CHICAGO — It was in all the papers, as people used to say. Saturday was the 50th anniversary of U.S. astronauts being the first people to step foot on the moon.
But while walking around in Chicago this week, I was reminded of a different 50-year marker, a not-so-golden anniversary in this toddlin’ town. In the summer of ’69 as a kid, the Chicago Cubs had an armbar on the National League East standings. It was a lesson for an Iowa kid on how things can turn sour in this life.
The Amazin’ Mets were the story of sports in 1969, winning the World Series against the expectations of everyone. It was regarded nationally in, well, amazement. In Chicago, it is remembered as something quite different and not at all cute or romantic. It was an epic Cubs collapse, one that kept them from a chance to win their first pennant in 24 years on the way to going 71 years between them.
Some people think the moon landing was fake. I’m not sure the Cubs winning Game 7 of the Series in 2016 wasn’t a more elaborate scam. Anyway …
In August of 1969, I was 11 and got taken to Chicago for a weekday game at Wrigley Field. The Cubs beat the Atlanta Braves, 3-0. Ron Santo hit a three-run homer in the first inning, then Ken Holtzman threw a no-hitter. The Cubs had a 77-45 record and an eight-game lead in the East.
A no-hitter! A runaway division leader! Life was easy. Life was good. Inside the ballpark, anyway. It was a year after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy. It was while the nation was in a highly unpopular war in a place called Vietnam.
It was a confusing time, an angry time, a time when it seemed like the nation was coming apart in important ways. But you wouldn’t have known inside the friendly confines of Wrigley, where every game was a day game and future Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks projected nothing but sunshine.
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The Braves had Hank Aaron, who hit a ball in the seventh inning of that no-hitter that looked headed for the bleachers for sure and perhaps onto Waveland Avenue. Instead, it got stopped by a stiff wind, and dropped into the glove of left fielder Billy Williams in the deepest part of left field.
Holtzman got Aaron to hit a bouncer to second baseman Glenn Beckert for the game’s final out. Five years later, Aaron hit a home run that put him ahead of Babe Ruth as baseball’s all-time leader. Many celebrated it. Some others — too many others — pelted Aaron with hate mail, much of it with racial slurs.
You’d like to think people were meaner and dumber then compared to now. We can identify progress in the last half-century in many ways. Yet, there still is a large market for mean and dumb in 2019. Growth is slow, painfully so.
An 11-year-old kid in a ballpark in 1969 wasn’t worried. He tuned out the war stuff, tuned out Richard Nixon and Charles Manson and Woodstock (which was held the weekend before Holtzman’s no-hitter), and didn’t pay as much attention to the moon-landing as he should have.
Humans on the moon? That was a lot more Amazin’ than the ‘69 Mets.
School resumed soon after that day in Wrigley. The Cubs went just 15-25 after Holtzman’s no-no while the Mets went 33-11. I slowly drifted toward a career in which you eventually learn the games that matter so much to so many are just games.
Fifty years later, Chicago in the summer still pops for this visitor from Iowa who has been here several dozen times since 1969. The lake and the Loop and the “L” trains. The skyline and the food and the music. People of all kinds, who have come here from virtually everywhere to live or visit.
Looking at it through weary eyes today instead of wide ones a half-century ago, it seems things are as unraveled now as they were in 1969. Maybe more. Maybe much more. Pay attention, kids, and start thinking for yourselves now.
Also, don’t take anything for granted just because the Cubs are in first place today.
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