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Today in Cubs history: Ernie Banks hits his 500th home run

It could have happened three days earlier.

Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

You have undoubtedly seen the video of Ernie Banks hitting his 500th home run, off Pat Jarvis of the Atlanta Braves, many times.

Today is the 50th anniversary of that milestone blast. So let’s watch it again [VIDEO].

On a coolish, overcast Tuesday afternoon in May at Wrigley Field, just 5,264 paid to witness Ernie make history with that home run.

The home run actually was an important hit in that game. The Cubs were down 2-0 at the time, and eventually tied the game on a Billy Williams homer — off Hoyt Wilhelm, who would briefly become a Cub later that year — in the ninth and won it 4-3 on an RBI single by Ron Santo in the 10th. Before that win, the 1970 Cubs, who had gotten off to a 13-4 start and a three-game lead in the N.L. East, had lost eight of their last 10. It was all for naught by the end of that season, as the Cubs fell out of first place with a 12-game losing streak in June (thus the “June swoon” that became a Cubs meme in that era) and finished second, five games behind the division-winning Pirates.

I have told this story before, but on the 50th anniversary of Ernie’s landmark home run, it deserves repeating. Ernie’s 500th should have happened the previous Saturday, May 9, 1970, in front of 33,168 at Wrigley. I was at that game and saw his 499th [VIDEO].

Now that was a majestic home run that landed on Waveland Avenue, in front of a near-capacity crowd, in a game the Cubs won 8-1. The homer, off Reds lefthander Don Gullett, made the score 7-1 in the seventh inning.

And that one should have been No. 500. Why? On June 30, 1969 the Cubs were in Montreal to face the Expos in a scheduled night game. It had rained much of the day and early evening and frankly, the game shouldn’t have been played at all, since the teams had an afternoon contest scheduled the next day. But the rain stopped long enough for the umpires to have play begin, even though it was still a bit drizzly and foggy.

In the second inning, with the Cubs leading 1-0 (on a Don Kessinger leadoff homer, of all things), Banks hit a ball over the fence at Jarry Park for what should have been a home run.

Except Ernie didn’t get credit for that home run. Expos right fielder Rusty Staub kicked some dirt around the bottom of the fence and told the umpires, who were having trouble seeing in the fog, that the ball had gone under the fence.

Obviously, that’s ludicrous, but the umpires believed him and Ernie was given a ground-rule double instead of the home run he had actually hit. The Cubs played the game under protest, which was disallowed, and it wound up a 5-2 loss. Many years later Staub told writers that he had to walk away from the scene so the umps wouldn’t see him laughing. Staub passed away in 2018 so he can no longer talk about this, but seriously... he shouldn’t have done that.

If Banks had been properly credited with that homer, No. 499 on May 9, 1970 would have been No. 500 and even more celebrated than it actually was, before a much larger crowd, and Ernie would have retired with 513 home runs, not 512.

C’est la vie.

Footnote: May 12 is the anniversary of another significant event in Cubs history, a no-hitter thrown by Sam Jones in 1955, the Cubs’ first no-no in 38 years. The 4-0 victory, also played in front of a very small crowd (just 2,938), featured Jones issuing seven walks. In the ninth, he walked the bases loaded and then struck out the side (and some pretty good hitters, too, Dick Groat, Roberto Clemente and Frank Thomas) to complete the no-hitter. The game was the second of a remarkable (for that era) run in which the Cubs went 19-6 to reach 11 games over .500. After that, though, they slumped to the worst record in the N.L., 41-61, and finished in sixth place at 72-81.

And sadly, Jones’ no-hitter was played in a pre-videotape era, so we have no video record of that historic game, which happened 65 years ago today.