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Today in 1969 Cubs history: Ron Santo and the black cat

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An omen? Or just a cat?

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One day after suffering a crushing defeat on a disputed call at the plate, the Cubs again faced the Mets at Shea Stadium. That loss had been their fifth in a row. Even so, the Cubs still had a division lead of 1½ games entering this second of a brief two-game series against the Mets.

It was before this game that Leo Durocher made a decision that might have cost the Cubs the game. Ken Holtzman was going to have to skip a start for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, on his regular turn Saturday, September 13. It would have been Holtzman’s turn to start this game at Shea. Durocher figured, according to Fergie Jenkins’ book “The 1969 Cubs,” that he could move Holtzman up to Wednesday, September 10 at Philadelphia, and then Ken could start Sunday, September 14 in St. Louis.

But that meant that Fergie had to start this game September 9 at Shea... on two days’ rest. Even back then, that wasn’t optimal.

And once the game started, a non-player ran onto the field. There’s video, which you have probably seen before:

The Tribune recap of this game featured a photo prominently placed on the front page of the sports section. Santo was on deck and:

Jenkins sustained his 13th loss, an item which some fans must have had in mind in the first inning when they tossed a black cat onto the field, heading the animal in the direction of the Cubs dugout for bad luck.

The frightened feline reversed his course and dashed under the stands to safety on the other side, next to the Mets’ dugout.

No one seemed to make much of this at the time except to mention it, and according to this, in some cultures black cats are considered good luck, not bad luck.

And here’s an article from Sports Illustrated, just published a couple of days ago, that tells the story of the black cat from the perspective of Jim Flood, a Cubs batboy at the time:

Flood’s primary memory of the cat is that it was creeping toward Cubs manager Leo Durocher, who was seated in the dugout. “He was saying, ‘Somebody get that f------ cat outta here. Get him away from me!’ I didn’t know if I should laugh or what. I mean, I was a kid. But we were playing like crap, and now this.”

The Cubs scored their only run of the game that inning (Santo knocked it in with a single), but they went on to lose the game and soon saw their season fall apart. “I don’t know if it was because of the cat,” Flood says, “but we played terrible after that. The Mets blew right past us.”

In Fergie Jenkins’ book “The 1969 Cubs,” he wrote of this incident:

I always believed the cat — or more specifically a kitten — was turned loose by the Shea Stadium grounds crew, or perhaps jokester Mets pitcher Tug McGraw, from the double doors behind home plate. Ronnie [Santo] was still swinging his bat, getting loose, and the cat was right behind him. The cat’s pose was something nobody ever forgets. I saw it and the other guys on the bench were laughing. The cat just walked past Santo, past the dugout and it was gone. Boom! It was there and it was gone.

No one really got the Mets off the hook for the cat’s appearance until much later, when [Randy] Hundley had a more specific explanation.

“[Mets catcher] Jerry Grote asked me 30 years after, ‘Did you guys think we sent that cat onto the field?’” The Rebel recalled. “I said, yeah. But Jerry said they didn’t have anything to do with it; those cats lived underneath the stands chasing rats all the time. Holy Cow, can you believe that? We came down the runway from the clubhouse. There was a hole by the seats next to the runway, and the bloomin’ cat came through the hole.”

The Mets haven’t forgotten. This photo is from Citi Field, via Paul Sullivan:

Most likely, the reason the Cubs lost this game was Durocher’s choice to start Jenkins on short rest; he got hit hard. Even in that era when starting pitchers were expected to throw complete games (and Leo didn’t trust much of his bullpen), the load caught up to Fergie. Over his last six starts in 1969, Jenkins posted a 5.27 ERA and 1.610 WHIP over 41 innings, far worse than his previous performance.

The Cubs lost this game 7-1, their sixth consecutive defeat. Even after that, they maintained a half-game lead in the N.L. East, though with one more loss than the Mets had. They were heading to Philadelphia to face a Phillies team that was on its way to a 99-loss season.

What could possibly go wrong?


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