Rick Cleveland

Don Kessinger: ’69 Cubs teams didn’t blame ‘Curse of the Billy Goat’ for late collapse

Cincinnati Reds outfielder Pete Rose, left, tumbles over after being forced out at second base in the seventh inning against the Cubs in Chicago on Sunday, May 1, 1972. Cubs shortstop Don Kessinger looks toward first base to see if his throw was quick enough to catch Reds outfielder Bobby Tolan who batted in to the play. Kessinger wasn't fast enough with the toss, but Chicago took the win 6-4, anyway.
Cincinnati Reds outfielder Pete Rose, left, tumbles over after being forced out at second base in the seventh inning against the Cubs in Chicago on Sunday, May 1, 1972. Cubs shortstop Don Kessinger looks toward first base to see if his throw was quick enough to catch Reds outfielder Bobby Tolan who batted in to the play. Kessinger wasn't fast enough with the toss, but Chicago took the win 6-4, anyway. AP

The Chicago Cubs, the best team in baseball this regular season, famously have not won a World Series championship since 1908 and have not played in a World Series since 1945.

The Cubs have had so many splendid teams off and on during that drought, observers have tried to come up with a reasonable explanation. And, since there is none, many have blamed it on the Curse of the Billy Goat.

You probably know the story. In 1945, Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis was asked to leave Game 4 of the World Series at Wrigley Field because the odor of his pet goat was disturbing nearby fans. Outraged, Sianis supposedly sent a telegram to Cubs owner Phil Wrigley declaring the Cubs would lose that World Series and never play in another one because the team had insulted his goat. Thus, the Curse of the Billy Goat.

Silly, you say?

The Cubs led two games to one in that Series when Sianis and his goat were ejected — and then lost it. They have not played in one since. And they have had some truly great teams, including several that included former Ole Miss standout and Oxford resident Don Kessinger, one of the truly splendid shortstops of his era.

Kessinger and his 1969 Cubs teammates, who included four future Hall of Famers, led the New York Mets by nine games on August 16. The Cubs lost 17 of their last 25 games. The Mets won 23 of their last 30. The Mets won the pennant. Somewhere, a Billy Goat laughed.

About that curse, Don?

“Well, I can tell you that we blamed a lot of things, but we never blamed a Billy goat or a curse,” Kessinger says, chuckling. “We didn’t play well at the end. And it didn’t seem like the Mets could lose. But I don’t remember any talk about a curse — at least not among the players.”

Kessinger, a six-time All-Star, believes that for several seasons in the late 1960s and early 1970s the Cubs “were as good as anybody in baseball.”

Those Cubs included future Cooperstown inductees Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins.

“I look back on it and it’s hard to believe I went out there every day with four future Hall of Famers,” Kessinger says. “We really were as good as anyone. In the end, we just didn’t get it done. I don’t think we got complacent or anything like that. I think to a man, all our guys believed that we would win. And then we didn’t.”

There were other great players besides the Hall of Famers. Kessinger, himself, was as good a fielding shortstop as any in baseball. Randy Hundley was one of the game’s best defensive catchers. Glenn Beckert was a four-time All-Star at second base and a career .283 hitter. Right fielder Jim Hickman was terrific.

“We were really, really good, no doubt about it,” Kessinger says. “But as good as we were, we never won 103 regular season games like this Cubs team did. I will say this, if we’re playing in the same system back then that they are now, we would have had several second chances because we would have been the wild card team a few times.”

During Kessinger’s time with the Cubs, they finished in second place three times and third place three times.

Kessinger follows these Cubs closely.

“I keep up,” he says. “I watch ‘em on TV every chance I get. I still pull for them. I think you’ve got to give (general manager) Theo Epstein and his group a lot of credit for getting the right blend of players, and then you have to give (manager) Joe Maddon a lot of credit for getting those players to play.

“Maddon is a players’ manager. They love to play for him, and he gets the most out of what he’s got.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Cubs will win the World Series or even get to it.

As Kessinger knows better than most, in baseball, the best team does not always win it all.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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