I have written about Willie Smith’s 1969 Opening Day walkoff home run before, most recently on its 50th anniversary in April 2019.
So what do I have that’s new to say about this blast? Plenty, but first, let’s watch it again.
Just listen to Jack Brickhouse. I mean... Jack got overexcited about a lot of things that didn’t always warrant it, but that time, you could tell the excitement was genuine, a walkoff homer on Opening Day.
And that leads me to why this home run ranks fairly high on this list. You have to remember the context of this game.
The Cubs had a good year in 1967 and briefly contended. They did finish 84-78 in 1968, but that was after a 35-45 start that had them in ninth place on July 5, only a game out of last place in the National League. Just three of the other 19 teams (White Sox, Astros, Senators) had a worse record on that date. You could have forgiven Cubs fans, who had experienced 20 years without a winning record through 1966, about feeling they were going back to the “bad old days.”
A 49-33 finish to 1968 gave great hope for 1969, with young stars Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins and others putting together good seasons.
And then there was Opening Day at Wrigley, April 8, 1969 against the Phillies. The Phillies finished seventh in the N.L. in 1968 and weren’t expected to be any good in 1969 (and weren’t, they lost 99 games).
If Willie Smith hadn’t hit that home run, that game might have become known as the Don Money Game.
Money had a pretty good 16-year career with the Phillies and Brewers, posting 36.5 bWAR. But on April 8, 1969 he was a 21-year-old rookie playing in his fifth major-league game, and man, did he have a game.
Ernie Banks hit a three-run homer for the Cubs in the first inning and tacked a two-run blast on to that in the third. The Cubs led 5-1 going into the seventh. It looked like a breeze of a win.
Money led off the seventh with a homer off Fergie to make it 5-2. A tiring Jenkins allowed a pair of singles and a three-run homer to Money in the ninth to tie the game. Obviously, no modern manager would have left Jenkins in the game in the ninth, but it was a different time and as we have previously discussed, Leo Durocher was an old-fashioned manager who would wind up running his regular players into the ground that year. Leaving Jenkins in that game was a foreshadowing.
So the game went to extra innings. No one reached base in the ninth or 10th. Johnny Callison — who would become a Cub the following year — led off the top of the 11th with a single. One out later, Money doubled him in. That was three hits and five RBI for Money, probably the best game of that pretty good 16-year career.
You can just imagine how Cubs fans felt at that time: “Here we go again.” It was the way Cubs baseball had been for two decades — blowing leads, letting guys no one had ever heard of kill them. Why would now be any different?
Just a few minutes later, that attitude changed. Randy Hundley singled with one out in the ninth and Smith, pinch-hitting for Jim Hickman, smashed his walkoff home run. 40,796 at Wrigley Field — the largest Opening Day crowd since 1946 and only the third 40,000+ crowd at Wrigley since 1952, and almost all of them stayed till the end — were sent into delirious joy.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Smith’s blast changed the way Cubs fans viewed the franchise. Most Cubs fans over the previous 20 years were used to disappointment and loss and would never have expected this sort of thing to happen on Opening Day, and also bring the team from a 6-5 deficit to a win in an instant. The most recent Cub to hit a walkoff homer that brought the Cubs from behind to victory before Smith was Ellis Burton in 1963, previously noted in this series. The Cubs had won only one home opener since 1959 (in 1967), so even that was new and different to many fans.
The 1969 season didn’t end well for the Cubs, as you know, and there would be more disappointments to come, for 47 years until the ultimate victory in 2016.
But Smith’s home run brought Cubs fans hope, and they hadn’t had it for nearly two decades. For that, it deserves the ranking in this special list.