Thirty-seven years have passed since I went to my first game at Wrigley Field with my twin brother Rob, my dad and my mom. I ask Rob who the Cubs played that day, and of course he knows.
“Cubs-Pirates, 1970,” he says. “You know the score.”
He is right. Baseball evokes sacred memories that stay with us for decades.
After all those years, I decide to take a closer look at this game by checking the box score on the Internet. The game was played on July 3, 1970. Amazingly, on a Friday before the big summer holiday, the ballpark was only two-thirds full – the attendance was 26,602. The Cubs were in fourth place, just three-and-a-half games behind the first-place Pirates.
Rob and I were eight years old at the time, and spent much of our time devouring books about baseball, watching games on TV or playing ball with our brother Mike and neighbors. My dad – a rabid New York Giants fan while growing up – adopted the Cubs when our family moved to Chicago in the mid-1960s and passed on his love of baseball to us.
My memory of that Friday afternoon was not just about the Cubs, though – it was also about their opponents. The Cubs did not just play the Pirates that day; they played Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. The year after this game was played, the Pirates would win the World Series (baseball wordsmith Roger Angell described Clemente’s performance in that Series as "something close to the level of absolute perfection"). The year after that, Clemente, of course, died tragically on New Year’s Eve while delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. I still remember my dad waking Rob and I up on New Year’s Day to tell us the news.
When I look at the box score for the Cub-Pirate game, I figure I will see all those familiar Cub names in the lineup – Kessinger, Beckert, Williams, Banks, Santo. And, in 1970, Jim Hickman, who had the year of his life. Less than two weeks after this game, Hickman became a footnote in baseball history when he drove in the winning run in the All-Star game -- a run that scored when Pete Rose famously knocked over Ray Fosse at home plate.
Memory deceives, though. Ernie Banks was not in the lineup that day. Ernie – no Cub fan can call him by his last name -- had hit his 500th
home run two months earlier. By the time of the game against the Pirates, he had fewer than 300 at-bats left in his career. Ernie hit 23 home runs in the fated and legendary 1969 campaign, which any Cub fan knows is easily one of the lowest points in baseball history. After ’69, he would hit only 15 more home runs.
Meanwhile, I feel compelled to check out 1970 statistics for a few Cub players. I am intrigued when I learn that light-hitting Cub shortstop and lead-off man Don Kessinger scored more runs that year than Alfonso Soriano did in 2007 – and got on base just as often.
Then, of course, there are the names of the players. Rob and I did not know what walk-to-hit ratio was, but we did think it was perfect that the Cubs had a pitcher named “Hands.” We also loved that the Pirates had pitchers named Gibbon, Lamb and Moose. Has any other major league team ever had three pitchers with the names of animals?
Suddenly, I feel like the game is in front me and I’m back at Wrigley, watching the Cubs for the first time. Their pitcher, of course, is Bill Hands. On this day, Hands does his best, but he has no arm. Two innings, seven earned runs, and the Pirates are pounding the Cubs 7-1 in the second inning (Clemente homers in the first inning, and again in the second). My brother and I carry on bravely, though: We beg our parents for more ice cream.
Bottom of the second, and the Cubs rally. Now it’s 7-3, and here comes the pinch-hitter – Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks! -- with men on second and third. We are certain he is going to hit one, and my dad does something he has done for more than four decades when the Cubs need runs: He reaches out to a family member or two and holds their hands for good luck.
This time, Ernie walks.
Next up, Billy Williams, who is having a phenomenal year. C’mon, Billy, hit one, c’mon, and – could it be? -- Billy clears the bases, a home run! Game tied! Grand slam! Hey Hey! I look at my dad and think: “Wouldn’t this be a great time for another ice cream?” When Williams rounds second, my brother and I are convinced my dad should buy season tickets. First the ice cream, though.
It is only the bottom of the second and the game is tied, 7 to 7.
When Willie Smith homers in the bottom of the fifth, the Cubs suddenly lead, 10-9. The Pirates tie it in the 7th,
but the Cubs come back with three of their own. Two walks, two singles and a double are in the mix, and now it’s 13-10 Cubs as we head to the eighth.
Just as suddenly, the Pirates roar back with three runs of their own to tie it, including back-to-back home runs by Gene Alley and Bill Mazeroski (I considered the true story of Mazeroski’s World-Series winning home run in 1960 to be a far more inspirational tale than anything I had ever read in school). As for Alley, all 165 pounds of him, I have no idea how he hits it so far. I know it is the wrong time to ask for more ice cream, though, since my father is doing a lousy job of stifling his displeasure. For a moment, he appears to be in pain. Maybe he wants a couple of aspirin? Or another pitcher?
Tie ballgame after eight innings, 13-13, but Rob and I know the Cubs will win this game. We are less certain on that point when the Pirates scored three more times in the top of the ninth.
What, a home run by Stargell? A ringing double or another home run by Clemente? No – try a two-run homer by Gene Alley.
Gene Alley. This is when my father looks at me as if to say, “Son, you are now a Cub fan. There’s no turning back.”
Finally, it is the bottom of the ninth and we are holding hands again. With two outs, pinch-hitter Al Spangler hits a double, Billy Williams walks and Jim Hickman hits a single, his fourth hit of the day. It is now first and third with two outs and the Cubs are only down by two. Now is the time! Ron Santo is up there battling against tough Pirate reliever Dave Giusti.
Agony: Santo strikes out, and this see-saw of a ballgame is over. Final score: Pirates 16, Cubs 14.
It is hard to imagine now, but on that day at Wrigley we saw the highest-scoring Cub game of the year. “That must have been the most runs in a game – ever!,” Rob and I said to each other more than a few times over the years. Not even close --“ever” is a long time in baseball. In our eight-year-old minds, though, “ever” meant whatever we wanted it to mean.
The story, however, does not end there, because there is always another game of baseball. Nearly thirty-four years
later, on June 5, 2004, the Cubs are playing the Pirates. Santo, of course, is announcing Cub games on the radio at this point. Moises Alou, whose Uncle Matty led off for the Pirates and played center-field that day in 1970, is in left field for the Cubs.
Wrigley is in front of me once again, a place I probably didn't spend much time thinking about the first time I was here. Now, after all these years, Wrigley Field transcends the clichés and detractors -- with all of its many deficits, it really is such a charming, old-school, inviting and essential ballpark that I know I’m in the right place. I'm home and my people are with me. This time, the ballpark is packed and I am watching the game with my dad and my niece Emily, a Cub fan for life who was born two years before the Cubs blew the pennant in 1984.
I can’t believe my good fortune, since we are also joined by a very young fan -- my four-year-old daughter Dina. It is her first game. She gets ice cream, cotton candy and a Cub hat; I get to watch her smile and scream at Wrigley Field. I tell her that if we all hold hands, the Cubs will score some runs. This time, it works, and together we watch the Cubs win, 6 to 1.
As we ride the El train home, my daughter is beaming but exhausted as she clutches a small Cub flag. I tell her we’ll go to another ballgame soon. After all, once the baseball passion gets going, it never stops. That’s when I wonder: Who’s pitching for the Cubs tomorrow? Dan Baron is a writer and lives in Evanston. He has written columns for The Illinois Times and Chicago Parent, and runs a writing and consulting business. He's a member of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits. His favorite hobby is telling clients he has an important meeting, then leaving work early to go to the ballgame.