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A Reminder Of All Our Mortality: Santo First Of 1969 Cubs Regulars To Pass Away

Chicago baseball fans of a certain age are beginning to lose their childhood heroes.

You thought they'd go on forever.

And why not? The 1969 Cubs are second in Chicago to the 1985 Bears as a team that keeps on giving, a team that is frozen in time.

But look at the stark facts. 1969 was 41 years ago. That's almost two generations. Stretch 41 years from 1945, the end of World War II and the last Cubs pennant, and you're in 1986 with computers and cable TV. Go further back in time, say, 1919, when Prohibition was passed and women still did not have the national right of suffrage. Go 41 years forward and you're in 1960, just about modern times, with two countries preparing to launch astronauts into space and color television out of the laboratory.

The Cubs of '69 were largely young veterans in their mid- and late 20s. That's how we loved them, that's how we remembered them. They were our version of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, a team which invested themselves in the community. They stuck around the ballpark for years and they made themselves full-time Chicagoans.

Time, however, waits for no one. And it's a cryin' shame Ron Santo became the first regular off the '69 Cubs to pass away. It had to happen sometime.

Santo's not the first of any of the '69 Cubs to go, but he's the first really big name. And that's still a shock to the system.

Already gone are Dick Selma, fourth starter and cheerleader of the left-field bleacher bums; pinch-hitter WIllie Smith, author of the most famous Opening Day homer in Cubs history; relievers Ted Abernathy and Hank Aguirre ("The Ab and Ag Show," as Jack Brickhouse used to proclaim), and bit players like pitcher Joe Niekro (traded early on for Selma) and a pair of catchers: backup Gene Oliver and September callup Randy Bobb.

Manager Leo Durocher, who turned 64 in 1969, the oldest manager in baseball by nearly a decade that year, died in 1991. GM John Holland passed away in 1979.

All the broadcasters are gone -- Brickhouse, his TV partner Lloyd Pettit and the incomparable radio pairing of Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau. TV director impresario Arne Harris, who coordinated his trademark "hat shots" of fans, died in 2001, still on the job. Of the WGN crew, only sports editor Jack Rosenberg remains.

The song "Forever Young" is wishful thinking. Ernie Banks turns 80 next month. Billy WIlliams, Glenn Beckert, Phil Regan, Bill Hands and Jim Hickman have passed 70. The youngest of the '69 crew has just turned 60 -- Oscar Gamble, banished quickly to Philadelphia after the season by Durocher and Holland for dating white girls.

The lesson here is that mortality affects us all, and we can't freeze time in a bottle. We can hold a team like the '69 Cubs dear to our hearts, but they will not stay in their youthful form as much as we wish so hard.

But in our memories, they're still in their primes. And that's something that keeps us young at heart even as the clock ticks for all.