In his article, “A Moment of Silence: Remembering Herb Score,” Bill Barry
distinguishes between the greatest player, statistically speaking,
he ever saw, and the single greatest baseball performance he ever witnessed.
This brought to mind a special summer evening in Flushing, Queens,
approximately four decades ago.
Growing up a Chicago Cubs fan in New York during the 1960s was cruel
and unusual punishment for a baseball enthusiast. What sinister twist
of fate made me a Cubs fan, I’ll never really fully understand.
But I still vividly remember ogling the 1964 Topps baseball
card of Andre Rodgers, and Ron Santo’s 1964 card, showing off the
Cubs decal on his left sleeve. Or, was it one of the Cubs
catchers during the 1960s? Vic Roznovsky? Dick Bertell? How about
first baseman John Boccabella? All great baseball names,
but not great baseball players. Or was it the lanky left-hander,
Dick Ellsworth, who both lost 20 games (1962) and won 20 games (1963)
in consecutive years? Whatever the reason, the die was cast
at an early age and I’ve been hooked on the Cubbies ever since.
The year was 1969, and for a Cubs fan, the season began
terrifically. Of course, as is so often the case for Cubs enthusiasts,
things didn’t end too well. To this day, I carry the deep psychological
and emotional scars of that season. It wasn’t so much the ribbing and verbal
abuse I endured from friends and family, rather, it was and continues to
be the disturbing image of Cleon Jones in left field, gently bending at
the knees, as he watched the fly ball off the bat of the Orioles’
Davey Johnson land securely in his glove. The New York Mets
were World Champions, and the celebrations at Shea Stadium,
in New York, and all around me, were in full force.
It should have been the Cubs in 1969, but that’s another story for another day.
It pains me to admit that the single greatest baseball
performance I have ever seen, after watching this great game for over half a
century, occurred in Shea Stadium, on July 9, 1969.
The night belonged to number 41, Tom Seaver, who was perfect.
Well, technically perfect for 8 1/3 innings, until the Cubs’
Jimmy Qualls lined a soft, clean single to left-center field,
dropping in front of Tommie Agee. Alas, Tommie Agee is no longer with us,
nor is Shea Stadium, erected at the time of the 1964 World’s Fair
in New York. I was among the 50,709 fans that Wednesday night
who witnessed a pitching performance, the likes of which will not soon
be matched. Seaver was, in a word, dominant. It was as if he was
pitching from a mound 55 feet away from home plate.
There didn’t exist the ludicrous over-emphasis on pitch counts in 1969,
but I’ve come to learn that Seaver threw only 99 pitches
(that’s 11 pitches per inning!), struck out 11, and from my field-level
seat along the first base line, appeared to be throwing BB’s.
He was un-hittable. The Cubs hitters had no time to react to his fastball,
and were completely off balance when Seaver threw sliders,
curve balls and off speed stuff. My beloved Cubs were helpless.
I was helpless. It pained me to see Hall of Famers Billy
Williams and Ernie Banks, and All-Star (should be Hall of Famer)
third baseman Ron Santo look like Little Leaguers against Seaver.
Banks struck out twice that night. The Cubs right-fielder and
number six hitter, Al Spangler, fanned all three times he faced Seaver.
If things are quiet today, I can still hear the popping sound of
Tom Terrific’s fastball smacking into catcher Jerry Grote’s mitt.
Remember, though, I am (and was) a Cubs fan, and giving up is never an option.
While the vast majority of the other 50,709 strong in the stadium held their
collective breaths for Seaver, I continued to have hope and root
for the Cubs. Heck, the score was only 4-0 going into the ninth inning.
Never mind that the Cubbies hitters had been impotent for 8 innings,
and had I given it serious thought at the time, I would have realized
the 1927 Murderer’s Row New York Yankees would have appeared
feeble against Seaver that night. But, what did I know?
I was 15-years old, and blindly rooting my Cubbies on.
This game was still within reach. In a bold move, catcher Randy
Hundley attempted to bunt his way on to lead off the ninth, but was thrown
out by Seaver for the first out in the inning. While the crowd noise became
deafening, I continued to focus, not on Seaver, but on the possibility
of a Cubs win. Jimmy Qualls stepped up to the plate. I noticed pinch hitter,
“Wonderful” Willie Smith, in the on-deck circle. While the Mets
faithful envisioned history in the making, I was thinking differently.
If Qualls and Smith could get on base, the Cubs would have the top of their
lineup up coming up...Kessinger, Beckert...heck, anything could happen.
It is all in the history books now, and As Casey Stengel said,
“You could look it up.” Jimmy Qualls got the hit, of course,
and the Shea Stadium crowd was in shock. I jumped out of my seat,
screaming and applauding. Not for Tom Seaver, but for Jimmy Qualls
and the Cubs. We still had a chance. Was this the beginning of a
ninth inning rally? Alas, Seaver, the ultimate professional,
composed himself and made quick work of Willie Smith,
who popped out to first baseman Don Clendenon in foul territory.
Imagine, poor Willie Smith, sitting on the bench for 8 innings,
coming off the bench cold, to face Tom Seaver that night.
Seaver completed his masterpiece by retiring unfortunate
leadoff man Don Kessinger, the only Cub to face Seaver
four times that magical evening, on a fly ball to left fielder Cleon Jones.
After the game, Tom Seaver expressed his feelings,
“Never in any aspect of my life, in baseball or outside, had I experienced
such a disappointment." I’m sure Mets fans everywhere agree. I agree,
but for a different reason. My disappointment stemmed from the fact
that the Cubs lost the game. When all was said and done,
I looked up at the scoreboard, and saw the Cubs line score: 0-1-3. No runs,
one hit, and three errors. You don’t win any games when you don’t score runs.
Not a great night for a Cubs fans, but for a baseball fan who
loves the game, a cherished 2 hours and 2 minutes,
and life-long memories.
I had endured enough in 1969. The Cubs faltered and the Mets,
the Mets of all teams, went on to win the World Series.
It would have been asking too much of a young Cubs fan,
living in New York, to also live through a perfect game thrown
at his favorite team as well. Thank you Jimmy Qualls,
for the 1 in 0-1-3, and thank you, Tom Seaver, for the greatest baseball
performance I have ever seen. Despite the line score,
you were truly perfect that night.
©2010 by Bruce Harris