The Promised Land
And He said, Behold, I make a covenant: before all thy people I will do marvels, such as have not been done in all the Earth, nor in any nation: and all the people among which thou art shall see the work of the Lord . . .”
- Exodus 34: 10
In the 1968 World Series, the Detroit Tigers trailed the St. Louis Cardinals, three games to one, knowing that in order to win, they would have to beat the unbeatable Bob Gibson at Busch Stadium. They accomplished that feat.
Coming back from a 3-1 deficit was rare, but not impossible. In 1967, the Boston Red Sox came back from 3-1 down to force a seventh game before Gibson beat Jim Lonborg. In later years, the 1998 New York Yankees – considered by some to be the best team ever assembled – trailed two games to one in the A.L. Championship Series with Cleveland. They rallied to win, going on to take the World Series. In 1973, the A’s trailed these very Mets, three games to two, but rallied for victory. There are many examples of good teams recovering from post-season deficits to win.
Baltimore was still Baltimore. A game five victory would send the Fall Classic back to their stadium with momentum, Jim Palmer and Mike Cuellar on their side. That said, there was something in the air at Shea Stadium. Sports can be a galvanizing, emotional experience. Every town and team, all fans who have ever experienced the big game, the great upset, that championship season, the bowl victory, the Final Four, the National Championship, even high school heroics; all can describe something mystical. When Minnesota, or Duke, or San Francisco, or Pittsburgh, or De La Salle High . . . or Boston . . . won championships in various sports over the years, these cities, fans and schools went nuts, sometimes with violent results requiring police intervention.
When teams win the College World Series every June, they inevitably “dog pile” on the mound. To say one celebration, or one stadium, or one city, somehow was more maniacal, crazy, exuberant, than another is speculative, impossible really. That is, except for New York in 1969. Maybe because it was New York; so big, so diverse, so with it, so seen-it-all-and-done-it-all, that when this came around, it was something they had not done!
In 1971, the World Series was, for the first time, held at night on weekdays for television. Nobody would argue that this has not been good for ratings, giving more people – particularly school kids – a chance to watch the games. Game five of the 1969 World Series was a day affair. On the East Coast, it started late enough for children to run home, catching the second half on the tube, but out west it was played entirely during school hours.
Traditionally, televisions were brought into classrooms during the World Series so they could watch, but not without some protest or refusal by certain teachers, who saw baseball as a frivolous activity unworthy of diversion from math and science. But in 1969, it was a pretty universal deal. That Series effected the entire nation. Its day-game-during-school-hours nature, reducing it to hand-held transistors during recess; bits and pieces in between classes; a snippet here, an inning there, changes in the game occurring but not watched; some kids racing home or staying home altogether to see it; all played to a certain sense of mystique for millions of Americans. The memory plays tricks, but it was one of those days, one of those events, that people always recall. They know where they were. Certain moments have that resonance, for good or for bad: Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ‘round the world,” John Kennedy’s assassination, the Moon landing . . . and the Mets’ winning the World Series.
17 years later, with a much better team that was as different in character as can be conceived, the Mets won it again in 1986. It certainly was celebrated, remembered, and was memorable. It was not even close to 1969. For one thing, the 1986 Mets were favored. They came in with a regular season record and galaxy of individual stars on par with the 1969 Orioles. Nobody confused their run with a God-inspired miracle! Many thought their win might have come from a dark source.
“They were Satan,” was the way Jeff Pearlman put it in The Bad Guys Won!
Something happened in between 1969 and 1986. A sense of magic exited stage left. Cable TV, night games, and all-the-time baseball viewing reduced its mystique. Watergate, Vietnam; there was an American malaise in which the youth of this country lost their enthusiasm in favor of bad hair, bad clothes, bad music, bad drugs and bad morals. Idealism was gone. Kids no longer went into the Peace Corps, as Tom Seaver’s sister did.
1969 was the last year of innocence; Woodstock and the Mets. It was the final vestige of pure righteousness in sports; before free agency, big money, big business, corporate ownership, steroids, hideous uniforms, funny hair, player strikes, and a myriad number of rotten things serving to dilute the joy of a game, of a sport.
No, all was not perfect in 1969. It would be historical revisionism to suggest it was. A war raged and two heroic figures were martyred the previous year. That was five years after the brother of one of them was killed. A third brother was tarred for failing to live up to their sainted images. Kids were getting addicted to drugs. Sex addiction would become an epidemic of immorality and disease. People sought many forms of spiritual enlightenment, often every kind other than the true faith. An entire region was still segregated. Black Americans, frustrated that the Constitution was still not completely lived up to, took to violent militancy.
In New York, fetid garbage and incompetence marked political leadership. The traditions that had always made the Big Apple the greatest city in the world were seemingly a thing of the past. But perhaps because the nation and the city were so ugly, the 1969 Mets do represent idealism.
Subsequent champions have none of their resonance. Baltimore would win it in corporate style the next year. Pittsburgh lit up a city in 1971, but their strange new uniforms and the fact it was Pittsburgh did not give it the same imprimatur. Then there was Oakland, of all places, with hairstyles and garish duds so bad as to be beyond description, playing in front of half-ass crowds not deserving the greatness that was the A’s.
Dallas, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle . . . these and other cities won titles in different sports. None of it compared. The Mets – in conjunction with the Jets and less than half a year later the Knicks – were the last champions, the last magic, The Last Miracle.
For millions of New Yorkers, and millions more throughout the Fruited Plain, the morning of October 16, 1969 dawned with the kind of anticipation one usually reserves for the birth of a child, a wedding day, a long-anticipated re-union. There was religious fervor to the day, spirituality, a sense of destiny. Everybody was following this story. Prisoners in the Hanoi Hilton knew about it. Soldiers in the central highlands knew about it. Soviets knew about it. USC football coach John McKay once said, “A billion Chinamen couldn’t care less” if his Trojans lost to Notre Dame, but in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, even they knew about it.
Tom Seaver woke up that morning fatigued, aching, and exhilarated. His work was done. He could be a fan, a cheerleader. What a day! He knew that he was now a true New York Sports Icon. He had put himself in a position to walk the streets of New York, his privacy forever gone, replaced by the celebrityhood of Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. The reality if this discomfiting notion had not yet hit home. In truth he would not have welcomed this pagan idolatry, but the dye was cast, the Rubicon crossed. He was, as he put it in The Perfect Game, “public property.”
Game five featured Koosman against McNally, the two dueling pitching artistes of game two: one a flame throwing southpaw, the other a crafty one. Both were big league stars of the first order.
Baltimore was stunned by fate but came out like professionals trying to see the bright side. For a team that won 109 games and swept the Championship Series, winning three straight was routine. McNally over Koosman, then it was Gentry, and he could be beat . . .
57,397 fans jammed Shea, hawking with cries, shouts and Pentecostal enthusiasm. Pearl Bailey, a big Mets fan and good friend of Mrs. Payson, sang the National Anthem. While waiting to be introduced, she stood next to Koosman warming up. She told him she was into astrology or something, and saw “the number eight,” and “you’re going to win the game.” The contest started and the two pitchers settled into their work, which was to render bats quite useless. Then in the third, Baltimore made their move . . . finally. Belanger opened the inning with an opposite-field single, bringing up McNally.
“With McNally up, we were expecting a bunt,” Koosman said. In accord with that expectation, Koosman fired a high strike. McNally did not bunt. He was not a great hitter, not like some pitchers – Don Drysdale, Warren Spahn, to name a couple – but he handled the bat and swung away, hitting a two-run home run over the left field fence. It was a surprise that shocked the fans, but at the same time there was something unsaid: McNally was doing the hitting for Baltimore, not their sluggers. B. Robby, F. Robby, Powell; all were in slumps.
That premise only lasted a couple of batters. Koosman got the next two outs, then faced Frank Robinson, the ultimate competitor. He boasted of only two singles in 16 at-bats. Robinson, one of the greatest home run sluggers of all time, got hold of one and drove it deep over the center field wall to make it 3-0, Orioles.
The massive crowd began to rationalize; no home field celebration, on to Baltimore. In the dugout, Gary Gentry began to feel the nerves that would come with pitching at Memorial Stadium against the surging home champions. What were the chances that Agee would save his skin this time? The fan Tom Seaver began to morph into the professional hero who would have to win game seven like Koufax and Gibson in recent years.
“Seaver could win with bad stuff,” said Ed Charles. “He was such a competitor with a gift for self-analysis. He always knew just what it would take to win on a given day. Koosman was so strong that he could struggle for the first part of a game then suddenly just start blowing you away.”
Which is what happened. After the third, Jerry was untouchable. But could the Mets score three off of McNally? They had barely sniffed him in Baltimore. In the top of the sixth Frank Robinson, an all-time hit-by-pitch artist, backed off an inside fast ball, then said it grazed his uniform. Umpire Lou DiMuro said no. Robinson and Weaver argued vociferously, which of course woke up the throng.
Robinson “disappeared into the runway behind the dugout for five minutes while the trainer sprayed his thigh with a freezing medication and while everybody in the stadium waited,” wrote Joseph Durso. “Then he returned, was greeted by a sea of waving handkerchiefs and struck out.”
Baltimore’s protests were “long and ineffectual,” wrote Roger Angell. DiMuro’s examination of the shoe polish baseball was done with “the air of Maigret,” whereupon it was pronounced “the true Shinola.”
The argument was lost, Robby was set down, and Koosman was now at the top of his game, pitching better than Seaver the previous day. In the bottom half of the inning, Cleon Jones stepped in. McNally came in low and inside. The ball skipped past his foot, but Jones said he had been struck. Jones was not adamant. He wanted to hit. DiMuro again did not call it. But on-deck hitter Donn Clendenon told Hodges he had seen the ball hit Jones’s shoe. Hodges casually meandered out to the batter’s circle, quietly spoke with Jones, then informed DiMuro that his man had been hit. DiMuro . . . demurred; that is, until Hodges retrieved the ball and showed it to him.
“Then, with the precarious resolve of a judge letting a guilty defendant go free on a technicality, he straightened up, took a deep breath, and thrust out his right arm, index finger pointing to first base,” wrote Joseph Reichler in Baseball’s Great Moments. “The 57,397 spectators roared their approval.
“Surprisingly, plaintiff Weaver did not hotly contest the circumstantial evidence . . . Having been found in contempt and ordered from the premises the previous day, Weaver was not anxious for another ejection.”
Many in the press box recalled a similar incident involving Milwaukee’s Nippy Jones against New York’s Ryne Duren in the 1957 World Series. DiMuro explained that when Hodges showed him the baseball, it had a shoe polish smudge on it. To this day, the story has holes. Shoe polish? Yes, in those days clubhouse attendants did clean and shine the player’s spikes before every game. They used an old fashioned polish, buffing it with a cloth or brush for some sheen. In later years, the shoe polish was replaced by a liquid application. Modern baseball shoes have a different kind of leather, less subject to scuffs and dirt. Generally, these shoes are wiped clean using a wet cloth, retaining a shine.
While Jones would have been wearing polished shoes, by the sixth inning the cool air, the dust, grass and activity, would seemingly have made it unlikely that polish could still be fresh enough to rub off on a glancing baseball. Many have said Hodges put polish on his fingers, smudging that ball when he picked it up, which in the strange pantheon of baseball would have been an acceptable form of gamesmanship that Leo Durocher could applaud.
Swoboda told Peter Golenbock that “it made sense for you to keep a ball with shoe polish smudges on it in the dugout somewhere, and as soon as a pitch is close, toss that sucker out there and say, ‘Here’s shoe polish on the ball.’ ”
“After the ball bounced, it came into our dugout,” said Koosman. “The ball came to me, and Gil told me to brush it against my shoe, and I did, and he came over and got the ball from me and took it out there and showed the umpire, ‘There is shoe polish on the ball.’ ”
The argument left McNally stewing on the mound. Weaver, to quote Rube Walker, had about as much chance under these circumstances “as a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.” Not this year. Not in this place.
With Jones at first, Clendenon came to bat. With the count two-and-two, he got hold of one, knocking a two-run homer over the left field fence. It was 3-2, but it was over. It had been over for two days. Yogi Berra said, “It’s never over ‘til it’s over.” It was over. The script had been written. The crowd was now out of control, sensing it, the drama and hysterical craziness of it all building to the boiling point.
McNally retired the side. Then Koosman gave his best imitation of Lefty Grove. He was not going to be touched again today. In the bottom of the seventh, “Babe” Weis stepped in. Improbably, many actually thought about a home run. He had done it in Chicago. It was that kind of year, that sort of environment. McNally just figured his best swing would result in a “can ‘o’ corn.” Weis took him deep. As the ball left Shea, the concept that this was indeed an inspired act of God presented itself to the eyes of spectators, at the park and watching on TV, changing from a possibility to manifest truth. It was insane!
Koosman took the mound. This time he resembled Warren Spahn. One-two-three. The Birds was dead. 3-3, bottom of the eighth. Eddie Watt came in. If New York scored, they only needed to hold the O’s one inning and it was theirs. Delirium built, people edging to their feet, anticipating a riotous on-field celebration. Cleon Jones met Watt with a hard drive over Blair’s head for a double. Weaver and his team looked like Napoleon when he sees the Prussians come to Wellington’s aid in the late afternoon glare at Waterloo. Baltimore was the losers of history; at least this history.
Clendenon tried to bunt, but it was too hard. He was thrown out and Jones held. Swoboda took the stage again. He slammed a hard-sinking liner to left, not unlike the ball Brooks Robinson hit to him the previous day. Buford got there but trapped it. Jones alertly waited halfway between second and third, then raced home with the go-ahead run when the catch was not made. The place was a mad house. Charles flied out, but Grote hit a grounder to first. Powell bobbled it and threw late to Watt covering the base. Swoboda was hustling. He scored the insurance run that Koosman, now imitating Sandy Koufax, did not need anyway. Still, it electrified the audience. This was it. A done deal. The picture of Koosman hugging Swoboda as he scored appeared in Life magazine.
Koosman took the hill. The crowd was screaming, incomprehensibly noisy, edging towards the aisles. New York’s finest nervously eyed this nascent South American revolution about to explode.
“It was so noisy at Shea you couldn’t hear yourself think,” said Koosman. “And the cops and the specials were already coming down the first row so people couldn’t mob the field. It was so noisy you couldn’t even hear the bat on the ball.”
Koosman nervously worked Frank Robinson too carefully, walking him, but quickly got Powell to ground into a force. Brooks Robinson flied to Swoboda. Dave Johnson came to bat. Koosman was in the maelstrom, something out of a 19th Century poem about keeping one’s head when everyone else is losing theirs. Calmly, he delivered to Johnson and induced a high, lazy arc to Cleon Jones in left field.
“With all the noise, you couldn’t hear the crack of the bat,” said Koosman. “I didn’t think it was going out, but the fans were going nuts when the ball was in the air, and I thought it was going to be a home run, but when I turned around and looked at Cleon, I knew right away . . .”
Johnson later said he got all of it. Swoboda in right felt at first that it could carry. “What stopped it from going out?” he asked, implying unseen forces. It was 3:17 P.M. Jones camped under it, made the catch, and like the Southern Baptist he was, sunk to one knee in prayer.
Jones then sprinted to the infield for his life while the world exploded. The Mets quickly celebrated on the mound. Koosman jumped into Grote’s arms like a little kid, and then “here come the fans,” he said. “They came right through the cops, and my mind immediately went from celebration to running for your life!”
Fans were coming over the top of the dugout, falling on top of each other. The Mets were surrounded like British soldiers in Zulu. Koosman tore one guy’s leg with spikes stepping on and over him. The players quickly made for the dugout like youths running from bulls at Pamplona. Each member of the groundscrew was tasked with “saving” a base, but quickly gave up. Jones never made it in. He jumped a fence! Fans were grabbing everything; hats, gloves, bats. It was sheer bedlam.
“They did it with a full dose of the magic that had spiced their unthinkable climb from ninth place in the National League – 100-to-one shots who scraped their way to the pinnacle as the waifs of Major League baseball,” wrote Joseph Durso in the New York Times.
“Children, housewives, mature men, all swarmed onto the field where the Mets” had “beat the avalanche by a split second.”
TV star Ray Romano was on the field after the division-clincher. “I got hooked on Mets magic,” he said.
“I ran on the field three times,” Malcolm X director Spike Lee said.
Later, Swoboda came out to see what was going on; fans digging up the bases, the mound, home plate, the turf. “It was the most appropriate loss of institutional control I can ever recall,” he said. “The fans had a right to do that. Besides, they had to re-sod the field for football anyway. What difference did it make? Let them go out and have some fun.”
After several hours in the clubhouse, Seaver and Gentry ventured out on the now-empty field. Gentry’s uniform was still intact, but Seaver looked disheveled. Little clods of turf lay all about, resembling Old Testament frogs having fallen on ancient Egypt.
“I remember being tongue-tied and on the verge of tears,” recalled Koosman. “There was so much emotion I didn’t even think about the magnitude of our achievement, about the great upset and coming from nowhere. We were just so happy that we had reached that point. “
“It’s beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, what else can I say?” yelled Seaver. “It’s my biggest thrill. The club played to win all year long. We never quit. We’d come from behind to win. We did it today.” He added that pitching with this team, with these teammates, was “a pleasure.”
“I never heard anyone on the Baltimore team say we were lucky,” said Buddy Harrelson. “They took it like men and just said the bastards beat us.” History would judge that they were ultimately champions, too, but this was not the day.
In five games, Baltimore collected 23 hits and batted .146. They scored nine runs. New York only hit .220, but scored 15, mostly in the clutch. Form played out, unlike the Championship Series: New York had a1.80 ERA for the Series. Baltimore’s staff was still an excellent 2.72.
“It was just one of the magical moments that can never be duplicated,” wrote Bill Gutman.
“So, at last, we came to the final game, and I don’t suppose many of us who had watched the Mets through this long and memorable season much doubted that they would win it, even when they fell behind, 0-3, on home runs by Dave McNally and Frank Robinson off Koosman in the third inning,” wrote the redoubtable Roger Angell, perhaps the best of all Mets chroniclers. The Orioles, he added, suffered from “badly frayed nerves.” One fan produced a sign that read, “WHAT NEXT?” Angell said he had no answer, describing Shea as “crazily leaping crowds, the showers of noise and paper, the vermilion smoke-bomb clouds, and the vanishing lawn signs . . .” They won it with “the Irregulars” (Weis’s first-ever homer at Shea, as if he had a plethora of long balls in other parks; Clendenon and Swoboda). They combined to hit .400 with four homers and eight RBIs. Powell and the Robby’s were held to a .163 average, one homer and a single RBI.
Defensive plays that “some of us would remember for the rest of our lives” gave the “evident conviction that the year should not be permitted to end in boredom” (Angell’s chapter on the 1969 Mets was called, “Days and Nights with the Unbored” in The Summer Game.)
He was prescient, too, acknowledging the “awareness of the accompanying sadness of the victory – the knowledge that adulation and money and winter disbanding of this true club would mean that the young Mets were now gone forever.”
“This is the first time,” said Swoboda (amid Moet et Chandon). “Nothing can ever be as sweet again.”
Pearl Bailey came in the clubhouse and planted a big kiss on Koosman, which his teammates thought was more than just a little bit friendly on her part. She had predicted the “number eight.” The score: 5-3. Supposedly, Jones gave the final out ball to Koosman, but that has been an on-going question over the years.
“If the Mets can win the World Series, we can get out of Vietnam,” Seaver said in the clubhouse. “I just decided to say it,” he later told Shamsky. “History proved that they couldn’t figure a way politically to get out.”
In the corridor outside the clubhouse, Seaver met with Nancy, his father and family. “We’ll never forget this day,” said Charles Seaver. “None of us will.”
“Who’s stupid now?” Gaspar said to anybody who would listen. Somebody asked Yogi Berra if it was “over now?” Berra said he did not actually know how many World Series rings he now had. “Too many for my fingers,” he said. Poor Ernie Banks, on the other hand, had never played meaningful October baseball! The post-game celebration was “the best in the history of baseball, and probably will never be duplicated,” recalled Ralph Kiner.
“No team ever drank, spilled and wasted as much champagne as the Mets who, within a space of little more than three weeks, had three clinchings to celebrate as they won first the East Division championship, then the National League championship, and finally the big one,” wrote Jack Lang, who maintained that “through it all, the calmest man in all the world was Gil Hodges . . .”
“I was able to bring a championship back to the greatest fans in the world,” said Hodges.
The MVP of the Series could have been Seaver, Koosman, Weis, Jones or Swoboda. Clendenon won it, having hit three long balls. What a team effort! The city continued to go wild. Ken Boswell invited all Mets fans to the team party at Mr. Laffs, a well known sports bar on First Avenue in Manhattan where ex-player Phil Linz tended bar. A couple thousand showed up.
On Broadway, at the Copa, Toots Shors, P.J. Clarkes, 21, Jilly’s, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, McSorley’s Old Ale House, Eamonn’s, the Central Bar, the Latin Quarter; everywhere in Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx; in Westchester County, Long Island, way out on The Hamptons; in Albany, upstate, in western New York, in Rochester and Buffalo; in Connecticut and Jersey, from the shore and all over the Garden State; it was a celebration. From Wall Street to Main Street, America was “Mets country.” “In country,” which was what the GIs called Vietnam, word spread, and unless you from Baltimore, the Mets were the toasts of Saigon, Hue and N’Trang. From Paris to London to Berlin, ex-patriate New Yorkers celebrated and Europe now knew about the Mets.
First Avenue was blocked off. Only one lane could get north to 64th and First. People were dancing in the streets. Car horns blasted all over the city. Confetti was everywhere. All bars and restaurants celebrated. Mobsters partied with prosecutors. Gays toasted hard hats. Blacks and whites, Jews and Gentiles, Puerto Ricans and Orientals, young and old, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, Christians, atheists, Israelis and Arabs all cheered each other; again. Even Yankees fans, people who thought baseball was boring, men and women – especially men and won - celebrated long into the night. “Luck,” as Sinatra sang, “is a lady tonight.”
“Never before – not for the one-time perennial World Champion Yankees, not for the Moon men, not for Charles A. Lindbergh, not for anyone,” Bill Gutman quoted one writer in Miracle Year, 1969. “Never before had New Yorkers exploded in quite the way they did yesterday in a spontaneous, unrestrained outpouring of sheer joy when the Mets, their Mets, copped the World Series.”
The city threw a ticker tape parade, and in keeping with that theme, it surpassed previous such spectacles for Charles Lindbergh, Doug MacArthur, John Glenn, Namath’s Jets, Neil Armstrong; astronauts, athletes, war heroes. In 1969, there were three ticker tape parades: the Jets in January, Armstrong and the Apollo 11 astronauts after the July Moon landing, and the Mets. The third totally eclipsed the other two. It was the biggest parade in New York City history. The motorcade went from Battery Park to Bryant Park behind the main library at 42nd Street. Banners and confetti were everywhere.
The players rode in open cars, fans held back by barricades. Girls threw themselves at them as if each were Joe Namath or Robert Redford. The cops, somehow sensing that it was joy, not a riot, restrained themselves. They instinctively realized this was the last of 1960s innocence. Later New York celebrations were like jail breaks, or the overthrow of dictators. There was very little vandalism in October of 1969. The people of this great metropolis were all like little children. They were in awe, like the saved entering the Kingdom of Heaven.
At city hall, Mayor Lindsay presented them with keys to New York. Mrs. Payson and M. Donald Grant accepted on behalf of the players at Gracie Mansion. Lindsay announced that a street in Brooklyn was named after Hodges. It was declared “Mets Day.” More than a million people lined the streets. Koosman and his wife were in the same car with Tom and Nancy. Gil and Joan Hodges were in the front car.
“The thought absolutely floors me – the World Champion Mets,” Nancy told reporters. “Six month ago the thought would have made me wonder if I should consult a psychiatrist.”
Sometime the most poignant moments come from the losers. When the New York Giants captured the 1951 pennant, every writer and photographer made a beeline for their clubhouse. One solitary cameraman won a Pulitzer Prize capturing Ralph Branca’s despondency. In the visitor’s clubhouse after the fifth game at Shea, Earl Weaver, released from the pressure and possibly pinching himself a little – after all his minor league years he had managed a team in the World Series – kicked his feet up and started in on the beer. He was asked about holding a late lead.
“No, that’s what you can never do in baseball,” said Earl. “You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just run out the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the (expletive deleted) plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”
Weaver also shed doubt on the shoe polish incident, saying that the ball had somehow made its way into the Mets’ dugout, and that Hodges may have already had a “plant” in there, waiting for just such an event. “How did that happen?” asked Weaver. “It was just another thing that went against us.”
The next year in a game at Chicago, Weaver came out to argue a play with A.L. umpire DiMuro. Afterward he grabbed a ball, rubbed it against his shoe to get a mark on it, and left it at home plate. “It was hysterical,” recalled Palmer.
Weaver said he was rooting for the Mets to win the 1970 National League pennant, so that his Orioles could gain their revenge for the “terrible mistake” of 1969.
“I thought we had the better team,” said Brooks Robinson. “But people fail to realize (the Mets) won 100 games during the season and beat a very good Braves team in the play-offs . . . You win sometimes when you’re not supposed to and lose sometimes when you’re not supposed to. That’s what makes baseball such a great game.”
Frank Robinson ranked the 1969 Orioles the best team he ever played on – better than the 1966 or 1970 World Champions – and denied taking the Mets lightly. He felt the key was game three, because Gentry was better than expected. “When you play good baseball you make your own breaks,” he said.
“In these five games, the Mets played as good as a team can play,” said Weaver. Mike Cuellar said that at some point Baltimore started to “become anxious.”
Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alessandro (father of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D.-California), said the loss had negative effects on the city, coming on the heels’ of the Colts’ defeat.
Barry Levinson is a noted film director (Diner) and Baltimore native. “Coming from Baltimore we despised New York teams,” he said. “For both Baltimore teams to lose in 1969, especially as they were both looked upon as the best in their sport, was devastating. I constantly find myself saying, what if?”
“Below midtown office windows, scraps and streamers of torn paper still litter the surrounding rooftops, sometimes arranging and re-arranging themselves in an autumn breeze,” wrote Angell. Four days after the Series he had to re-assure himself that it was true, the Mets were World Champs.
“The Mets,” he wrote. “The New York Mets? . . . This kind of disbelief, this surrendering to the idea of a plain miracle, is tempting but derogatory. If in the end we remember only a marvelous, game-saving outfield catch, a key hit dropped in, an enemy fanned in the clutch, and the ridiculous, exalting joy of it all – the smoke bombs going off in the infield, and the clubhouse baptisms – we will have belittled the makers of this astonishment. To understand the achievement of these Mets, it is necessary to mount an expedition that will push the games themselves, beyond the skill and the luck. The journey will end in failure, for no victorious team is entirely understandable, even to itself, but the attempt must always be made, for winning is the ultimate mystery that gives sport its meaning.”
Hodges was asked, “Gil, how did it all happen? Tell us what it all proves.”
“Can’t be done,” said the Mets’ skipper.
“Disbelief persists, then, and one can see now that disbelief itself was one of the Mets’ most powerful assets all through the season,” wrote Angell, who recounted that fans sitting next to him (his vantage point was usually as a fan in the stands, not a dispassionate sportswriter in a sterile press box) would fill out their scorecards and make a familiar refrain that there was “just no way” their line-up could be expected to beat whatever club of Clementes, McCoveys, Banks’s, Aarons or Robinsons opposed them on any given evening. What usually followed was another game won, a series swept. How they won it had a mystical quality to it, for even in the post-season, a review of line-ups usually revealed that very disbelief. This somehow was their secret formula; underdogs, overlooked and underestimated time after time. Wars have been won and empires conquered based on such a formula.
Somehow, the only team that did not fall for the spell was Houston. They were almost as bad as the Mets (who entered 1969 having lost 737 games between 1962 and 1969; a total of 228 1/2 games out of all collective first places) prior to that season. The Astros beat New York 10 of 12 games.
Each fan who attended a Mets game may well have felt they were there the day the teamed turned a corner: the 15-inning 1-0 victory over Los Angeles; Seaver’s imperfect game; Hodges’s removal of Jones; the black cat in front of the Chicago dugout . . . it went on and on.
Ed Charles said the platoon system gave each player the feeling that he needed to “do it now,” because “there’s no big man going to do it for you.”
“A lot of the writers said that no matter what happens in baseball, or our own careers, we’ll never have as much fun or as much excitement as we had watching the 1969 Mets,” Maury Allen told Art Shamsky. “All our lives were effected.”
Providence was the general answer most people had for the 1969 Mets. It was not just the games. There was Seaver’s fortuitous draft and subsequent re-draft by the Braves and then the Mets; Clendenon’s “retirement” ended by Bowie Kuhn’s intervention, allowing for a trade when he resisted going to Montreal and Houston; and the groundskeeper’s son who saw Jerry Koosman pitch in the Army, writing his old man to inform his boss of the prospect.
“It was described by some as the ‘The Impossible Dream’ come true,” wrote Jack Lang, “but others, more realistically, called it ‘The Preposterous Dream.’”
“A strange thing happened to the Orioles on their way to becoming a baseball dynasty,” wrote Doug Brown in The Sporting News Official Baseball Encyclopedia – 1970. “They stumbled over the Mets in the World Series.”
4,000 people arrived at Baltimore’s airport in a teary, emotional scene. They held banners proclaiming, “We’re Still No. 1,” touching fingers with the players through a fence.
“Seaver and Koosman may have been the most celebrated of the Mets’ miracle workers, but the list of surprise heroes and true saviors seemed almost endless,” wrote Peter Bjarkman in The New York Mets Encyclopedia.
The “new breed” Mets were “articulate and educated,” Angell wrote, noting that 22 of 26 were college boys in a game once dominated by reprobates. They were the 1960s: love beads, business suits, books, rock music, stocks, sex, alligator shoes, politics and sex. Ron Taylor was known to say that a double-header was scheduled, “Barring nuclear holocaust.” They were a truly race-neutral group, maybe not all friends, but they each sensed something: the Mets were different and maybe even a little better men than their predecessors.
Angell was no different in his praise of Seaver – “good looks, enthusiasm, seriousness, lack of affectation, good humor, intelligence” – even though the writer had a touch of the New York cynic in him, finding self-serving spin in the motivations of most.
“I remember that day I was interviewing McGeorge Bundy,” said author David Halberstam of game five. “He was one of the architects of the Vietnam War. It had been a very unpleasant interview. It was for my book, The Best and the Brightest. It was an interview that was quite combative. I had gone to Harvard and he had been dean there. I knew he didn’t believe in the war anymore and I said, ‘Why are you silent, you were the dean of our college? We looked up to you as a great figure and here’s the most pressing issue of our time and you’re silent on it.’ He said to me, ‘You’re very arrogant and that’s a very arrogant thing to say.’ I said, ‘No, you’re the arrogant one because you are sitting on the sideline at a terrible moment and you’re remaining silent.’ So, it was pretty hostile. When I left his office, I was feeling terrible. I came out of the interview and went by a store window and the World Series was on. A lot of people were gathered around watching. The Mets were winning. I went from sort of a dark interview that wasn’t fun, a dark moment for me, to where my whole attitude changed from dark to smiling. Maybe it effected a lot of people like that.”
For his book The Magnificent Seasons, Shamsky interviewed a Vietnam veteran named Ned Foote. In April of 1969, Marine Corporal Foote stepped on a land mine. He was at St. Albans Naval Hospital in Queens until September, then transferred to the VA Hospital in Albany, New York, having lost his foot.
“I can’t tell you how much listening to the Mets that year helped me,” he recalled. “There wasn’t much else to make me feel good.”
Mets fan Kerry Schacht was a sergeant in the Army. He went on patrol just before the first game, and was gone10 days. When he came back, the first thing he wanted to know was, who won? He was ecstatic to learn it was the Mets. “I have to say God works in a funny way,” he told Art Shamsky. “. . . When I think of the1969 Mets it still brings a smile to my face. Their win put re-assurance back in my life that things happen for a reason and now when I go to ball games I appreciate it more than I did.”
“As the season progressed, I think New Yorkers kind of drifted away from some of the problems of the world and the country and began to focus on what was happening with the Mets at Shea,” said Charles.
The Mets “were an escape,” said Kranepool. “As you walked around the city there was a tremendous atmosphere, a good feeling. And when we won, it got better.” Koosman did not feel winning the series was “a miracle.” He felt the team’s talent was not at the level of Chicago, Atlanta or Baltimore, but gave credit to the manager.
“There was so much happening that it was great for the city to be able to enjoy something that seemed so right,” said Swoboda. “I had the sense that it gave people relief.”
“The Jets and Mets represented working class people more than the elite in New York,” said New York Jets defensive tackle John Elliott. “I remember the Jets had a lot of guys from Texas on our team and the Mets had Texans, too. That made me feel good.”
“Believe it or not, Glenn Beckert and I took our wives to Las Vegas to the old Flamingo Hotel,” recalled Ron Santo. “We’re sitting at a blackjack table and this big curtain opens and it’s the World Series. It was the last thing we wanted to watch. Everybody in Vegas was pulling for the Mets. When (the Mets) lost the first game, I remember Frank Robinson getting interviewed. He said, ‘How did the Mets ever get here?’ And, I looked at Beckert and we both said, ‘He shouldn’t have said that.’ ”
Ferguson Jenkins felt the Mets could win because they had better pitching and, “That’s how you win, particularly in a short series.”
The Mets “ended the drought of missing the Dodgers and Giants,” said Maury Allen.
“Like us, it was heart and persistence, the desire and courage to keep going,” said Joe Namath.
“It was like an angel in Heaven looking over us that year,” said Charles.
“The Mets winning the World Series is the greatest thing I have ever seen in my lifetime of sports,” said groundskeeper Peter Flynn.
“It was something you cannot put words to,” said Joan Hodges.
“There is a real explosion in your mind when all of a sudden it is happening to you, and you can be World Champion,” recalled Seaver.
“People still tell me how priceless that time was to them and what we meant to them,” said Swoboda.
“It was proven that crime was down in New York City when the play-offs and World Series were being played,” recalled Ron Taylor.
“The city embraced the team because what we did was totally unexpected,” said Bud Harrelson. “It was something that can never be duplicated.” Like the parting of the Red Sea, or as Joseph Durso put it in his October 17, 1969 game story for the New York Times: “The Mets entered the Promised Land yesterday after seven years of wandering through the wilderness of baseball.”
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