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A look back at MLB’s most celebrated second–place team, the 1969 Cubs

The Cubs of 1969 (Erine Banks, Ron Santo, Don Kessinger and Billy Williams) gather for an old-timers' event at Comiskey Park. | Sun-TImes file

Home-plate umpire Satch Davidson wanted to know if Randy Hundley, who’d spent the last several seconds jumping up and down and wailing like a banshee, had anything else to say.

“I ought to bite your head off,” the Cubs catcher obliged.

“If you do,” Davidson shot back, “you’ll have more brains in your stomach than you have in your head.”

It seems everyone associated with the 1969 Cubs — players, opponents, adoring, tormented fans — has vivid memories of a special season gone off the rails. The memories range from wonderful to unbearable, from blissfully innocent to unspeakably cruel. Mostly, though, they are, even 50 years later, kind, generous and adoring. It’s a funny thing about a team that led the National League East by nine games on Aug. 16 before face-planting with a 6-18 September death march and finishing eight games behind the Miracle Mets: The public never really came around for a pound of those Cubs’ flesh.

Anyway, back to Hundley and his ’69 story. There is no doubt that, on Sept. 8 at Shea Stadium, after the Mets’ Wayne Garrett singled off Bill Hands in the sixth inning of a 2-2 game and Tommie Agee tore around third base and tried to beat a throw from right fielder Jim Hickman, Hundley caught the ball and executed a textbook swipe tag on the speedy runner. The grainy replays are as plain as day. Even Agee admitted — a full 20 years later — that he was out.

Hundley’s most vivid memory is of a tag that should’ve left no room for interpretation. Alas, the Cubs’ lead was shaved to 1½ games, Jerry Koosman having outdueled Hands as both hurlers went the distance.

“I tagged him all the way from his waist up to his head,” said Hundley, now 76.

But would an out call really have made any difference at all? One might argue that the history of the ’69 Cubs had already been written by then, that it was a team destined to define the term “lovable losers” and to personify another — “Second City.”

One might argue that the Curse of the Billy Goat had predetermined an all-out collapse and that a black cat near the Cubs’ dugout at Shea sealed the deal. But still: Has a team — in any sport — that didn’t even reach the postseason been remembered more fondly? The Cubs of half a century ago had four future Hall of Famers in Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Ron Santo, yet they did more than their share, glory be damned, of contributing to a 108-year World Series title drought. The stars of the team aren’t ridiculed for that, though. If anything, they’re celebrated.

RELATED: Don Kessinger on the ‘Curse of the Billy Goat’ and its effect on the 1969 Cubs

A black cat appeared in front of the Cubs’ dugout in 1969 during the first inning of a baseball game against the New York Mets in New York. | Dave Pickoff/Associated Press
A black cat appeared in front of the Cubs’ dugout in 1969 during the first inning of a baseball game against the New York Mets in New York. | Dave Pickoff/Associated Press

“It only would’ve worked that way in Chicago,” said Michael Wilbon, 60, an ESPN personality and native of the city. “New Yorkers never would’ve tolerated that. People in the East are just more cynical. They’re more bitter. They’re angrier about everything.”

Wilbon was a 10-year-old South Sider when he made his first visit to Wrigley Field in 1969, a memory he would recount 15 years later in his debut column for the Washington Post. From a White Sox family, he was drawn to the Cubs’ trio of great black players — Banks, Williams and Jenkins — at a time when the previous year’s assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the so-called riots that ensued were still fresh. Wilbon has in his home office an old Wrigley seat, which was a gift from Jenkins, and a Banks jersey hanging on a wall.

“That was the most glamorous baseball team that the Cubs had, that Chicago had, until 2015,” he said. “It was the first Cubs team with that kind of diversity.

“I can’t let go of 1969. I think in some ways, the 1985 Bears were singularly great. The ’69 Cubs had that same potential, and yet they were singularly heartbreaking. I’ll never get over it. But I still think of them as my heroes.”

RELATED: Fergie Jenkins reflects on the 1969 Cubs

Banks wasn’t merely a great player; he was handsome and sublimely upbeat. Williams didn’t just rake at the plate; he was earnest and dignified. Jenkins was much more than an elite pitcher; he was towering and fearless. And the Cubs had more than all that going for them in regard to their appeal. They had Santo’s irrepressible drive and a world more.

“That team stayed in first place for 5½ months, and the city was in love with us,” said Jenkins, 76, whose book “The 1969 Cubs: Long Remembered — Never Forgotten” was published earlier this year. “Never did I hear anything negative about the makeup of our team. Ernie Banks was loved. Billy Williams was loved. Ron Santo was loved. We had an ethnic background — me Canadian, Kenny Holtzman Jewish, Paul Popovich Czech, Ron Santo Italian, Adolfo Phillips from Panama. Different cultures, all playing together.”

RELATED: Billy Williams shares one of his favorite memories from 1969 season with Cubs

But we must come back to the “why.” Why are the ’69 Cubs remembered so well? The aforementioned Super Bowl Bears of ’85 are, if we’re being honest, occasionally mocked around these parts for living off that glorious season into eternity. Maybe it’s about those Bears players who can’t get enough of a good thing accomplished ages ago. Maybe it’s the simple fact that the Bears haven’t been that formidable since. But no one ever tired of Ernie, although some criticized him for not being political enough. No one tired of Ronnie. No one tires of Billy. Each of those Cubs: eternal holders of the keys to fans’ hearts. Their names remain nearly as relevant as those of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

It could be that those great Cubs were just that lovable.

“When I got to Chicago in 1987, the great guys from that team were all around in some capacity, still with the ballclub,” said Andre Dawson, 64. “Four potential Hall of Famers on one club, and they never won, but to me it was more about sitting down and listening to them talk about the game. They were all the best guys. They were legends. You couldn’t be bigger in Chicago than them.”

RELATED: 1969 Cubs provide forecast for 2019 Cubs

Tim McCarver saw this Cubs business seemingly coming to fruition throughout the 1960s as the catcher for the rival Cardinals. His teams won it all in 1964 and 1967. Now a 77-year-old longtime broadcaster, McCarver the player looked on with some surprise while the Cubs faltered late in a ’69 season that was supposed to be their coronation. But he reflects on the outcome with — again, there it is — generosity.

“I don’t consider that team as having collapsed,” he said. “Nobody would’ve beaten the New York Mets that season. Nobody. The Mets were destined to win more than the Cubs were destined to collapse.

“But there does seem to be less blame hooked on to the Cubs’ wagon that year than there was to most teams that finished second. You can be lovable and come in second. Look at the movies that Sylvester Stallone made after ‘Rocky.’ He’s still making movies.”

A different analogy — a more Chicago one — comes from Steve Stone, 71, who pitched, and has called games for decades, on both sides of town.

“The ’69 Cubs are remembered for the same reason that Charlie Brown is so well loved,” he said. “Lucy would put the football down, Charlie would go to kick it, Lucy would pull the football away and the Cubs would fall down. Every time the Cubs got close, Lucy would pull the football away and the Cubs would fall down.

“That team was very relatable because of their propensity to cough it up late. The fans had gone through adversity for a long time. Like in many of their lives, just when they got close to their own dreams, Lucy would pull the football and they’d fall down.”

Believe what you will. But here the 2019 Cubs are, battening down the hatches for a voyage toward the club’s second World Series title in 111 years. In the distant past is a ’69 team that just plain didn’t measure up to what it could have — should have? — been. Yet we won’t stop loving those losers. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of choice.