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Today in Cubs history: Billy Williams walks it off on Opening Day

There were future Hall of Famers galore in this game.

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I remember this Cubs/Cardinals game well, as it was the first Opening Day I ever attended, April 6, 1971. It was cold — the boxscore says 40 degrees with a 17 mile per hour wind blowing in, but it felt colder, maybe even as cold as last week’s 2021 Cubs/Pirates opener.

Seven future Hall of Famers — Lou Brock, Joe Torre, Ted Simmons, Ron Santo, Billy Williams and the starting pitchers, Fergie Jenkins and Bob Gibson — matched up in this game of ancient division rivals. Both teams also had future Hall of Famers as managers — Leo Durocher of the Cubs and Red Schoendienst of the Cardinals.

Maybe it was the cold or maybe it was the pitchers or both, but Jenkins and Gibson put on a fantastic pitcher’s duel. Johnny Callison doubled in a run in the first inning off Gibson, and Torre homered off Jenkins in the seventh to tie it. Torre would go on to have the best year of his career in 1971 and was voted National League MVP.

The game went into extras tied 1-1, and Jenkins retired the site in the top of the 10th in order. He had allowed just two hits besides Torre’s homer.

The Tribune’s George Langford tells what happened next:

Billy Williams’ swing is regarded as the quickest and sweetest in baseball and when the Cubs’ lithe slugger triggered it in the 10th inning yesterday a classic ended.

It lifted 41,121 fans in Wrigley Field to their frozen feet as they watched the ball soar toward the right field bleachers for a home run that climaxed a pitching masterpiece by two of the game’s best and provided the Cubs with a 2 to 1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Bob Gibson, who in the opinion of several Cubs pitched better than they had seen him in two years, was the victim of Williams’ drive, and Fergie Jenkins, who in the judgment of a number of players hurled the best game of his life, was the beneficiary.

There have been few opening day contests which have been more artfully executed. It was virtually without flaw and was punctuated by a truly remarkable fielding play by Shortstop Don Kessinger and another by Third Baseman Ron Santo that was only slightly less spectacular.

Manager Leo Durocher termed Kessinger’s charging, bare-handed grab of Matty Alou’s bunt in the ninth inning “the greatest play I’ve ever seen by a shortstop” and Santo made a sprawling stop of Julian Javier’s smash in the eighth which was rewarded by a standing salute from the sellout crowd which had the old park half filled by 9:30 a.m.

We have video of Billy’s blast!

The announcer is Jim West, who was calling his very first Cubs game. West, who had been hired by WGN-TV to replace Lloyd Pettit on Blackhawks and Cubs games, shared the booth with Jack Brickhouse from 1971-76.

The boxscore says 39,079 attended, but the Tribune reported 41,121. In those days, “paid” and “total in the house” numbers were both announced. Back then, with 22,000 unreserved Wrigley seats on sale only on the day of the game, for big games like this one there were frequently large numbers of people who showed up extremely early. That forced Cubs officials to open the gates far earlier than usual, as noted in the Tribune article.

Fergie Jenkins threw 32 complete games in his career where he allowed three or fewer hits. This one was the only one among those where he threw 10 innings. Beyond all that, check out the time of the game in the boxscore — a swiftly-played contest for 10 innings!

If only this game had been a portent of the season to come, but it wasn’t. The Cubs floundered around third and fourth place much of the year before they sneaked to within 4½ games of first place after a doubleheader sweep of the Astros August 20.

That’s just about when things blew up between Durocher and some of his players, with Leo and Ron Santo nearly coming to blows in the clubhouse. You can read more about that here. It was the beginning of the end for those teams that never won anything.

Williams’ walkoff homer happened 50 years ago today. It’s hard for me to believe half a century has passed since my first Cubs Opening Day.