The New York Mets had now emerged as the Cubs’ nearest pursuers. It was understandable that the Cubs weren’t sweating too hard just yet, for the Mets had been a running joke since entering the league in 1962. They’d lost an unprecedented 120 games their first season and had finished last or second-to-last every year since. Their numerous and inventive ways of losing ballgames had inspired Casey Stengel, their first manager, to call them “those amazin’ Mets.” Now, under the fatherly Gil Hodges, the Mets were changing the meaning of their nickname. An 11-game winning streak in late May and early June had put them over the .500 mark for the first time in their history, and they were still rising. There was no question that their pitching was good enough to keep them in the race (they had an outstanding young staff anchored by third-year man Tom Seaver, sophomores Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan, and rookie Gary Gentry), but their everyday lineup was adequate at best. “I know the Dodgers won pennants with just pitching,” Cubs third baseman Ron Santo declared, “but this Mets lineup is ridiculous.”
On July 8, the Cubs invaded New York’s Shea Stadium for a firsthand look at the upstarts. Jenkins carried a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning. The first batter, Ken Boswell, lifted a shallow fly ball that looked like an easy out, but the Cubs’ rookie center fielder Don Young misjudged it—he broke back, then raced in too late. It fell for a double. Tommie Agee fouled out, then Donn Clendenon drove one deep to left-center. Young sprinted back to the warning track, reached out and made a fine catch—only to have the ball drop out of his glove when he slammed into the wall. Clendenon was credited with a double, and the score was now 3-2. A legitimate double by Cleon Jones tied it up. After an intentional walk and a groundout, Ed Kranepool came to bat. Kranepool’s fifth-inning homer had been the only hit off Jenkins prior to the ninth. Jenkins fooled him this time with an off-speed pitch, but Kranepool threw his bat at the ball and looped a little humpback liner into left to score Jones with the winning run. “Somebody said the Cubs weren’t taking us seriously,” Jones said after the game. “Maybe they’ll take us seriously now.”
“[Jenkins] pitched his heart out,” said Cubs manager Leo Durocher, “and one man can’t catch a fly ball. It’s a disgrace.” Although neither ball that escaped Young had been scored an error, his teammates believed he should certainly have caught the first one, at least. Santo said so within earshot of reporters. “Everybody was saying, ‘Jesus Christ, the ball’s got to be caught,’” Glenn Beckert recalled. “Santo’s name got associated with it. Not the other 24 guys who were saying the same thing.”
Santo called a press conference the next morning to apologize for his remarks. That evening, though, Young was on the bench and another rookie, Jimmy Qualls, was in center field. A delirious crowd of 59,083 saw Seaver retire the first 25 Cubs to face him before Qualls lined a single to left with one out in the ninth. Seaver made short work of the next two batters to complete a one-hit shutout, 4-0, for New York’s seventh consecutive win and the Cubs’ fifth straight loss.
It looked like more of the same the next day when Jones scaled the fence to rob Santo of a three-run homer in the fourth. But Qualls jump-started a five-run rally when he stretched a single into a double leading off the fifth. The Cubs went on to win 6-2 behind a gritty effort from righthander Bill Hands.
The Cubs’ lead was five games when the Mets came calling at Wrigley Field the next week. “People used to laugh and laugh at the Mets,” said Ernie Banks, “but not anymore.” On Monday, July 14, a raucous crowd of 40,252 was treated to an exquisite pitching duel between Hands and Seaver. Don Kessinger led off the Cubs’ sixth with a single, went to second when Beckert grounded to the right side on a hit-and-run play, and scored on a single by Billy Williams. Hands scattered six hits before Phil Regan relieved him with one out in the ninth. The Cubs won 1-0, and Santo did his “victory kick” again and again for the ecstatic Bleacher Bums. “That,” said Durocher, “was a World Series game.”
But New York won 5-4 on Tuesday on a three-run homer by journeyman infielder Al Weis; it was Weis’s second homer in the past four years and only the fifth of his career. Even more appallingly, the usually light-hitting Mets chased Jenkins to the showers on Wednesday with a six-run barrage in the first two innings en route to a 9-5 triumph.
The Cubs’ lead was still a reasonably secure four games, but the Mets had been emboldened. “These boys have thought all along they were strong contenders,” said Hodges, “but it’s been tough convincing some others.” As Hodges spoke, Santo sat stunned in the opposite clubhouse. “Two out of three in our park,” he lamented. “I still don’t believe it.”
Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert