Ernie Banks hit two home runs on Opening Day, but the long ball I remember most — and maybe my favorite memory from that whole ’69 year — came in that same game from pinch hitter Willie Smith. He hit it out with a man on in the 11th inning at Wrigley Field. We beat the Phillies 7-6.
It was a walk-off. We all met Willie at home plate and shook hands. It wasn’t like they do now, tearing off a guy’s uniform. I don’t think we had that many extra uniforms in 1969. And you couldn’t celebrate too much, or then people would say it was too much. It was handshakes, back slaps and, ‘‘Don’t forget to touch home plate.’’
I remember our manager, Leo Durocher, looking down the bench and saying, ‘‘Willie, grab a bat.’’ And I can still see Willie after he hit the home run, looking into the stands. He didn’t get to play that much, but he started us off with a bang. It was so exciting at the end of what was a cold day, a dreary day. Willie was an unlikely hero, but he made us feel like maybe this was our year, that maybe we could win it all.
Willie was a cool guy — and a fellow Alabama guy — and I guess I’d kind of wanted to look out for him after we traded for him in ’68. He was a good pool player. I would take him home with me, we’d eat dinner and then we’d go down into the basement and play pool. He was a good friend, and you know what? He could sing. He’d sing ‘‘Try a Little Tenderness’’ and sound just like Otis Redding.
Willie passed away in 2006, and it just makes me think about all the guys we’ve lost. Ernie. Ron Santo. So many others. You think about all those individuals, and it’s hard. Guys like Ernie and Ronnie, of course, were very special to me. Willie was, too.