The 1969 Cubs had a shelf life, as all good rosters do. The great Ernie Banks’ career was in the books by the end of the 1971 season. Lefty Ken Holtzman was traded after that same campaign, and fellow starting pitcher Bill Hands after the next one.
But in the dust-settling of the 1973 campaign, the ’69 Cubs became ghosts. Ace Fergie Jenkins, infielders Ron Santo and Glenn Beckert and catcher Randy Hundley all were dealt. By this point, star right fielder Billy Williams had developed a sad, almost maudlin tradition — a teammate countdown — with shortstop Don Kessinger. With each departure, Williams would call Kessinger and the pair would mark the number of ’69 guys left.
In March 1974, outfielder Jim Hickman was dealt to the Cardinals.
“Two,” Williams told Kessinger.
It was just them. After that season, Williams was shipped to the Athletics.
“That’s one,” came the call. “Kess, you got it.”
Kessinger’s 11th Cubs season, in 1975, would be his last with the team. That’s how long it took for the whole shebang to reach its conclusion.
“Kess and I kind of had fun with it, but it was so sad to see all those guys go,” Williams recalled this week. “You spend more time with those players than your family. Six months out of the year, you’re with them. Quite naturally, you miss them. When they leave, it’s pretty rough.”
Less than two weeks since the wrecking ball obliterated a different Cubs era with the deadline trades of Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez and Kris Bryant, Williams the fan is picking up the pieces.
“The next month and a half is going to be tough for fans to go out there and witness,” the Hall of Famer said. “And it’s going to be a while after that, hopefully not too long. I’m 83 now. I hope it doesn’t go another 108 years.”
Following the Cubs’ 2016 championship, Williams was certain the core would produce at least one more title. As the Cubs dragged through the first half in 2017, though, he surmised correctly that it wouldn’t happen that year.
“But I thought they would come back in 2018 and win it,” he said. “I had a great feeling about that.”
When the Cubs started 12-3 in 2020, Williams was lured in again, watching every pandemic inning at home in Glen Ellyn. Even this season, when the Cubs threw a combined no-hitter to beat the Dodgers in the opener of a seven-game road trip to get to 42-33 — tied for first in the National League Central — he believed that elusive second World Series could happen. He began to read up on potential trades the team could make to really go after it.
Williams had no idea an 11-game losing streak was about to start. None of us did. Before the Cubs ended a series in Milwaukee — where the streak extended to six — he knew the score.
“I said, ‘Well, the season’s about over,’ ” he said.
Williams is a bit of a Cubs romantic. He has faith that the next group of Cubs prospects will bubble up and do some good. He wants to be at spring training in Arizona to watch things develop, a responsibility he feels not only to the Cubs and for himself but for Banks and Santo. And he’ll miss Rizzo, Bryant and Baez, not to mention the others who won what his ’69 team couldn’t.
“It was just a joy to see them do what they did here,” he said. “They played good for the organization. The fans appreciated them. I appreciated them. It’s sad they’re all gone. It’s a sad ending.”
The Cubs teardown doesn’t square all that well with Andre Dawson, who so wanted to play for the North Siders in 1987 that he offered a signed, otherwise blank free-agent contract only to be handed a $500,000 pittance for a three-time All-Star.
Dawson, 67 — and a Cubs ambassador — puts the onus more on the star players who left.
“It kind of bothers you, to a degree,” he said. “The mindset today is fair market value, but I think there’s a very fine line because players get paid today really to do nothing. A lot of them make a lot of money, and really they’re average or above average. But you’ve got to have a sense of loyalty. If fair value is offered to you, you’ve got to weigh the pros and cons. If it’s not where you want to be, that’s another thing. But I’ve always felt you have to have a feeling and loyalty to an organization if you can if the numbers are fair.”
Dawson wasn’t as confident as Williams in the Cubs core.
“You’re kind of on the fence with that because you would like to see, if possible, some guys retained, but I think this particular group had its run, got to the point where they were not consistent with where they should be, performance-wise, and they got to be pretty predictable,” he said. “So you take your loss, you chalk that up and you move on.”
o Williams has been watching the streaking White Sox, too.
“They’ve got a good club,” he said. “They have very good players over there. And they’re steady players. And of course, a manager, Tony La Russa, who knows how to run a ship. He can steer it right.”
His favorite Sox player: shortstop Tim Anderson.
o Get well soon to Jason Benetti, who is resting at home after a breakthrough positive test for COVID-19 following his return from the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. This is as fine a person as there is on our local sports media scene.
o The very best, as well, to Troy Murray, the Blackhawks radio analyst who announced Monday that he has cancer. Murray, 59, is a treasure. He was a terrific Hawks player and, more important, is a kind and friendly man.
o Watching Sox left fielder Eloy Jimenez homer four times and drive in 10 runs Sunday and Monday, I kept coming back to the same question: If the Cubs had never traded Jimenez and Dylan Cease and they were in the big leagues on the North Side, would Rizzo, Baez and Bryant still be their teammates?
Think about it.