It’s the bottom of the 3rd and the game is still scoreless. Between the cracks, and chirps as well as the ever present static noise of AM radio, I can hear the announcer say that Ernie Banks is at the plate and the count is “2 and Oh, with nobody out.”
My supper has been finished for 15 painfully long minutes when I am finally excused. 1969 was a time when children asked to be “excused” from the dinner table and were often told to wait. It seems odd by today’s standards; but politeness was as much a part of the meal as was the news with Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.
I’d almost made a clean getaway when the dreaded “not so fast young man” reached my ears from behind the swinging kitchen door.
Another 15 minuets of my life and Chicago Cubs baseball was about to slip by. By the time my grandmother handed me the last of the dishes, the Cubs were at the bottom of the fourth and I still had the silverware to dry and put away. Pots and pans could sit in the dish rack.
What was handed to me was science, a routine and a particular order demanded by my grandmother much like a baseball team manager’s batting order.
Glasses first, then dishes, silver, and lastly pots and pans. The order like that of the Cubs batting line up was important. Leadoff was always the glasses because the cleanest hottest water was best, all the way down the roster until you came to the cleanup batter and the heavy pots and pans.
My hands burned from the hot dishes that dripped wet with the smell of Joy dish washing detergent, the smell of lemons on my hands would follow me to bed.
As soon as the last pot was upside down in the rack, I was out the door, because outside is where my grandfather’s radio worked best.
The signal from Chicago wasn’t strong enough to reach Southern Illinois during the day .
But at night the clear sky and lack of the radiation from the sun meant that you could hear WGN 740 AM as faraway as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in the east and Denver to the west.
The Cubs had started the season strong, winning 11 of the first 12 games and leading the division for 155 games. By the end of August they were 8 1/2 games ahead of St. Louis and 9 1/2 ahead of the New York Mets.
Midway though the fifth, the Cubs left runners at 1st and 2nd on a high pop up easily handled by the infield.
I knew the names of the Cubs players like they were my own brothers, Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, Billy Williams and the catcher Randy Hundley. Ken Holtzman had thrown a no hitter on August 19th and the entire state of Illinois and perhaps even the entire the tri state region that included Wisconsin, and Indiana were listening tonight and that included my grandfather who I found sitting next to me on the front porch.
Normally he would watch the evening news and then join the rest of us at the dinner table. After dinner he’d listen to the farm report on the radio, call it a night and head off to bed. When the door closed at the end of the hall, his small portable radio became mine.
But with the Cubs in first place he wanted to listen to the game on the tan leather covered treasure as much as I did, and the farm report could wait til morning.
Top of the sixth and the Cubs are in front by one.
Southern Illinois is so far south of Chicago that many folks consider it Kentucky or Tennessee. Memphis is 3 hours south and Chicago 7 hours north. In fact the local television station was in Paducah Kentucky just across the Tennessee and Ohio rivers.
The Cubs are down 5 to 3 at the end of the sixth.
My grandfather suggests that we head down the road in his truck. The radio got better reception as we went up the hill to a place where you could see the river a few miles away.
In the half light of that summer evening, we parked in a field just the two of us. He smoked filterless Camel cigarettes and I chewed on cherry flavored swizzlers.
Top of the 7th and the Cubs collect on an error and score one run. Now they are down by 1.
The smell of freshly mowed pastures drifted on the dampness of a moonless August night. I imagined that the lights far off in the distance where those of Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis just over the horizon. Though now I realize it was probably just the lights of Carbondale, less than 15 miles away.
Funny how as children we are see the world around us in the simplest of terms. Our concept of distance is simple as well, St. Louis is over there and Chicago is north. New York? Just a little further than say Cincinnati which to a 12 year old is not more than one mile up the road, maybe ten but no more than 15.
Top of the 9th.
The Cubs would score on a single by Banks and put two more runs on the board before striking out the final batters in order in the ninth to win the game.
My grandfather smoked camels for another 20 years and died from emphysema. The Kitchen Aid dishwasher in my home, doesn’t require any particular order and neither my kids, nor my nieces or nephews ask to be excused from the table. These are, some of the things we have lost along the way and I miss them all.
The end for the Cubs season may have been that night as well since they would blow 17 of the last 25 games. The Mets would end the season 8 games in front of the Cubs, and go on to win the 1969 World Series.
History would recall that 1969 saw the New York Mets pull together the biggest late season comeback in the history of Baseball.
The 1969 Cubs would have the distinction of experiencing the biggest late season melt down and earning them the title "the most celebrated 2nd place team in major league history".