Cubs history is filled with many bittersweet events. Last week marked the 40th anniversary of another of them. This one is purely personal.
When I was growing up on the Northwest Side in the late '50s, we were all White Sox fans. The Sox had Nellie Fox and Billy Pierce, Little Louie and Jungle Jim. Every year they battled the Yankees for the pennant. In 1959 the Sox even won it.
The Cubs were Chicago's other team. Usually they battled someone for last place. As kids we went to Wrigley because it was closer, and because you could sneak down into the box seats, since nobody was there. Attendance was so meager they didn't even bother to open the upper deck.
The Cubs did have one thing--Ernie Banks. He was elected MVP twice. And he hit home runs. Lots of them. Even when the Cubs were getting clobbered, fans stuck around long enough to watch Ernie's last turn at bat. When that was over, all 4,000 people would get up and leave at once.
The years passed. By 1971 the Sox were trying to decide whether to move to Seattle. The Cubs ruled Chicago. Though they hadn't quite nailed down a pennant yet, it was just a matter of time.
Ernie Banks was now 40 years old. He was playing out the string as a part-time first baseman. Everyone knew this was his last season.
July 21 was a Wednesday. The Cubs were facing the Mets that afternoon. The park was a sellout, but I got hold of two seats behind third base. I brought my girlfriend Terri to the game.
The wind was blowing out and there was plenty of scoring. In the bottom of the fifth, the Cubs led 8-5. And now Terri was showing signs of wanting to leave. Little hints, like "The Cubs have it wrapped up--let's beat the traffic."
So we left. By the time we'd retrieved the car and turned on the radio, the Mets had scored a run to make it 8-6. As we headed west on Irving Park, the Cubs were coming up in the bottom of the sixth.
Like most baby boomers, I remember where I was when I heard that President Kennedy had been killed. Like most people with some Polish ancestry, I remember where I was when I heard that a Polish pope had been elected.
I remember that I was at Irving Park and Elston when the Cubs sent Ernie Banks up as a pinch hitter. I remember hearing the crowd cheer the announcement. I remember Tug McGraw throwing the first pitch.
And then . . . Ernie . . . hit . . . a . . . home . . . run. And the crowd was still cheering when I got on the Kennedy.
That was #511. It wasn't Ernie's last homer--he added another later in the season. But what could be more dramatic than coming up and hitting a dinger as a pinch-hitter? And what could be a worse way to hear about it than on a car radio speeding away from the ballpark?
The next year Terri and I were married. We're still married. But we don't go to baseball games together any more.