Gould: Working at Wrigley Field in 1969 was a memorable experience

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Why do we still adore the 1969 Cubs?

This is a team that had every reason in the world to win — and didn’t. A team that blew a big lead in September — and never atoned by winning after that.

And yet, the ’69 Cubs might be the most beloved team that never won anything.

I say this without scorn. Actually, I say this with the utmost affection. I was a vendor and grounds-crew “extra man” that summer. Never mind September. The first five months of that season were awfully sweet.

We felt so lucky. We not only had front-row seats to a triumphant march, but with the addition of the National League playoff series and the World Series, we were going to earn lots of extra money for college, selling red hots and peanuts — and beer, for those who were old enough.

To this day, no team gives me a warmer feeling than the 1969 Cubs. And I think a lot of people still feel that way.

Why?

For one thing, we admired them as people as well as ballplayers. Billy Williams was so cool and smooth. Ron Santo so brash and tough. Fergie Jenkins was our stylish, unflappable stopper. And Ernie Banks was . . . so Ernie. I could go right down the roster.

Four of the Cubs’ six retired numbers were worn by those guys, who never played a postseason game in a Cubs uniform. And yet, they are so deserving.

That’s how special 1969 was.

Baseball was different then. It took years to build a team. There was no buying of star players.

We could see the 1969 team coming together for a couple of years and we were hungry for a winner. Before 1967, the Cubs had had only one winning season in 20 years. Kids like me — and many adults — had gone their entire baseball-watching lives without seeing a Cubs contender.

We were so ready.

In those days, 22,000 tickets went on sale the day of each game. Only the box seats were sold in advance. The entire grandstand and bleachers were up for grabs. And it cost no more to go to a ballgame than a movie.

I remember one Sunday morning. A Cardinals doubleheader. It rained all morning so the tarp stayed on. The seats were filled. Before starting my vending day, I stayed with the grounds crew to help pull the tarp.

The crowd roared. That’s the closest I ever got to hearing a crowd cheer for something I had done.

The 1969 season was one of joy and anticipation. There was so much pure emotion. Santo clicking his heels. Dick Selma waving a towel in the bullpen to whip up the crowd.

After games, while we cleaned the upper deck, we could gaze out at the boats on Lake Michigan. Sometimes Dr. Jacob Suker, the team physician, would hit wedges from around home plate. Sometimes it would be PGA golfer Ray Floyd, a big Cubs fan.

The pregame atmosphere was so loose. The grounds crew ‘‘extra men’’ used to clean the bleachers in the morning.

In those days, a piece of AstroTurf covered the center-field bleachers. I would use my broom to knock down all the discarded cups and wrappers to the front row, then collect them in a burlap bag.

Ernie would come out, half-dressed, and banter with his teammates — and opponents. Williams would play lazy games of catch with fellow outfielders.

The other thing was, the 1969 Cubs were an escape in a time of upheaval and unrest.

Like many cities, Chicago was only a few years removed from frightening race riots. In August of 1968, the Democratic convention had torn the city and the nation apart. I remember standing up in a cousin’s wedding at a South Michigan Avenue hotel on Labor Day weekend. There were still bloodstains on the sidewalk from the clashes between protesters and police.

From racial unrest to the heated Vietnam debate, from the older generation complaining about our music and long hair to Nixon’s “silent majority,” we were a nation in turmoil.

The 1969 Cubs gave us a break.

The bubble burst, of course. September and the Mets, with their incredible young pitching staff, crushed the hopes of the Cubs and their fans.

Why did it fall apart? There are lots of theories. Too many day games. Leo Durocher burned his team out by not resting players. Lack of depth. The emergence of the Mets, who had momentum where the Cubs had a burden of expectations.

At the time, it was devastating. In a way, we never recovered. Having your team win is so much more important when you’re young.

But in another way, 1969 was special. It was so much fun for so long. And if it didn’t work out in the end, it taught a valuable life lesson. It deserves its place in history, no matter how unrequited.

Retired Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter Herb Gould is the author of the historical novel, “The Run Don’t Count: The Life and Times of Frank Chance and His 1908 Chicago Cubs.”

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