The death of former Cubs All-Star Glenn Beckert hit friends and old teammates with a sense of deep loss among a tight-knit group.
But even beyond that, the reaction in news media and among fans on social media Sunday offered another reminder of the unique place in local culture that one of the most beloved sports teams in Chicago history still holds.
“It’s kind of similar to the  Bears, only the Bears won the Super Bowl,” Hall of Famer Billy Williams said Sunday during a conversation about his friend, Beckert, and that special group from a special time of promise in Cubs history.
“The ’69 Cubs didn’t win the World Series,” Williams said, “but we were a part of the fabric of Chicago, and everybody loved us because it was kind of a settling [influence at an unsettled] time in those years.”
This much we have sensed as that team’s bond with Chicago has only seemed to grow over the past five decades. And it might draw at least a little more relevance now.
That Beckert’s death is remembered and his life celebrated during stay-at-home orders and the grip of a global pandemic also means that instead of a moment of silence with 40,000 fans before Sunday’s scheduled Cubs-Cardinals game at Wrigley Field, baseball’s local stage belonged to him, and this loss, alone on this day.
It’s not hard to see in that loss, if only through the renewed echoes of that storied Cubs team, the cultural ties that bind many of us to our sports. And the value those sports can hold especially in times of uncertainty and hardship.
The Cubs are among the teams who have battened down public access and comments during the COVID-19 shutdown, in part to respect the larger significance of the crisis. Nobody wants to risk sounding like their idled sport is worth high concern during a global pandemic.
But those policies also risk overlooking the value of a rare settling influence, a reassuring diversion during a time of widespread fear and rising health and economic tolls on so many.
We may not always know what to make of conflicting projections and messages delivered by the president and the governor. But if baseball has a plan or two or eight for playing an actual season this year? It might not mean much for a larger world desperate for more tests and answers, but don’t underestimate the emotional balm for many people in this country who have built entire social schedules, in some cases jobs and lives, around their teams.
No fan base is more famous for that than the Cubs’.
And within the larger reality of shelter-in-place binge-watching going on across the world, look no further for the cultural value of our sports than the popularity of all the replays of old games now airing and even the computer simulations of canceled games being played out and reported.
Hell, actual players from all 30 teams are in the midst of a baseball video-game tournament scheduled to run through April, complete with a postseason and an eventual champion. Ian Happ, who already has successfully launched a hunkered-down podcast with teammate roomies, is representing the Cubs.
On Easter Sunday alone, ESPN aired the first round of a socially distanced H-O-R-S-E tournament between NBA and WNBA players; NBC Sports Chicago aired an encore of Game 2 of the Blackhawks’ victorious 2010 Stanley Cup Final; and the pope held Easter Mass behind closed doors in nearly empty St. Peter’s Basilica after closing all of the Vatican’s Holy Week events to the public because of the pandemic.
As Fergie Jenkins, another legend from the ’69 team, said: “The world’s changed.”
More than three months and five canceled Cubs’ series into the coronavirus pandemic, there isn’t a cure or even enough testing to reliably plan an exit strategy from our homes, much less from our national crisis.
But when we rightfully cheer front-line medical heroes every night and prioritize what’s essential and most valuable in this moment, let’s not completely dismiss those parts of our culture that hold value for our psyches and spirits.
Certainly, we can get by without Joe Maddon or Joe Exotic. We can survive without Jon Lester and the White Sox just as unharmed as we can without Jon Snow and Walter White.
But is human nature so sure of that? Human behavior doesn’t seem so sure based on America’s viewing habits these days.
Not to mention its thirst for sports in the face of an arid landscape.
“Sports is really important,” Williams said. “It has a way of taking people from their everyday problems. Especially in Chicago, when everybody looks for baseball because they know summer’s coming.”
Franklin Roosevelt recognized the power of sports in society after the bombing of Pearl Harbor ushered the U.S. into World War II, when he wrote in a letter to the baseball commissioner a few weeks later:
“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before.
“And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”
Beyond sports’ basic power of diversion and morale as an entertainment industry, consider the power of the Olympics and the World Cup to bring countries together, the cultural value in this country of Jackie Robinson and Billie Jean King, the power of Muhammad Ali and Babe Didrikson Zaharias, of Althea Gibson, James Brown, Michael Sam and Colin Kaepernick.
Jenkins, Beckert and Williams, along with Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Randy Hundley and the rest of manager Leo Durocher’s core helped bring that kind of power to the right city at the right time in a way that transcended their inability to reach the World Series.
That team rose to prominence in 1968 during the turbulent and violent aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s April assassination and a summer of unrest that also included the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and the violent protests surrounding the Democratic national convention in Chicago in late August.
By 1969, the team was a bona fide contender and the city a flashpoint for social, racial and wartime activism raging throughout the country.
Jenkins, who roomed with Williams in South Shore at the time, remembered commuting via Lake Shore Drive to the ballpark in Williams’ gold Buick Wildcat with the white top during a protest in Grant Park by the Students for a Democratic Society (or The Weathermen) — when mounted police drove the protesters out of the park and through the traffic toward the lake.
“Billy and I had to stop,” Jenkins said. “They were running right through us, right past us, right to the water. It was incredible.”
As much as the ballpark might have been a sanctuary for fans during those times, it also was for players such as Jenkins, who said, “I felt safe at the ballpark more than anything else.”
Williams sensed it with the fans who appreciated this team, too — maybe even a little more than usual because of the diversity of the city reflected on that roster.
“This is one of the things that helped people come together at the time,” he said, “because you look at the ballpark, and you see all colors, everybody up there, just rooting for the same thing.”
Whether the makeup of that All-Star core and the timing of its emergence in Chicago influenced the fans of a city any more than its sheer competitiveness, that group’s lasting power is unrivaled.
“I don’t think you can compare it to anything,” Williams said. “Most of the time when you think of a baseball team, you think of the Oakland A’s winning [three consecutive] World Series, the Yankees winning the World Series. You kind of compare the notoriety of that ’69 team with those guys — and we never won the World Series.
“For a team not to win and be compared to a whole bunch of teams that won a World Series, it’s really something.”
Never mind that Williams believes that his team would have had its World Series if they’d had a playoff format like today’s.
When he looks at how this became such a beloved team for so many years, he considers the especially close interactions the players had with fans, in part because they were forced to walk from an outfield clubhouse at their outdated ballpark down the foul line to the dugout before games, and back the same way after.
They might have drawn only 16,000 for a given game at Wrigley Field back then — compared to more than twice that for a typical game these days — “but it seemed like the whole 16,000 fans were on the [rail] waiting for us,” Williams said.
“And we didn’t have a fence around our cars so by the time we got in our cars [after games] we had signed about 15 or 20 autographs,” he said. “And there were many, many little kids out there, so they grew up with us.”
And against this storied backdrop, Beckert by all accounts was a favorite among teammates on a team of favorites — an All-Star second baseman on a team of all-time Cubs that included four Hall of Famers in Williams, Jenkins, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo.
He was a “glue” guy in the clubhouse by some accounts, a four-time All-Star and a Gold Glove winner by the accounting of the record books.
More than that, he was an essential part of the character of that beloved core, Jenkins’ best man at his wedding and Santo’s longtime roommate.
Williams remembered his teammate as a tough at-bat who rarely struck out and a hard-nosed second baseman.
He remembered his friend as someone who “was really funny, quick-witted. He was just a great guy to be around. We had a lot of fun together through golf, going to the race track in Arizona. … I have some pictures of him when we went to spring training.”
They’re around the swimming pool at the apartment complex where both families stayed, the Beckerts with their two daughters and the Williamses with their four.
“In the evening after the game we would all go swimming and sit out there by the pool together,” Williams recalled.
Simple times during a time that was anything but.
Beckert, 79, was in declining health in recent years, a man who treasured the ’69 team reunions and annual Cubs Conventions he no longer was able to attend the last three years.
Williams, who is himself caring for his ailing wife of 60 years, Shirley, immediately reached out to Beckert’s wife Sunday morning with prayers and shared grief. He soon got a call from Hundley as word spread among the teammates who are left.
It’s a much smaller group these days. Santo, Banks and Bill Hands are gone, too.
But their power and place remain as strong as ever, their legacy a reminder of the power of sports to transcend games.
If the reaction to Beckert’s death didn’t suggest that much, maybe its timing did.
“When you don’t have sports, it’s a bigger focus on what’s going on now,” Williams said. “And people don’t know which way to turn.”
Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to turn away, why the hunger for a plan to play baseball again — any 30-teams-in-a-bubble-in-Arizona plan — is so intoxicating to so many who would seem to have so much else to worry about right now.
Why Williams and Jenkins and fans across the country keep faith that a 2020 season will yet be played.
“Something will happen,” Jenkins said, “something to turn the tide.”Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.