Between 1967 and 1972 one of the best teams ever assembled played in the friendly confines of Chicago’s Wrigley Field. The Cubs during those years were perennial favorites to win at least the National League championship. Anchored by three Hall of Fame players—Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ferguson Jenkins—and a Hall of Fame manager, Leo Durocher, they should have dominated the league. A late arrival to the Hall of Fame, Ron Santo, also played for them. But they never even made the playoffs.
During that six year stretch the Cubs had a record of 515 victories versus 449 losses. During that time, the Cubs finished second three times and third three times. They did not take a single flag, not a World Series, league championship, or division title. A core question is why the Cubs failed during that six year period when it looked like on-field talent was in the team’s favor?
No question, they had the best starting lineup in the National League. Ernie Banks at first, Glenn Beckert at second, Don Kessinger at shortstop, Ron Santo at third base (who should probably be in the Hall of Fame), and Randy Hundley at catcher filled out the infield. Billy Williams and others secured the outfield, and a stellar pitching staff with three superb starters in Ferguson Jenkins, Bill Hands, and Ken Holtzman ensured the opposition did not score many runs. Regardless, they did not win.
Then there was 1969. The St.Louis Cardinals had cruised to the National League championship in both 1967 and 1968, but in 1969 the Cubs burst out of the gate and no one believed they could be caught. On September 3 the Cubs led the second place New York Mets by five games, with 26 left to play and more than half of them at Wrigley Field. The Mets caught them, taking 23 of their last 30 games, and won the National League East by eight games. Meantime, the Cubs went 8 and 18. It was a stupendous collapse, one worthy of memorialization in song and story. In the end the Cubs finished second in the National League Central with a 92-70 record, but they were still a distant eight games behind the Miracle Mets.
So why did the Cubs collapse in 1969? The best evidence, offered in Durocher’s Cubs: The Greatest Team that Didn’t Win (Taylor Pub. Co., 2000), by David Claerbaut, concludes that their offense failed, their defense failed, and most importantly their will power failed. Durocher deserves major credit for the debacle. He refused to rest his stars, and rode his veterans until they were ready to drop. He also feuded with everyone—many of the players, virtually all of the sportswriters, and even the fans. His antics created tension everywhere. As Claerbaut has pointed out: “When people perform in a tense atmosphere, are tired, are led ineffectively, and are then unprepared emotionally for a major challenge, they are likely to collapse. They are likely to choke” (p. 129).
Whatever the reason, the Cubs certainly choked in 1969. While the team remained in the hunt for a division title for several years after the 1969 season the Cubs never challenged for the National League East in the same way again. The Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates emerged as the class of the league and dominated the early years of the 1970s.
To retool the team, which really didn’t yield much success until a division championship in 1984, Cubs management dispersed many of its players elsewhere and in 1972 finally fired Durocher as manager. Seemingly, Durocher’s departure raised the Cubs of that era to an immortal status. While there have been very good Cubs teams since 1972, some with Hall of Fame ballplayers, none have captured the imagination in quite the same way as the Banks/Williams/Jenkins led teams that failed so magnificently. Those later Cubs teams went on to win division titles in 1984, 1989, 2003, 2007, and 2008, as well as a wild card playoff spot in 1998, but no pennants or World Series. Even so, this collection of players from the latter 1960s and early 1970s that never reached the playoffs have a special place in MLB lore.
Banks, Beckert, Hands, Hickman, Holtzman, Hundley, Jenkins, Kessinger, Santo, and Williams live on in the memory of Cubs nation. Ryne Sandberg, Rick Sutcliffe, Mark Grace, Andre Dawson, Sammy Sosa, Mark Prior, and Lee Smith were all outstanding players who labored with terrific Cubs teams since that time, but they do not have the appeal of those earlier Cubs managed by Leo Durocher.
I regret that Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, to say nothing of the others, never played in the postseason. The Chicago Cubs seem to be returning relevance to the race in the National League Central Division. I would certainly like to see this team succeed sooner rather than later and win a World Series. Perhaps then this talented group of players will succeed vicariously.