Chicago Cubs Baseball
Chicago Cubs Baseball
When I was a little boy, I would come home from school and watch Chicago Cubs baseball. I grew up in Benton Harbor, Michigan, so one might think I would have become a fan of the Detroit Tigers. And I did follow the Tigers through those great years with Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich, Norm Cash and Al Kaline, but they were rarely on TV in my hometown. Benton Harbor is 187 miles from Detroit but only 101 miles from Chicago by land, and 50 miles across the open waters of Lake Michigan, so our dominant television, radio and newspapers emanated from Chicago. In those ancient days, we only received four channels of television so the choices after school were slim—soap operas or baseball.
THE LOVE AFFAIR BEGINS
I started watching in the 1960s when the Chicago Cubs put together their best baseball team in many years. The Cubs had a winning record only one year out of twenty until 1967 when they suddenly put together six winning seasons in a row—but no championship. It was during these years when my love affair with Chicago Cubs baseball began. My dream was to someday play center field at Wrigley Field.
I can remember every player on those teams. Ernie Banks was not only a great player—long ago honored in the Baseball Hall of Fame—he was an infectious personality, full of sunshine, and became known as "Mr. Cub." When he hit his 500th career home run in 1970 only eight other baseball players had ever accomplished that feat. The team of this period also included future Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins and Billy Williams—and a guy who should be in The Hall: Ron Santo. Jenkins won 20 games or more six consecutive seasons as the Cubs ace pitcher, and still today is one of only four baseball pitchers in the history of the game to have logged over 3000 strikeouts of batters while walking less than 1000 of them. He also pitched the complete game an amazing 267 times!
Despite their great success, this team is best known for their astounding collapse in the 1969 season—one of a series of heartbreaks for Chicago Cubs baseball fans, that have led many to the conclusion the team is cursed. The team led the league by nine games six weeks before the regular season ended but finished eight games back—one of the worst disasters in the history of baseball. Playing at Shea Stadium against the eventual champions, the Amazin' Mets, a New York fan let a black cat onto the field, which made a beeline for Cub's Third Baseman, Ron Santo, and proceeded to stare at him. This was not the first odd bit of folklore surrounding the Cubs. There was the Curse of the Billy Goat.
The legend is that the Cubs had a fan who bought a seat for his Billy Goat, Murphy, to watch the game with him. During the 4th inning of the 4th game of the last World Series in which the Cubs ever appeared—in 1945—other fans in that seating section complained about the smell of the goat and it, and its owner, were subsequently evicted from Wrigley Field (the Cubs home stadium). The owner of the goat, rumored to be of Transylvanian descent, pronounced a curse on the Cubs and Wrigley Field. He proclaimed they would never again play in the World Series. And as of 2009 they haven't.
From 1973 through 1983 the Cubs did not once post a winning record and their moniker became "The Loveable Losers." In 1977, the team won 47 of its first 69 games—a remarkable accomplishment—only to lose 40 of its last 60 (it is generally conceded that a team that reaches 25 games over .500 during a season will win the championship: but not the Cubs). In 1978 and 1979 they were outstanding in the first half of their seasons only to be lousy in the second half. This became known as the "June Swoon." Cub fans became well acquainted with great expectations dashed to the rocks in the end. A Cub fan will learn longsuffering and forbearance. Instead of a curse, it came to be perceived that the team would fail late in the season because Wrigley Field was the only stadium in Major League Baseball without lights, which forced the Cubs to play all their home games in the glaring sun, supposedly wearing them down. This was because Wrigley Field was built in 1914 (for $250,000) in the midst of a bustling neighborhood and the residents did not want baseball to be played at night. After years of haggling, lights and night baseball finally came to Wrigley Field in 1988.
WRIGLEY FIELD SCOREBOARD
I love Wrigley Field. One never forgets the first time you come up that ramp and see it in person. The outfield wall is brick; and a month or so into the season covered with Ivy. Sometimes, balls hit to the wall disappear into the Ivy. So a special baseball rule is in place, only at Wrigley, allotting the batter of such a ball a "ground rule double." Behind that wall are the Bleachers, famous for the "Bleacher Bums." Behind them are Waveland Avenue beyond left field, Sheffield Avenue beyond right field, and beyond these avenues, rooftop viewing stands on homes around this end of the park. Fans routinely gather on the avenues ready to catch home runs that leave the park.
There are two games played at Wrigley Field. The stadium faces northeast from home plate and hosts capricious winds. In colder weather, prevalent early in the season, the wind tends to blow in off Lake Michigan, knocking down fly balls, and making it a "pitcher's park," only suited for "small ball." In the summer months, the wind usually blows out making it a great hitter's park and a whole different type of strategy is required.
And then there is the scoreboard: the only one extant with a man inside who manually changes the numbers for the crowd; as opposed to the modern electronic scoreboards.
Our hearts were devastatingly broken again in 1984. The Cubs led the league in victories behind pitcher Rick Sutcliffe (16 wins versus 1 loss) and the Most Valuable Player Award winner in the National League that season, second baseman Ryne Sandberg. They had to play a best of five playoff series against the San Diego Padres to reach The World Series. The Cubs handily won the first two games—only to inexplicably lose three straight to a clearly inferior team. Again the curse struck, as their closer, Lee Smith, blew a lead in Game Four (a rarity) and while leading late in Game Five a routine ground ball went through the legs of their sure-handed First Baseman, Leon Durham, leading to the loss of the opportunity to play in the World Series. I was not the only Cub fan who wept and couldn't sleep for a couple days afterward.
The next year the June Swoon made a vengeful comeback. Then in 1989, we had our best team in years and every Cub fan thought, "This is the year!" Sutcliffe and Sandberg were still with the team and they were augmented by the Awesome Andre Dawson, as well as young stars Greg Maddux and Mark Grace. They lost three straight games again in the playoffs; and were shut out of the World Series when their hithertofore dependable bullpen collapsed.
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