Don KessingerJuly 21, 2009
A couple notable anniversaries have come up recently that made me think of Don Kessinger and distance. The more recent and much more widely celebrated anniversary occurred yesterday, the fortieth anniversary of the first time humans walked on the moon. For most of human history to that point, the moon had seemed so impossibly distant that it stood as a kind of symbol of the unreachable. As pointed out in an enjoyable post at wezen-ball.com, the bridging of this distance had the power to stop the baseball world. The most solemn and reverential of the stoppages occurred in the third inning of the second game of a doubleheader between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs, when the announcement of the landing was followed by both teams lining the foul lines and bowing their heads in silent prayer. When play resumed, the Cubs went on to complete a sweep of the doubleheader, which increased their division lead over the second place New York Mets to five games. Don Kessinger was the star of the day, knocking in the only run in the first game and collecting three hits and scoring two runs in the nightcap.
Three days later, Kessinger would be the starting shortstop for the National League in the 1969 All-Star game, one of five Cubs on the team, a notable number especially considering that it didn’t include two future Hall of Famers, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins, who were both having customarily strong years. It seemed that practically every regular on the Cubs was a star, and that the distant goal of a World Series championship, which the team had not won for sixty-one years, was looking like a distinct possibility.
I’m not an expert on how the bridging of that distance collapsed, but from what I understand as the summer pressed on the team relied on its stars with no relief from the bench until the stars just ran out of gas. This seems to be a common theme in collapses. I know the 1978 Red Sox stumbled in large part because of a lack of depth, and a side-by-side look at the statistics of the Yankees and Red Sox teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s shows that the team that won every time was not the one with more stars but rather the one with the far superior depth. In the last couple years, the fading of the Mets has seemed to offer another lesson in what happens to a star-studded team with a shoddy bench.
In 1969, the Mets played a different part in the proceedings, of course, and with a deep, nearly star-free team, every man on the roster with a significant role, they kept coming in waves and eventually blew past the Cubs. The Mets, who had until that year been synonymous with futility, won the pennant and the World Series and forever after became baseball’s parallel to the reaching of the moon.
The moon? The Mets?!? There seemed to be no limit to what distances humankind could reach.
And the thing is, if the Cubs, who at that time were already the longest suffering franchise in American sports, had been able to hang onto their summertime lead, they would have been the team most closely associated with the miraculous closing of distances.
The Cubs would not come close again during Don Kessinger’s tenure with the team. At the end of 1975 Kessinger was traded away to the Cardinals, and in 1977 he came back to Chicago, to the White Sox, in the middle of a promising summer for both Chicago baseball teams, but both teams faded out of the pennant race, and the prospects of a long-awaited World Series win again moved off into the far distance for years to come. In 1979, Kessinger was named player-manager of the White Sox, but he was unable to lead the team anywhere beyond their usual earthbound status in the standings.
By then, the hopes of the space program were literally crumbling. The Apollo program of manned space flights to the moon had ended years earlier, and NASA’s subsequent flagship project, the Skylab space station, had been abandoned not long after. A few years later, on July 11, 1979, the abandoned space station lost orbit, reentered the atmosphere, and, in fiery pieces, pelted the earth.
The very next night, in Chicago, Don Kessinger managed one of his final games (within a couple weeks he’d be fired from managing and never play another game) and then, after the first game of a doubleheader that would never be completed, looked on as teenaged hellions stampeded all over the field, whipped into a frenzy by the explosion of a pile of disco records.
The fortieth anniversary of the moon landing and the thirtieth anniversary of Disco Demolition night make me think of Don Kessinger and of distance and of a sky so clogged with the smoke of exploded disco and pot that you couldn’t see the moon even if you weren’t too wasted to even try.