August '69: Flying high in Chicago

""Let's play two!" Hall-of-Famer Ernie Banks

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." John F. Kennedy 'Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs' speech May 25, 1961

With those famous words, JFK issued a direct challenge to America's technical ingenuity and competitive spirit. At the time, many older folks in the crowd remembered an era when the idea of manned flight, let alone traveling to outer space was considered the stuff of science fiction. Yet on July 20th 1969, a full six months under the deadline imposed by JFK, all of America and much of the world were fixated on live TV images of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin beamed back from the lunar surface. The seemingly impossible had been achieved.

The second part of the goal, bringing the Apollo 11 crew back safely to earth was no mean feat either, and once that was accomplished, they returned to an historic hero's welcome. Nearly a month later, on August 13th, Chicago prepared it's own ceremony for the moon walking superstars which included a huge ticker tape parade ending at the Loop's Civic Center (later renamed Daley Plaza) beneath the then two-year-old Picasso sculpture. My mom and I arrived early to snag a good view along the LaSalle Street parade route. This was the second such parade in the same day for the jet-setting astronauts. In a prophetic foreshadowing, New York City was first.

But as exciting as all of this was, it wasn't the ONLY reason for this young Chicago area boy's euphoric state throughout much of that summer of '69. While Neil and Buzz were hopping along the Sea of Tranquility and in the days that followed their return, the Chicago Cubs baseball team was building up an apparently insurmountable lead in the National League East and were well on their way to fulfilling the long-awaited promise of bring a pennant to Chicago's north side.

With a roster of unstoppable All-Stars including Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Don Kessinger, Glen Beckert, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins, they were 75-44 on August 16, up by a season high nine games over the second place New York Mets and bound for glory. I'd attended my first game the year before, and was a diehard fan by the time the '69 season began, faithfully tuning into the games announced by Jack Brickhouse (HEY HEY!) on WGN.

Meanwhile, just 90 miles away from where the Apollo 11 astronauts were hightailing it out of Manhattan bound for Chicago, a music festival billed as "An Aquarian Exposition" and more commonly known as Woodstock was just about to get under way in the tiny hamlet of White Lake. What began as a paid event ended up being free as the number of attendees grew to more than half a million. Despite some cases of drug overdose and heat stroke, the event was a largely peaceful gathering and quickly turned into a cultural phenomenon. August 17th marked the final day of the festival, and to match the "high" of the festival goers, the Cubs hit their peak two days later with a no-hitter thrown by Ken Holzman against the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field. The Cubs, now 8 games ahead of the second place Mets, were on top of the world. But like many hallucinogenic highs, this one ended up in a terrifying "bad trip", namely to the Mets' Shea Stadium for two games in early September. By that time their lead over the surging Mets was down to 2 games and on Sept. 9th and 10th, in the midst of a disastrous losing streak, and following a bizarre incident in which a black cat crossed behind Ron Santo standing in the on-deck circle, the Cubs dropped both games to the Mets and, despite a 1/2 game lead at that point, the writing was on the wall. The Cubs finished up the season a full 8 games out of first place and the "Miracle Mets" went on to win the 1969 World Series. In the years since then, there have been other heartbreaks and near-great teams, but the totality of the '69 Cubs collapse still goes down in the record books as their most famous downfall. Yet, as we approach the opening of the 2013 baseball season, Cub fans will once again dream the impossible dream of bringing a World Series to the North side. Hey, if we can put a man on the moon, why not?