Review of The Forgotten 1970 Chicago Cubs

Bike, William S. The Forgotten 1970 Chicago Cubs: Go and Glow. The History Press, 2021. Pp. 144. Acknowledgments, bibliography, epilogue, end notes, index, photographs, preface, prologue, $21.99 paperback.

Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo

It still stings 52 years later. The Chicago Cubs won a World Series title in 2016 to snap a 108-year drought, but 1969 will always remain the “what-if” season around the Friendly Confines.

The Cubs were sailing to the National League East title in 1969 and led the New York Mets by 8½ games as late as Aug. 7. It was a joyous time on the North Side, with Ron Santo clicking his heels after every victory. Managed by the brash and abrasive Leo Durocher, the Cubs had speed, power, and pitching. Even as late as September 3, the Cubs still held a five-game lead over the Mets with 25 games to play. But the Cubs went into a tailspin, losing eight straight games and 11 of their next 12. The Mets took over first place on September 10 with a doubleheader sweep of the Montreal Expos, while the Cubs were losing to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Mets won the division going away, leaving the second-place Cubs eight games behind and wondering what might have been.

A bitter pill, indeed. But the Cubs still had all the pieces in 1970, and actually came closer that season to winning the division than the 1969 bunch, finishing five games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The History Press, 2021.

William S. Bike examines that 1970 squad in his latest book, The Forgotten 1970 Cubs: Go and Glow. The title of the book comes from a prediction from Hall of Famer Ernie Banks. The eternal “Let’s Play Two” Cubbie said the team would “Go and Glow in 7-0” (p. 20).

The 1970 Cubs certainly do not get a lot of respect. For example, Gerald Eskanazi’s 1993 biography of Leo Durocher, The Lip, mentions the 1970 season in a single sentence in the 336-page book: “They finished second in 1970 and tied for third in 1971.” Eskenazi wrote that “1969 remains to this day the year that crystallized (the Cubs’) frustrations, that made winning worse rather than better.” The collapse in 1969 was “a slow, lingering death,” Bike said during a May 2021 interview on “The Ben Joravsky Show.” “It was a miserable September for all of us.”

Bike has written Streets of the Near Side in 1996, Winning Political Campaigns in 1998 and edited Essays on Earl Renfroe — A Man of Firsts in 2001. Bike, who worked for the University of Illinois at Chicago for 24 years, has been associate editor of the newspaper, Gazette Chicago. The Second City is in his blood. He was born and raised in Chicago and attended his first game at Wrigley Field on August 29, 1967, a Tuesday afternoon contest designated as Ladies Day. His mother took him to Wrigley to watch the Cubs lose 5-3 to the Houston Astros.

Bike approaches the 1970 season by breaking down each month in a separate chapter. He begins with a prologue that recaps the disappointing 1969 season and ends with October 1970 season postmortem. There is also a brief recview of the National League West race in 1970, and a quick look at the 1970s decade and how it affected the Cubs.

That 1970 Cubs team was still potent, with four future Hall of Famers on the squad: Banks, Santo, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins. Durocher, who wore down his regulars by not giving them breaks during the 1969 season — the Cubs still played all of their home games in the afternoon — learned his lesson somewhat. In 1970 he platooned more, and that helped keep the starters fresh. Still, there was that nagging doubt among Cubs fans. If a total collapse happened in 1969, what was to prevent that from happening again in 1970? As Bike writes, “A Cub collapse became an expectation in 1970,” (p. 87) and that was true again when the team faded during the division races in 1973 and 1977. 

And yet, the Cubs had the personnel, including additions in 1970 like the free-spirited Joe Pepitone, who was traded to Chicago after walking out in Houston, and pitcher Milt Pappas, who came to the team from Atlanta and went 10-8 after a 2-2 mark with the Braves.In one of those ironies of baseball, Durocher got along with Pepitone but was unable to get along with Banks. “Acquiring Pepitone was just about the last move anyone expected from conservative Cub management,” Bike writes (p 63). Pepitone “was a lovable guy,” Leo Durocher wrote in his 1975 autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last. “He could charm the birds out of the trees.” Pepitone could also hit and play the field, but it was always a matter of motivation for the left-hander. Durocher probably viewed Pepitone’s carefree and sometimes rebellious ways as a modern-day parallel to his own career as a brawling, scrappy shortstop during the 1930s. Durocher, meanwhile, had been trying to bench Banks since becoming the Cubs’ manager in 1966, but could not find an adequate replacement.

The Cubs were part of a tight three-team race in the N.L. East, even after losing 12 straight games in June. That losing streak was tied to Durocher’s controversial radio show on WIND-AM (p. 51). Durocher, whose relationship with the media was never good, alienated reporters further by withholding information from them and then later announcing it on his radio show, which aired five nights each week. The manager decided to bench Santo which came as a surprise to the media — and Santo, who learned about it from listening to the radio program (p. 52). Durocher also announced he was platooning Banks with Jim Hickman (“my hillbilly,” Durocher would call him) at first base, and hinted at Steve Barber’s demotion to the minors.

Still, there were big moments during the 1970 season, none bigger than Ernie Banks’ 500th home run on May 12. “Mr. Cub” became the ninth player in major league history to hit 500 home runs when he teed off against Braves pitcher Pat Jarvis at Wrigley Field. On July 8, Ron Santo drove in eight runs, including a grand slam in the first inning and a three-run shot in the sixth, against the Montreal Expos in the second game of a doubleheader (p. 59). That followed a two-run homer in the first game. On July 27, Cubs broadcaster Lou Boudreau, who also managed the team in 1960, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

There are also some puzzling revelations. The most bizarre is the claim by Joe Decker’s sister that the pitcher was traded in 1972 by the Cubs because of his good looks (p. 68). Bike quotes Lorrie Ross’ 2018 telephone interview with Steve Dunn of the Society of American Baseball Research. Ross said that Decker and Durocher “had some issues because my brother was really good looking.” “Leo Durocher considered himself the ladies’ man. So I think they had a little bit of conflict about that,” Ross told Dunn. “But (Joe) never said anything bad (about it) to us. He just played baseball. That was his life.”

Bike devotes a chapter to a “What if” scenario, using simulations on Bike assumes the Cubs win the N.L. East and takes it from there in the NLCS and the World Series. No complete spoiler alert here, but remember that Bike is a big Cubs fan. North Siders will like the outcome. Just to satisfy my own curiosity, I also recently played a simulation of the 1970 NLCS. In my version, the Reds won the series, but the Cubs took Cincinnati to five games. The teams basically traded wins in each game, with the Reds winning the opener 12-3, Game 3 by a 14-7 score and clinching the pennant in Game with a 7-4 triumph. The Cubs prevailed in Game 2 (6-4) and Game 4 (7-4). Simulation games are fun. 

In a more scientific project, Bike projects what might have happened if the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals had been placed in the N.L. West when baseball split into divisions in 1969. It seemed strange in 1969 when MLB put Cincinnati and Atlanta — both east of Chicago and St. Louis —in the N.L. West. The odd geographical move was done because the Cubs and Cardinals did not want to lose television revenue by playing a larger percentage of games on the West Coast due to the MLB’s unbalanced scheduling plan (18 games against division rivals, 12 against non-divisional teams). Bike’s research in a 1992 study showed that the Cubs would have won the West and then would have played the Mets in the 1969 NLCS (p. 92). They would have been close to winning the title in 1970 (one-half game behind the Los Angeles Dodgers) and could have forced a one-game playoff if the Dodgers had lost a rained-out makeup game.

Another “what-if” type scenario Bike explores is the talent the Cubs allowed to leave the organization. He observes how “so many players … would go on to have stellar seasons or great careers for other teams.” (p. 87). That includes Larry Gura, Ted Abernathy, Dick Selma, Joe Decker and Oscar Gamble, to name a few.

The final chapter contains short capsules of each player on the roster of the 1970 Cubs, in addition to recaps of Durocher, broadcasters, owner Philip Wrigley and general manager John Holland. Bike’s research is thorough and extensive, as he uses books, magazines and newspapers as sources. He also conducted three interviews and plumbed the internet for online sourcing. The one glitch I found was Bike referring to outfielder Bobby Murcer as “Mercer” (p.21).

The Forgotten 1970 Chicago Cubs is short on pages but long on detail, research and anecdotes. Had the Cubs broken through to win the division in 1970, baseball history may have been different. It’s another “what-if” scenario, but an interesting one.

Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s