By Arnie Leshin
The words could not express the feelings I had. The tears did. They began streaming down little by little, from the former players, coaches, and others who are no longer with us, to those that remain, some able to attend and others who weren’t.
Tom Seaver wasn’t able. Back in January, his wife, Nancy, reported that he has contacted Alzheimer’s disease, and when it was time for his name to be announced, that’s when the emotion got to me. The tears flowed and the 40,000 fans atCitiField stood and cheered, and cheered, and cheered.
It’s been 50 years since the New York Mets went from “Meet the Mess” to “Meet the Mets.” I was born and raised in the borough of Brooklyn, I lived through the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants leaving the Big Apple for the West Coast in 1957. In 1962, I welcomed the hapless Mets, and suffered from day one, which brought a 40-120 record in year one.
But on October 21 of 1969, I was overwhelmed with relief and joy when they won the World Series. Saturday afternoon, it was celebrated before a rousing, appreciative turnout on these historic grounds where the final out was made,and watching it at home, it was emotional, I shed the tears, I was grateful to share in those fond memories.
. . . Nineteen 69, it was a year of turmoil, an eventful year, perhaps no other one like it, and the New York Mets fit right in. They were the soul of the city. They surprised the universe and became heroes forever.
Just to mention some notable happenings, there was Man on the Moon, Woodstock, Vietnam War, Manson murders, Hurricane Camille, the Chicago Seven Trial, Chappaquiddick, the first woman to ride a race horse, even the Joe Namath Jets shocked the Baltimore Colts by winning the Super Bowl.
It just goes on and on, and if you lived in those times, you never forgot them.
Some were bad news, but in the Big Apple, if you needed a taste of new news, good news, you had to be tuned in to the residents of Shea Stadium, the Major League baseball team playing in the borough of Queens, where you stepped from the elevated line down the steps that led to the ballpark.
Before that, it was the team that was born when Brooklyn lost Ebbetts Field’s Dodgers and Upper Manhattan lost the Polo Grounds Giants, both setting up shop in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
That was 1957, a sad time for these faithful fans, and when the New York City Metropolitan Baseball Team was still in the talking stages two years later, it was decided to color it blue and orange, the colors worn by the Dodgers and Giants.
Next, Frank Shea, the man behind bringing company for the Bronx’ New York Yankees and settling up shop with a new stadium in Flushing Meadows, arranged for the introductory team name to be known officially as the New York Mets.
And so while working in the sports department of the Long Island Press, I was able to get a media pass to the aging Polo Grounds, where Willie Mays had roamed in center field before heading to San Francisco. But now it was these Mets’temporarily moving in while the new ballpark across two bridges was being built, and being named Shea Stadium.
It was the first time the major leagues were introducing expansion teams, and the Mets were joined by the then-Houston Colt 45s, who already had the Astrodome for their playing field. They pieced together their draft choices with younger players, such as second baseman Joe Morgan, centerfielder Jimmy Wynn, and a cast of young pitchers.
The Mets went in the opposite direction, lining up with Dodger old timers Gil Hodges, Duke Snyder, Charlie Neal and Don Zimmer, former Yankee Gene Woodling, Phillies centerfielder Richie Ashburn, fan favorite like first baseman Marv Thronberry, and pitchers like Roger Craig, Al Jackson, Vinegar Ben Mizell, Jay Hook, some were happily released by their former clubs, and others just wanted to help the new team.
The franchise’s first public address announcers were like me, from the Long Island Press, first Jim Lightcap and then Jack E. Lee, son of Mike Lee, the popular sports editor.
There weren’t many memorable moments, but Hodges did hit the first Mets’ home run, an inside-the-parker that bounced off the 255-foot wall in short left field at the Polo Grounds and carried into centerfield as Hodges had to race around the bases.
Then there was their first road trip in St. Louis when future Hall of Famer Ashburn hit one into the seats in left.
But there wasn’t much else to excite the crowds. No. 37, Casey Stengel, who managed the Yankees to world championships and was known as one with the experience to round this new franchise into shape, was older now and the Mets’ first manager.
His managing days no doubt behind him, he turned his new club into a baseball comedy act from the year of its premature birth, 1962, right through 1968, losing an average of 105 games a season, beginning at the Polo Grounds and continuing at the Big Shea. In ’68, Hodges, who still resided with his wife, Joan, nearby the old ballpark in Brooklyn, was named the new manager.
He was quite different than Casey. He was straight, serious, didn’t put things into comedy, and made sure his players came to play, not arriving to automatically lose. He brought in new players, some youthful ones with talent, which he was a good judge of.
The previous year, newcomers cane aboard late in the season, and pitchers like Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, and position players like third baseman Ed (the Glider) Charles, shortstop Buddy Harrelson, catchers Duffy Dyer, Jerry Grote and J.C. Martin, and with RonSwoboda, an old Casey favorite.
From the coaching ranks there was future Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, the former Yankee catcher who came to bat nine times for the 1965 Mets, old timer Joe Pignatano, a native Brooklynite and a former Dodger, and former Dodger Rube Walker. When Hodges passed away before the 1973 season while golfing in St. Petersburg, Berra became the new manager.
Then there was Art Shamsky, who played first base and right field, and had been with the club since 1967. He was a Jewish kid from St. Louis now living in Manhattan. When he arrived before the game in his big old Lincoln Continental and entered the Shea players’ lot, he became surrounded by the youngsters calling out his name. It was the same when he left with riders CleonJones and Tommie Agee after the game.
The ’68 season brought hope, although the fans from day one in 1962 wanted to but had trouble believing it. Under Hodges, they did everything better, hitting, pitching, fielding, drawing more fans coming off the elevated train, and less space now in the parking lot.
Ryan was now 18 years old, slender and wild. He had a blazing fastball and a nasty curve, but sometimes lost location of the plate, hit a few batters, chased some away. So early in ’68, he was sent down to the minors. When he came back up in May of ’69, he had better command of his pitches and was sent to the bullpen.
The starting pitchers were also young, young and awesome and showing their stuff from the mound. Like Ryan, Seaver and Gentry were right-handers, Koosman was a southpaw. Ron Taylor was another righty who came out of the bullpen. Tug McGraw was a left-hander short on experience, but with a nasty curve, a surprise change-up, and leadership qualities.
This was the new-look Mets. They played well at the start as Seaver, Gentry and Koosman blended in with hitters like Swoboda, Shamsky and additional new infielders like Wayne Garrett and Ken Boswell and outfielder Rod Gasper. They gained confidence with each swing, each pitch, each run, and each ovation.
In June, they dealt for veteran Donn Clendenon from Montreal, and he was the heavy, capable hitter and leader the club needed. He and Ed Kranepool from the Bronx, with the club since the early days of 1962 when he graduated from James Monroe High School after breaking Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg’s NYC home run record. Healternated at first base with Clendenon and both also did time in right field.
And Hodges was a good manager, knew the game, was a player’s manager who never hesitated to call a player into his office. He was also strict. You did it his way or heard about it. Once, in the ’69 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles at Shea, he strolled out of the dugout in game 3 and headed straight to left field to inform Jones that he wasn’t hustling, needed a break, and walked him back to the dugout.
Harrelson was the team leader at shortstop. He wasn’t a long-ball hitter, but coaxed walks, didn’t strike out much, ran the bases well, and fielded his position the way it should be done, showing range and a strong arm. Early in the season, the Mets brought in Al Weis, a veteran who got on base and who could relieve Harrelson at short.
Now they were chugging along. When they led the National League East for the first time and stunned the veteran Chicago Cubs managed by Leo Durocher, a New Yorker who hated to lose.
In September, with the Cubbies in town and two games up on the Mets, a packed house saw the 3-game sweep and New York taking over first place for good. It came to a fever pitch when themysterious black cat strolled out from somewhere and stared straight at the Cubs’ dugout.
The Metsies were the talk of the town, Stengel even labeled them the “Amazin’ Mets.” Other called them the “Miracle Mets.” Tickets to Shea were becoming more difficult with each passing day. For the first time, ticket scalpers were seen outside Shea, now the place to be.
And pitching was the key. Through all the years of post-1969, Berra was always ready to respond when asked the mystery of these Mets. “The pitching, the pitching,” he always said. “Seaver, Koosman, Gentry, Ryan, lefty McGraw out of the pen, Doctor Ron Taylor, Don Caldwell.”
With this 3-starter strength on the mound and Ryan and Caldwell also taking turns, they still felt they lacked the respect they deserved. But after sweeping and outhitting the high-powered Braves in the best-of-five NL championship series, they turned toward the American League champion Baltimore Orioles, often referred to as the best team since the 1961 Yankees.
But against the Bravos in game three at home after winning the first two in Atlanta, it was Ryan to the rescue. The Braves had a potent batting order, and Gentry was in a jam with the bags full, no one out, and his team clinging to a 4-3 lead in the seventh inning. So Hodges called on Ryan to face Orlando Cepeda, Rico Carty and Hank Aaron, with the three having 84 home runs that season among them.
Young Ryan whiffed Cepeda on a 2-2 fastball, he got Carty to pop up to Jones in short left on 2-1 pitch, and Jones then brought in a 2-1-count line drive to deep right off the bat of Aaron, and left with a standing ovation and a hug from Gentry.
And then came the awaited World Series where of course New York was the underdog.
In game one in Baltimore’s Municipal Stadium, the Mets lost 2-1 with Seaver on the hill. But in game two with Koosman pitching, they responded by evening things and playing the next three times at Shea. In game three, Gentry started and Ryan finished, Agee made two spectacular catches, under changed orders from Hodges, Martin pinch-hit and laid down a bunt that won the game, andNew York did not lose again.
But not before Hodges continued to show how crafty he was. In game four,
Jones was called out on strikes and shook his head as he approached the dugout thinking the pitch had hit him in the leg. Out of the dugout came Hodges, and with the ball in hand, showed a scuff mark to the home plate umpire, who then sent Jones to first base.
Out came Baltimore manager Earl Weaver shaking his head and going face-to-face with the same umpire. In the previous inning, he thought his Frank Robinson was hit in the arm by a pitch, but lost his case. Now he ranted and raved and became the first manager to be ejected from the World Series.
In game five, Swoboda raced in from right field to make a stellar catch of a ball that no one thought he could get to, but he hit the ground and miraculously reached forward to snare it.
When Jones camped under a fly ball to left for the final out, it didn’t take long for the fans to fill the field, with most of the Mets’ players trapped in the rush, some racing in and out of traffic while the grass and dirt became souvenirs and not to be replaced until the next season.
For Charles, who was playing third base in game five of the World Series, retired after he was fitted for his championship ring. Jones was Agee’s best man when Tommie got married after the season, and his widow, Camille Agee, and their daughter, were at the Saturday anniversary.
Kranepoool never left his home town team. He remained a Met since 1962, and was one of the 19former ’69ers who were able to attend the 50thannual festivities greatly put together by the club.
The others were Boswell, Caldwell, Casper, Dyer, Garrett, Genrty, Grote, Harrelson, Jones, Koosman, Cal Koonce, Martin, Jim McAndrews, Bobby Pfell, Shamsky, Swoboda, Taylor, and Weis.
There are many who still feel that Hodges, a slugging first baseman and excellent with the glove, deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Maybe when the veterans committee meets again. Berra is, Seaver is, Ryan is. From the ’62 team, only Ashburn, who led that team with a .302 batting average, is in Cooperstown.
Some trivia for you. Who was the head trainer for both the 1962 and ’69 Mets? The equipment manager? The traveling secretary?
Can’t forget the ticket-tape parade in 1969 that filled the streets of Manhattan from Bowling Green to Central Park. There was a constantstream of confetti up and down the route, thank you and other signs, and at city hall, dignitaries applauded the team, and the crowd never stopped growing and showing its approval.
Oh what a year it was, all those eventful happenings and thankfully the New York Mets finally had their magical run that will never be forgotten. Happy 50th to the blue and orange. M-E-T-S, Mets, Mets, Mets!
And happy 75th birthday to Swoboda Sunday, and prayers for Seaver, the franchise, as they introduced the new Tom Seaver Way only yards from CitiField and where Shea Stadium stood, less than a train stop away.