’s best reliever, had thrown a scoreless eighth. He came back out for the ninth and retired Matty Alou on a popup and Gene Alley on a comebacker.
That brought up Willie Stargell. Regan ran the count to 1-2. One strike away...
Stargell was a Cub-killer throughout his career, but this home run cemented that legacy. Stargell hit 32 of his 475 career homers at Wrigley Field, his most anywhere outside of Pittsburgh.
With one out in the top of the 11th and runners on first and second, Al Oliver, another noted Cub-killer, came to the plate:
One out later, another single followed from yet another noted Cub-killer, Richie Hebner, and the Pirates led 7-5. The Cubs did manage to get the tying runs on base in the last of the 11th, but Beckert lined into a game-ending double play. (Hebner had a .938 OPS and 30 home runs in 647 career at-bats against the Cubs, by far his best against any team. When the Cubs finally got him on their side in 1984, they won the N.L. East. Coincidence? Probably.)
Beyond that, 1969 established a dominance by the Pirates over the Cubs that would last through the end of the Wrigley ownership of the team. From 1969-81 the Cubs were 85-142 against the Pirates, a .374 winning percentage that was by far their worst against any team (next worst: Astros, .430). The Pirates won the season series against the Cubs every year in that span, except for 1974, when the teams split the 18 games (and the Cubs had to lose the last four that year to the Bucs to accomplish that!).
The Cubs’ losing streak had reached four and their lead dropped to 1½ games. It somehow seemed significant because of the way this game was lost, and the fact that they then had to travel to face the red-hot Mets in New York.
This is the earliest surviving scorecard from my personal collection, now 50 years old. You’ll pardon the handwriting of a heartbroken 12-year-old, who never did see the 1969 team win the championship we had all yearned for.
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 clips.