On July 9, 1965, the Houston Astros defeated the New York Mets for the seventh straight time that season, 6-2, behind a sensational teenager named Larry Dierker. Houston scored five runs in the second inning when Mets second baseman Chuck Hiller and shortstop Roy McMillan made errors.
29 hours and 45 minutes after Lindsey Nelson announced, “It’s absolute bedlam. You could not believe it. It’s absolute bedlam,” when Ed Kranepool drove in Cleon Jones to beat Chicago 4-3, another event occurred which utterly eclipsed that one. It was at 9:55 P.M. on Wednesday, July 9, the Year of Our Lord 1969. In the pantheon of greatness reserved only for that most heroic of all heroes, the New York sports superstar; “in the arena” as Theodore Roosevelt liked to call it, the bright lights of Broadway, the Great White Way . . . and Shea Stadium illuminating him in all his splendor; well, he is rare indeed and rarer still is his debut.
Olivier as Othello, the audience gasping in astonishment at his range.
MacArthur returned from the wars, our freedoms his gift, our thanks washing over him.
Gehrig telling a full house of sobbing mothers, kids and grown men that he was the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”
. . .
By 5:45 P.M., Shea Stadium’s parking lot was full and the stands were mostly full. The excitement and air of anticipation was at a fever pitch. It was a World Series atmosphere. Leo Durocher, who saw it all long before this night, was non-plussed, playing gin rummy in his office with old friend Barney Kremenko of the New York Journal-American. With a mass of writers and TV people on hand, Joe Reichler, an assistant to new Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn, entered to ask if, maybe, possibly, could he, uh, come out and say a few words? Durocher gave Reichler the “bum’s rush” in favor of his gun rummy match. Reichler asked if Durocher would sign on to a post-season tour of Vietnam. Durocher ignored him.
Jimmy Qualls was a 22-year old rookie who had just been called up from Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League. He was only now starting to get his swing down, having missed two weeks to serve with his Reserve unit in Stockton, California. In the Mets’ clubhouse, Qualls’s surprise start left Seaver, Grote and pitching coach Rube Walker looking for a scouting report. Without any computer databases or Internet searches available, they had to rely on Bobby Pfeil, the only one to have seen him hit. Pfeil recommended “hard stuff” – fast balls and sliders – as opposed to curves and change-ups.
“He can get his bat on the ball,” he told Seaver.
At 7:48, Seaver began to get loose, but he was experiencing trouble. There was a twitch in his shoulder. He went through 103 pitches, trying to get the kinks out. “It still feels a little stiff,” he told Rube Walker as he made his way to the dugout.
“Do the best you can,” Walker replied.
Outside the stadium, a group of about 50 kids, described by a policeman as a “raving mob,” managed to sneak into the park when Jerry Koosman’s wife, Lavonne arrived and the gate was opened for her. It was a portent of future events. The game was a sell-out – 59,083 - with standing room only packed shoulder to shoulder, some fans having waited since 7:30 in the morning. Outside the stadium, hundreds of fans stood in fruitless lines, hope against hope that they would catch a break; an extra ticket, scalpers, some just soaking up the atmosphere, listening to transistor radios. The excitement was as high as for any conceivable sporting event: a USC-Notre Dame game at South Bend with the National Championship on the line; a Final Four in basketball; or a pro football contest at Shea Stadium. The tension was as so thick it could be cut with a knife.
Baseball was back!
Finally Tom Seaver, now stiffness-free and throwing easily, took the mound. His fast ball simply exploded. The Cubs’ hitters stared at it, or at what they heard of it, since they could not actually see the thing. They went down like the French Army circa 1940, one-to-two three in the first inning.
New York then faced Ken Holtzman. Holtzman had gone 9-0 in 1967 but was 11-14 in 1968. With Chicago sprinting out to an early lead in 1969, Holtzman was their best pitcher, at least as effective as the redoubtable Jenkins. He won nine straight again, but entering the game he had lost three straight.
Holtzman was a streaky pitcher. There was no mystery to him. He threw real hard with little else in his repertoire. He relied on location, in many ways the baseball version of USC’s famed “student body right,” or Vince Lombardi’s adage that trick plays do not win football games, “blocking and tackling does.”
When Holtzman won nine straight, all was right. If his velocity was off, his fast ball straighter than usual, his pitches out over the plate, trouble found him, and it did this night. Tommie Agee lined the first pitch like he knew what was coming, down the right field line for a triple. Shea was awash in sound, and out of that a thunderous chant, “Let’s go, Mets!”
Bobby Pfeil, who Ron Santo did not think could hit his way out of paper bag, did his best imitation of Rogers Hornsby: first pitch, double in the left field corner, 1-0. Seaver’s admonition for a 9-0 first inning lead so he could “finesse” the rest of the way looked possible at this point. They were teeing off on the Cubs’ southpaw.
Durocher, who sat cross-legged while Jenkins battled nine complete innings the previous day, immediately called for submariner Ted Abernathy to get loose quickly down in the bullpen. With Cleon Jones coming to the plate, fans began to climb over the fence. Park police cleared some away from the “batter’s eye,” the black background behind center field so hitters did not have fans blurring the pitch.
“I have been to every ball game here, and I have never seen anything like this,” broadcaster Lindsey Nelson told the hundreds of thousands tuned into the television broadcast. “People are everywhere.”
Then, just like that, Holtzman settled down, striking out Jones and Donn Clendenon in the process of pitching out of the jam. But he had no time to gather himself on the bench. Seaver retired Chicago one-two-three in the second inning, causing Rube Walker to tell Gil Hodges that he had “no-hit” stuff. Indeed, Mets fans were seeing something very, very rare.
Many a well-pitched game marks an average baseball season, but Seaver was out of his shoes, above and beyond even his best games over the course of his first two-and-a-half years. He was bringing it in the high 90s, maybe breaking 100 miles per hour, with perfect control and rhythm. What these fans were seeing was Koufax on his best night; Gibson in full domination mode; or any of the all-time legends, whether it be Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove or Bob Feller. They say “good pitching beats good hitting.” It does, but it has to be exceptional. Seaver was beyond exceptional. He was simply unhittable. His stuff could not be touched, merely waved at, gawked at, stunned by.
Poor Kenny Holtzman, a mere mortal in fruitless opposition to a god, took the mound in the second. With one out, he induced Grote to hit a sharp bounder to Santo, who chested it to the ground with his customary grit, but for some reason could not pick it up. Grote reached. Then Al Weis’s perfect double-play ground ball skimmed through Kessinger’s glove. The “god” Seaver now stepped in against his one-time Alaska Goldpanners teammate. As if to demonstrate it was no fluke that Seaver had gotten the final roster spot in 1964, he tomahawked a line drive between first and second base, scoring Grote. Then Agee doubled off the right field fence, scoring Weis and moving Seaver to third. Chicago’s Rube Walker (the brother of Mets pitching coach Rube Walker; some things had not changed since the days of Rube Waddell, Rube Marquard and Rube Bressler) went to the mound to remove Holtzman, who was not a rube. Durocher sat in the dugout, disgusted.
Shea was frantic. With Seaver knocking the eyelashes off flies from 60 feet, six inches, plus swinging the bat like he was Bobby Clemente, the outcome of the game was utterly without doubt. It was full throttle momentum and Chicago was as done as an overcooked Thanksgiving turkey.
“Break up the Mets!” began to be heard. It was a strange plea that fans occasionally chanted in Seaver’s rookie year, when he for the first time demonstrated such unaccustomed excellence that the people conceived in jest that he had made them too good for the rest of the league. In past years, fans and writers had legitimately asked for the Yankees’ dynasty, or Connie Mack’s greatest A’s teams, to be “broken up.” In Mack’s case they were, mainly when the Great Depression made it impossible for him to keep paying his high-salaried stars. But no such luck with the Bronx Bombers, at least until now. What was going on up at Yankee Stadium was attrition, a decaying empire.
Abernathy was effective and held New York without further scoring, but that was immaterial, especially when Seaver mowed through Chicago in the third, one-two-three. In the stands, Dick Schaap and Paul Zimmerman were roaming about, looking for fan reaction, trying to figure out what made these special, lively baseball fans tick. They approached George Hubela, in his early 20s from Brooklyn, sitting in the loge section back of home plate with his brothers, Louis (14), John (13) and friend Ralph Vilardi (14). Hubela displayed a Mets banner.
“The Mets are the greatest,” said Hubela. “They’re the team that’s happening, baby. This is it – the ‘new breed.’ Jets and Mets, Mets and Jets. That’s it. No other teams. The Mets have already gone all the way. They’re here. They’re going to the Moon, the next flight to the Moon.” He managed to sound like a famous TV Brooklynite, Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooners character, Ralph Cramden.
Hubela had already mailed in for World Series tickets. “Just wait,” he said. “I’ll be here.” Hubela was typical of the Mets’ fans. Indeed, the team itself was not the only thing that was “new breed.” Hubela and the other fans, none of whom sat on their hands like Yankees fans always had, were decidedly different.
In the fourth inning, Seaver faced the top of the Cubs’ order - Kessinger, Beckert and Williams – for the second time. A strikeout and two easy grounders to Ed Charles made quick work of them. In the fifth, Santo, Banks and Al Spangler went down – a fly ball, a grounder to shortstop and Seaver’s eighth strikeout. In the sixth, as he went through the Cubs’ order for the second time, Ed Kranepool said it: “He’s got a perfect game.” The tradition in the dugout of a pitcher with a no-hitter, much less a perfect game, is to say nothing, but it was obvious to every player and fan in Shea Stadium that evening.
At the offices of the Associated Press in mid-town Manhattan, baseball writer Ed Schuyler was dispatched to Shea Stadium in case Seaver pitched a perfect game. Schuyler had done the same thing in 1968, arriving just as Orlando Cepeda of St. Louis broke it up.
On Long Island, Nelson Burbrink, the scout who signed Tom Seaver off of the USC campus a mere three years earlier, got in his car after scouting a prospect. As the car eased onto the Long Island Expressway, he heard Lindsey Nelson on WJRZ say, “Tom Seaver will get quite a hand when he comes up to bat here. He’s faced 18 Cubs and retired them all.”
Sitting in a box seat near first base, Nancy Seaver began to cry. Seaver glanced at her and saw the emotions start to spill out. The atmosphere was utterly electric, almost indescribable, a buzz of sound and anticipation bubbling to the surface, threatening to swallow up a stadium, a whole city.
Kessinger led off the seventh; the top of the order for the third time. Seaver had been pounding fastballs on Chicago all night, but thinking that he should give them a little wrinkle he curved the Cubs’ shortstop, who sliced a liner to left field. At first Seaver thought it was their first hit, but the ball hung and Jones grabbed it easily. Beckert popped to Swoboda, sweating bullets of nerves in right. Williams bounced to Charles. Shea exploded.
With one out on the top of the seventh, Jones lined a homer, an “insurance” run on a night Tom Seaver did not need it. The score was 4-0. In the bottom half of the inning Hodges send Rod Gaspar to right field in place of Swoboda; Wayne Garrett to second; and Bobby Pfeil moved to third, replacing Charles.
“You go into a game like this, cold and everything, and you’re just hoping you can do the job if the ball is hit to you,” Gaspar was quoted saying in The Year the Mets Lost Last Place. “It’s a perfect game. We’re going for first place. All the people in the park. It’s frightening.”
In the eighth, Seaver induced Santo to fly to Agee. Then, facing Banks and Spangler, he seemed to jet it up a half a notch. The middle innings were over, his pitch count low, the game in hand. There was no holding anything back. Incredibly, he started throwing harder. The Mets’ fans watched; loud, crazy, boisterous, yes, but by now in awe. They were observing a baseball Michelango, a sculptor of the mound. Seaver, who admired his brother the sculptor, and wanted to somehow duplicate in baseball what he could do with clay, was now accomplishing this task.
Old-timers, who had seen it all over the past 50 years of baseball in the golden age of New York, knew instinctively that the 24-year old Californian was a new Koufax, a Ford, a Newcombe; maybe better than any of those guys! A “new breed.” After Seaver rocketed a heater past Spangler to end the eighth, he walked off the mound to insane cheering. Announcer Bob Murphy then stated, “LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, AFTER EIGHT INNINGS, TOM SEAVER IS WALKING INTO THE DUGOUT WITH A PERFECT BALL GAME.”
Grote grounded out but Weis singled. Seaver donned a batting helmet, undid the donut from his bat, and gave his warm-up jacket to the batboy. It was 9:55 P.M., Wednesday, July 9, the Year of our Lord 1969. The seminal moment in which George Thomas Seaver entered the pantheon.
Th crowd rose; they had been continuously cheering all through Seaver’s dominant eighth inning, building to a crescendo that rocked the five-year old stadium to its very core. It was the sound Marilyn Monroe wished she heard when she gyrated before the boys in Korea. The sound Joe DiMaggio had heard when he was at his heroic best at Yankee Stadium, the knowledge of which he so contemptuously informed the breathless Marilyn when she tried to tell him, “Joe, Joe, you never heard such cheering.”
It was the rafter of the old Stadium when Gehrig told them how lucky he felt, or Ruth circled the bases having hit a towering shot in the Series. It was what Namath heard less than a year earlier, but according to all the pundits, all the experts and futurists during this age in which Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock was being taught in schools, it would never be heard again at a baseball game! That was yesterday, passe, old school. But here it was. Tom’s official entrance and acceptance into the pantheon of that with which was and remains the rarest of rare air: the true New York Sports Icon.
The Packers’ fans treated Bart Starr and Vince Lombardi like pagan idols. In Los Angeles, Sandy Koufax and Magic Johnson have been given the star treatment. Many cities have their heroes, and of course they cheer wildly, they are loud, and it gets electric.
But this was New York.
“If I can make there, I can make it anywhere. . .”
This was the biggest of the big time, the ultimate stage, the winning over with the most impressive of all bravura performances the most cynical, loud-mouthed, hardcore, hard-to-please sports aficionados on the face of the Earth. In this we get to the heart of what made this different, what made this a miracle. The winning over of the crowd, the total, childlike exuberance of the hard-bitten seen-it-alls, had a Pentecostal touch to it. They were children, all of them. The middle-aged men, who toiled for big bucks on Wall Street or union wages in a delivery truck; the grandmothers wondering what was happening to kids these days – all the drugs and sex and lack of respect – yet it all came together here, with Seaver a Pied Piper who did not quite know what was happening himself, so magical and mystical was it. The young man who old folks related to, the sex symbol who was faithful to his wife, the sports hero who seven years earlier was 6-5 pitching for the Fresno High varsity.
So the sound washed over Tom Seaver. 9:55 passed into 9:56, and it kept coming like baptismal firewaters, like a revival, like the Holy Spirit. Above the stadium, Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Branch Rickey, and Mel Ott formed a ghostly Hall of Fame, granting approval, imprimatur to the newest member. Ruth called Seaver “Keed.” Matty told McGraw, “He reminds me of me.” Rickey saw the perfect harmony of black and white teammates, the stands a diverse mix of New Yorkers, and nodded approval over that which he had wrought. In the Mets’ dugout, Yogi Berra understood that a new guy was joining that exclusive fraternity of guys he belonged to, the one that included Joe D. and Mick and Whitey and Casey. In the Cubs’ dugout, Durocher looked enviously at the 24-year old from USC, knowing this mere child was ascending, before thine eyes, to a place he could only dream of being; a place where Bill Terry, Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott and the “Say Hey Kid” were; a place where names like Jackie and Duke and Roy resided in regal splendor; a club he was barred from entering into no matter how expensive his silk suit, or how stylish the dame on his arms. It was like Frank and Dean entering the room, turning and saying, “Sorry, Leo, not tonight” just as a giant bouncer stood between him and the entrance to the hallowed palace they were in and he was not.
Somewhere in America, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano knew that Tom Seaver felt that special sense of recognition they had worked so hard to attain during all those nights at the Garden. Somewhere in Manhattan, probably at the center of a social whirl that had stopped itself in its tracks to watch the Mets’ game on television, Frank Gifford was smiling at the TV image of another Trojan entering the pantheon he had forged in the previous decade. Out in California, a Glendale banker named Casey Stengel was most likely asleep when it happened, but upon his awakening and perusal of the Los Angeles Times the next morning, the “Ol’ Perfessor” surely knew that a Met was in his cherished, exclusive club. Somewhere else, in temporary retirement after Pete Rozelle told him it was Bachelors III or football - not both – was Joe Willie Namath. He had a blonde on one arm, a brunette on another and a bottle Johnnie Walker Red in the middle. His sense of inclusion, his egalitarianism forged in a tough Pennsylvania upbringing, honed in segregated Birmingham where he walked the streets of the “colored section” like Huey Long, made Joe Willie smiled.
Sure, New York’s big enough for the two of us. Welcome to the club, Tom.
So be it. So it was. The latest true New York Sports Icon, the savior then laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt. The runner moved to second as he jogged off the field, cheered as if he had just moved a mountain.
An estimated two-and-a-half million New Yorkers were now watching Seaver trot off the field. Over the past innings, phones rang, doors were knocked on, people left all forms of human endeavor to rush home; to a bar, to a car radio, anywhere to hear or see this happening. It was like Orson Welles’s re-creation of The War of the Worlds.
“Housewives not the least interested in baseball have been dragged to the set by their husbands to watch history,” wrote Dick Schaap and Paul Zimmerman. Little kids, boys and girls, foreigners, people of all stripe who call themselves “New Yorkers,” found a common bond in Seaver and the Mets at this instant. Schaap and Zimmerman informed readers that a Chrysler commercial played in between the bottom of the eighth and the top of the ninth, urging carbuyers to “dream the impossible dream.” The song “The Impossible Dream” from Don Quixote’s Man From La Mancha was popularized at that time in part because it was associated with Boston’s “Impossible Dream” pennant chase of 1967. Now it applied to the Mets.
Nancy Seaver wept as she watched her husband take the mound for the ninth. Next to her was Tom’s father, Charles. Tom’s body was floating with pure adrenaline. He had thrown a perfect game as a little leaguer, then had all his hopes and dreams for a baseball future seemingly dashed when he made the move to the “big diamond.”; then high school, where the likes of Dick Selma – now a spectator sitting in the opposing team’s dugout – had surpassed him by leaps and bounds.
59,000 fans chanted “Seav-uh, Seav-uh.” It was beyond incredible, beyond heady. He later said his arm was light, as if detached from his body. He was in touch with his feelings. His heart pounded furiously, but the crowd noise was somehow so great as to be silent. He was in a zone. Few ever reach such a zenith. It is the zone that Barry Bonds was in when he hit 73 home runs in 2001, or Joe Montana was in as he drove the San Francisco 49ers down the field in the closing minute of the 1989 Super Bowl vs. Cincinnati. It is the rarest of air, the highest peak in the mountain range.
But with all of this going on, Seaver still had a job to do, and it required concentration. Amid all the furor, he dropped, drove and delivered furious heat to Randy Hundley. Hundley, as if acknowledging that to actually swing and hit Seaver was by now beyond conception, tried to bunt his way on. The ball came right back to Seaver, the easiest play in the world, except that under such intense pressure some people stiffen right up. Grote told him he had plenty of time, and Seaver threw out Hundley as if he did not have a care in the world.
Bud Harrelson, his best friend on the ball club, was watching the game at a restaurant called Giovanni’s in Watertown, New York, where he was stationed for two weeks of summer training. Nobody knew who he was. Now, he was a fan like everybody else.
At seven minutes after 10 Jimmy Qualls strode to the plate. Qualls was the only Cub to get decent wood on a Seaver pitch all night, hitting a sharp line drive caught at the warning track, then a liner to first base. A left-handed batter, he had 47 Major League at-bats prior to his stepping in against Tom Seaver. Tommie Agee in center fielder was not sure where to play him. Seaver was throwing so hard that it seemed implausible that Qualls would pull him, but he seemed to be on Tom’s pitches in a way no other Cub was on that night.
Bobby Pfeil’s “scouting report” – hard stuff - was all Grote and Seaver had to go by. Seaver had dominated with the best fastball in the game, and that was what he and Grote agreed on. As he nodded yes to the sign, Ed Schuyler of the Associated Press arrived in the Shea Stadium press box.
Tom Seaver went into his wind-up, dropped, and delivered. Instead of sinking action, down and away, the pitch came in waist high. All night, Seaver was perfect with his location, but his heat was so great that he could get away with a mistake. The Cubs simply could not hit what they could not see. Major League hitters feast on fast balls, much prefer it over curves and off-speed stuff. Their reflexes are the best in the world. They are the most skilled of athletes, those who engage in what Ted Williams called the “single most difficult act in sports,” the hitting of a “round ball against a round bat at 95 miles per hour,” as Pete Rose described it.
In little league, high school and college, the overwhelming fastball artist dominates with speed alone. His competition cannot touch it. At some point, usually in the minor leagues and especially when he reaches The Show, he discovers, sometimes alarmingly, that he is now dealing with the only 400 or 500 men on the face of the planet who are capable of dealing with his heat. An adjustment, an accommodation must be made. This decides whether he will continue with a successful big league career, or become a coach, a scout, a salesman . . . a writer?
Seaver was throwing so hard that the best-hitting team in baseball during the first half of the 1969 season was stopped cold, unable to get around on it. That rarest of feats, the fast ball they knew was coming, could not be hit. It was like an overwhelming army that blasts past all defensive positions, but cannot be stopped by tricks, decoy or espionage.
But Seaver; dropping, and driving, dropping, and driving . . . all night, over and over, expending all that energy . . . now, in the ninth, he was just a quarter-inch off with his fast ball. Qualls was the one Cub who seemingly felt no pressure. Little was expected of him. He had not been around all season, subject to Leo Durocher’s demands and psychological games. Suddenly, he was Ted Williams or Duke Snider, seeing the ball, and reacting to it.
Bat connected, solidly, and the ball carried on a fly to deep left-center field. New York Mets center fielder Tommie Agee broke after the ball, but quickly snuck a look at his boyhood pal from Mobile, Alabama, Cleon Jones, as if to say, “Hey man, you better get to it ‘cause I ain’t got it.”
Jones just shook his head.
More than 59,000 people groaned as the ball dropped in for a single. Nelson Burbrink and Bud Harrelson swore. A few boos for Jimmy Qualls were replaced by a cheer, louder than ever, for Seaver, now a solitary figure on a mound of dirt surrounded by green grass. Another prolonged standing ovation. Seaver later called it the biggest disappointment of his life, “within my grasp,” knowing he might not, probably would not, ever get another chance at something this close to perfection.
With a 4-0 lead, Seaver straightened up, took the mound and worked to the next two Cubs hitters, retiring them easily. The celebration on the field was muted, but the crowd let forth still more outpourings of adulation. A star was born, that was for sure, manifested more like it; a self-evident truth right before thine eyes. Seaver disappeared into the clubhouse. Later the crowd, not wanting to leave, chanted, “We want Seaver,” but he was gone. The 59,000 made their way into the parking lot, the subways, the bars of Queens and Manhattan, to celebrate and talk it over. What a night!
Seaver was immediately met by Nancy, still battling tears. “I guess a one-hit shutout is better than nothing,” she told him. Tom Seaver’s greatest triumph was a melancholy moment. Despite the incredible flow of electrical energy, despite now being a mere three games out of first place, the New York clubhouse had a subdued quality to it, but it was nothing compared to Chicago’s.
“Nobody was going to beat Seaver tonight,” Durocher told the writers. “I never saw him throw so hard. If he keeps throwing that hard, nobody’s going to beat him. But I don’t think he will.
“We’re still three games ahead. And from now on the Mets are going to find the going rougher. They’re going to see the best pitchers in the league.”
Gentle Leo refrained from predicting “100,000 suicides” if the Mets let their fans down after such a big build-up. He had made his suicide remark in 1952 when the Giants threatened a repeat of their 1951 “shot heard ‘round the world” comeback. Then he smiled. “That Qualls ruined you guys,” he said. “He made you re-write your stories.”
“There was no pressure on me at all,” Qualls told reporters. “All I wanted to do was get a base hit and get something started.”
“Dear Diary, last night I sat in, with 60,000 other rabid believers, on the birth of a folk hero,” wrote sportswriter Ray Robinson “The folk hero . . . was Tom Seaver, a right-hander, possessing the virtues of Prince Valiant.”
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism