Monday, April 12, 2010

When Willie Came Through

In honor of the Cubs' home opener today at Wrigley Field, we revisit one of the club's most memorable openers from the past. It was 1969, and a pinch-hit homer by Willie Smith (in photo) turned likely defeat into a stirring victory. Smith's blow touched off an unforgettable and ultimately heartbreaking season for the Cubs. 


     The first indelible moment in sports that I witnessed live and was old enough to remember occurred on April 8, 1969. It was Opening Day, and the Cubs had entered the season with high hopes for their first pennant in 24 years.
     Their manager was Leo Durocher, a salty old-timer who had taken over after one of the worst periods in the Cubs' history and immediately promised better days ahead. “This is not an eighth-place club,” he said, referring to the Cubs’ finish in 1965, and he was proven right when his 1966 team finished 10th. But the Cubs’ climb to respectability and beyond was swift and sure thereafter. With relative youngsters like Fergie Jenkins, Bill Hands, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger, and Randy Hundley jelling around the veteran nucleus of Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ron Santo, the Cubs rose all the way to third in 1967 (improving by 28½ games) and finished third again in 1968.
     “The Cubs are now ready to go for all the marbles,” Durocher announced before the 1969 season.
     In the opener, an overflow crowd of 40,796 at Wrigley Field saw Banks crack two home runs as the Cubs built up a 5-1 lead over the Phillies in the early going. I raced home from school to catch the final innings, and turned on the TV in time to see Philadelphia’s rookie shortstop Don Money rap two homers of his own, a solo shot in the seventh and a three-run blast that tied the score in the top of the ninth. The game went into extra innings, and the Phillies took a one-run lead in the top of the 11th.
     With one out in the bottom of the 11th, Randy Hundley singled. Then Willie Smith stepped out of the dugout to pinch hit for Jim Hickman. Smith took Barry Lersch’s first pitch. He lined the second pitch into the right-field bleachers, and just like that the Cubs had won, 7-6.
     I was not quite eight years old, and this was about the most exciting thing I could have imagined. The great Vince Lloyd made a call on WGN radio that can still produce goosebumps: "The whole ballclub is down at home plate as the welcoming committee for Willie! They mob him at home plate!" For quite a while after that, Willie Smith was my favorite player.
     The Cubs breezed through April at 16-7 and sailed through May at 16-9. For three quarters of the season, they were the best team in the league, and the long-awaited pennant seemed almost a foregone conclusion. The last quarter of the season is best forgotten.

Portions adapted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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