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How the NFL schedule could have helped cost the 1970 Cubs the NL East title

Yes, really,

Wrigley Field as it would have appeared in 1970
Photo by Diamond Images/Getty Images

After the crushing collapse in 1969, the Cubs went about trying to change things in 1970.

And at first, they didn’t do much. The only major change they made in the starting rotation or lineup before the season started was the acquisition of outfielder Johnny Callison from the Phillies for Oscar Gamble and Dick Selma. (Yes, that was a bad trade.)

Nevertheless, the Cubs got off to a great start in 1970, just as they had in 1969. After defeating the Cardinals 8-3 June 20 at Wrigley Field, they were 35-25 and led the N.L. East by 4½ games.

You know what’s coming, right? Here’s where I say, “What could possibly go wrong?”

Everything, as it turned out. The Cubs lost 12 in a row after that win. That’s still tied, 53 years later, for the team’s third-longest losing streak in the Modern Era (since 1900), and at the time it was the second-longest, exceeded only by a 13-game streak in 1944. When the streak was over the Cubs were in fourth place, 4½ games out. It was the origin of the “June swoon” that plagued the Cubs for much of that era.

But they clawed back, thanks in part to great seasons by Billy Williams and Jim Hickman. By late July they were back over .500, and it didn’t seem like any of the other teams really wanted to run away with the division title. On August 30 the Cubs defeated the Padres 3-0 in San Diego, a seven-hit complete-game shutout by Bill Hands, and trailed the first-place Pirates by just one game. They led the N.L. in runs after that game, with 674.

The excitement of 1969 wasn’t quite there, likely due to fans not wanting to be burned again by believing, but there was a murmur of “Maybe?” beginning to be heard.

Then the Cubs basically treaded water for the first 17 days of September. They went 8-7 and went from one game out to two games out with 14 games remaining. That’s doable, right?

Here’s where I’ll finally get to the headline of this article.

1970 was the year the merger of the two professional football leagues finally was completed, with teams playing a schedule that involved all the (then) 26 NFL teams. In 1970, 17 of the 24 MLB teams shared a stadium with an NFL team. The Cubs were one of these teams, sharing Wrigley Field with the Bears. For reasons lost to history, the 1970 Cubs were forced to go on a 14-game road trip at the end of the season. Was this to accommodate Bears games and the merged NFL schedule? As it turned out, the Bears wound up playing a September 27 home game, that otherwise would have been at Wrigley Field, at Dyche Stadium in Evanston. They might have continued to do that, but Big Ten ruled that pro sports could not be played at on-campus stadiums. Had the Cubs made the playoffs in 1970, the Bears might have been forced to Soldier Field for games that conflicted — where they eventually did move.

Anyway, the 14-game road trip killed the Cubs. The 1970 Cubs, as Cubs teams generally were in that era, played much better at home than on the road. They ended up 46-34 at home, 38-44 on the road (a September 6 home rainout against the Mets was made up in New York September 28, a common practice in those days). The Cubs, in fact, did not have a winning record on the road at all in any year from 1946-83. Was it the lack of lights?

The Cubs actually began that 14-game road trip in good shape, taking the first three of a four-game series in Montreal. With 11 games remaining, they were in second place, just 1x games behind the Pirates. Could it be... ?

Well, you know the answer. The Cubs didn’t have any games left against the Pirates, so they’d need to win and get help, and neither happened. The Cubs went 4-7 in the 11 games left, while the Pirates went 8-4 and won the division, the first of six N.L. East titles they’d win between 1970 and 1979. The Pirates were a particular Cubs nemesis in those days; in that 10-year span the Cubs’ record vs. Pittsburgh was 66-111. The .373 winning percentage was the Cubs’ worst against any team — by 60 percentage points! (Next worst: 52-68, .433 against the Dodgers.)

Also, the Cubs went just 44-46 against their N.L. East rivals in 1970, with a winning record (13-5) only against the Expos.

Did the NFL influence MLB to force the Cubs on the road for those 14 games in September 1970? It’s possible. In 1971, the Bears moved to Soldier Field and thus, for the first time in 50 years, the Cubs didn’t have to share Wrigley Field with them. A 14-game road trip would never happen in modern baseball. But back in 1970, it could have been one of the factors dooming the Cubs’ division title hopes.