As the 2019 season winds down, so does the 50th-anniversary season of the 1969 Cubs. They were the quintessential team that fell flat at the end of the season, but they forever will be a part of my life.
My father, Johnnie O’Neal Jr., was an avid baseball fan. He played baseball in high school and had hopes of playing professionally. The story I grew up hearing was that he tried out for the Cubs in the late 1950s but didn’t make the cut.
Maybe it was because, by age 21, he was married with three kids and was working double shifts in a steel mill to support his young family. Maybe he just wasn’t good enough. Or maybe it was because the Cubs in 1953 had called up their first black player, a kid named Ernie Banks, to play shortstop. Disappointed but not defeated, my father spread his infectious love of baseball to his kids. Unfortunately for him, the first four of us were girls.
As a 12-year-old African American girl growing up on the Southeast Side, Wrigley Field seemed as far away as a trip to the moon. In reality, it was a train ride to another world that led to me forming a special bond with my father.
As the third of five children, I definitely suffered from middle-child syndrome, which, in hindsight, was one of the reasons bonding with my father over baseball had been so special. Unlike my older sisters, who didn’t mind playing football and softball with the boys on the block, I spent hours playing with dolls pretty much by myself.
Watching my father during the 1968 World Series, I took note of his passion for the game. At that point, I didn’t know the Cubs from the two teams (the Tigers and Cardinals) who were playing. I also hadn’t a clue what the World Series was.
Even worse, I had no idea when we moved into the South Shore area in the summer of 1968 that the Billy Williams who lived around the corner from us was the Cubs’ left fielder and a future Hall of Famer. That soon would change.
When the spring of 1969 arrived, I decided to watch more baseball with my father. On Opening Day, all I saw was a bunch of men in uniform hitting balls, catching balls and running after balls. I didn’t know any of the Cubs’ players, their positions or their jersey numbers. I didn’t even recognize Banks.
That changed quickly. I was hooked from the first game. My father taught me the language and meaning of baseball terms, such as an around-the-horn double play. There was never a sweeter execution of that than the Ron Santo-to-Glenn Beckert-to-Banks combo. I was hooked and, by the middle of the season, could keep a perfect scorecard. That made my father proud.
In the summer of ’69, the city was abuzz with pennant fever. But the season gave me even more to cheer about because I finally had found something my father and I could share. He could call off a player’s name, and I could tell him whether they had a good or bad day on the field.
My father took us up to Wrigley several times during the season, and it finally clicked that the Billy Williams who lived around the corner from us was the famous Cubs outfielder. Once I figured that out, I did what any 12-year-old baseball fanatic would do: I walked around the corner, pacing near his house, until I finally met him. When I realized he had four young daughters, the oldest of whom was the same age as my younger sister, I recruited my sister to come along on my walks. When she and Williams’ oldest daughter became friends, I had my first personal contact with a Cub.
Eventually, I timed my walks to catch Williams arriving home from the game (the Cubs played only day games at Wrigley at the time) and was able to meet future Hall of Fame right-hander Fergie Jenkins and outfielder Willie Smith. It was a thrill to hang around Williams’ home, sitting in his den and chatting about baseball, but it was another Cub who wound up being my favorite.
As an adult, the irony doesn’t escape me that, given the times, my favorite player wasn’t Banks or Williams but a player from West Virginia nicknamed ‘‘The Rebel.’’ At 12, I was old enough to recall Martin Luther King Jr.’s walk through Marquette Park — where he was pelted with stones — in 1966, his assassination in 1968 and the riots that followed on the West Side. Nonetheless, Randy Hundley was my favorite Cub, and nobody could persuade me otherwise. I loved watching him throw a runner out trying to steal second. There was the quick spring up and the barely-there hop before he fired the ball to nail his man.
When I finally met Hundley at an event in 2007, I was over the moon. Acting like a 12-year-old girl, I had a fan-in-awe moment. What can I say? It was Randy Hundley, for God’s sake. As a kid I had the neighborhood on watch should Hundley ever show up at Williams’ home. After games at Wrigley, I would wait in the players’ parking lot to see Hundley. It never happened.
Meeting Hundley was one of the highlights of my career as a journalist and my ultimate Cubs moment as a fan. As unprofessionally as any professional person can behave, I walked up to Hundley, all giggly and gushy, and mustered the nerve to tell him he was my all-time favorite player. He would supply a footnote to my story.
Hundley asked whether I remembered fumbling about in an effort to get my wristband on for the event. I said yes. He replied: ‘‘Well, I was the one who helped you fasten the band.’’ I almost lost my cool.
As for the highest-profile meeting with a Cub from any era, that honor goes to ‘‘Mr. Cub.’’ As a food and collectibles writer for the Sun-Times, I was invited to cover the launch party for the Ernie Banks 512 Wine. (He hit 512 home runs in his career.) I had five minutes on the floor with Banks. In those five minutes, his wife, Liz, suggested we get together for dinner the next time they were in town.
I never thought it would happen, of course. A few weeks later, however, Liz called and arranged a place and time to meet. Walking over to Sepia, where we were to dine, I still didn’t believe it was going to happen, me sitting down to dinner with Banks to shoot the breeze. I remember thinking what in the world I would talk about with the Cubs’ goodwill ambassador and icon. I told myself not to be disappointed if they didn’t show up.
But Ernie and Liz arrived, and we sat for hours. We talked about baseball, kids and life. And, yes, I retold the childhood tale my father had shared about trying out for the Cubs. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life.
For me, the 1969 Cubs were not only a team that brought magic, mayhem and madness to the city. It was a time in my life in which a team of players left an indelible impression on a 12-year-old girl. It providing me with an opportunity — through the love of baseball — to find common ground between myself and the person who truly inspired my love of the game and the Cubs.