CHICAGO — The Cubs are taking on the Mets, which means everyone's wondering: Is Chicago in for a disappointment like that of 1969, when the seemingly unstoppable Cubs collapsed while the Mets soared?
George Castle, a West Rogers Park native, journalist and historian who has written more than a half-dozen books about the Cubs, remembers that season vividly.
"That was our team," Castle said. "O-U-R. They had four Hall of Fame players: Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins.
"It was a glorious time, and for anybody who grew up then it still hurts that they didn't win," Castle said. "Unfortunately, [they were] sabotaged by their manager."
Ah, yes, we've all heard about the black cat and ...
"It was the biggest managerial botched job in history," Castle insists.
See, in Castle's eyes, the Cubs' late-season string of losses didn't have anything to do with goats, cats or curses. It had a lot to do with Leo Durocher, then the Cubs' manager. Durocher started his best players again and again, treated them poorly and missed games, Castle said.
"He treated the young pitchers like whipped puppies," Castle said.
Durocher couldn't be further from Joe Maddon, who will lead the Cubs in this year's National League Championship Series against the New York Mets. Game 1 starts at 7:07 p.m. Saturday.
Maddon believes in having fun on the field — his mantra is "don't let the pressure exceed the pleasure" — and that means Pajama Nights, bringing in a petting zoo and letting the players relax.
In comparison, Castle can remember Durocher starting the same lineup in seven out of eight games, in four consecutive doubleheaders, at Wrigley Field over Labor Day weekend in 1967. He continued the same lineup tatics throughout the 1969 season.
That's difficult for any athlete, but it was particularly tough for the Cubs, who have a unique schedule that has them mostly playing during the day when at home. That can make them tired when they head out of town and play nights, Castle said.
"He played his regulars day after day after day with no rest, with no idea of conserving their energy and no concept that the all-day baseball schedule at Wrigley Field was more draining than any other schedule or setup in baseball," Castle said. "His players were tired by the end of the season."
Ron Santo (l.) and Ernie Banks (r.), pictured here flanking Cubs radio announcer Vince Lloyd, were among the 1969 Cubs players who faced sometimes harsh conditions under manager Leo Durocher. [Courtesy George Castle]
Two weeks before the Cubs' troubles began in 1969, a Tribune reporter asked Durocher if the team seemed tired to him, Castle said. Durocher, who had been shaving, set down his razor, called his players out of the showers and told them to get together. He told the reporter to ask the players if they were tired.
He "asked the entire team, 'Any you guys feel tired right now?' Of course, nobody raised their hands," Castle said. "Somebody pulled [the reporter] aside afterwards privately and told him, 'You're kind of on the right track. But nobody's going to raise their hands in front of Durocher.'"
Durocher was also unpopular, which meant other teams refused trades with the Cubs just because of him, Castle said.
And at one point, Durocher feigned a stomach virus, left a Dodgers game in the third inning at Wrigley Field and took a plane from Meigs Field to a summer camp in northern Wisconsin, Castle said. There, he visited his stepson for Parents Night, only to be noticed by a fan.
Word of the trip got to Phil Wrigley, who was so angry he reportedly offered the manager's job to Herman Franks (who later managed the team '77-'79). Franks turned him down, worried the change would be "too disruptive for the team," and the Cubs stuck with Durocher, Castle said.
The black cat and billy goat
Don't count on black cats or goats to jinx the Cubs: Castle is certain they played no part in the Cubs' 1969 collapse.
Fans have long attributed the Cubs' World Series drought as the product of the Curse of the Billy Goat. Supposedly, Billy Goat Tavern owner William "Billy" Sianis cursed the team when his pet goat was ejected from the stadium. "The Cubs ain't gonna win no more!" Sianis is said to have sworn.
"That goat thing in 1945 is simply a publicity stunt by a bar owner, William Sianis, whose original Billy Goat was right next to the [Chicago] Stadium," Castle said. "That story wasn't really revived as a so-called curse [or] legend until 1970 when the Cubs [were] collapsing under Durocher's managerial yoke."
The 2015 Cubs don't seem to be in danger of harsh management styles like the 1969 Cubs. Case in point: Pajama night, 2015. [Getty Images]
So, the curse was just a bit of publicity? What about that cat that crossed Santo during a game?
"As far as the black cat and everything that happened … the team was already in bad shape," Castle said. Durocher "just managed poorly. The team was tired ... ."
What can Cubs fans expect against the Mets this year?
The Cubs don't have to worry about cats or goats. And Maddon is as unlike Durocher as can be.
"He's the anti-Durocher because Durocher could not have handled all these young players breaking in," Castle said. "He expected you to produce, produce, produce. Maddon wants the players to ... play a little boy's game. They don't feel under the gun from the manager."
But, that doesn't mean they're guaranteed a win in the National League Championship Series.
The postseason is a "trip wire" where teams need "happenstance and good fortune," Castle said.
"So far, they've combined good talent, good management and good fortune," Castle said. "I think they have as good of a shot as any."
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