The roots of the dreaded “curse” of the Chicago Cubs lies in 1945, when William Sianis’ billy goat was denied admission into Wrigley Field for game four of the World Series, in which the Cubs lead two games to one against the Detroit Tigers. Sianis responded by putting a curse on the Cubs, who would go on to lose the series in seven games and haven’t been back to the Fall Classic since. However, before 1969, there wasn’t really any talk of a “curse”. William’s son, Sam, personally laid the beast to rest multiple times. But the 1969 season changed all that, as Chicago blew a nine-game division lead from August 16 on, making room for the Amazin’ Mets of New York to win their first division title in franchise history. Those Mets later captured a World Series victory against the heavily-favored Baltimore Orioles. If you want to truly understand the meaning of the possibility of “The Curse of the Billy Goat”, 1969 is where you should start.
The 1969 MLB season was an experimental time for the league. It was the first season of the “Divisional Era”, where the expanded twelve-team leagues were split into two six-team divisions, East and West. MLB also reduced the size of the strike zone, lowered the height of the pitching mound, and introduced the save as a statistic. Let’s make one thing clear to start this off: the 1969 Chicago Cubs were not only the best team in the NL East, but in the National League. They had abrasive manager Leo Durocher, who had managed in New York with the Dodgers and Giants from 1939 to 1955 and famously stated “in baseball, nice guys finish last”. They had five future Hall of Famers, including Durocher, with a lineup of Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ron Santo, along with ace pitcher Ferguson Jenkins. They started the season winning eleven of their first twelve games, and, as of August 16, they stood at 75-44, nine games ahead of the New York Mets for the NL East division title.
The Mets were heading into their eighth season as an MLB franchise, having joined the league as an expansion team in 1962. That season they went 40-120, the most losses by any team in the 20th century. They had never finished better than ninth place in the National League and had not been over .500 past the ninth game of the season in any year. They did sport an ace in Tom Seaver and a budding superstar (although they traded him before that happened) in Nolan Ryan, but their lineup was low-scoring and they were just 18-23 through their first forty-one games. They would then win their next eleven games, going 82-39 (.685 winning pct.) over the remainder of the season and finishing with 100 wins and an NL East division title. Yet on August 16, after defeating the Padres 2-0 at Shea Stadium for Tom Seaver’s 17th win of the season, the Mets were still nine games behind the Cubs in the division race.
What would transpire next is a mixture of one of the best second-half performances in MLB history by the Mets and the true start of something dark for the Cubs. After their September 2 win over the Cincinnati Reds, the Cubs record stood at 84-52, five games ahead of the 77-55 Mets. Chicago proceeded to lose eleven of their next twelve games, while New York was on their way to winning fourteen of their next seventeen. During these respective streaks, the Cubs traveled to Shea Stadium for a series from September 8 to September 9, which the Mets would sweep while outscoring Chicago 10-3. The last game of this two-game stint resulted in what could be the first real thought of a “curse” on the Cubbies.
During their game on September 9, a black cat wandered around the visitors on-deck circle where Ron Santo was standing. It stared vehemently at the Cub dugout, creating a lasting image that still, as of today, remains iconic. The Cubs went on to lose that game 7-1, marking their sixth consecutive loss and moving the Mets within a half-game of the division standings. Cubs players of that time don’t really have a remark about the black cat fiasco, but focus more on dividing factions within the team and Durocher’s overuse of his eight position players and pitching staff. Fans also thought that the many day games that had to be played at Wrigley Field before stadium lights were installed in 1992 became grinding to the everyday players.
The next series resulted in Chicago losing two straight games to the ninety-nine-loss Philadelphia Phillies, increasing their losing streak to eight and finally giving the Mets a division lead that New York not only held on to, but would increase to eight games by the end of the season. After their series together at Shea, the Mets would record a 23-7 record, while the Cubs went on to lose seventeen of their last twenty-five games. The seventeen and a half game turnaround is one of the greatest in MLB history and changed the courses of two franchises
While Chicago sat at home, waiting for next season, the Mets went on to sweep the NL West-winning Atlanta Braves in three games during the new League Championship series before having to get past the 109-game-winning dynasty that was the 1969 Baltimore Orioles, whose lineup was led by all-time greats Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, and Boog Powell, and who boasted possibly the best rotation in the history of baseball, with Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally, who split sixty-three victories between them. Everybody had the Orioles moving toward building their legacy as the best team of the 1960’s. Nobody thought the Mets could even competing against this juggernaut. Then the Miracle Mets went and beat the Orioles in every facet of the game, winning the series in five and establishing a winning culture around the new New York franchise. This was the first World Series victory by an expansion team in MLB history, only rivaled by the Florida Marlins of 1997 and 2003, and the Arizona Diamonbacks in 2001.
The Cubs side of this story played out very differently. The North Side of Chicago would appearing in the playoffs only six times between 1970 and the start of the 2015 season. Their appearances in 1984 and 2003 would bring forth more controversy regarding the “curse”, and would lead more Cubs fans to believe there might have been something more to the 1969 collapse, and further more the 1945 World Series, with a mystifying presence of bad luck surrounding the franchise.
This should be an overwhelmingly exciting series between these two clubs. The 2015 Mets are built similarly to the 1969 team; both featured strong pitching staffs and excellent defense. However, the new Mets are much better offensively. The 2015 Cubs represent Chicago’s best opportunity at a World Series appearance since the 1969 season. They are stocked with young talent and are led by a manager just as abrasive as Durocher in Joe Maddon, who used his tactical approach and relationship with players to build this franchise back up into contenders. Keep an eye out for every moment of this series; omens and ghostly legends are sure to come into play. What more could a baseball fan want?