07/24/08 10:00 AM ET
Cubs fans still trying to solve 1969
Any of a number of events could be culprit in late-year collapse
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
The Cubs were 31 games over .500 at the Aug. 16 peak. On Sept. 2, they improved that to plus-32 -- but in the process had seen that nine-game lead shrivel to five.The Mets, 15-4 over that same span, had already launched into a fabulous closing kick that would see them win 39 of their last 50 games. The Cubs simply couldn't keep up with that. The "What happened?" question has been asked and answered often enough to have gained urban legend status, but it's time to debunk all the myths. Because, you know what they say -- admission is the first step to recovery. Did the Midwestern summer just wear down the Cubs? This was still in the era when Bleacher Bums said, "Let there be lights ... elsewhere." Wrigley Field's all-day schedule was suspected to have prematurely emptied the Cubs' tank, as it had so many seasons before. Not likely. Not so much because of how the 1969 schedule broke down: the Cubs had only 19 home games (of 81) past that Aug. 16 acme (compared to 24 on the road). But National Weather Service logs indicate the average Chicago temperature during the summer of '69 was a comfy and relatively mild 71.8 degrees. So that still leaves the Mets supplying most of the heat. The black cat? Seeing was believing, and the proof is still easily Googled: There it is, a black cat wandering across Shea Stadium on Sept. 9, passing Santo, who was in the on-deck circle, on its way to the Cubs dugout. A great photo-op, to be sure, but a death sentence handed down by the fates? That's a stretch. For one thing ... "At the time, I didn't think anything of it," Santo reflected. "The cat wasn't scared; it just walked around me and went through the dugout, with Leo there. He looked right at Leo and went underneath the stands." For another ... By the time of this incident, the Cubs had already been declawed, already on a five-game losing streak that had melted their division lead to a game-and-a-half. Did "Leo the Lip" turn into "Leo the Whip"? This is the one that tormented Durocher, who burned to be the one to deliver the Cubs, the one he took to the grave with him: That he was guilty of running the "old" veterans into the ground. Also, it is the feeblest of all the alibis. Yes, it was true that the 38-year-old Banks sat out only seven games -- two after mid-August -- and the workload might have led to his .186 September while the Cubs went 8-17. But that was Mr. Cub. He'd rarely ever missed a game, a legacy that Durocher merely maintained. And Banks was second on that club with his 23 homers and 106 RBIs. Furthermore, the rest of the team had plenty of young legs. Five others played 131-plus games and had 500-plus at-bats (Hundley, Beckert, Santo, Kessinger, Williams); their average age was 28. The Curse of Joe Niekro? Now, maybe we're talking. Niekro was a young lad of 24, coming off a 14-win season, when the Cubs dealt him on April 25 to San Diego for another right-hander, Dick Selma. Selma did help the 1969 Cubs with 10 wins. But he went 0-6 on the other side of that mid-August hill. He never won another game for the Cubs, and only 15 for anyone else. Niekro went on to 197 more wins across the next 20 seasons. There was no shortage of explanations or excuses or examples of divine intervention for those who wanted to find them. None of them changed the bottom line: The Cubs led the NL East for the season's first 154 days, then expired. Or, the final verdict: It hurt; it still hurts. But it still was a great season, and it is still being thrown in the faces of the current Cubs. The team's daily pregame media notes brim with such references as "most since 1969," "best since 1969" and "first time since 1969." Because, you know something else they always say: You must confront your fears in order to overcome them.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.