The Charlie Daniels Band has a great song titled “Summer of 68.”
One day last week while driving to work I was listening to the song and it got me thinking.
While the summer of 1968 was a memorable time in the history of our country it was the summer of 1969 when I formed a relationship that is still going strong many years later.
That is the summer when the Chicago Cubs came into my life and the team has been a big part of my summers ever since.
My first baseball idol — Mickey Mantle — had retired, leaving me in search of a new favorite player and team to follow.
My great uncle Dean Henry and his wife Helen were huge Cub fans. Back then we didn’t have cable television so watching baseball was limited. It was more like a treat. Uncle Dean lived on Huron Street here in Goshen and had an aerial that he could pull in the WGN TV signal from Chicago. When we would visit and the Cubs were playing the game would be on.
The over-the-air signal was good on some days and kind of snowy on others. It didn’t matter to me as long as I could see my new baseball idol. While he was near the end of his Hall of Fame career there at first base was the player known as “Mr. Cub.”
The legendary Ernie Banks was an 11-time All-Star and a two-time Most Valuable Player in the National league. He had a 19-year major league career (1953-71) with the Cubs and he never had the opportunity to play in the ultimate dream for a major leaguer — The World Series.
Never playing in a World Series or things like hitting 512 home runs in his career were not as important to Banks as the friends and relationships he made while playing the game.
“Awards mean a lot, but they don’t say it all. The people in baseball mean more to me than statistics,” Banks once said.
Banks’ attitude made him one of the all-time great ambassadors of not only baseball but the sporting world in general.
How can you not like a guy who once said, “It’s a beautiful day for a ball game ... Let’s play two!”
Banks was not the only reason for latching on to the Cubs. There were other future Hall of Famers like Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins.
The summer of ‘69 was going great with the Cubs in first place until the dreaded month of September and the collapse that still brings a tear to some fans’ eyes all these many years later.
Chicago was 83-52 after beating the Atlanta Braves 8-4 on Aug. 31 as Kenny Holtzman notched his 16th pitching win of the season and reliever Phil Reagn recorded his 16th save.
For some reason the team’s fortunes soured in September and wins whether at home in Wrigley Field or on the road were hard to come by for the Cubs. Some people say it was a black cat that seemed to appear out of nowhere on the field one day during a game. Some say since the Cubs had more veteran players the team simply ran out of gas down the pennant stretch.
Still others blame it on manager Leo Durocher. Durocher was an old-school manager and he believed in playing his best eight players every day. Five of Chicago’s regulars finished the season with over 150 games played in 1969. Banks, who would retire two year later, played in 155, hitting .253 with 23 home runs and 106 RBI.
Whatever you believe it all comes down to the simple fact that the Cubs went into a late-season slump and lost games while the upstart New York Mets went on an incredible streak late in the season on the way to the team’s first-ever World Series title.
On Sept. 2 the Cubs had a record of 84-52 with the Mets in second at 77-55. The Cubs ended the season with a respectable 92-70 record, but will forever be known as the team that let a lead that reached 8 1/2 games in mid-August get away to a team that had lost 120 games just seven short years earlier.
Another quote from Banks shows how positive his attitude stayed over the years. “The only way to prove that you’re a good sport is to lose.”
“Mr. Cub” will receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom this year and I can’t think of a more deserving person. It’s fitting way to honor a man that has given back to the game of baseball and its fans many times more than what he received.
Contact sports reporter Greg Keim at 533-2151, ext. 326 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.