Yesterday in baseball history — Durocher’s Cubs surge into first [UPDATED]

Heading into the 1967 season, the Chicago Cubs had not finished in the top half of the National League since 1946, and had experienced only one winning season since that year (1963, when they went 82-80). The Cubs had hoped that their fortunes would turn around when, in 1966, they hired Leo Durocher as manager.

Durocher had won a pennant managing the Brooklyn Dodgers and two pennants and a world championship managing the New York Giants. His won-loss record as a manager was on the plus side of .500 in all but four of his 17 seasons as a manager. On the other hand, he hadn’t managed since 1955 (the man known as “Leo the Lip” spent the early 1960s as a Dodgers coach, often criticizing and second-guessing Walter Alston).

The 1966 ball club that Durocher took over in Chicago had a talented core of players — Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger, Randy Hundley, Ken Holtzman, and ( after April 21) Ferguson Jenkins. Yet Durocher only managed to win 59 games with that team, one of the worst seasons ever for this hapless franchise.

This was the only time that Durocher — who coined the phrase “nice guys finish last” and who was not at all nice — finished last.

With so much talent and a manager known for turning teams around, the Cubs had reason to hope for better things in 1967. A return to .500 baseball seemed possible.

That’s just about where the club stood in early June. Then, the Cubs caught fire.

When they defeated Cincinnati, the early National League pacesetters, on Saturday July 1, it was their 13th win in 14 games. Suddenly, the Cubs found themselves only half a game behind league-leading St. Louis.

On Sunday, the Cubs beat Cincinnati yet again, to sweep the three game series. Ferguson Jenkins allowed just one run on three hits, with no walks. It was his 11th victory of the season, tied for most in the major leagues. Jenkins also supplied two hits and an RBI triple. The final score was 4-1.

Meanwhile, St. Louis played a double header in New York against the lowly Mets. In the opening, the Cards jumped out to an early three run lead thanks in part to a two-run homer by Mike Shannon. They were still leading 4-2 heading into the bottom of the seventh, but the Mets scored once in each of the last three frames to win 5-4. Bud Harrelson scored the winning run on a wild pitch by Joel Hoerner.

The Cardinals needed to win the nightcap to hold on to a piece of first place. They accomplished this 3-1 behind Steve Carlton.

In 1967, there was no such thing as NBA free agency, nor were fans on the edge of their seats waiting for NFL teams to open their training camps. Baseball was the undisputed king of sports in the summer, except maybe in Olympic years.

Thus, the Chicago Cubs ascension to first place was a huge story nationally. To make it even better, the Chicago White Sox were also in first, 4.5 games ahead of Boston, Detroit, and Minnesota.

The Cubs never passed St. Louis, though, and over the 162 game schedule they were no match for the Cardinals. Their attack was potent enough; in fact they led the league in runs scored. However, the pitching came up short, especially after Ken Holtzman was called up for six months of duty with the Illinois National Guard (Holtzman went 9-0 for the season, but made only 12 starts).

The Cubs finished the year in third place, 14 games behind St. Louis. Their record was 87-74, the club’s best since 1945 when they won the pennant in a league missing many of its best players due to the War.

The Cubs finished third again in 1968. With the same core of players, Durocher seemed destined to take his third team to the World Series the following year, but the New York Mets turned out to be destiny’s team that year. (For more on that, watch this space two years from now).

The Cubs never did break through under Durocher. They finished second in the NL East in 1970 and third the following year. With the team barely above .500 in 1973, Phil Wrigley fired “Leo the Lip” at mid-season.

UDPATE: A reader called my attention to this story about the bedlam that followed the Cubs victory. The crowd at sold-out Wrigley Field refused to leave. Ron Santo, who was interviewed on a postgame television show, had to fight his way through the mob to the Cub quarters and when he staggered into the dressing room, he warned his teammates: “Don’t go out there, I’m lucky to get back here alive.”

The fans demanded that the scoreboard operators move the Cubs flag on the scoreboard to the top spot. After about 15 minutes of shouting and pointing, the operators got the message and complied. Only then did fans begin to leave.

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