For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: `It might have been! --J ohn Greenleaf Whittier (1856). Those words were lamentably appropriate for the Chicago Cubs on this painful day, when the team's legendary futility reached a record low. Barely three weeks after holding a four-game lead over the New York Mets, the Cubs found themselves mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. The hated Mets had clinched the National League East Division title.
The season had started out with high hopes of ending a 24-year post-season drought as the Cubs reeled off nine wins in their first 10 games.
From opening day until Sept. 10, the team, which included such future Hall of Famers as Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins, stayed in first place in the new National League East. Said Ron Santo, the team's feisty third baseman: "We knew that this was the season we were going to win."
Ken Holtzman pitched a no-hitter Aug. 19 against the Atlanta Braves, but by then, the teasing baseball gods were warming up. A 9 1/2-game lead over the New York Mets started to disappear--oh, so slowly. By the end of the month, the Mets had chipped the Cubs' lead to four games.
Salt in the wound was an eight-game losing streak from Sept. 3 to the 11 that coincided with a Mets seven-game winning streak.
"If I'd known we were going to lose eight straight," Manager Leo Durocher said later, "I would have just played nine pitchers every day and let everyone else go home and rest."
Explanations for the Cubs' collapse abounded, from the team becoming too wrapped up in off-the-field endeavors to the remote possibility that the Mets, who would go on to win the World Series, simply had a better team.
Wrote Tribune sports columnist Robert Markus: "My theory is that the Cubs simply had to shoulder their burden too long. It is impossible to endure the kind of pressure the Cubs were under for six months."
Whatever the reason, it was the Mets who celebrated the night of Sept. 24. "The Mets served champagne, shaving cream and bath towels tonight to one and all, including themselves," wrote the Tribune's Edward Prell from New York that evening. It might have been the Cubs.